Expecting To Stumble
People expect to stumble. Going down a steep, rocky trail, you expect to stumble. Loading one too many boxes in your arms, you expect to stumble. But that's not what I mean by the title "Expecting to Stumble." Expecting to Stumble means your expectations lead to your stumbling. Your expectations make the trail steep and rocky. Your expectations are the extra box.
You are expecting to stumble if you expect Christ's actions to fit your agenda. John does this in our text. Last week you heard him preach that Christ is coming with fires of judgement. Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Make straight paths for Him. And John lived that life, didn't he? He wore the clothes of a harsh, repentant life. He gave himself no luxuries. He mourned his sins and those of others. But where does our text find John? In prison. Why? Because he preached against the sin of King Herod. And what is Christ doing? He's not fasting. Locusts and wild honey aren't His fare but real food and wine. And is Christ out in front of Herod's palace continuing John's call to repent? Is Christ bringing judgment down upon the viperous Pharisees and Sadducees? No, He's saying, "Come to Me all you who are weak and heavy laden! My yoke is easy, My burden light."
Christ didn't do what John expected, and John's wrong expectations led to his stumbling. He sent 2 of his disciples to Jesus asking, "Are You the One who was to come, or should we expect another?" Hadn't the Holy Spirit already revealed to John that Jesus was the One? Hadn't John already seen the Spirit descend on Jesus as a dove? Hadn't he identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? Yes, but then Jesus didn't do what John expected, so John stumbled.
How about us? At Christmas we have big expectations of Jesus. We expect if anyone ought to have a good Christmas it should be those of us who know its true meaning. We expect our sick to be better, our money problems eased, our burdens lighter at Christmas. We light this wreath; we decorate this tree; we gather on Wednesdays in the true Spirit of Christmas, but what happens? Thorns still infest our ground, accursed illnesses still afflict us, and our sorrows grow even at this time of year.
Our expectations make us stumble. We expect our timetable to be the Lord's timetable when what He promised is that our times are in His hands. We expect our priorities to be His priorities when what He promised is that His priority is to save us. We expect our solutions to be His solutions when what Jesus promised is that our problems would be His problems. We expect our thorns pruned when Jesus came to kill them at their roots. We expect our accursed illnesses to be healed when what Jesus did is become a curse for us. We expect our sorrows to shrivel when what Jesus did is to become a man of sorrows to bring us tidings of great joy in our sorrows.
Wrong expectations about what Christ will do isn't the only way to stumble. Wrong expectations about Christ's messengers is another way. John was quite a spectacle. Many went out into the desert drawn by a man clothed in camel hair living off the land. This was something to see. He wasn't some reed in the Jordan river swaying with the wind. No, he stood in the Jordan and thundered not just against sin but against their sins. He was not a finely dressed man like the king he preached against. And he wasn't rewarded for his preaching by the church. He was denounced by her leaders.
So people stumbled over John. They said he had a demon. He was some sort of religious nut fanatical about sin, judgement, repentance, and the kingdom of heaven. He wasn't a prophet of the true God. Hadn't God shown this to them by allowing him to rot in Herod's prison?
How about you? Do you stumble over the Lord's messengers? Wouldn't you be more impressed if I dressed in expensive clothes and lived in a gated neighborhood like successful people do? Wouldn't it be easier to believe I am God's messenger if I looked more godly? If the sins I preached against were judged just some of the time, then you would take my words seriously. But people prosper who turn their nose up at my words. No axes fall on the trees I preach against. No fire burns hearts too proud to listen to me. Year after year I preach about a judgement that never comes and call people to repent who never do. This is not impressive, is it?
The fact is God's prophets are marked by unpopularity and suffering. Sunday School kids may be impressed by prophets like Moses and Elijah, but they weren't popular or successful with their contemporaries. People grumbled against Moses. They wanted him dead. He didn't even succeed in leading Israel into the Promised Land. Elijah did powerful things, but he did them in between hiding for his life. To the world he was just another religious nut. But if you can get beyond the offensive impression of the Lord's messengers you will see they go before the Lord as John did. A pastor goes forth baptizing and Christ comes clothing sinners with His righteousness. A pastor goes forth absolving sinners and Christ comes forgiving sinners. A pastor goes forth celebrating Communion and Christ comes in flesh and blood.
