Third Sunday of Advent

Jesus, and Not Another

Saint Matthew 11:2-11

The text of today’s Holy Gospel takes place relatively early in the earthly ministry of our Lord Jesus at a time when the work of John the Baptist, His forerunner, was coming to an end. If we turn from the Gospel account before us today, to the Gospel according to Saint John, we’ll see that it had been only a short while before this when both John and Jesus, at separate places in the Judean countryside, were preaching and baptizing. John had been active with the work of his ministry for only a bit longer than Jesus, being six months His elder, as we learned when the angel Gabriel came to Mary to announce that she would be the mother of God’s Son. At that time, the angel had also said to Mary, “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” The births of both Jesus and John were divinely wrought miracles, worked by God because of His love for all the world. Jesus was born to save mankind, and John was born to point mankind to Jesus, our Saviour.

Now the advent, or arrival of Jesus some three decades later, onto the Judean mission field, turned out to be of some concern for the disciples of Baptizer John. As Saint John’s Gospel also tells us, they say to their master, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness”—“look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” They refer to when Jesus came to be baptized by John and John declared that Jesus is “the Son of God”—the very “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The Baptizer’s disciples are now troubled because, well, the numbers are down. An increasing number of people are now going out to hear Jesus preach, and be baptized by Him, instead of John. They look upon Jesus as a rival to John—a sheep-stealer, if you will. And they’re pretty upset with Jesus because of this.

Of course, they’re just being loyal to their master John, but they don’t get it, do they? They don’t understand that the entire purpose of John’s ministry has been to prepare the way for Jesus. And so John explains this truth to them, using a wedding metaphor. He says, “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” The bridegroom is Jesus, the Messiah, and His bride is the church. John, therefore would be the friend of the bridegroom, who was active in arranging the betrothal—the one who worked to prepare the way for the marriage to take place. And now that the bride and bridegroom are coming together, it’s time for the friend to step aside. He’s done his job. And he couldn’t be happier about it. His work has not been in vain. The cup runs over. The joy is fulfilled.

John then goes on to tell his disciples much more about Jesus—and not with a continued use of metaphor, either. He tells them directly, plainly, that, “He,” Jesus, “who comes from above is above all.” He tells them, “the Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The Baptizer, I don’t think, could be much clearer with his disciples about Jesus and who He is, and about his own role as the forerunner—as one unworthy even to untie the sandals of Christ. But yet, in today’s Gospel account, Saint Matthew tells us that these same disciples of John continue to be disturbed by the increasing of Jesus and the decreasing of John.

Now, some preachers these days will say that it’s not John’s disciples who are upset with Jesus, but John himself, because, after all John has done for Jesus, Jesus has left him to languish in Herod’s prison. These preachers say that John is the one having doubts about Jesus, because he figures that if Jesus really has all authority in heaven and on earth given to Him by the Father, He could do something about his incarceration—Jesus could get John set free from jail.

Well, it certainly is possible for John to be wavering in his faith; he’s a man of sinful mortal flesh just like you and me, after all. And the words before us this morning, relayed by the evangelist Saint Matthew do seem to support this. We’re told that John “sent word by his disciples” to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” At face value, this sounds like John isn’t so certain anymore that Jesus is the one sent by God to deliver this world from sin and death. But this interpretation doesn’t fit with what Jesus has to say about John, does it? After John’s disciples leave to go back to John, Jesus tells those gathered about Him, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” And how does our Lord measure greatness? Not in worldly glory and might, but in faith. He who sees what is in the heart of every living soul, beholds the greatness that faith bestows in the heart of John the Baptist.

So what, then, are we to think about the question that John’s disciples bring to Jesus? Given what Jesus says about John, it seems more likely that doubt about Jesus lies in the hearts of those disciples and that John sends them to Jesus with this question so that they may hear the truth from Jesus Himself. Therefore, in answer to the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus says to them, “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.”

The miraculous works that Jesus reminds them about—healing of the blind and the lame, of lepers and the deaf, and even the dead being raised up—no one ever has done these things but Jesus. The prophets of old had foretold that when the Messiah came He would do these humanly impossible things. And Jesus does, not only such miracles of bodily healing, but also that which is greater. Jesus preaches good news to the poor, which means that He declares to those robbed by sin and the devil—robbed of every thing that God has created good—that it is theirs again—that in Him there is forgiveness and salvation and life without end. And this greatest of all good things is given freely to everyone who is not offended by Him—meaning, to everyone who believes and trusts in Him.

John the Baptist, sitting in his prison cell, is certainly among the poor to whom the Gospel Jesus preaches is intended. John is a poor miserable sinner, as we all are. He is also poor in a material sense. The Baptizer was never one to over-indulge in the things of this world, as did some who claimed to speak for God. His raiment was made from rough and scratchy camel hair, bound together with a simple leather belt. He ate what came to hand, out in the wilderness: locusts and wild honey. And for shelter he had but the shade from trees. And now, even these few things have been taken from him, and soon also his own life. Herod would not only imprison the Baptist, but would also take his head, because John had the audacity to call him to repent of his public sin and wickedness. However, even though John would lose everything of this earthly life, he had that which was far greater, that which no one could take from him. John had Jesus, and life without end in our Saviour’s holy name.

This truth that John understood by faith—this blessing to which he surely clung and which gave him hope as he sat in his prison cell, is exactly what Luther in his Mighty Fortress hymn conveys to you in the verse that says, “and take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, though these all be gone, our victory has been won; the kingdom ours remaineth.” The eternal and everlasting kingdom of God remains for you, dear friends, no matter what trials and hardships may befall you in this life. Those tough times that you face are not a sign that God has turned His love away from you, but that His love—His strength and power for you is made perfect in Christ.

Your sure hope for deliverance from every evil is in Christ Jesus, God’s Son, our Lord, who, although He possessed all things in heaven and on earth, came into this world in utmost humility and lowliness for you. He allowed Himself to be subjected to ridicule and shame—to be, as Isaiah foretold, “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” He endured all this for you. The innocent one became sin for you; He suffered and died for you to pay for all your sins, to rescue you from sin and death and the power of the devil. And in Him—in Jesus your Saviour—you have everything. Your “iniquity is pardoned;” you have “received from the Lord’s hand double for all your sins,” which is Isaiah’s way of saying that even though you deserve nothing from God except His wrath and punishment, because of His great love that He has for you in Christ, you receive a double portion of His forgiveness and everlasting riches.

God gives all of this to you, dear friends. It’s all here for you today in the good news that is preached to you, in the forgiveness that is declared to you, and in the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus that, in faith, you eat and drink, believing, as Luther teaches, that your sins are truly forgiven and you have life and salvation. Indeed, as you heard Jesus say today, “blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

God grant you grace to believe always and not doubt that Jesus is the one who has come to be your Saviour—Jesus, and not another. Amen.