Joy in John
After hearing this text, you're thinking in view of last Sunday's sermon, "See what happens to fanatics? They burn so intensely only to burn out." Where is all of John's vim and vigor now? Isn't he a tragic if not pathetic figure? Well, on this 3rd Sunday in Advent, known as John the Baptist Sunday and Joy Sunday, we won't find despair but joy in John.
To begin with, we will find joy in his doubts. This indicates we're not in the Christmas spirit of the world. Doubts are Christmas killers in the world. Doubt is the tragedy in Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, and Frosty the Snowman Will it be too foggy for Santa to fly? Is Santa real? George doubts there is any meaning to his ordinary life. Bob Cratchit doubts Tiny Tim will live to another Christmas, and it's doubtful Frosty will survive. There is no joy in these doubts. There is joy in John's.
I admit at first blush John's situation is tragic. Last week we heard him faithfully heralding the way of the Messiah. He called the Old Testament Church to repent and pronounced judgment on those who would not. He said the Messiah was on hand to gather the grain and burn up the chaff. He said the long promised Messiah had come and was here to save by pouring out His Spirit and to judge by fire.
But what did Jesus do? Lots of saving and no judging. John heard of Jesus preaching as He does in John 12, "I did not come to judge the world but to save the world." Contrast this to John who is imprisoned because he judged King Herod for marrying his brother's wife. Jesus calls for sinners to come to Him for rest. John warns them of fleeing from the wrath to come. Jesus is eating and drinking while John has even lost his locusts and wild honey. Is it any wonder that John doubts?
No, and I find joy in the fact the Holy Spirit is not afraid to record this because in the face of better circumstances I find worse doubts welling up in my heart. You don't need to throw me into prison to get me doubting. Throwing me into a traffic jam will do it. Unfaithful church leaders and corrupt politicians don't make me have doubts they make me utterly despair. There is joy in John's doubts because when the Holy Spirit shows me a saint who is a sinner I know this sinner can still be a saint.
In this season of repentance, I find a note of joy on this John the Baptist Sunday because John sends his doubts to Jesus. Since Doubting is the cardinal sin of the world's Christmas, it's always hidden. Santa hides his concern about the foggy night; the mother hides her doubts about Santa; George hides his doubts from his kids; Frosty hides his doubts from Karen, and Bob Cratchit hides his from his family. John doesn't hide his doubts but sends them to Jesus.
I find joy in John sending his doubts to Jesus because that means I can send mine too. Jesus can deal with our doubts. You don't deal with doubts by suppressing them. You don't deal with them by doing what The Little Engine that Could did by starting out saying to yourself, "I think I can; I think I can" eventually working yourself up to "I know I can; I know I can." No, that sort of positive thinking evaporates in the face of real trouble be it prison or pain, dungeon or disease. Nor does it work to ignore your doubts. In the light and busyness of day ignored doubts do go away, but they return to roost in the quiet of the night.
Send your doubts to Jesus. Your doubts aren't a crisis to Jesus. He isn't surprised by them anymore than He is surprised to find sins in sinners. Matthew's Gospel ends with the disciples meeting Jesus in Galilee and says, "They worshipped Him but some doubted." Doubts about Jesus in sinners is not a crisis. The real crisis would be if Jesus ever doubted you, but that can never happen because 2 Timothy says, "If we are faithless, He remains faithful for He cannot deny Himself."
Though John doubts Jesus is the Coming One, an Old Testament title for the Messiah, Jesus doesn't doubt He is nor do John's doubt prevent Jesus from coming. Likewise, though we at times are plagued with doubts about Jesus carrying away all our sins, our doubts don't mean He didn't. Though we see this one particular sin poking its ugly head out of the rich, thick blood of Christ streaming from the cross that doubt isn't reality. Nor is it reality when we doubt Baptism saves us, or that Bread is Body and Wine, Blood.
Our Lord doesn't look into our hearts to find out what is real and what is not. All of the Lord's works like redeeming sinners on the cross, giving Water to rebirth them, Words to forgive them, and His Body and Blood to feed them, aren't only as strong as our faith. They are as strong, as certain, as real as the Almighty God. It's like when you pick up a toddler, and he doubts whether you can hold him. It's true; his doubting will make him feel miserable and frightened, but his doubts don't make your arms weaker. His doubts don't make you drop him, and if he focused on your rock-steady arms rather than his doubts he would be much happier.
