The Christian observing Advent lives in two holidays: the year-end festival of good will among men called the Christmas season going on out there, and the season of repentance going on in here in preparation for the Advent of Christ. Let's find out more about Advent by asking 3 questions.
Advent means coming. Is Jesus the One who is to come or should we expect another? You can see why John would ask this. The Coming One was an Old Testament title for the Messiah, the Christ. John had preached that this was Jesus. The Coming One was here and the ax was laid against the root of every impenitent tree. He particularly preached against King Herod for marrying his brother's wife. John lived an austere life in the wilderness dressed in rough, simple clothing, eating little and not drinking wine. Now John languishes in jail put there by Herod for preaching against his adulterous marriage.
Jesus is on the outside. He is eating and drinking and that with sinners. He is calling people to repentance, sure, but He's wielding no ax, cutting down no trees, and we don't ever hear Jesus preached against the sin of Herod. What gives? Is Jesus the Coming One, the Messiah as John had preached or should they be waiting for another?
Can you see how the Christian today could ask this same question? We preach that God will not be mocked, yet He is. We preach Jesus is the judge of the living and dead, but the living go on in their sins unpunished and the unbeliever often dies peacefully. We preach that Jesus rules the world with truth and grace. But maybe we got this wrong. Islam seems more of a force in the world today than Christianity. The United Nations appears to do more for peace, and the Peace Corps seems to make more of a difference. Are we wrong to sit here waiting for a God who doesn't show Himself the way the world wants Him to, the way we want Him to?
What's the answer to "Are you the One who was to come or should we expect someone else?" The answer is the same today as it was then. What they heard and saw. That's what Jesus sends back to John rotting in a prison cell. "Tell him what you hear and see." They saw Jesus, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies: healing the blind, the lame, the leper, and the deaf. They saw Jesus raising the dead, and they heard Jesus preaching the Gospel of forgiveness to those who have nothing to buy it with.
What do you see today? How many blind, lame, lepers, or deaf have you seen healed? How about dead men raised? Not a one. John was tripping over Jesus because He didn't bring the judgment John thought he should when he thought it proper, and we trip because Jesus doesn't do physical miracles when and where we want Him to. What we have in common is that both John and we hear Jesus preach the Gospel.
But we have more than John. We have 2,000 years of Church history. 2,000 years of millions of people taking what Scripture records as history. People really saw Jesus heal a man full of leprosy. They saw Jesus give sight to man born blind. They saw the lame walking and leaping and praising God. They saw Lazarus come forth from a grave.
However, don't think even they saw Jesus do miracles left and right. He did relatively few miracles. The ones He did were signs. Signs are not ends in themselves. They point to something else. The miracles pointed to a new heaven and new earth, a place not of eating and drinking but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit as Paul says in Romans 14.
Question two is what did you go to the desert to see? That's what Jesus asked the people after John's disciples had left. They hadn't gone out to the desert to see a shaking reed; they went out to see John who stood firm against Herod, against sinners who claimed they could keep their sins and still be baptized, against a world of unbelief. They hadn't gone into the desert to see a pampered man but one whose diet and dress preached there was something more important than soft clothes, fancy food, drink, and creature comforts.
Why did you come to this desert? There's no brightly decorated trees here; only the drab Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which became a tree of death. There's no jaunty, mood lifting Christmas music. The only food here is Bread and Wine. The only Water here is not enough even to give everyone a drink. Why have you come to this place that doesn't speak the world's language any time of year but particularly this time of year? Why have you come to this place that doesn't value the holiday spirit that is considered necessary for life out there?
There's better food, better drink, better clothes, better entertainment, and more of just about everything outside this desert place. So, what have you come here to see? They went in droves, by the thousands and thousands into the wilderness to see a prophet, but more than prophet. He was the only prophet the Lord prophesied would come. The one God Himself called His angel to go before His Christ and Savior.
That's what they went to the desert to see, and you? People come to this desert by mere dozens, and find not a foreteller but a forth teller, not a prophet but a preacher. But I too am sent by God. I preach, teach, forgive, baptize, and commune as a called and ordained servant of the Word by the command and in the place of my Lord Jesus. I can't heal your body, but I can heal your soul. I can't make you rich in this life but I can make you filthy rich with life. I can't make you a success in this world, but I can make you flourish in the world without end. I can't heal you of cancer but I can heal you of sin. I can't heal you of dying today but I can heal you of dying forever. I am not the Coming One but I come to point you to Him. And that is the One who has drawn you into this desert place, who has called you away from that holiday to this scared space. You can't help but be drawn. You're drawn to look at the gruesome crucified Christ because His pain speaks to your pain; His suffering speaks to your suffering; His sorrow speaks to your sorrow. His death speaks to your life.
One more question. I hope it brings the other two into focus. This one isn't in the text but brought forth by the text. Who is the least in the kingdom of heaven? I don't care if you're racked with disease, pain, or problems, the least in the kingdom of heaven isn't you. It isn't me either. It certainly wasn't John. Jesus identifies John as the greatest among those born of women.
The least in the kingdom of heaven is the One who said He had no place to lay His head in this fallen world. The least is the One who said birds and foxes were better off than He in this benighted life. The least in the kingdom of heaven has got to be the One who the God of heaven forsook in His hour of need. The least in the kingdom of heaven has to be the One who, in His own words, was a worm and no man.
The least in the kingdom of heaven has got to be the One who has to do everything. God the Son, King of heaven, was sent by His Father into our flesh and blood to do everything we don't, won't, can't do. Think of the wrongs you did last week. You probably came up with half dozen deeds, maybe 1,000 words, but your sinful thoughts go to infinity and beyond. Well, in order for you or any other sinner to go to heaven, all that you failed to do, didn't want to do, couldn't do, had to be done. Who do you think does everything in a military unit? Do you think the general does, the colonel does, the captain does, the master sergeant does? No, the least in the unit does. Not even the PFC but the private.
God the Son wasn't the least. He was equal to Father and Spirit but He took the role of the least in order to take our place. He humbled Himself. Why? Well even perfect Adam and Eve couldn't do it all. Even in paradise, they couldn't fear, love and trust in God above all things. Even in Eden they couldn't refrain from using the name of God carelessly. Even in heaven on earth they couldn't gladly hear God's Word and obey it. It took a Man who is God to do all that. An angel couldn't do it in place of man, another ordinary man would just fail again. Nope, it took God Himself to do everything required for sinners to go to heaven.
Who is the least in the kingdom of heaven? It's got to be the One who was blamed for everything and was made to pay for everything. That wasn't you, me, or John. That was Jesus. Paul tells us God made Him to be sin. God made Jesus to be your sin of unbelief, greed, gossip, lust, and despair. When God saw His only Son so completely covered with the sins that disgusted Him, all His wrath was poured out at a point in time on a cross stuck in a hill outside of Jerusalem. And Jesus with His last drop of blood, sweat, and tears put out the flames of God's wrath and God smiled again on a fallen world.
That's why you've come to this desert place. You know Jesus came the first time because you have written proof passed on for thousands of years. You know when He came that first time it was to rescue sinners from sin and death. You know when He comes again it will be too late for those refusing rescue. And you know He comes to this desert place today to rescue people before it's too late. His perfect life flows in the baptismal Waters here. His Word that sends your sins as far away from you as east is from west is proclaimed here. The Body and Blood He sacrificed to pay for sins 2,000 years ago is distributed here for sinners to eat, drink, and live.
There are two holidays going on. Celebrate both, but you can only live in one. Question is, which one will it be? The one that gives life. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Advent (20161211); Matthew 11: 2-11