Monday, December 16, 2013

Sermon on Matthew 11:2-15 for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "Doubts and Expectations"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our Gospel reading shows a surprising show of doubt or uncertainty, from one we might expect to be above such things—John the Baptist, the greatest prophet and greatest among men. As someone who experienced direct revelation from God, shouldn’t he have been immune to doubts? Don’t we often imagine that would be the sure ticket to certainty of faith for us? But John sends his disciples with a message to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Of course it’s not hard to guess why John might have experienced doubts. He was in prison for teaching the word of God, unwilling to back down from a tyrant like Herod Antipas. In prison for that? He might have expected. But did he expect something more, or different from Jesus? What made John ask? While I thank God that none of you are locked up in prison for your faith, or for your confession of Jesus Christ—does that mean that the old sinner in us doesn’t still produce the same doubts and puzzled expectations about Jesus?
What are our expectations? Are we holding out for something better? Are we looking for another? Does what Jesus offers seem like something we would want to pass up? Doesn’t meet our felt needs? Are we uncomfortable with the people whom Jesus associated with and welcomed into His kingdom? Do we take offense at His bold denunciations of sin and hypocrisy, because we too are wounded in our pride? We can come up with plenty of reasons why we might doubt, or our faith would waver. And most of them would be just as old as the excuses that troubled the faithful that died and went before us.
Jesus’ response is just as timely today as then—go and tell the good news to every anxious heart, and show them Christ. The signs and miracles, were almost all right out of the prophet Isaiah, as he described the Promised One. Healing the blind, the deaf, the lame, and preaching good news to the poor. All right out of Isaiah chapters 29, 35, and 61. But there was more! Unless I’ve missed it, there was no prophecy that promised the Christ would cleanse the lepers or raise the dead (although both of these signs Jesus performed were foreshadowed by the prophets Elijah and Elisha). So Jesus shows Himself to be the promised One and more.
No doubt Jesus’ message came back to John. Did he welcome Jesus’ answer, and the signs that pointed to Jesus, rejoicing to hear the familiar words of Isaiah 61, that the Christ would come preaching good news to the poor? Most likely. But would he also have winced when he noticed the rest of the verse was left unmentioned? Perhaps the very part that John himself longed most to hear? Isaiah 61:1 reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Was John aching in chains, aware that Jesus was bringing good news to the poor and binding up the brokenhearted, but aching to hear the rest of those words spoken to him? To know his day of release would be near?
What was implicit in the silence? Not now? Not yet? Other words echoed back above the doubts. Take up your cross, and follow me. John indeed carried a heavy cross to follow Jesus—the cross of his own arrest and later beheading. John didn’t see liberty again in his earthly life. But by faith he was already on the way of the ransomed, prophesied in Isaiah 35, our OT reading. His liberty, the opening of his prison, would be when he stepped into the heavenly Zion. There the tension of an anxious heart living in the now-but-not-yet of the present world, dissolved into the joy of God’s promise revealed.
Like John, aren’t we often stuck in the tension of the now, but not yet, and feel as though some, but not all of God’s promises have been realized for us? What words of God’s promise do we long to have fulfilled for us? When do we ache in the silence, with that old sinner in us doubting? And when the words of Christ, to “take up your cross and follow me” echo back into our mind, do we bow our heads in weak resignation, or do we lift them up with courage and resolution? And words of the prophet Isaiah resound louder as God urges us to courage: “Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious hear, ‘fear not!’” God will strengthen us for whatever is ahead on the road.
But only on the other side of fulfillment, when the full grand scope of God’s plan is revealed, will we see the victory and vindication of faith in Jesus. Only then will all the waiting have seemed like a light, momentary affliction, in comparison with the eternal weight of glory. Key to Jesus’ response—key to the courage He sent back to John, was the word, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus knew that not everyone would receive Him. Why? His kingdom is marked by values that are reverse from the world. Do we take offense at Him? Do we miss His kingdom’s goal? Are we ready to help and serve the blind, the lame, the deaf and the poor as valued and treasured members of Christ’s kingdom? While we cannot heal them, as Christ did, we can certainly proclaim the good news as He did. And are we ready to abandon the world’s values, that glorify celebrity, fine fashion, and royalty as the tokens of greatness, but are blind to the greatness of a simple, roughly dressed, plain-spoken prophet of the truth like John the Baptist? A world that values popularity and fame over truth? The world still can’t see or grasp his greatness, because he doesn’t qualify in any way for the “in-crowd”. John remains an “outsider” today—but he got the highest commendation that anyone could be given—that of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he was great not for his own sake, but for Jesus’, whose way he prepared.
