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For this Sunday’s bulletin, click here: Third Sunday in Advent 2011

Like all Gospels, this one has a lot in it. The Baptist’s question reminds us of the need for watchfulness and repentence — an Advent theme. We need to be vigilant to hold on to what we have, and to hold off doubt and fear. We need to protect ourselves against the possibility of stumbling over Christ and not seeing the power inherent in His death on the cross, which looks so weak and pitiful. We do this by paying attention to John the Baptist’s message. It’s a hard message for us to hear, and it’s not always welcome, but it is always necessary.

We don’t always feel comfortable relying on Jesus for all these things. Our flesh kicks at waiting on the Lord. We might feel doubtful that He’s really going to help. We might even feel panicky that He won’t help us in time, our problems will grow bigger and bigger, and eventually come crashing down around us like a huge tidal wave we can’t cope with. So Jesus tells us, “Blessed, fortunate, happy is the one who does not stumble, who isn’t tripped up, in believing in Me.” Even though His path ended in a weak and shameful death on the cross, even though He looks like He lacks the power to help, hear the quiet confidence in Jesus’ statement: “Believe in Me and you will see – I’ll do all these things I’ve promised for you. Trust in Me and you’ll have everything. Just wait; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord, and you will see.”

There’s so much to preach from each text, and so many texts that need to be preached! This Advent I’m really conscious of how many different things we should be hearing in church — the Annunciation, Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, Simeon & Jesus in the temple, the flight into Egypt…those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. And Epiphany. Epiphany often gets forgotten, unless it falls on a Sunday (and how often does that happen?) Oh well, it’s not my Word, it’s His…and He will do His good and gracious will with even (what feels like) the little bit I’m able to put out there.

May Jesus, the Coming One, bless your heart with faith, and may He grant you a blessed Adventide. Amen.

How can I know for sure? How can I be absolutely certain that what I believe is the truth? How can I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I possess the truth and the other guy doesn’t? Every Christian, if they think about their faith at all, has to confront questions like those at one time or another. Those kinds of questions can be disquieting for people. They’re hard to answer. Some people never do answer them and they end up losing their faith. They conclude that their faith never really had the answers in the first place, and so they leave it behind.

At first glance John the Baptist might look like someone asking those sorts of questions in our gospel for today. He’s in prison for his faithfulness to the Word of God, and from what he says it sounds like he’s doubting. He sends his disciples to Jesus to ask Him: “Are You the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” When we first consider these words of the Baptist, it might look like he’s struggling. Maybe John is tired and discouraged sitting in prison all by himself, we think. Maybe he’s tired of being so dedicated to the cause of Christ and he’s having second thoughts about the whole thing, so he asks Jesus this question.

But this view of John’s words doesn’t really fit with what Jesus says about him. Jesus says that John was not a reed swayed by the wind. John had convictions that gave him backbone in the face of opposition. He wasn’t going to get pushed around or blown around here and there. So if John isn’t doubting here, why does he ask this question? It’s possible that John asked this question for his disciples’ sake, not for his own. John’s disciples were very devoted to him, and as Jesus became more popular, they made jealous comments about Him. John didn’t want his disciples to be so attached to him that they missed following Jesus, so in order for them to find out for themselves that Jesus was the Savior, John sent them to ask Jesus this question.

For us, the answer is “of course Jesus is the Savior,” and immediately we think of Good Friday. That’s not wrong, because Good Friday is how Jesus saved us – but at the same time, we do Jesus a disservice if all we focus on is those three hours. It’s not just Jesus’ death on the cross that’s important. Everything else He did, all those other people He helped, all the sicknesses He took away, all the limbs He restored to full use and flexibility and strength, the ears that heard again and the eyes that saw again, the tongues that shouted God’s praise where before they had been sadly silent – those things matter, too. Those who were destitute, who had nothing – not only those without any money in the bank, but the spiritually destitute, beggars before God, utterly aware of their total bankruptcy in the face of a holy God – they got to hear that God loved them, that He forgave them, that they were called to be part of His kingdom and to inherit His glory and peace. That counts for something, too.

All these things are evidence of God’s grace. They show God’s mercy on sinners in action. In Jesus’ words to John the Baptist’s disciples we see Jesus beginning to overturn the works of the devil and turn back the tide of darkness in this world – one healing at a time, one sinner brought into the kingdom of God at a time. This is what He came to do: to overthrow the devil and unseat him as prince of this world, to drive away the darkness and bring us light and life.

Jesus was not merely passive in His redeeming the world; He actively bought us back from the power of sin and set us free from slavery to the devil. Everything Jesus describes Himself as doing here, He has also done for us. He opened our eyes to our sin and to God’s forgiveness. He healed our chronic inability to do anything good for God. He took away the lameness from our hearts so we can believe in Him and show His love to our neighbors. He cleansed us of the shameful, filthy sin that defiled us and cut us off from God. “[God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13-14).

Our ears have been opened to hear the glad message of salvation in Christ – “the Lord has taken away your sin; you are not going to die” – and He has opened our ears by His obedience in our place. He listened to God’s commands attentively and left nothing undone of all He said to do. Thus through Him and through faith in Him our ears are opened and we are made obedient to the voice of His Word, which bids us to honor God, who is unseen, by loving our brother and our sister, whom we can see.

We have been raised from the dead – and yes, I said that right, we have already been raised from the dead. When the Holy Spirit first lit the fires of faith in our hearts through His Word, that was a resurrection. Scripture calls it the first resurrection, in contrast to the second resurrection, that of the all the dead on the Last Day, which is what we usually think of when we hear ‘resurrection.’ When we trust in Jesus, that’s life from the dead. We have eternal life right now – not only at some yet-to-be-revealed point in the future, but right now. Jesus gives life to our souls through His own indestructible life, and because He lives, we too shall live and never die.

We too have heard the good news. We’ve even grown up with it, many times, yet that doesn’t make it any less precious. The good news of what God has done for us in Christ is always there when we need it. When times are good and life is easy, then we might take that good news about Jesus for granted. We don’t always value it quite so much then. But hard times inevitably come. Illness or setbacks or trials can give us a gut check and steal our joy away like the cold wind steals the breath out of your lungs. Sometimes the world is very cold and bleak and uncaring and we are hurting, even though nobody can see it. That’s when we need the good news preached to us. When we’re so poor we have nothing to offer God except everything about us that’s broken and empty, then His Word becomes everything to us. It picks us up, cheers us, encourages us, sustains us and strengthens us in a very real way. Nothing else is as precious and life-giving as His Word. God fills you the most when you’re emptiest. He heals you and picks you up the most when you’re most broken and beaten down. He gives you all the treasures of His grace when you’re the poorest, and you know it. When you feel most lost is when He calls to you and says, “Do not fear, your God will come; He will come to save you.”

In order to be ready for the coming of Jesus’ salvation, we need to guard against everything that makes us stumble. The way we do that is heard in John’s message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Look at your life and get rid of whatever sin is causing you anxiety, fear, or doubt. Knock down the obstacles to Jesus’ reign in your heart this Advent. What’s your obstacle? Is it greed? Is it selfish pride? Is it inattention to the things of God – being in love with the things of this world? Whatever your personal obstacles are, find them, confess them, get rid of them – because Christ is coming. He’s coming again at the end of time, and He comes to you today through His Word. “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly to the end the confidence we had at first” (Heb 3:12-13).

We hold on to God’s truth with one hand, and with the other we hold out the Word of life to those around us. Each of us can be messengers of God’s truth to those around us. We shouldn’t think, “I’m not a super-saint like John the Baptist – I’m not educated enough or eloquent enough to talk about God with other people.” Jesus has baptized you into His holy name and put His saving Word in your heart and on your lips. He wants you to be His messenger! God doesn’t require His servants to all be fantastically educated or well-spoken – but He does require them to be faithful, and you can do that right now, just as you are. You can tell people what God thinks of their sins — because they’re going to find out anyway when Christ returns and it’s better for them to hear it from you; you can tell them about Christ, their healing and their life. You reach places and talk to people that I the pastor never could. God multiplies the spread of His Word through us – all of us. Then the good news is preached to the poor who need it, and God is praised, who lives and reigns both now and forever. Amen.