Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent (Midweek Service), December 19, 2018 – “Christ comes as the Promised One of Israel” (Matthew 11:1-10)

“St. John the Baptist in Prison Receives Christ’s Answer,” Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678)

This sermon is the third part of a sermon series preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia, titled “Advent with Martin Luther,” exploring themes found in Luther’s 1540 Church Postil concerning the readings from the One-Year Historic Lectionary.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The third Sunday in Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday.  We might call it something like “Rejoice” Sunday in English, as “gaudete” is the Latin imperative verb meaning “rejoice!” or “be glad!”  Today is not Sunday, of course, but we nonetheless celebrate Gaudete this week. In our reading from Matthew, we find that Jesus gives us an especially great reason to say “gaudete.”  We can rejoice because Jesus has fulfilled the prophets’ sayings. He is indeed the promised one of Israel, the one for whom John was a forerunner.

At first glance, it seems odd that John the Baptist would send his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is indeed the promised Messiah.  After all, John was there when Jesus was baptized and God spoke aloud that Christ is indeed his Son, with whom he is well-pleased, and he saw the Holy Spirit descend like a dove upon Jesus.  He knew, perhaps from boyhood that Jesus, his cousin, was the promised Lord incarnate— he leaped in the womb when Mary approached his mother while she carried Jesus. So why does he tell his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one?

Surely, some people have understood this to mean that John was having doubts.  It’s possible that in his imprisonment, John had begun to despair. He was only human after all, and so perhaps doubts had begun to enter his mind.  Perhaps he feared that because Jesus’ ministry did not match what he expected it to be, that Jesus was not the promised one. He would not be the first prophet to wonder if he was preaching the right message.

It is also possible that John was entirely secure in his knowledge that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  John had received his mission from God to be the Messiah’s forerunner, and on the day he baptized Jesus in the Jordan, he acknowledged him as the one greater than himself, whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.  But others who had been following John may not have understood this. Rather than seek assurance for himself, John had sent these two disciples to hear Jesus’ words for themselves and to understand the he, Jesus, was Israel’s promised one, and not John himself.  

It’s understandable that John would want his disciples to know who Jesus was.  He wasthe son of a temple priest who, like Jesus, had his birth foretold by the angel Gabriel and was doing great things— preaching even to rulers.  Furthermore, he looked like Elijah, wearing camel’s hair clothes and living off the food of the desert. He looked the part of a prophet and important holy man.  When Jesus was baptized by John, nobody knew who Jesus, this Nazarene carpenter, was, but they knew John’s reputation and so flocked to him. As Jesus’ reputation grew, though, John may have known that it was time to send his disciples to him.  Jesus, not John, was the one would could truly save them. Therefore, John sent his disciples to Jesus to hear and see for themselves the one in whom they should put their trust. John may have realized that his days were numbered, and he wanted his disciples to understand that their trust ought to be placed in Jesus and not in their teacher.  Jesus may have considered John to be the greatest man alive, but next to Jesus, John was really a nobody.

And how does Jesus answer the question John’s disciples put to him?  Luther’s notes on this from the Church Postil are helpful.  Here’s what Luther says:

Christ answered John also for the sake of his disciples.  He answers in a twofold way: first with works; second with words…when He says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.”  With these words He not only confesses that He is the one but also warns against being offended. If He were not the Christ, then he who is not offended by Him would not be saved.  For one can dispense with all the saints, but one cannot dispense with Christ. No saint helps, but only Christ helps.

The answer through works is more certain, first because such works were never before accomplished either by John or by anyone else; and second, because these works were predicted by the prophets.  Therefore, when they saw that it happened just as the prophets had said, they could and should be certain. For Isaiah said of this: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach the Gospel; to the poor He has sent Me, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim redemption to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61[:1-2; Luke 4:18-19]).  When He says, “He has anointed Me,” He understands that He is the Christ and that Christ should do these works, and He who is doing them must be the Christ…Thus He preaches the good news, gives sight to the blind, heals all kinds of sickness, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, the time of grace, etc.

Martin Luther, A Year in the Gospels with Martin Luther: Sermons from Luther’s Church Postil, ed. Benjamin Mayes, trans. James Langebartels, vol. 1 (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 2018): 59-60.

Thus says Luther.

Luke’s account of John’s disciples visiting Jesus notes that Jesus had just raised the son of the widow of Nain from the dead and that John’s disciples had told John about this.  Furthermore, Jesus, says Luke, had at the very hour they visited him healed a large number of people. Matthew doesn’t mention it, but it is important, because when Jesus alludes to Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 61 that he has been sent to give the blind their sight, make the lame to walk, cleanse the lepers, give the deaf their hearing, raise the dead, and preach the good news to the poor, John’s disciples can see evidence of all of this.  They can hear the testimony and see the results for themselves. And maybe in seeing all of this, they might have thought of what Isaiah says in chapter 35:

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.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

(Isaiah 35:4-6a)
Christ cleansing a leper.

Seeing these things, these disciples know that Jesus is doing the work of the Holy One of God.  He is the one sent to do these things; and the fruit of his works is evidence enough of who he is.  The words of the prophet are being fulfilled. Jesus has come to make the blind see and the lame to walk, raise the dead, set the captives free in the Gospel.  He is the healer of Israel, God’s promised one who will make Israel his “Holy People, the Ransomed of the Lord, a People long-sought, a City not forsaken” (Isaiah 62:12, NEB).  His miraculous works testify to his being the Lord who will save his people from their sins.

You and I cannot see the direct evidence of Jesus’ healing work like John’s disciples could.  We cannot look out into the crowd following Jesus and see all those individuals whom he healed of their afflictions.  But we have the knowledge of Jesus’ completed work on the cross, and so we can have faith in the whole of his work. We know with surety that he is “the one who is to come” and not some other because we bear the mark of his grace in baptism and receive him in the Lord’s Supper.  But for our friends who, like John’s disciples (or perhaps even John) are unsure if Christ is the promised one, or for those we know who are offended by the message of Christ and do not yet have faith in him, we can point to his words and work here— he is truly Israel’s promised one and not only has he done what Isaiah prophesied he would do, he has died and risen again to take away the sin of the world and he has fulfilled his work of saving Israel.  He is the world’s Messiah. He is the One who God promised would save us all, and that is good news indeed for us all in this season of Advent, which we can joyfully proclaim to all our neighbors, rejoicing with the whole church and saying, “gaudete!”

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