Advent 3 Sermon, 2016
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
We all have our heroes.
Whether it’s a movie star, a musician, an author, or an athlete, there’s someone out there you’d like to meet, just to say thanks.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve met your heroes, but it’s always sad to read about a celebrity dashing the hopes of a fan with rude behavior.
Regis Philbin, as I understand it, once crushed the hopes and dreams of an eight year old girl at Disney World by refusing to give his autograph.
“Excuse me, Mr. Regis, can I have your autograph” were the little girl’s words.
And he replied: “Scram kid, I’m having my coffee.”
It has to be said that that story could be false. I read it on the Internet. But can you imagine watching Regis on tv for years and learning that he could be so petulant.
Hero-worship has always been a problem, and, in a way, that’s what’s going on in today’s gospel lesson.
John the Baptist’s first words about Jesus are some of the most familiar words of Scripture. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
The first time John sees Jesus, he knows exactly who He is and what He’s there to do.
God sent Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, to die in the place of the world, to save His people from their sins.
But why, then, in today’s Gospel lesson, does John ask if Jesus is the Christ?
“When John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” (Matthew 11:2-3).
Why does he ask what we thought he already knew?
The answer might surprise you.
Jesus isn’t living up to the expectations that John has set. He can’t reconcile the deeds Jesus is doing with the deeds he thinks Jesus should be doing.
To say it a different way, he can’t reconcile what will happen with what is happening. Let me explain:
“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ [And] ‘Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance [says John], but he who is coming after me is mightier than I…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”’” (Matthew 3:1-2, 10-12).
John can’t reconcile what will happen with what is happening, the actual deeds of the Christ with the deeds he expects from the Christ.
Jesus isn’t laying the axe to the root of the trees, baptizing with fire, clearing His threshing floor, or burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.
That’s what John preached Jesus would do.
And John’s not wrong; all of that will certainly occur.
But these are the deeds of the Christ reported to John: “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” (Matthew 11:4-5).
If you expect the Christ to swing the axe and, instead, He gives, restores, cleanses, raises, and preaches good news, you’re gonna have doubts. Not because you don’t want Jesus to give, restore, or raise but because you see, as John called them, the brood of vipers, the Pharisees and Sadducees and all those ignorant of the wrath to come, who bear no fruit in keeping with repentance, claiming the faith but living furthest from it.
It’s easy, watching or reading the news, to see all of the violence in the world and to pray that every tree that does not bear good fruit be cast into the fire, not tomorrow, but today.
It’s easy to watch people waste what you would love to have and to pray for the end when they’ll be forced to learn their lesson.
It’s easy to watch careless Christians and to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus and surprise the hell out of ‘em.”
It’s a meet and right prayer to pray “Come, Lord Jesus.” But when Jesus comes, God’s patience will finally run out. It will be the end.
So, we end up thinking about things this way:
We ignore the end. It’s out of sight, so we think, so we put it out of our minds. There’s always tomorrow.
We would always rather have the deeds Jesus was doing than the deeds John expected. We pray, every day, that they blind would see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the dead be raised.
It’s marvelous, this tension between John and Jesus.
Because Jesus doesn’t flinch. “Tell John what you hear and see…” He says. These things are what the Christ has come to do, and “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6).
He thinks He’s offensive—unless you believe.
But what’s offensive about Jesus?
Well, from the perspective of the unbeliever, Jesus is offensive, because He calls sinners to repentance. John gets this right, he preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2).
Believer or unbeliever, sinners don’t like to be called out for their sin. But the unbeliever has no solace if he must repent, if he must change. Jesus is offensive to the unbeliever, because He says, “Repent or be thrown into the unquenchable fire.”
Believers aren’t phased by that, because they’re believers. If you’re a Christian, you’re used to the routine. You’re not okay with sin, by no means! But when you sin, you trust that God has forgiven you in Christ.
You are forgiven when you believe that you are forgiven for Christ’s sake, for what God has done in Him.
God is the Good Physician, you are the sick patient, and you trust Him to heal and save you.
Jesus is offensive specifically because He forgives. God’s forgiveness, in a way, causes John to doubt.
More specifically, God’s patience.
And, let’s not forget, it’s God’s patience in destroying evil that causes us to hate God.
That’s our false hero-worship. We expect God to swoop in and win the day, but when we suffer, we feel let down, like God hasn’t lived up to our expectations.
When Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” He’s saying, “Blessed is the one who’s not offended by the fact that my results might be different than your expectations.”
John, with us all, wants the fire and brimstone. We want the judgment. We want the end. Sometimes we just want to watch other people get judged, but sometimes we do actually want the end.
We should want even our enemies to repent and be saved.
Consider how offensive it is to the unbeliever for you to desire them to change, to repent.
Consider how much more offensive it is to God for you to not.
In the last few years, the Vatican, speaking for the Roman Catholic Church, proclaimed that “the [Roman] Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards the Jews.” They go on to say, “[Judaism] is not to be considered…as another religion…”
Consider how offensive it is to the Jews for you to try and convert them to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—from their false god that denies who Jesus is.
To them, that’s offensive!
But consider how much more offensive it is to God for you to refuse to preach and teach to them the Gospel.
This isn’t the only example.
Jonah didn’t want to preach to the Ninevites, his enemies, because he knew they’d repent and be saved.
He says that!
And if there’s ever someone you wouldn’t want in your church, in your pew, or sitting next to you in Sunday School, you’re an example, too.
The Gospel is for all.
Blessed is the one who’s not offended by the fact that Jesus died for all.
Blessed is the one who’s not offended by the fact that the same blood of Jesus covers all, avails for all, and saves all who believe.
Make no mistake about it—the Gospel is offensive.
The Word of God, when preached and taught purely, calls sinners to repentance. If you’re not concerned with salvation, that’s offensive.
That we Baptize infants is offensive, because it confesses the original, sinful state of that child. But “God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32).
And blessed is the one who’s not offended by the Word of God.
In His Word, Jesus has revealed His desire for our salvation, His work in earning our salvation, and His means for making that salvation our own.
He has given us His Word, preached and taught, Holy Baptism, poured out for you, and His own Body and Blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins, that we would receive exactly that—forgiveness.
We would rather our enemies be destroyed than forgiven. So, I can understand John’s doubt.
We know what will happen. Sometimes we get frustrated that it isn’t happening yet.
Jesus will judge. He will divide sheep from goats and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Evil will lose. Good will win out.
It is offensive to insist upon Jesus as the way, truth, and life. The Gospel is offensive.
But the greater offense is to keep silent the saving Word of Jesus Christ our Savior.
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Blessed is the one who’s not offended by Him.
Now, while we wait for the end, Peter writes: “the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace…Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity” (2 Peter 3:9-14).
In Jesus’ name, Amen!