Now don't misunderstand. There's nothing about the pastor's person that adds to Baptism, Absolution, or Communion. There's nothing about the pastor that causes Christ to be in these things. No, it's Christ who binds Himself to what the pastor does saying, "I want to give birth, to forgive, and to feed my people through what the pastoral office does by Word and Sacraments." Note, God doesn't say anything about wanting to impress people. In fact, according to Paul, what pastors do is suppose to be weak and unpopular so that your faith will not rest in them but in God.
Expecting to stumble. You can see a pattern here, can't you? We stumble over the weak things of God that we expect to be strong and the foolish things of God that we expect to be wise. And the greatest stumbling block of all is Jesus. Not just His cross, but Jesus Himself. And this is what He warns us of. "Blessed is the man who does not stumble on account of Me." We are expecting to stumble if we expect Jesus to be number 1 in this life.
People do. They expect Jesus to be number 1, the best, the greatest in the world. Jesus is the One who gets credit for just about every touchdown in pro football. Why? Because He is Number 1! He should get credit for great plays. But you don't see them giving Jesus credit for their dropped passes, do you? Of course not, that wouldn't be fitting for the One who is number 1. And Jesus gets credit for health and wealth, too. Jesus wants you to be healthy and wealthy; didn't you know that? Jesus wants you to be happy and feel good about yourselves; hasn't anyone told you that? Jesus came that you might have life abundantly; isn't that what He said? Jesus is Number 1, and when you go with the greatest you should expect great things.
The trouble is Jesus is the "least in the kingdom of heaven." Yes, this is a reference to Jesus and only Jesus. If Jesus is not the One who is least, than John the Baptism is greater than Him because Jesus says only the One who is least in the kingdom is greater than John. Yes, Jesus is the least who is greater than all. Only Jesus can have the title "least in the kingdom of heaven." Others may be first, others may even be last but Jesus and only Jesus can be least. He came to serve not be served, He tells us. He made Himself nothing, St. Paul tells us. And among those born of a woman, He alone was a worm and no man according to Psalm 22.
Jesus is the least, so only those on the bottom will value Him. Paraphrasing the words of a Neil Diamond song, only drowning men can see Him. The great turn away. What do the great need from the Least? The blind, lame, leprous, deaf, dead, and poor, they need the Least. Go home and read Luke 1. See that the Lord lifts up the humble and casts down the proud. He regards those of low, not high estate. He scatters those with high self-esteem, and gathers the lowly. He fills the hungry with good things but sends the full empty away. God claims those at the bottom not at the top.
It's so easy to stumble over wrong expectations of Jesus. But if Jesus was what the world expected, we would have lost. A Jesus who won and was the best would be no Savior for us. On the cross when Jesus was taunted, "He saved others, let Him save Himself," if Jesus had saved Himself He could not have saved us. If Jesus had come down from the hell of the cross, you and I would've had to been nailed on it for our sins. Jesus had to lose if we were to win. But in losing and being the least He really is the Greatest One ever born of a woman.
Who but the Greatest Man could regenerate sinners by Water, forgive sinners by Words, and give His Body for food and His Blood for drink? The Greatest one in heaven could only do this by becoming the Least one on earth. The Greatest One consented to a sinner's baptism, and so cleansed our baptismal waters. The Greatest One breathed out His Spirit on a sinner's cross, so He could breath His Spirit back into sinners for the forgiving of their sins. The Greatest One gave up His body to a sinner's death and shed His blood to cover their sins, so He could give sinners His Body and Blood for the food of salvation.
The world expects a Christmas where Rudolph wins, Frosty doesn't melt, and Scrooge converts. It's no wonder so many stumble into the Christmas blues when they find Rudolph still ridiculed, Frosty in a puddle, and Scrooge as mean as ever. We, however, don't expect a winning Rudolph, unmeltable snowmen, or nice Scrooges in a fallen world even at Christmas. What we do expect at Christmas is our great God and Savior wrapped in the least of things, a virgin's womb, swaddling clothes and a feeding trough even as we find Him wrapped in plain Water, Words, Bread and Wine all during the year. Therefore, we're not expecting to stumble this Christmas. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Advent (12-12-04); Matthew 11:2-11