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.
As John languishes in prison, he sends his disciples to Jesus with a very important question: “Are You the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” What lies beneath this question? What is John’s motivation for this? This is the perennial question every year on the Third Sunday of Advent. Does John doubt? As he sits in prison with only his thoughts to keep him company, does his faith waver? Or, is John simply being a prophet, pointing his own disciples away from him and to Jesus? After all, John told his disciples about Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). Is John simply decreasing, giving his disciples their last classroom lecture before they are sent out into the world?
There is no right answer. Perhaps we can ask him in heaven, but either way I don’t think it matters much. If John is steadfast, then he is doing what all good prophets, all good Pastors, all good teachers do—pointing people to Jesus, in whom there is healing, forgiveness, and joy. If John is wavering, then he is an example for us all, to go to Jesus in our darkest hours. Either way, John is true to his message that he has preached since his first sermon in the pulpit of Elizabeth’s womb. He looks to and takes comfort in Christ alone. Yes, he preached repentance. Yes, he spoke of God’s wrath over sin. But as we know from Scripture and as the Catechism teaches us: “Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness from the Pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.” We confess our sins and God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Regardless of the motivation, those disciples of John come to Jesus and ask him the question their teacher gave them. Jesus does for them what He does for every other person who comes to Him looking for a miracle. He loves them and has compassion on them. He pities them because He knows their fear and uncertainty. Their teacher is in prison for being faithful. Are they next? Is Jesus the real deal? He knows that soon they will see John, not through the walls of a cell, but as a headless corpse. They need the comfort only the Gospel can give.
And what about you? What has you weighed down? Christmas is just a few days away, but that doesn’t mean all is merry and bright. Each of us know what is swirling in our minds that is keeping us from rejoicing in the Lord. We feel right at home with John and his disciples. We know what it’s like to have crippling anxiety, anger, sadness, fear, and everything else. What message does Jesus preach to John and his disciples? What message does He preach to you?
Jesus sends those disciples back to John to report what they have seen and heard: “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” That may sound like a list of physical miracles that leaves us wondering “where’s mine?” But think back to the fall when we heard healing miracles in our Gospel Readings for the whole month of September. Remember what we learned there: the miracles are never about the miracle. They are always about the spiritual gift given by Jesus. Just as Jesus raised up the lame, so now He puts our feet upon the way of peace (Lk. 1:79). Just as Jesus cleansed the lepers, so now He cleanses us from the leprosy of sin so that we are washed as white as snow through His Blood. Just as He loosed dumb tongues and opened deaf ears so does He open our lips to sing praise to God. Just as He awakened the dead, so also are we dead in sin, but awakened to new life by His Word. He did not come primarily and solely to take care of the body’s wellbeing. He came to help the soul from the misery of sin.
When you are in the prison of your fears, uncertainties, or sinful choices, you can look to John for guidance. You can do what he did. Reach out to Jesus and ask 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 the time to answer your questions. You can always approach Him where He is found—in prayer, in Scripture, in the Sacraments.
And when you approach your Lord from humility and repentance, from brokenness and despair, from the position of asking 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 to yourself. He doesn’t point to your feelings that are nothing more than a reed shaken by the wind. Jesus tells John and his disciples to focus on what Christ is doing now. Then it was physical miracles to point to the greater spiritual miracle. Now it is Christ present to feed you, to forgive you, to love you with a love that endures all things.
Do not despair. Do not give up hope. The Lord knows your suffering. He doesn’t leave you in pain. He is with you and He points you to His living voice in His Word. He points you to the Sacraments which actually bestow His love and forgiveness each time. Every time His Body and Blood cross your lips, you taste and see that the Lord is good. That’s what these seven young people are about to receive for the first time with the rest of us. They are about to receive Jesus speaking to them in sadness and despair, in temptation and darkness. They will see what we all see—that Jesus comes to give forgiveness of sins and a comfort for a broken conscience.
You can rejoice in the Lord always, even when life feels like hell. Even when you feel unloveable or lost or unsure of what tomorrow might hold. Take comfort in Jesus and His promise. Cling to Him because He is clinging to you. That is what the soon to come Feast of Christmas is all about, why we wear rose today—to remind ourselves that the bright gold of Christmas is coming and is about to break into the darkness of sin and despair. Your God is with you in the flesh. He knows every pain you’re enduring because He has endured it Himself. “What harm can sin and death then do, the true God now abides with you. Let hell and Satan rage and chafe; Christ is your Brother, you are safe.” Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!
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.