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.
Even though he was harsh, people flocked to him to hear his preaching and to be baptized by him. Even though he offended and confronted people, there was something about his preaching that lured them out into the wilderness to hear it. Finally they weren’t being told that they could placate God with good behavior. They were being told that they needed a Redeemer, the Messiah. Universally the Jewish people knew that John was preparing the Way of the Lord. The Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. They came to hear the one who was filling in every valley and leveling every mountain. He was encouraging the repentant and condemning the proud. He was preparing everyone for the Lord’s coming by telling them to turn from their sin and believe the Gospel. He showed them that repentance affects more than what you believe, it affects how you act.
Even though they knew who he was and what he was doing, there were people who refused to be a part of it. There were mountains that refused to be leveled. The prideful Pharisees and Sadducees, priests and Levites, and King Herod—none of them delighted in John’s preaching. He called them out for their sin and they didn’t like it. At least Herod didn’t put up the façade like the religious establishment. He didn’t like that he was confronted for his affair with his brother’s wife and he had John thrown into prison and ultimately beheaded for show. It wasn’t very fun, but John probably preferred Herod’s honesty over the false piety of the Pharisees.
Regardless of his preaching location—the banks of the Jordan or the prison cell—John preached the same message: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. He never stopped pointing to the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. So today’s Gospel, John sending two of his disciples to Jesus, is simply John doing what he was sent to do.
But the perpetual question is why he does it. Why does John tell them to ask Jesus “Are You the coming one or do we look for another?” We’ll never know if John was wavering in his faith or if he was simply being the perpetual prophet, sending his disciples to a new teacher, decreasing as Jesus continued to increase. Both are possible, and the answer could even be a combination of the two, because John was human like us. He was susceptible to the devil’s lies. He had the possibility to waver and doubt. Yes, he was a prophet and even more than a prophet, but he was still human. And in that humanity we can find an example for our dark times.
When you are surrounded by your fears and uncertainties and times of sorrow, you can look to your brother, John, for guidance. You can do what he did. You can reach out to Jesus and question Him. “Are You the one for me?” “Are You capable of helping me?” “Are You there for me in my darkest hours?” And what you hear this morning is that your Lord is approachable. He takes time to answer questions. You can approach him where He is to be found, in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, and even in your sinful fellow Christians, who suffer with you.
And when you approach your Lord from the position of humility and repentance, from brokenness and knowing you don’t have the strength to put on a happy face or act like nothing is wrong, when you ask of Him as dear children ask their dear father, He responds to you in the same gentle way that He responded to John. He doesn’t point you back to what’s inside of you; He doesn’t point you to your feelings or emotions because they change all the time and cannot be trusted. Instead Jesus points you to something outside of yourself. Jesus tells the disciples “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Go tell John what is happening right now. Go tell John the objective, undeniable truth that I am the Messiah, I’m the one Isaiah foretold. I open the eyes of the blind, cause the lame to walk, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and I preach the Gospel to the poor.
Listen to the ones whom God sends to you in your darkest days. Do not despair. Don’t give up hope. The Lord knows your suffering. He is with you. He may allow you to suffer for a time, but we have been promised that it is for our good. Jesus didn’t rescue John from prison or from the ax. But He did not leave John without comfort. He gave John His Word, that sustained him even as his life ended. And that Word is as real today as it was to John. The Scriptures are at your fingertips. In the Bible, you can ask questions of Jesus and hear His answers any moment of the day or night. His Sacraments are external and real. They actually bestow His love and forgiveness every time they are administered. Every time His body and blood touch your tongue, you taste and see that your Lord is good. The Sacraments are objectively true and don’t rely upon what you think or feel about them. His Word makes them powerful and causes them to give forgiveness of sins exactly as He says they will.
In these Means of Grace you get to see what John promised but wasn’t permitted to see in his life. You have seen God’s salvation. You have beheld in Word, preaching, and sacrament Christ crucified for you. You have beheld the Lamb of God, whom John pointed out. You have been washed and marked with His blood. And because you have been covered, the prisons of sin and despair that you know so well in this life will not hold you forever. Your Messiah has overcome this world. Your pain will be removed. The hope you have of eternal life will not be disappointed. That is what this Sunday, Gaudete, is about. It’s about rejoicing even in the midst of trials, recognizing that all sorrows on earth are temporary. The joy of Gaudete is anticipatory, celebrated in the midst of sadness and watchfulness. Advent gives way to Christmas; night to day; Winter to Spring; labor to birth; pain to healing; death to resurrection.
John’s unwavering message is for your good. The Lamb of God has come to mark you as one redeemed. Christ’s comfort to John in prison is also on your behalf. Don’t waver. Your faith is built upon God’s Word and Sacraments. Come find comfort here for every trial.
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.