Listen to it:
“The King is Come (pt. 2)”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
November 21, 1943, a man sends a letter from prison. He writes, “Life in a prison cell may well be compared with Advent. One waits, hopes, does this, that, or the other—things which are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 79). Within two years Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be executed. John sits in a prison cell. He waits, and perhaps hopes; he does this, that, or the other—things which must have seemed to be of no consequence—the door is shut, and it can be opened only from the outside. From his cell, he picks up scraps of information, catches pieces of conversations out of the air, and hears about what Jesus is doing—as Matthew puts it, “the works of the Christ.” And he sends a letter, via his disciples, to Jesus. “Are you the Coming One, or should we expect another?”
We have heard John preaching about the Coming One. The Coming One who was mightier than John, who would baptize not with water unto repentance, but with the Holy Spirit for salvation and with fire for condemnation. The One who has His winnowing shovel in His hand, to clear His threshing floor of the chaff and gather the wheat into His barn. The One at whose coming the ax would be laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. And John, waiting in his cell for the door to be opened, wants to know if Jesus is that One. Where is the fire? Where is the judgment? Where is the release of the captives? What kind of King is this? And Jesus sends the disciples of John back to John: “Tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor, the beggars, those who have nothing, have the good news of the Reign of God proclaimed to them. And the Blessed Ones, those on whom God has bestowed the blessing of faith, are not offended, do not stumble, do not fall away from God because of who I am.” For John, as with the Old Testament prophets in general, time is compressed: he sees the coming of the Messiah and the end of the world compressed into a short time. But that means that there is a gap in John’s preaching—a divinely inspired gap; John preached exactly what the Lord had given him to preach. Jesus is the one who will fill the gap. The Reign of God comes in Jesus, but it comes in a way the world does not expect. It comes incomprehensibly, in weakness, hidden under the cross. It does not come in the power and glory of the world’s kingdoms. It comes in such a way that the violent of the earth take it by force: putting John in prison to await his execution; arresting, mocking, beating, crucifying Jesus. That is the only way this world can deal with the coming of the promised Messiah. But it causes John to question, as he sits in his cell. And so Jesus sends John’s disciples back to him to proclaim the Word that would strengthen and preserve his faith as he waits and hopes for the door to be opened from the outside.
And we are not so different from John. We might wonder, as the Church Fathers and Luther did, how can John have any question or doubt? He baptized the Son of God (though not without some confusion)! He said, “See, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” How can John have any question? But as John waits in prison, as he sees that the world doesn’t seem much different from how it always was, he wonders. And this goes to show that past experiences rarely trump present circumstances. No matter what you may have experienced in the past, now can always make then seem less than real. John needs the reassurance of the Word of his Lord. And so do we, impatient as we are. We can barely wait for Christmas, as it constantly intrudes into Advent. But it’s more serious than that. We need that Word because of our prisons. Imprisoned in loneliness; imprisoned in loss; imprisoned in wheelchairs or hospital beds; imprisoned in our memories. We wait and hope and the walls can close in, and we may question or even doubt as we see that the world goes on pretty much as it always has. We are not so different from John.
But let me tell you what I have seen and heard. I have heard that the blind see; I have heard that the lame walk again, the deaf hear again, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised up! I have heard and seen the good news of the Reign of God proclaimed to poor, empty, sinful beggars such as myself. I have seen the lost, young and old, ushered into the Reign of God with a little bit of water. I have seen the Messiah feed young and old with His own Body and Blood in a little bread and a little wine. I have seen sins forgiven, which will mean healing of bodies and souls in eternity. And you have heard, St. James says, of the steadfastness of Job: how he suffered under a silent sky, but never wavered in his hope that God would redeem him from all his troubles. You have seen, St. James says, the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful (James 5:11). The purpose of the Lord, in sending Jesus, was to save you along with the rest of this world, so that everyone who believes in Him will never die, but have eternal life. He, since He has once gathered you to Himself, will be with you always until the completion of this present, evil age.
Not only Advent, but our entire lives may be compared to living in a prison cell. We wait, and at our best, hope; do this, that, or the other—which, in the light of eternity, may seem to be of no consequence; the door is shut, and it can be opened only from the outside. But look! The Judge is standing at the door! Doesn’t it make your skin spark in anticipation that your King is come, and that He may open the door at any moment? That you have nothing to fear from your Judge, because His purpose is mercy and compassion, and that He comes today, now, to assure you of it. See, He is opening the door of heaven even now. He stands at the door and knocks, and to everyone who hears His voice, He will come in and eat with him. He descends from heaven, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, and He comes to eat with you! To feed you His Body and Blood, as you wait for His final coming and the great feast; as long as you are waiting and hoping and doing what He has given you to do in this time and place; until our prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus,” is answered, and the door is finally opened from the outside.
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, 12/10/10