Advent 3 Sermon, 2017
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
I’d like to begin with a True/False question, and I want you to think about it before you answer.
“A Christian must—above all else—emphasize works.”
Think about it…
True or False?
The immediate, good, Lutheran-sounding answer is, of course, False! Right?
In a way, it’s good to answer “False,” because when we hear the word “works,” we think of our works.
And the church is quite good at teaching that even our good works are like filthy and polluted garments (cf. Is. 64:6).
We certainly don’t need to emphasize those.
We know that.
But in response to the question—to Jesus—asked by John’s disciples, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3), what is it that Jesus emphasizes? He emphasizes the works of the Christ.
He says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight…the lame walk, lepers are cleansed…the deaf hear…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” (Matthew 11:4-6).
Jesus emphasizes the works of the Christ. His works.
In John’s account of the Gospel, we even get this tidbit when Jesus is further explaining how He and the Father are One. He says: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me—or else—believe on account of the works themselves” (Jn. 14:11).
If you’re not going to believe that Jesus is the in the Father and the Father is in Jesus, if you’re not going to believe what Jesus says, believe in the works that Jesus does. “Believe on account of the works themselves” (John 14:11). That’s what Jesus says.
He emphasizes the works of the Christ, of God.
Notice how different the True/False question is if I say it like this:
True or False: “A Christian must—above all else—emphasize his own works.”
Or how about this: “A Christian must—above all else—emphasize the works of Christ.” Obviously.
Perspective makes it that easy.
And it’s very telling that when we think of “works” we think of our own and not those of God for us.
What I mean is this:
If you love the Lord your God, if you love your neighbor as yourself, if you set the Lord always before you (cf. Matthew 22:37, 29; Psalm 16:8), then you’re not thinking about your works—but rather the works of God.
If you love the Lord your God, you love what He’s done for you.
If you don’t love the Lord your God, you love yourself, and you’ll spend your time explaining things in a way that makes you look great, because you are your own god, and you love you.
But if you love your neighbor as yourself, yeah, you love your neighbor, but St. John writes, “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
If you don’t love your neighbor as yourself, you don’t mind putting people down, gossiping, lying.
All the fun stuff.
You don’t mind, because it’s most important—if you don’t love your neighbor as yourself—for you to look good. And for you to look good, sometimes you just have to tell everybody everything about everyone.
If you set the Lord always before you, it’s the Lord who lights the way—keeps your feet under you—guards and protects you.
The saying “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” may serve well, practically speaking.
But, theologically, it is a lie from the pit of hell.
My favorite paragraph in the Small Catechism is in the explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed:
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith…”
By my works, I can’t believe in God—I can’t come to Jesus.
But by the work of God…
The Holy Spirit calls me by the Gospel, enlightens me, sanctifies me, and keeps me in the faith.
By the work of God, I am saved.
So if Jesus defines “works”, there’s no problem focusing on Him and what He does.
If we define “works”, what possible good could come from such rotten things?
So, True or False: “A Christian must—above all else—emphasize works.”
And the answer: True.
Because, above all else, we emphasize, believe, and hold fast to what our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has done.
When in trouble, it’s not how strong we are that gets us through anything.
When near death, it’s not our beating hearts to which we pray.
At all times and in all places, we emphasize, believe, and hold fast to Jesus Christ.
The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.
Those works identify Jesus as the Christ.
We know who we’re dealing with.
John knew who he was dealing with.
Those works identify Jesus—and they also identify what the Kingdom and reign of God look like.
Eyes are made to see, ears to hear, mouths to confess Jesus as Lord and Christ.
And blessed is the one who’s not offended by Him.
When Jesus says that, when He says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Mt. 11:11), He says it for the sake of John’s disciples and for us.
Jesus quotes Isaiah chapter thirty-five, which says, “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).
All good news.
And John would’ve known these verses—as he’s the one preparing the way of the Lord.
Jesus also quotes Isaiah chapter sixty-one.
Jesus quotes this verse: “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” (Isaiah 61:1).
Again, good news.
John would definitely know these verses—he’s the one preparing the way of the Lord.
But John would also know the bit that Jesus leaves out.
According to the rest of the verse in chapter sixty-one, Jesus should also “proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isaiah 61:1).
That’s important, because John’s in prison.
He hears from behind bars about the deeds of the Christ and sends his disciples to inquire.
If you’re in prison, and you know that the Christ proclaims liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, those are the verses you want to hear Jesus quote.
Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Mt. 11:11).
John the Baptist is no fool.
He knows what happened to the Old Testament prophets. He doesn’t expect to get out, and he’s not offended by Jesus when Jesus doesn’t specifically mention setting him free.
But John’s disciples still need to learn.
And so do we.
The miracles that Jesus performed are not things we can expect.
We can ask for sight to be restored.
We can ask for a man to have one more Christmas with his family.
We can ask.
But simply because Jesus did those things then does not mean that He’ll do those things for us today in the same way.
John the Baptist is an object lesson for those who think they can name and claim blessings.
Unless the good news that Jesus preaches includes specific blessings, you can’t.
But that doesn’t make Jesus a liar.
And it doesn’t make the Word of God false.
We just have to remember: perspective helps.
In Isaiah chapter thirty-five—which Jesus quotes, speaking to John’s disciples—before the lame leap, before the deaf hear, before the blind see, immediately before the words that Jesus quotes, this is what Isaiah writes (and Jesus and John definitely knew this):
“Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you’” (Isaiah 35:4).
He will come and save you.
That’s the work of Christ.
The work of Jesus—God’s work for you.
“Blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” (Mt. 11:11) Jesus says. Blessed is the one who’s not offended at being saved. At being helped. At being empty and filled by God—a beggar and served—a sinner made a saint.
Blessed are you.
That’s the good news that Jesus preaches to us poor, miserable, sinners.
That’s the good news, the Gospel, for those with an anxious heart.
That’s the good news for you.
Be strong. Fear not. Christ our Lord came with vengeance and the recompense of God.
When Jesus died, sin and satan and the fear of eternal death were destroyed. Even the vengeance of God is for your good.
When Jesus died, the debt humanity owed was swallowed up by the shed blood of Jesus.
God justifies the ungodly, and his faith is counted to him as righteousness (cf. Romans 4:5).
That’s the recompense of God.
And all of this—is the work of Christ.
The work of Jesus.
God’s work for you.
These works define Jesus. And we emphasize, believe, and hold fast to what our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has done.
True or False—We, above all else, emphasize the work of God, in Christ, for our salvation.
For by it, He has come to save us.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!