Sermon for Gaudete, the Third Sunday in Advent, AD 2020

Matthew 11:2-11

Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Why does John the Baptist send his disciples to ask Jesus this question? It is a question of doubt from the very one who was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. Could the very one who baptized Jesus, who saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend like a dove, who heard a voice from heaven saying “This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17) really be wondering if Jesus is the Coming One? Or is John sending these disciples in order that the disciples’ faith may be strengthened? Scripture isn’t clear on this, but it doesn’t matter either way. Jesus Christ gives assurance for those who doubt through His word and work.
As John the Baptist preached and baptized, he gained many devoted disciples who repented of their sins and believed his message of the coming of the Christ. His job was to preach the law, repentance from sin, in order to prepare the people for Jesus’ coming. He told the people that the one who was to come would not just baptize with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The coming one who John was preparing for would judge the whole world and set things right. He would be a mighty savior of Israel.
Yet now John is in prison. Herod, not Jesus, is on the throne of Israel and has arrested John despite the prophet’s popularity. It’s possible John himself could be thinking, “If the coming one is setting everything right, how am I still in prison? Is Jesus maybe not the one we thought?” If everything were right it should be Herod, not John, who is judged.
The world and the devil often work against us to get us to doubt Jesus. Just as the devil worked through Herod to persecute John, he works now to cause suffering to Christians. Not that suffering is the ultimate goal, but rather that Christians lose their faith in Christ. In a similar way this corrupted world gives us every reason to doubt Christ, saying, look at things now, how is a good God reigning? What has Christ done for you? These doubts may arise in our hearts, but to hold on to these doubts, to sit on them and do nothing with them is destructive to our faith. We cannot hold on to doubt, but must bring our doubts to the only One who can assure us, Christ.
Maybe John was not outright doubting, but knowing the end of his life was near, needed that last bit of assurance. His circumstances were not what the Kingdom of God would look like in its glory, so maybe he needed some little comfort. He knew where to go, he sent his disciples to Jesus. So even if we are not doubting, we still need to hear, still need to know what Jesus is doing, we need be pointed to Jesus - for the devil and the world do not want us to hear it.
John also knew his disciples needed to hear it. They had seen their teacher, John the Baptist, working in great power, preaching to thousands, bringing people to repentance and baptism. Crowds of people all over the region considered John to be a great prophet. Now the one John was preparing for, the one who was supposed to be greater, seems lesser. John points his disciples away from himself, to Christ. They bring their questions and doubts to Jesus, and he answers them.
Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” He points John’s disciples to His works. Often the world and our circumstances can blur our vision to the works that Jesus is doing. In the gospel of Luke it says that Jesus did these works that very hour when John’s disciples were there. Jesus is telling them to look at what he is doing, to look at His divine power at work.
Yet this is not all. Jesus’ works are not completely understood without the Word of God. John the Baptist worked mightily in preaching repentance to the nation, preparing for the Messiah, the anointed king to come. Taking Jesus’ work at face value, he isn’t much of a king. He is doing a lot of healing, so he seems to be a good doctor, but not a king. Jesus’ reply does not just tell of His works, but calls back to the Word of God. John the Baptist would well know the words of the prophet Isaiah from chapter 61, “The Spirit of the Lord God 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” (Isaiah 61:1) Or Isaiah 42, “to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:7) And Isaiah 35, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped” (Isaiah 35:5).  Jesus is not just some healer. Jesus is not someone preparing for someone greater. He is the one whom God has sent to restore all things. The true Coming One is here. The eyes of the blind are being opened. The deaf hear. And most importantly, the good news is preached to the poor.
Those poor in spirit, those doubting and in need of assurance, who with repentant hearts seek God, will find a gracious and merciful God in Christ. Although the world rewards faithful preachers and Christians with disdain, persecution, imprisonment, cross, and death, in Jesus we receive grace, mercy, and every good thing. We know Jesus is true because he is the one who fulfills scripture, who many witnesses saw doing what Isaiah said he would do. He is the one whom John the Baptist promised.
Jesus asks the people, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” Who is John the Baptist? Not a reed blown by the wind, some hypocrite who changes his message depending on what people want to hear. Not a man dressed in soft clothing, some vain rich person who gives out worldly help. John was a prophet, but more than a prophet. He was a prophet like none other because he was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. He was the greatest prophet because it was his job to prepare the way for the Son of God, the Lord, the one who told the prophet Malachi to write “Behold, I send a messenger before my face” (Malachi 3:1).
Yet somehow Jesus can say the least in the kingdom is greater than John. While it was John’s job to prepare the way for Christ, he still died before getting to see the final completion. John was still a prophet of the Old Testament, believing in the promise of the Messiah without yet seeing his great work for our salvation. John the Baptist trusted in the promise, and when doubts and temptations came he sought out Christ in His word and work. Now, even the least disciple of Jesus has greater things than John.
For we know that Christ died on the cross and has risen from the dead. Jesus has defeated the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. What we have in Jesus is greater than any doubts the world or the devil could create in us. In the cross, Jesus came into his glory. His glory was that he would be sacrificed for the sins of the world, for guilt to be pardoned. In this way that seems weak, seems less impressive, Jesus establishes his kingdom.
Now the Holy Spirit brings us forgiveness and grace through this good news preached to us poor sinners. We have the very word and works of Christ for ourselves, preached to us from His holy Word. Christ works the raising of the dead through baptism, as our old man dies with Him and we rise to new resurrection life. Like the healing in Jesus’ day, it doesn’t seem like much. It’s not flashy. It’s not mighty in the way the world works. It may seem like the woes of this life are greater. Yet what we have now is the foretaste, the down payment on what we will have in the life to come.

Christ comes to you now, to open your eyes to His work, your ears to his word. He raises you from your death, and frees you from your captivity to sin and the devil. He is the one who John proclaimed will be coming. Now He is coming to you by the Holy Spirit in the word and sacraments. He is still coming on the last day, to set all things right for good. Then our sealing in baptism will be complete, and we will be gathered to be with him, while those who are offended by Christ now will be burned in fire. Blessed are those who are not offended by Him, those who bring their doubts to Jesus, the One who keeps His promises for our assurance and life. Amen.

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