Christmas joy. That's what this Sunday is all about. The Third Sunday in Advent is when you light the pink candle on the Advent wreath. It's the only candle on the wreath that specifically stands for something. It stands for joy. On this Sunday, the world's Christmas and our's coincide. Both agree Christmas is about joy. But the two Christmases diverge again when it comes to where the joy of Christmas comes from.
Joy in the world's Christmas comes from having doubts resolved. It's doubtful that Santa will be able to fly one foggy Christmas Eve, but Rudolph and his red nose show up just in time. It's doubtful that Frosty will survive the rising temperatures, but then the train comes to take him north. It's doubtful there will be any Christmas in Whoville once the Grinch has stolen it, but the Grinch has a change of heart just in time. In "A Christmas Carol" it's doubtful whether Tiny Tim will see another Christmas. In "It's a Wonderful Life" it's doubtful whether George will overcome the oncoming crises. And in "A Miracle on 34 Street," it's doubtful whether Santa really will come through.
In all Christmas specials, with the notable exception of Charlie Brown, a miracle happens to resolve the doubt. Here is the joy of Christmas, a supernatural occurrence that makes everything work out. Who can be sad when Rudolph returns to guide the sleigh, when Frosty doesn't melt, when the Grinch gives back Christmas? Who cannot be joyful when Tiny Tim lives and prospers, when George is rescued from his terrible doubts, and when Santa shows up on 34 Street? The joy comes from the interposing of a miracle just in the nick of time.
Is this how it is in the Christian Christmas? There are doubts in the Christian Christmas that stand in the way of joy too. In our text, we meet doubting John the Baptist. The man who last Sunday preached so boldly, lived so starkly, and waited so patiently, is now mired in doubt. He's in prison because he dared to preach against the sins of King Herod. He preached the same doom and gloom upon him that he did upon all sinners. He said that One was coming to bring judgment.
Now what? The One whom John had said came to bring judgment had arrived, and what did He do? Jesus ate and drank with sinners while John ate grasshoppers, honey and water. John suffers in a dungeon while Jesus parties with scribes and Pharisees - the very ones whom John called poisonous snakes. Where was the ax at the root of unfruitful trees? Where was sweeping up the chaff and throwing it into the fire? Was Jesus the One he had waited his whole life for or should John look for another?
The crowds were doubtful too. They were very enamored with John. They had gone way out into the desert to see John. They had left their homes, their jobs, their synagogues to go into a hot, dry wilderness to see John. Although John pointed to Jesus, they hadn't at this point in the ministry of Jesus begun to flock that way to Jesus. In fact, more than a year into Jesus' ministry John still has his own disciples. John still has people who follow him rather than Jesus. These people doubted that Jesus was the Messiah. I'm sure they pointed out to John: We fast; Jesus and His disciples don't. We drink water; they drink wine. And what could John say? Setting in a rat infested, dank, dark prison, their doubts became his.
Don't you have doubts? Is this Jesus we worship, pray to, rely on, trust in for forgiveness, life and salvation really our Savior from sin death and the devil? If so, why do some sins seem to imprison us? Why do we die one after another? Why do the works of Satan seem to go on unhindered? Why doesn't Jesus do something mighty and powerful to show who and what He really is? Can't He outdo flying reindeer and a talking snowman? All of the world's Christmas stories have doubts being undone by miracles; why can't we Christians have something like that?
You know what we have come up against, don't you? The Theology of Glory versus the Theology of the Cross. The Theology of Glory says God works joy in our lives by doing something powerful, something miraculous. The Theology of the Cross says that God works joy in our lives through Christ, the One who was crucified on the cross for our sins. The Advent wreath preaches this to us. I said today we light the pink candle; actually it's rose colored. The white of the center Christ candle bleeds into the purple candle of repentance and makes a rose color. The repentance that our coming Savior calls us to is lightened by Christ to a cheery rose color. Joy bleeds into this season of repentance from Christ.
I know what some of you are thinking. You are about to jump out of the pew because I said that the world's joy comes from the intervention of the powerful and miraculous while the Christian's joy comes from the cross of Christ, yet what does Jesus point John to? The blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers cured, the deaf hearing, and the dead being raised. These are miracles, aren't they? Yes, they are, but that's not Jesus' point. You can tell this from the fact that John already knew what Jesus was doing. Our text opens with, "When John heard in prison what Christ was doing." John knew about these miracles. John was doubting whether Jesus was the Messiah because of them. All John heard that Jesus was doing was helping and healing sinners. Where was the judgment, the punishment that John had foretold the Messiah would bring?
Proud John thinks he knows what the Messiah should be doing. Jesus tells him he doesn't. After Jesus tells John's messengers to tell John what they have heard and seen, Jesus ends with, "There is blessing for whoever is not scandalized in Me." Blessings are in Jesus alone not in John's understanding or opinion of Jesus.