To see and recognize the greatness of Jesus Christ, and to have confidence in His coming kingdom, is to get in on the blessings of His kingdom. “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” Jesus said. The word in Greek for “offended” is scandalidzo—where we get the word “scandalized”. It can refer to something that causes a person to stumble, figuratively, or to take offense. The NT also tells us that Jesus’ kingdom was a scandal or offense because of the cross of Jesus Christ, which seemed inexplicable to the Jews. People also took offense at the attention that Jesus gave to the needy and the outcasts, to even prostitutes and sinners, who didn’t seem to belong in the kingdom. God’s lavish mercy is an affront to some, who think that some are undeserving—forgetting that in truth we all are undeserving.
But what are the blessings of receiving the kingdom and not being offended by Jesus? Some are obvious right from the passage from Isaiah—Jesus leads the redeemed to walk on the Way of Holiness, where there is a stream of ransomed people flooding home to Zion, the heavenly city, and everlasting joy is upon their heads. This path leads to gladness and joy, while sorrow and sighing flee away. Their path, their course, is Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life—and He leads us in the direction of joy and gladness—while sorrow and sighing are hurrying away in the other direction. 
But Jesus first came to us on our way of sadness, bent down by cares and sighing, and He carried all our sins and griefs to His cross. He came to paths made straight by the preaching of repentance, and He opened to us this new Way of Holiness. The path of following Him. And as His death on the cross sent our sins and sorrows one way, His risen and glorified hands lead us the other way, on the way to forgiveness and life. And so the paths of gladness and joy and sorrow and sighing diverge. For this life they continue close by for a while, so that we sometimes doubt when instead we should set our confidence on Jesus, the Promised One. But Christ sends to us His Word that preaches faith into our anxious hearts and strength into our drooping hands and weak knees. And His Word sets the expectations for what the kingdom of Christ will bring. Still in time, we wait for its fulfillment, but the nearer we approach that heavenly glory in Zion, the more the singing and joy will resound and echo back and forth over the ransomed of the Lord, who truly are blessed to take no offense at Jesus!
Who are we who travel with You? On our way through life to death? Women, men, the young, the aging, wakened by the Spirit’s breath! At the font You claim and name us, born of water and the Word; At the table still You feed us, Host us as our risen Lord! LSB 476:4.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      What might have been the reason for John’s questioning whether Jesus was “the one who is to come?” Matthew 11:2. How might his circumstances have tested his faith? What prophecy about the Christ might he particularly be hoping would be fulfilled, but Jesus did not mention? Isaiah 61:1.

2.      When do we similarly face circumstances that cause us to question or doubt? How did Jesus prove He is the Christ, the promised one, to John’s disciples (and us)? What signs of prophecy did He fulfill? Isaiah 35:5-6; 61:1. In addition to those signs that were definitely prophesied, what additional miracles of Jesus were named here?

3.      What about Jesus’ life and ministry would have caused offense to some? Matthew 11:6, 18-19; 12:9-14; 12:22-24, 33-37. What is the blessing in not being offended by Jesus’, but believing Him? Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

4.      Jesus speaks of John’s role as prophet and the greatest of prophets because he prepared the way of the Lord. Compare very carefully the quotations of the prophecies in Matthew 3:3 and 11:10, and the original words in the Old Testament (Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1). Who is the highway for in Isaiah 40? Whose way is being prepared in Malachi 3? What does this say about who Jesus is?

5.      If measuring greatness among men, why does John rank as the greatest? Why is this human greatness still far short of the lowest place a person can occupy in heaven? Psalm 84. How does God’s order of salvation reverse the values of this world? Luke 1:46-55

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