There is joy in John doubting, in his sending his doubts to Jesus, and in Jesus' answer. Jesus' response to John will hit home if you remember when your child doubted you. I don't mean a toddler but a teen. You probably didn't respond kindly to his or her doubts. You might have said in a raised voice, "You doubt me?" Jesus doesn't respond to John that way. He doesn't reject him, condemn him, or even criticize him. He refocuses him. He refocuses John from his expectations to what Jesus says and does. If you'll peel the layers off your doubts, you'll find they aren't centered in what Jesus did or didn't do, does or doesn't do, will or won't do. Your doubts are in what you think, feel, expect. Your doubts are subjective not objective. They can be treated by turning your thoughts away from you to outside you, from your attitude toward Jesus to His toward you.
Jesus points John to the incredible things He is doing: healing the blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf, and raising the dead. And Jesus points John to what He is preaching: the Gospel. These are what Isaiah had prophesied 800 years before that the Messiah would do, but Isaiah also said the Messiah would bring judgment. Because John didn't hear or see Jesus doing any judging, John doubted. Like the prophet before him, John saw both the saving and the judging the Messiah would do, but what he couldn't see was that there was a space between them. Because the OT speaks of the Messiah coming to save and to judge in one verse, John thought of them together.
But Isaiah didn't say the Messiah's judging would closely follow His redeeming.
Therefore, even though John is in prison and the one who put him there is not judged that doesn't mean Jesus is not the Messiah. What it means is that the Messiah is not doing things the way John thinks they should be done. Right here is where I'm in the greatest danger of falling away. The Lord seldom does things the way I think they should be done, but blessedness is not found in my thoughts but His. There is blessedness in receiving from the Lord's hands such things as He gives. Not only the Water, Words, Bread and Wine He gives to forgive me, but the pain, sorrow, and trouble He gives to grow me.
I find joy in how Jesus answers John because He doesn't attack him, and He doesn't resolve the doubts the way the world's Christmas story does. Notice that Jesus waits till John's disciples have gone before He begins praising John. John is more than a prophet. He is the messenger, literally it's angel, who goes before the Messiah. Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John. Didn't John need to hear this? Wouldn't that have bolstered his confidence and mitigated if not relieved his doubts? In a worldly way, yes. Santa builds up Rudolph by telling him how capable he is. Cratchit does the same to Tim. George's doubts are all resolved when he sees how wonderful his life really has been.
This is not how things work out in my life. Like John I have the comfort of the Gospel that my sins aren't the last word God's grace in Christ is. Like John I'm told there is blessings for me in clinging to Christ. But I'm not told how wonderful, powerful, or capable I am. I am told of the mighty works of God in Christ. I am invited to forget about me, myself, and I and to do this: eat, drink, and live in remembrance of Him.
Jesus doesn't build John up to relieve his doubts and I rejoice in that. I also find joy in the fact that Jesus doesn't rescue him from prison. John will die there. His head will be chopped off. This is the equivalent of Rudolph crashing; Santa being a fake; George's friends hanging him out to dry; Tiny Tim dying; and Frosty melting. I find joy in it because this is true to my life. My life is not like the world's Christmas specials. Things don't always work nice or neatly. Like John in prison, the only things I am certainly delivered of are sin, death and the devil. This is true of you too. The only things I can promise that you have overcome over this Christmas are sin, death and the devil. Your sicknesses, your pains, your troubles might remain but not one of these do.
This is the nature of Christian joy at Christmas. You'll notice the candle for today is not purple pointing to repentance, but neither is it totally white like the Christ candle. It's pink. The white of Christ bleeds into the purple of repentance and lightens it, but this world remains fallen, a valley of tears, an age of evil; it's purple sorrow lightened to pink not yet totally perfect white. So Christian joy in this world is joy in a John the Baptist who will die in prison but lives forever in Christ despite his doubts. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Advent (20071216); Matthew 11:2-11