Sermon for the Third Sunday of Absent
Text: Matthew 11:2–11
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
When I was a child, Christmas Eve was always celebrated the same way. The Sunday School Christmas pageant would take place at Church, and then my family would go across town to my grandparents’ house. Over the next hour, our relatives from further away would join us following services at their congregations. We would feast on tamales and smoked sausage, pinto beans, and chips and queso on folding tables set up on the patio. What can I say, it was South Texas? After the meal, I would play with cousins while the ladies cleaned up in the kitchen. Then we would all be summoned to the dining room where the Christmas tree was, and in later years as the family grew some of us would spill out into the living room. Then we would open gifts. My grandparents in their generosity almost always gave two gifts per child. Perhaps you had a similar experience. One gift was something fun and exciting—a toy car, a model airplane, a nerf gun. Something you had told Grandma you wanted. The other gift was something not fun and exciting—a package of socks or a new shirt with a stiff collar. Something your mother had told Grandma you needed.
As we approach Christmas, it’s hard for me to hear the words of our Gospel lesson this morning and not reflect on this distinction between what we want and what we need. Christ comes into our dark and broken world to bring redemption and salvation. We yearn for Him, and He graciously comes, yet not always how we want or expect.
John was a bold and fiery preacher. He warned even as he stood baptizing in the Jordan that the axe of divine judgment was already laid at the foot of the tree to cut down those who would not bear the fruit of repentance. The winnowing fork was already in the hand of the coming King to separate the unrighteous chaff destined for fire from the precious wheat of the faithful to be gathered into His storehouse.
John recognized Jesus as the coming Messiah when He approached the Jordan to join sinners in a baptism of repentance. John boldly declared that the Holy Spirit revealed to him that Jesus is the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world.
But now John is in prison. He doesn’t seem quite so bold. He hears what Jesus is doing. Whether it is for his own sake or the sake of his disciples, John sends word to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Are you the great gift sent by God that I always thought you were, or is something better yet to come?
Now we might think Jesus’ response is pretty cool. He mentions some pretty amazing things: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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 Good News preached to them.”
All of these things are mentioned by the prophets, especially Isaiah as things that would be accomplished by the Messiah, the promised one.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a dear,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:5, ESV)
John, the son of Zechariah the priest, would surely have been aware of this. But the problem is, for all of these things there is another sign of Messianic age that Jesus does not mention. Isaiah 61 promises:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; (Isaiah 61:1).
John would have known this promise too. And its absence from Jesus’ response would have been noticed. It’s almost as though John was opening his Christmas presents and the box beneath the paper was just the right shape and size to hold a Red Rider BB gun, but he unwrapped it to find it was filled with socks and underwear, plain white socks and underwear, not Scooby Doo or Spider Man.
Blessed is the one who is not offended by Jesus.
Jesus is the Lord of all creation. He is the King of Kings. John desires a pardon, a stay of execution, from the highest authority there is. But Jesus grants no earthly pardon. He does not transfer John out of Herod’s jurisdiction and take over the case Himself. Jesus gives a different gift to the prisoner. While leaving John in prison, He grants to the prophet a title of nobility.
What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.
What John is given is not release from earthly chains or the sorrow that comes with them. But by the Word of Christ, he is exalted over all men. He may be despised by Herod and hated by Herodias, but he is great in the eyes of God.
So also it goes with us. We have no promise that God will end our suffering in this life. We all have times of concern regarding health or finances. We worry about loved ones who have made poor choices. We regret our own poor choices. Jesus does not come and grant us an exemption from suffering as we live in this fallen creation. Anyone who tells you that your trials will end as soon as you have enough faith isn’t preaching the message of Christ. We see in John’s life that the faithful forerunner of the Lord is not spared suffering. Nor should we expect that we who follow the Lord should be spared.
John goes before the Lord. Jesus walks on the road pioneered by John. Jesus also will be put in chains by sinful men with no mind for the Kingdom of God. Jesus also will taste suffering and be executed for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus submits to a death sentence in order to grant you a crown of life and true nobility. This may not be the flashy present that is always at the front of your mind. Salvation may not be the gift on the top of your Amazon wish list you keep checking to see if anyone has purchased it yet. But it is the gift you need.
Would it be nice to have all our troubles taken away? Sure. But Jesus has not come to give you a pardon from your earthly troubles, but a title of nobility. Your earthly troubles do not define you. Your baptism does. You are, from the moment of your Baptism forward, a Child of God and heir of heaven. By the proclamation of Jesus’ own mouth, you have been exalted above everyone on earth: Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.
I hope you get what you want for Christmas. But I assure you with all confidence: Christ has given you what you need. Blessed is the one who is not offended by Him.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria