“From Doubt to Joy” Sermon / Matthew 11:2–15 / Pr. Ted A. Giese / Sunday December 15th 2019 / Season Of Advent Gaudete Sunday / Mount Olive Lutheran Church
“From Doubt to Joy” Sermon / Matthew 11:2–15 / Pr. Ted A. Giese / Sunday December 15th 2019 / Season of Advent / Mount Olive Lutheran Church
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. 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. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all are hearts be acceptable in Your sight O, Lord. Amen.
Grace, peace and mercy to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Good Christian friends. "Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.” Here is the paradox when it comes to doubt: Doubt comes from being absolutely sure about something, or at least very sure, and then having that thing not act the way you are absolutely sure it should act - but here’s the kicker, instead of saying 'well I guess I got it all wrong' instead you say 'there must be something wrong with the thing I was absolutely certain about.' You see if John the Baptizer locked away in prison could get a question out of jail to Jesus, as we hear in our Gospel reading today, that would also mean that information could be getting into the prison and what might John have been hearing about Jesus? The people of Nazareth – in Jesus’ home town – tried to kill this Jesus, Jesus was accused of being a blasphemer by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law when Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic man, Again the Pharisees didn't like the kind of folks Jesus was hanging around with because they were 'sinners' and lowlifes, the Pharisees even accused Jesus of breaking the third commandment by 'working' on the Sabbath. If that was all John was hearing, that would sound pretty bad depending on how it was presented to you especially if you weren’t getting the whole story. Whether John the Baptizer was acting on false information or half truths or misconstrued details of events, which ever the case may be, what we do know is that John sends two of his own disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are You the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” When you know where John the Baptizer starts out from, what we have heard about him in just last week, then this by contrast is consistent with doubt. Isn’t this then a really odd reading so close to Christmas so deep into the season of Advent? Yet here doubt is placed on the agenda of things for us to think about and ponder today. This then creates another contrast because the bigger theme of the day is joy … so we have joy and doubt.
Last week John the Baptizer was preaching in the wilderness, baptizing repentant sinners, proclaiming the coming Christ and now this week John in locked up in jail, put there by King Herod for criticizing King Herod's marriage to King Herod's brother's wife and for criticizing all the evil the King had done. A lot, of course, had happened between these two accounts. But for us John was only last week saying to the crowed, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” Not exactly words of doubt, in fact these are consistent with conviction and a steadfast confession of faith. You might even imagine joy in being able to say these words about the Christ who was so long expected and who had arrived in their very midst.
By contrast John’s question today sounds full of doubt as he sits locked away in Herod's prison a prison unlike anything we would find in our day here in Canada. There would not have been even the hint of luxury, which likely didn’t bother John much as we heard last Sunday how John was not a man of luxury, yet even still the long hours, days, weeks, months clearly had some effect on him. John the Baptizer would certainly have been left alone with his thoughts far from the Jordan River, far from his desert home, far from his meals of locusts and wild honey. Far from the day he pointed to Jesus and proclaimed, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World." Far from the day that he stood with this same Jesus in the Jordan River freshly baptized before him, his own cousin, the voice of God that day still ringing in his ears. The memory of it burnt into John's mind; he had just baptized this Jesus, John was praying and suddenly, "the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on [Jesus] in bodily form, like a dove" And then the voice of God speaking down from heaven to this Jesus saying, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” What great joy! It seems with the question John sent to Jesus that the joy had fallen right off all these precious memories only to roll away from John’s fingers right between the bars of his prison cell completely out of reach. Perhaps we think of John in prison today not because of his doubt only but rather because of the answer John received from Jesus an answer which picks that joy back up and places it back in John the Baptizer’s hands so that in the dark of jail John would have his joy once more.
Jesus answers John’s question by asking John’s disciples, "Look around what do you see, what do you hear?” the Jesus says, “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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” You see Jesus does for John just as John had done for the Pharisees when the Pharisees had come to John asking if John was the Christ. Jesus like John points to Scripture, Jesus points to the Word of God. Remember how it was back before John was tossed in prison, how John quoted to the messengers sent by the Pharisees these words from the prophet Isaiah basically saying to them, 'no I'm not the Christ I’m getting things ready for the Christ' when John quoted Isaiah 40 when he said to theme, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ today Jesus likewise points to Scripture in order to give John the answer John needs. When John’s disciples returned to him with what they saw, with what Jesus said John would be able to line it all up with these passages from Isaiah that Jesus was both quoting from and fulfilling before their very eyes:
From Isaiah 26:19a
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
From Isaiah 29:18
In that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a book,
and out of their gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind shall see.