So too at Christmas, it is our understanding and opinions of Jesus that cause us doubts and rob us of joy. We think Jesus should be the type of Savior we want and do the types of things we think. We probably aren't looking for Him to judge the way John was, but we are looking for Him to do the miraculous. He should lift our spirits by lifting our sickness, our suffering, our hardships. And when He doesn't, we feel doubtful, cheated, wronged. Jesus says to us what He said to John: There is blessing in Me. In the hardships and heartaches I let you have. In the sicknesses and sufferings I leave you in, there is blessing; there is joy!
The answer to the doubting crowds was also Jesus. Jesus shows them that their high opinion of John wasn't based on his political savvy, his fine clothes, or his luxurious living. He had none of these. They thought of him so highly only because he was a prophet. What prophets say and not the person of the prophet is important. And what did John talk about? Jesus. John was the one the Old Testament said would come before Jehovah Himself. Jehovah Himself stood right before them in the person of Jesus. Yes, among those women-born John was the greatest, but there was one greater than he, but they ignored this One because He was least in the kingdom of heaven. Yet joy and the answer to their doubts could only be found in the one who was least in the kingdom of heaven.
Understanding that Jesus is the One referred to as the least in the kingdom of heaven is the key to this text. The Theology of Glory looks for Jesus to be the greatest, looks for His followers to have great things, not things like sickness, suffering, sorrows and sins. But the Bible says Jesus is the least in the kingdom heaven. Don't believe me? Psalm 22 says Jesus " is a worm and no man." Jesus Himself says rather than coming to be served, as you would expect the greatest to do, He came to serve all, as you would expect the least to do. Who but the least would have no place to lay His head and no money to pay His taxes as Jesus did? Who but the least in the kingdom of heaven would have no form or beauty about Him that we should desire Him as Isaiah said of Jesus? Who but the least in the kingdom of heaven would be loaded with the iniquity of us all, would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows?
If our Jesus was a worm and no man, should feeling like worms in this fallen world rob us of our joy? If Jesus was a servant and not served, should we be depressed when we feel like we are the servants of everyone else? If our Jesus was not led to despair because He had no place to lay His head and no money for His taxes, need our home problems and money problems rob us of our joy?
What about our sins, what about griefs and sorrows, surely these rightfully take away our joy at this time of year. Think so? If Jesus carried our sins, then we are simply mistaken when we think our sins our on us. Our sins can't be both places. Either the Father loaded Him with the iniquity of us all or they are still on us, either Jesus carried away the sins of the world as John said He did or they are still on us, either God made Jesus to be sin and us the righteousness of God of in Jesus or He left us in our sins and Jesus in His righteousness. Things can't be both ways. Jesus can't bear our sins and we bear them too. Jesus can't be punished for our sins on the cross and we be punished in this life too. Jesus can't have carried our sins away from us and left them on our backs as well. The only way for our sins to rob us of our Christmas joy is if they are still with us or on us. Scripture plainly says they are not; they are on Christ.
But what about griefs and sorrows? Scripture plainly says Jesus carried them too, yet they are still here. Well Jesus carried the cross for us, yet the cross is still very much in our life too. The big difference is that Jesus carried our griefs, sorrows, and cross as a punishment for our sins. So these aren't in our lives for that reason. These are in our lives because that's how God works in the lives of His people. He gives Abraham and Sarah the grief of being childless for 25 years. He gives Jacob the sorrow of having a family at each others' throats. He gives Paul a thorn in the flesh and Mother Mary a sword through her soul. He exiles John to Patmos and martyrs Stephen. We who are redeemed by a bloody cross should not think it strange to find the cross in our lives. We who are redeemed by a cross, and we who have great joy from a cross, can't be robbed of joy by a cross!
Our Lord doesn't say His power is made perfect in strength but in the weakness we feel because of the sorrows and griefs in our lives. Our Lord didn't say that our joys work for us a far more eternal weight of glory but our afflictions do. John was thrown into doubt not by prison but by his own opinions about what Jesus should be doing. Likewise, It's not our sorrows, our griefs or our crosses that throw us into doubt and rob us of our joy. It's our wrong opinion that Jesus should only work in our life by what is beautiful, good, and powerful. Christmas, however, teaches us the truth that Jesus works in our life by what is ugly, evil, and weak. In an ugly little stable, at an evil time of foreign oppression and heavy taxation, a weak little Baby came into this world. Yet, angels shouted with joy, shepherds ran with joy, and sinners wept with joy. God had come to that ugly little stable, in that evil time, as a weak little Baby for the sake of helpless sinners. Rejoice. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent III (12-16-01) Matthew 11:2-11