A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
December 11, 2016 The Third Sunday of Advent
Lections: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
The gospel reading this week continues Advent’s focus on the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. Here we have Matthew’s narration of a third encounter between the two.
You will remember the first two encounters from last week. The earliest was brought about by Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth; both women were pregnant, with Elizabeth’s baby being about 6 months older than Mary’s. When Mary greeted Elizabeth, Elizabeth felt the child in her womb leap with joy, a sign that her baby rejoiced to be in the presence of our Lord. The second encounter occurred in the wilderness of the Jordan River Valley, north of the Dead Sea and east of Jericho, where John lived and where he baptized Jesus. Afterward, Jesus set out on the Jericho road and walked into the desert, where he stayed for forty days; it was during this time that he was tempted by Satan. Jesus successfully parlayed Satan’s temptations into a confirmation of his righteousness and readiness for public ministry.
Now we are brought up to the event of John’s arrest. John has said in his preaching that Herod the tetrarch’s marriage is not valid; the ruler, whose life should be lived as an example to the people of Galilee, has transgressed the commandments of God. For his outspokenness, Herod has John imprisoned, and while in prison, John begins to question whether Jesus is after all the Messiah. Here we observe a hint of impatience on the part of John. We can imagine what it might be like for him, a man who wears animal hides for his clothes and eats locusts and wild honey for his food, to be held in confinement; he becomes disoriented, so he sends a message to Jesus, asking for help. John still has followers of his own, and he wants them to see for themselves who Jesus is. At the same time, despairing of hope, he also wants assurance for himself. Are you the Messiah, he asks, or should we look for someone else?
I think we all can relate to how John feels. Each of us knows what it is like to be plagued by doubts that are unfounded. A wife or husband, for instance, may question a spouse’s love, and seek assurance. In any number of ways, we ask, do you love me, really? Or have I made a mistake? Most likely, in these situations, words by themselves are unconvincing. It is too easy for us to answer, “Of course, I love you,” and go about our life as if nothing has been asked of us. Or to answer defensively, “How can you think that, after all I’ve done for you?” Notice that Jesus says nothing about himself in his reply to John. He doesn’t mention the sacrifice he is making for others, their ungratefulness, or all the good he has accomplished. Instead, he points away from himself to the world at-large, at events happening in full view of everybody, as if making a report: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” And then Jesus, always the rabbi, adds a pithy teaching: “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Jesus makes an important point: our claim to be his followers is only meaningful to others when they – not we – can point at the world and say, “Look! See what is happening that would not happen otherwise, were it not for the Christians.” This is true for the greatest of occurrences and the least of encounters. We are accountable for the effect of their words and deeds on others; anything we say or do that obstructs another person’s path to Christ and his church devastates the well-being of our own souls. Each of us needs to make sure that no one stumbles on account of us, which we can do by accessing the several means of grace Jesus provides for purifying our minds, mouths, and hearts.
Jesus is preaching in Galilee when he gets John’s message. As John’s disciples return to him with his reply, Jesus addresses the crowd that always assembles around him. The Forerunner is known to the crowd, because many among the assembled came from John. Jesus reminds them that when they went to see John, they saw the greatest of prophets. Prophets share with one another a loneliness which comes from speaking to their time and place unpopular facets of the truth. John had called his followers to reject the unrighteous ways of their ruler and place their trust in the way of Jesus; consequently, he would be executed. The heavenly kingdom proclaimed by Jesus has always held a promise that challenges the earthly kingdoms of nations and rulers, and sets Christians apart, even as they go about their daily lives in the public spheres of work, worship, and rest.
John the Baptist brought to conclusion the old era of salvation history. He is the last and the greatest of prophets, but as the old gave way to the new, he was eclipsed by the fulfillment of the truth he proclaimed. So Jesus says, the least in the kingdom of God are greater than John, for the new that fulfills the old is necessarily greater than what precedes it.
God enables us by his grace to put away the old person, born of a woman, and nurture the new, born of the Spirit. Therein, and only therein, lies our greatness. When we permit the times and places of the world’s unrighteousness and Satan’s deceptions to disorient us, our hope is displaced by impatience, and we doubt truth. This is when, following the example of the Baptist and Forerunner John, we need to ask Jesus for help. If we don’t, our confusion will draw attention to ourselves, and others will stumble on account of us.
Let us pray, then, whenever we despair, for the grace to ask Jesus for help; for the patience to await him; and for the faith to deliver his promise to the world. Amen.