And from Isaiah 35:5–6a, part of our Old Testament reading today,
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.
And finally from Isaiah 61:1–2
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 brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
John was the one who anointed Jesus in the waters of the Jordan River in Jesus’ baptism, for John in his time of doubt “liberty to the captives,” and “the opening of the prison to those who are bound,” was a loosening of the bonds of doubt, his questions shackled in chains. Jesus sent back John’s disciples with a word of encouragement from Scripture, with a report that indeed what Isaiah had prophesied by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was in fact happening before their very eyes. Therefore John’s work as a prophet likewise was not in vain. This is the kind of encouragement that brings joy. Whatever other reports John had heard were false, whatever dismal thoughts John may have imagined about Jesus in his mind were false, Jesus was indeed the one who was to come, there was no other one to seek. What joy!
From the beginning the LORD taught His people to trust His Word and Jesus, the Father’s only begotten Son, taught the same, because Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus is saying to John the Baptizer, Jesus is saying to you and to the ones you love, "If you have doubts about Me don't listen to the World, don't listen to the devil, don't listen to the desires of your sinful self, don't listen to anything but the Word of God: Check the Scriptures, check the Bible; what does it say about Me?" Jesus basically asks, "Am I who the Scriptures say I am; am I doing what the Scriptures say I should be doing? Am I about My Father’s business or not?"
Joy like doubt is very personal and each of us from the greatest to the least, from the first to the last, experiences these two states of mind differently: Jesus however will not stop loving you because of doubt or because you lack joy, and He will not refuse to forgive you when you say "Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief,” when you pray, “restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
Today what is your prison? What is sapping away your joy in life? Is it doubt or is it something else? Is it Sin? Is it Death? Is it worry for the faith of someone you love? Do you have a King Herod who makes it hard to hold on to joy, who makes it easier to doubt than to be certain? Is it the World? Is it some supernatural assault and harassment of the Devil? Whatever it is, whoever it is, even if it springs forth from your own thoughts from your very heart, remember what we believe teach and confess, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified [that is made me holy] and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” Jesus directs John back to the Word of God and we know from St. Paul that the Word of God is active; the Holy Spirit is there when the Word of God is read, and spoken and preached, with the Word of God proclaimed to him John’s faith would be bolstered, built up and made to grow stronger yet again, his joy would be made complete. It would not matter if there were chains on his hands and feet because Jesus was indeed the Christ, He was most certainly, and truly the one come to do what the Christ was sent to do. John’s death therefore would not be the death of a failed prophet but of a martyr with his faith and joy firmly grounded in Jesus the Christ.
For each of us faith and joy are never perfect in this life and because of this, belief is mixed with unbelief, doubt crops up and joy at times becomes overshadowed by grief and dark thoughts: This is why we need the grace of God to see us through especially when we have ‘questions shackled in chains' of doubt as John did: that grace of God is the grace that comes from Christ Jesus Himself delivered to us in the Word of God recorded in the Bible, and this is why we read Scripture every Sunday and feast day year in and year out, this is why we encourage each other towards bible study and devotional reading of God’s Word because without God’s Word and the gift of good preachers and teacher to guide us we would go astray in our thoughts and in our beliefs, we would lose our way and be in danger of losing our joy in Christ Jesus. John needed to be pointed back to God’s Word, we all need this, and that is why we are looking at this reading now in Advent. Our preparations for the celebration of the birth of this same Jesus would be incomplete without hearing God’s Word read to us, and preached to us along the way that leads to Christmas. It would be incomplete if we didn’t take the time to look at the hard parts of the life of faith, the parts that doesn’t naturally come to mind when we are up to our elbows in Christmas Cards, and wrapping paper and tinsel and Christmas cheer. We look at this reading today because even if we ourselves are not the one struggling in a dark prison cell of doubt or pain or grief or sadness this Christmas while all the World seems to have joy to spare, we, having thought of this today, might be better equipped to see the person who is struggling and thereby be able to reach out to them with God’s Word, with Jesus, that their joy might, by the grace of God, be restored in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Let us pray:
Lord have mercy on us, Christ have mercy on us, Lord have mercy on us, “take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, take our hearts and set them on fire; for the sake of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.”
 Mark 9:24
 Luke 4:28-30
 Luke 5:21
 Luke 5:30
 Luke 6:2
 Matthew 3:11–12
 John 1:36
 John 1:23
 John 10:30
 Mark 9:24
 Psalm 51:12