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Gaudete, the Third Sunday of Advent
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
About 25 years ago the big Christian fad was the “WWJD bracelet,” a reminder to ask yourself in various situations, especially ones that could lead to sin, “What would Jesus do.” Though the intended change of action is not bad, the question is. It was a bad question because it has no answer we can know. The mind of Jesus is the mind of God. So, you can’t possibly know what Jesus would do or say in any given situation because your mind is fallen, it is not the mind of God. Thankfully, that fad died. Today gives us a chance to revise WWJD to ask “What would John do? In this season of preparation for Christ’s appearance, John is presented to us as the one to mimic because he is the picture of what the Christian life should be as one waits for the Son of God to set things right.
The Gospel today opened with John in prison. Why is he in prison? Because he stood firm in the faith against both church and state. He did not back down when the Pharisees tried to silence him when he was baptizing in the Jordan River, which was one very large strike against him. But the greatest thing he did was call a sin a sin, even when it meant risking his life. Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, was having an affair with his brother’s wife. John had the conviction to condemn this and paid the price. He was beheaded at the order of Herod’s mistress, angry that she was publicly shamed for being an adulteress. John’s imprisonment and eventual martyrdom are an example to us. He was willing to risk everything, even his life, to speak the truth. How many of us have kept our confession silent or said something like “I’m a Christian, but not one of those Christians who are militant about that” to keep from being harassed, or claimed to accept something contrary to the Word of God and our conscience to keep a job? John is an example to us of what we as Christians need to do, being willing to endure all, even death, rather than keep our confession silent.
Another example John gives us is the importance of seeking reassurance from Jesus, to cry out to Him in faith. John sends those two disciples with the question, “Are You the Coming One or are we to look for another?” Jesus’ response is almost sarcastic: “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” In other words:” You know the answer.” John knew that Jesus was the Coming One, but it didn’t feel like it. John was in prison. Jesus was supposed to be his partner in kicking Rome’s behind and He didn’t appear to be. Instead, He was out befriending tax collectors and sinners and getting invitations to Pharisees’ dinner parties. John felt betrayed and abandoned. So he asks “Are You the one” like the wife asks her husband, “Do you love me?” John and the wife both know the answer, but they need to hear it.
How often do you feel betrayed or abandoned in this life? How often do you think “Maybe God wasn’t quite telling the truth when He said that all things work together for the good of those who love Him?” We have all been tempted to think that, especially when the diagnosis is bad, the friends seem to have ditched you, or the blood of family didn’t end up being thicker than water? “You call this working out for good?!” “Is this promise true or do I look for another?” You know it’s true, but you need to hear it. Doubt always accompanies faith because our faith is housed in a mortal body. Until these corruptible puts on the incorruptible at death, doubt will always plague us. The good of complete trust that we want to do we do not do and the untrust we do not want to have we have. Who will rescue you from this body of death? Thanks be to God: Jesus Christ Our Lord!
Do what John did! When his flesh questioned, when he wanted to call the shots on what made for happiness, he went to Jesus, he went to the one who has the Word of eternal life. Jesus gently corrected John, but He did not abandon him. Jesus directed John back to His own works, to the miracles, the power over sin’s effects, and to the Gospel. You must do the same. When unbelief threatens to gain the upper hand, flee to Jesus, ask Him for your gaze to be redirected to His works, to His forgiveness of sins, for your body and soul to find sustenance and strength in the delivery of His death and resurrection here in the Means of Grace.
What this did for John is it gave him an eternal—not an earthly—perspective. Here there are imprisoned saints, there are martyrs, there are blind and lame saints. But Jesus spoke of an eternal reality. In heaven there are no prisons, no oppressive regimes, no blind or lame saints, only whole saints whose lives are freed of sin’s consequences. That eternal perspective gave John the courage to face the axe of the soldier and his disciples to find consolation in Jesus. An eternal perspective gives you the courage to make a bold confession and to endure the cross and trials of this evil day. According to the flesh it may not seem like there is much to rejoice over, but there is. Your warfare is ended. Your sin is forgiven. Heaven is yours. Now, but not yet. Until that future reality becomes your present and eternal reality, until your eyes behold it, rejoice that it id yours. The Gospel is preached to you, Jesus comes to you, and He gives you wat you need for body and soul to sustain you to live everlasting.
Put yourself in the shoes of John the Baptist. He is in prison, and not because he stole or had too many unpaid parking tickets. He is in prison at the order of the king, whose adultery John had the guts to call out. Now an enemy of the royal family, John waits. He knew that what was coming next was his head on a silver platter, presented to the king, his new wife, and her wicked mother. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
John the Baptizer sticks out, both in his generation and ours. He looked strange, ate odd foods, and did unusual things. He preached and baptized by the polluted river, and called people to repentance. He didn’t filter things and speak in nice ways. No one was off limits. He condemned all sinners equally. Most famously, St. Luke records that in one sermon he calls everyone a brood of vipers. We may say pious things to the contrary, but if John was the Pastor of any congregation today, he’d be run out of the church before he could unpack a single box. He would be sat down by boards or district leaders and told that this isn’t how you run a successful ministry. Preaching sermons like that isn’t how you win people for the Gospel. But John wasn’t sent to be successful in worldly standards. He wasn’t sent to be charming and soft. He was sent to be faithful, to preach the message that was necessary, not the one that people wanted to hear.
We talk a lot about John the Baptizer being the Advent preacher par excellence because he unwaveringly preaches the message of Advent: repent. John is the last and greatest of the Prophets, the one who gets to truly prepare the way for the Messiah, because he is the Messiah’s contemporary. He was no longer prophesying a far-off person, someone yet to come. As we will hear next week, John is the most blessed of the Prophets because he gets to see, hear, and touch the one of whom his brothers could only dream. He gets to point with dripping finger to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But interestingly enough, the first time the Lectionary introduces us to John the Baptizer he is in prison, near the end of his earthly life. Even in prison John does his prophetic work. Like a light hidden will find any crack it can through which is can shine, prison cannot silence John, nor can the sword of his murderers or the platter on which his head will be delivered to Herod. John the Baptizer is proof to all of us that we can rejoice in the Lord always, even when “always” means oppression and death and everything else that threatens to undo us.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.