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.
How was it supposed to be? Look at John’s preaching and you get a feel for what he expected. He called people a brood of vipers. He condemned the sins of everyone of every social class and order. He said the Messiah was coming with His winnowing fork in hand to throw the chaff, the unrepentant, into unquenchable fire. You get the feeling that John expected himself and the Messiah to be an unstoppable duo, defeating evil, ending the oppression of God’s people, and ushering in the fiery purification of God Almighty.
But how was it really? John was in prison. He cried repent one too many times and it delivered him a death sentence because people don’t want to be told that following their lusts is sinful. And Jesus, what’s He doing?! He’s not walking around with a pitchfork. His disciples aren’t carrying torches set ablaze by the fire of God’s wrath. He’s preaching and teaching. He’s healing the sick. He’s raising the dead. He’s comforting terrified consciences. This Jesus is pretty soft compared to what John expected.
So John sends his disciples to Jesus with a very important question: Who are You? Are you the guy? When does the show start? Or is there someone else, someone different, someone better we should be waiting for? It’s understandable that John doubts, that he needs reassurance. He’s a saint, which means he was a sinner, too. So, sitting in prison knowing what was coming next, knowing that this is not at all what he expected, it’s only natural that he needs reassurance, that his faith wavers and needs strengthening. Just because John is a Prophet doesn’t mean he doesn’t need help. Moses tried to get God to change His mind. Jonah ran away. Elijah called down fire upon the prophets of Baal and then runs away from the wicked queen Jezebel and asks God to end his life because he was afraid. Prophets are no different from you and me—they need preachers, too. And what does Jesus tell John’s disciples to tell him? “Go tell John what you see and hear: Isaiah is fulfilled.” Your brother Prophet is having his words fulfilled here and now! The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the Gospel is preached. So it may not be what you expect or want, but it’s the fulfillment of what God said! You prepared the way for the right person. You are imprisoned for the sake of the right person.
And what for us? On this day that the Church bids us rejoice because the coming of the Lord is at hand, what if you don’t feel like you can rejoice? What if you feel like John, expecting something far different from what life currently holds? What if you’re looking for relief from pain, physical or emotional; looking for relief from anger; looking for relief from feeling like no matter what you do you can’t keep your head above water? Are You it, Jesus, or should I be looking for help in some other place? There are a lot of tempting messages over there, things that will certainly alleviate some of these things I’m feeling. There’s alcohol to numb the pain. There’s adultery to mask the loneliness. There’s gossip to make me feel like I have friends.
But it’s all fleeting. Alcohol brings the hangover. Affairs bring guilt and shattered relationships. Gossip ends friendships and drives people away. What we think will help so often only makes things worse. That is to say, if it was possible for John, the greatest of the Prophets, to be off a little bit in what he expected out of life, it’s certainly possible for us.
So, in his despair, in his anger, in his doubt, where does Jesus direct John? He sends him to the Word. He doesn’t answer the question with a simple “Yes, I’m the one.” Jesus fights the devil’s attacks on John the same way He fights the devil’s attacks in the wilderness—by the power of the Word of God.
Jesus quotes Isaiah chapters 35 and 61 to John. Just before the line about healing the blind, deaf, and lame, Isaiah writes: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’” There is power in the Word of God. There is promise in the Word of God!
And what did we hear from Isaiah this morning? “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.” In other words, in a truth you learned in childhood: “Jesus loves me, this I know…I am weak, but He is strong.” We wither and fade. Our faith is feeble and weak. But the Word of our God stands forever. It is strong when we are weak. It is spoken into our ears and into our hearts to strengthen us, to give us a place to put our anxiety and fear and sadness and everything else. In the Word we are told that we do not have to be strong. We do not need to hold it all together. We need to quit relying on ourselves, our wisdom, our strength, our sinfulness and stubbornness. We need to repent of the self-reliance and everything else that defines our response to those less than ideal situations in life. We need to repent of our violations of the First Commandment, of fearing, loving, and trusting in everything other than God.
God knows what we need, so in His Son He broke into time and space to change our path, to end our misery, to strengthen our weak hands. Jesus is the herald of good news. In Him is Isaiah fulfilled: “Behold your God! Behold, the Lord God comes with might and His arm rules for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. He will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
He has given you the reward of sins forgiven by His death and resurrection. He has given you the reward of faith that receives His gifts of life and salvation. He has given you the reward of making His home in you by Word and Sacrament. He tends you like a shepherd, gathering you to Himself, carrying you in His nail-pierced hands. That is His answer to your sin, your doubt, your anxiety, your confusion, and everything else. He lightens the darkness of your heart by His gracious visitation.
Even though John ultimately left this world with his head severed from his body, he left it in confidence that Jesus would receive Him into heaven. And so it is for you. Regardless of what this life will bring, you can rejoice in the salvation that God will bring you on the Last Day. You can rejoice in what He gives you here and now—Himself, present here, hearing your prayer, lifting up your head and your heart to the strength and peace He is for you.
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.