Filed under: Sermons | Tags: jail, John the baptist, marriage, marriage prep, Messiah
Sermon Dec 16th
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matt 11: 2-11
Grace and peace to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ. We meet John the Baptist again this week. But here, near the middle of Matthew, we meet a different John than we met at the beginning. Last week we saw the crowds coming out into the wilderness, to John, to be baptized. We heard a powerful, prophetic voice declaring: “Prepare the way of the Lord! …One who is more powerful than I is coming after me, I am not worthy to carry his sandals!… His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire!”. This was a John sure of himself, sure of his message, sure that the promised messiah would be coming. Now we meet a John imprisoned. He’s been cast into jail because he’s irked the political powers. The voice that once proclaimed prophecy is now locked away from the public crowd. Yet his followers remain faithful, coming to him to comfort, to learn, to bring him news and food. I sense that John knows he is nearing the end of his life. At any rate, he’s locked in prison and his characteristic ministry in the wilderness is over. Nearing the end, I wonder if he wants to be assured that his life had a purpose, and that he will leave his own legacy in the world. He had spent his life working to prepare the people for a messiah, someone sent from God to save them. Now he wonders, was all his work worth it? Did he point to the right man? Will this man fulfill the hopes of the people? Did his life produce something that will leave a legacy that will live beyond him? His disciples have brought him news of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was the one he thought would fulfill his prophecies. John doesn’t have much time. He needs to know- is this Jesus the One? Or is there going to be another? Do John’s followers need to keep up his ministry of preparing a way for the coming messiah? Or can John rejoice that his mission has been accomplished and rest in the joy that God has sent a savior. As I’ve read our passage from Matthew, I’ve especially been struck by one verse, “2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” I wondered, why would John hear what the Messiah was doing, and then send to Jesus to ask Jesus to confirm that he really was the Messiah? John’s only answer is Jesus declaring what he has done. No more proof that Jesus is the messiah than what John already had. I started getting pretty disappointed in John. Come on John, you’re hearing all the amazing things Jesus is doing, how could you doubt that he is the Messiah? You have all the proof you need. Why not just trust what’s before your eyes? But then I remembered how difficult it can be for me to trust that what I have prepared for has come into existence. Let’s look back to me, two years and one month ago. It was a Wednesday evening. I had just finished sweeping and washing all the stairs in the main building on Wartburg Seminary’s campus. Earlier that afternoon Jeff and I had been at St. John’s Lutheran Church, meeting with Pastor Steve for our final marriage (or in our case, engagement) preparation class. On our way home, I had been whining about how I didn’t want to talk about what it’ll be like when we’re married if we weren’t ever going to get engaged. So that night, after Jeff and I ate dinner in his room, when Jeff brought out a book full of letters I had sent him through summers at camp, a semester abroad, and two years while he was at school at that other Lutheran college, I didn’t see that the fulfillment of our preparation was taking place. So I found myself, dustbunnies clinging to my face and around the cuffs of my pants, opening up a letter with an engagement ring taped inside. And I screamed and we cried and I said yes. So here I am today, married, living out the fulfillment of that first preparation, that initial hope.
Maybe John just needed some proof tangible enough that he could hold it in his hands, cling to it and be sure. Like the proof I was convinced a ring would provide. But we both had all the proof we needed. I knew Jeff loved me because of the way he treated me. John knew Jesus was the Messiah because he was doing the work that the Messiah would do. John the Baptist looks to Jesus as the fulfillment of his work and his hope. Jesus offers the proof his life’s work: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them”. Jesus is the savior John was waiting for. Jesus is the savior we are all preparing for. We are in the midst of a preparation season. We’re preparing for a great festival. Stores are open extra hours so that we have plenty of opportunity to go and buy something for everyone on our list, and a little something for ourselves, too. Jeff and I wrote our lists of gifts to buy, and people to send Christmas cards to, and its making me a little nervous to know that most of those gifts aren’t ready, and although I’ve now picked up our 35 cards, I’ve only written two, and only given out one of those because the addressees- my parents – conveniently came to me. As a psychology student, I remember seeing a stress inventory. Experiencing the holiday season was automatically around 30 points on a year-long countdown to a 100 point stressed out rating. Why does preparation equal stress? I think it’s because we’re working hard at preparing for something, but our vision of what we will accomplish with our preparation isn’t quite the reality we will create.
I wonder if our preparation could equal hope? Could our vision of family gatherings have at its center just humbly being with each other, being thankful for the love of family, and being thankful God is so capable of loving that God actually loves that one gossipy aunt or the cousin who just can’t get his life together?! John the Baptist has worked hard at leading a whole people into preparation. Now removed from his place of preparation, he’s left to wonder at the product of his preparation. He hears that Jesus is healing those who are ill, restoring senses and abilities, and giving words of hope to the hopeless. But was this John’s vision of what would come out of his preparation? Last week we heard John conjuring visions of a powerful redeemer, who would come with fire, an anointed king who would restore the sovereignty of Israel. Perhaps some of us have been working to prepare ourselves this Advent in holier ways. In my December newsletter, I spoke of beginning Advent and Christmas rituals and disciplines. Jeff and I have been enjoying our family devotions around the Advent wreath. We at Zion have been preparing as a community by following Jesus’ example of caring for the sick, lonely, and poor. Tomorrow the Fellowship Hall and Marander room will be transformed into Santa’ workshop as volunteers wrap hundreds of presents for the children in our WOW program. Later this week, boxes containing a Christmas feast will be sorted and delivered to those in need in our neighborhood. These are good practices, preparing our hearts, hands, and minds for the coming of the kingdom of God in which there is justice, mercy, and compassion. The thing is, Christ’s coming isn’t dependent on our preparation. The farmer in the epistle of James might till, fertilize, and water so that the seed grows into a healthy plant with a good harvest. But the farmer can’t make it grow if it won’t. Jesus wasn’t born in that humble stable in Bethlehem because enough people did good things or prayed the right prayers. Jesus Christ is preparing a place for himself in you. Jesus comes to us in the hug from a friend, in the shared prayer, and in our sense of the beauty of creation adorned with fresh snow. Jesus comes to us today in the Word, read and proclaimed, and in the Meal, simple elements of Christ’s self-sacrifice. You’ll go home this morning, and continue to prepare. It is the season of preparation. But I hope you also find that your preparation is patient hope. Sure and patient hope that God has come, is come, and will come to you, and to all the world.
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