The Third Sunday in Advent

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“The Question and the Answer”

Luke 7:18-28

 In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

            Haven’t these things been reported to you, declared to you, since your baptism?  All the works of Jesus: His work of restoring His sin-damaged creation, His teaching and preaching with authority from heaven (Luke 20:1-8), His birth, death, and resurrection for you—haven’t these been declared to you?  You know, don’t you, that Jesus is who He says He is, and that He will do what He said He would do.  And yet.  And yet, there you are in the prison of your thoughts or your actions, or of someone else’s actions, and the doubts are sprouting, and creeping up the bars, and spreading across the ceiling and the walls, wrapping you up tight until you can hardly move.  I don’t want to think that that’s how it was for John.  I don’t want to believe that John, who pointed at Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” is the same John who sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus that question.  I would much rather believe that John was using that moment as a valuable teaching tool to further instruct his disciples, another way to point them to the Lamb of God.  But Luke seems to exclude that possibility for us.  He says twice that it is John who asks the question, “Are you the Coming One, or should we wait for another?” (Luke 7:19, 20).  Can we justifiably take that question as anything other than sincere?  Is it not much more likely that John has sat in prison for a year or two, and is starting to question his own message?  I don’t have any doubt, not even a little, that every single messenger of God, every prophet, every apostle, every pastor, has felt the doubts of John.  Is the Word of God as powerful as we say it is?  Can the Law really bring sinners to their knees?  Can the Gospel really change lives?  Why, then, does nothing seem to change?  Why are the chosen so few?  Just read Jeremiah or the stories about Elijah if you need more evidence. 

But doubt isn’t the special domain of the called and ordained servants of God.  I will not believe you if you say you never doubt.  If you think, even for a few minutes, about what Christians claim to believe, you will have doubts.  Oh, you may not doubt that there is a God or that Jesus died and rose again for sinners.  I have never been able to work up enough faith to doubt that God exists or to believe He has forsaken me.  But have you ever questioned what God is doing here and now in your life?  Have you ever wondered why?  Have you ever longed for everything to be put right?  You would never say it out loud, of course, but have you ever wondered whether it is worth believing all the stuff you hear in church?  Is life any better because we are followers of Christ?  John’s certainly was not.  He spent time in Herod’s prison and had his head served on a platter because of the One he proclaimed.  This Sunday, with its rose-colored candle, is traditionally called Gaudete, “let us rejoice.”  Are we rejoicing?  John’s not rejoicing; he’s doubting.  And that’s what bothers me, because out of all the people who could ever conceivably ask that question of Jesus, John would be the last person on my list.  He’s no flimsy reed swayed by every breeze of questioning that wafts in from the agnostic and the atheist and the scribe.  He’s not sitting in luxury, afraid that he might get a $300 shirt or $150 jeans dirty.  And he’s not just any prophet; he’s the messenger preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah, of whom all the Scriptures prophesy.  But John’s circumstances have changed since he was standing in the water with Jesus, and he has to know the answer.  John’s disciples tell him about Jesus healing the centurion’s servant and raising the widow’s son, but he can’t see that.  What he hears about Jesus and what he sees in his cell don’t match up.  Jesus has come, and it doesn’t look to John like much has changed.  How about you?  Jesus has come; how does your life look because of it?  If there is any more nagging question in the mind of the Christian, I don’t know what it is.  It’s that hissing whisper that challenges you to prove what you say you believe.  Peace on earth?  Where?  Goodwill to men?  Where?  Prove it.  Are You the Coming One, or should we look for someone else? 

“In that hour, He healed many from diseases and sufferings and evil spirits and graciously made many blind people to see.  And He answered and said to them, ‘Go and tell John what things you have seen and heard: “The blind recover sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor good news is proclaimed.”  And blessed is whoever does not fall away [because of] Me’” (Luke 7:21-23).  Jesus turns the messengers from John into messengers to John.  Go tell John that I am here and that I am doing these things.  I am the Coming One who will set creation right, where eyes and legs and ears work correctly; where skin is fresh and new, where there is no death, and the poor are filled with the goodness of God.  Those two disciples of John came to Jesus with a question, and they left with the answer.  What are your questions today?  What doubts tug at the corners of your faith?  What do you see with your eyes that doesn’t match up with what has been declared to you?  I am here as a messenger from Jesus, sent to tell you what I have seen and heard.  Beloved, things are not what they seem.  And Jesus is here to demonstrate who He is and what He is doing: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins”; Jesus says, I am here; I am doing this.  Hear the first Gospel proclamation of the Baptizer: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  We sing those words of John because that same Lamb was sacrificed for us and it is from that sacrifice that we eat today.  Jesus says, I am here; I am doing this.  We sing, “Have mercy upon us” and “Grant us Thy peace” and He does.  He says, I am here; I alone have mercy, I alone give peace.  We sing, “Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation” and we do see it, here, today.  Jesus says, I am here; your salvation is in My crucified Body and My shed Blood, given for you.  As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.  Yes, Jesus says, I am the Coming One.  I am the One for whom you have waited.  And blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of Me. 

But this is only the beginning, as John learned.  The things of the world and the things of Christ still do not align.  It is not hard to get the impression that nothing has changed; it is not hard for the serpent to whisper his challenge into your ear: prove it.  But hear what Jesus says and see what He does: He is making all things new; He is renewing your inner nature day by day, though it is far too obvious that your outer nature is wasting away.  And though there is no one greater than John among the offspring of women, the lesser children of the Reign of God are greater than he is.  You are greater, because you live on this side of the resurrection.  You are greater, because the Coming One has washed you with water, Word, and Spirit.  You are greater, because He has gathered you around His holy Table to feed you the foretaste of the new creation, the new creation of which John heard rumors and hints, and for which he still waits.  You are greater, because the Greatest One made Himself the Least, humbling Himself to be born of a virgin, humbling Himself to take on flesh, humbling Himself to sweat drops of blood, and to carry a cross, and to be hanged on it, and to die; humbling Himself to be buried in the ground.  But He was exalted in His flesh on the third day so that you can be sure that He is the Coming One.  He is here; He is doing all the things of which you have been told.  And now you are made messengers, like those sent back to John.  Tell what you have seen and heard, what He has done and said to you.  Indeed, He is the Coming One.  It is for Him you wait.  It is in Him you rejoice.   

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).  Amen.

                      — Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/09/09

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