Sermon December 15, 2013/ Vicar James Preus/ Jesus Gives Us A New Identity/ Matthew 11:2-15
And when John heard in prison of the works of Christ, he sent by means of his disciples 3and said to him “Are you the Coming One or should we expect another? 4And Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see. 5The blind regain their sight and the lame are walking about, the lepers are being cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are being raised and the poor have good news preached to them. 6And blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me.
7And when they were going Jesus began to say to the crowd concerning John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed being shaken by the wind? 8But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold, those who wear soft garments are in houses of kings. 9But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This one is (he) concerning whom it is written, “Behold I send my messenger before my face, who will prepare your way before you.” 11Truly I say to you, there has not appeared one born of woman greater than John the Baptist. But the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than him. 12And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is being violently attacked and violent men seize it. 13For all the Prophets and the Law until John prophesied 14and if you desire to accept (it), this one is Elijah the intended one to come. 15He, who has ears, let him hear.”
It’s Advent! Advent is a time both of repentance and of great joy and anticipation. Advent means ‘arrival.’ Who’s arriving? The LORD! The LORD of Hosts is coming to dwell with his people! A shoot comes out of Jesse bringing the righteousness of the LORD! And God will send his messenger before him to prepare his way! How exciting for us, who turn from our sins and wait for this glorious Day of the LORD! We certainly are excited! We have heard read the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. We have heard the prophesy of peace by Isaiah promising that a young child will lead a calf and a lion. We anticipate this wonderful peace on earth!
But here we are in the third week of Advent. Our hero John, the one Scripture proclaims to be the one sent by God to prepare the way of the LORD, sits in prison.
What are we to make of this? Imagine how confused John’s disciples are as they visit him in his dungeon. His disciples no doubt attempt to reconcile this troubling situation with John’s preaching of the Coming of the LORD.
So John sends his disciples to ask the very Source, Jesus: ‘Are you the Coming One?’ Did John preach correctly? Jesus, are you the Christ?
Who is Jesus? That is the question. And what kind of answer does Jesus give? Does he rend asunder the prison doors and deliver John? Does he raise-up an army, overthrow the Romans and King Herod and seat himself on David’s earthly throne? No. Jesus speaks Scripture. He sends them back to John to report what they hear and see: “The blind regain their sight and the lame are walking about, the lepers are being cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are being raised and the poor have good news preached to them.”
Jesus is telling John’s disciples that he is fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…,” “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see,” and “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.” Jesus proves his identity as the Christ through Scripture. He does not cater to the expectations of the flesh. He states the facts as Scripture presents them to us.
Jesus then proves John’s identity as a prophet, when he states that John is the one concerning whom it is written by the Prophet Malachi: “Behold I send my messenger before my face, who will prepare your way before you.” Forget the fact that John rots in prison! Jesus tells us that John is he concerning whom Scripture is written. And John fulfills his purpose just as surely as he proclaimed: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John’s place in prison by no means contradicts what he came to earth to do. He did not come to increase, but to decrease. He points to Jesus.
John proclaimed the Law in its purest and most devastating form. John preached the Law to the people telling those who have plenty to give to the needy. He told the tax collectors to collect no more than they were authorized to. He told soldiers to not extort money by threats and false accusations and to be content with their wages. And to those who do not produce these fruits of repentance, John threatened that the axe of judgment is laid to the root of the tree and that these trees empty of good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Yet John also presented Jesus as the only help for those condemned by the Law. He promised that Jesus would gather those he saves like a farmer gathers wheat into a barn. John preached Jesus as the one who gives the Spirit of Life without measure and he promised that whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life. Success for John as a preacher is not to accumulate a great following, but rather to send many to Jesus. Even as he sits alone in prison, John serves the purpose God gave him by sending even his last disciples to Jesus.
And in the midst of this, Jesus says: “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me.” This is the same blessing Jesus promised during his Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is promising a heavenly blessing. He promises eternal blessedness, not some temporary happiness that passes like the last breath from our dying lips.
And how do we receive this eternal blessing from Jesus? By faith. By the faith that we received as a gift when God the Father revealed Jesus to us as our Savior.
What happens if people do not have this faith? They stumble. That’s what it means to be scandalized. They get knocked down. Worse, they get crushed. Jesus is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense. Jesus says, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
That is what happens to the one who does not have faith. That person is offended that John sits in prison. He is offended that Jesus, a man who eats with sinners and tax collectors, claims to be the LORD. He stumbles over the idea that God lies in a manger as a baby. He takes it as an insult that Christ dies on a cross. His reason will not permit the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. He stumbles when he is told to acknowledge his own spiritual poverty and must repent of his sin. He is insulted that he needs a savior.
But Jesus does not come to cause us to stumble. No, Jesus comes to support us. He is our rock, on which our faith stands. Jesus says, “He, who has ears, let him hear.” Here Jesus speaks of ears of faith. You who have been given ears of faith do not stumble. You listen. You listen to the Word of God. Through these ears of faith you recognize your identity as spiritually poor.
You see John in prison and you know that you are imprisoned to your sinful flesh that attempts to increase and cause Jesus to decrease. Imprisoned to your sinful flesh, you can feel like you are in chains: I want to do what is good, but I keep finding myself doing what I know I shouldn’t be doing. I want to be a better father or mother. I want to be a better Christian, but it seems I am fighting an uphill battle. It feels like I really can’t help but sin.
You see John in prison and you sense being imprisoned to the Law, which offers no solace, but mercilessly condemns you: I know the Law says to love the Lord with my whole heart, soul, and mind, but I find myself neglecting God’s Word. I forget about what God wants for my life, rather I focus on what I want from my life. I don’t love my neighbor as myself. Even if I present myself outwardly as a Christian I am often burdened by my inner thoughts. I tell myself that I am doing my best, but the Law doesn’t give me a break. The Law just keeps telling me that my best is not good enough.
Through these ears of faith, you recognize your natural identity as spiritually blind and deaf to God’s will, spiritually paralyzed and incapable of saving yourself. In fact, you realize that you are spiritually dead without Jesus.
If you do not realize this, you will be scandalized. Only the spiritually poor inherit the Kingdom of heaven, because only they accept the good news preached to them.
But Jesus does much more than open your ears to hear the law and recognize your poor condition. That by itself is not ears of faith. Jesus opens your ears, so he can the preach good news to you that he forgives you. Jesus cleanses your leprous sin, which emits such a putrid stench that burdens your conscience and offends God’s Law. Jesus breaks the chains of the Law. He tells the Law to stop accusing you, because you are forgiven. The Law cannot accuse you, because the Law cannot accuse Jesus. Jesus takes your limbs that are incapable of pleasing God according to the Law and makes them instruments of good works that please God. Jesus finds you spiritually dead, without even the will to be saved and he gives you eternal life.
With these ears of faith, which God has given to you, you listen. You listen to God’s Word and are not scandalized. You do not stumble when you see John alone in prison, but you follow his finger that points straight to Jesus. You aren’t crushed when Scripture says that Baptism saves or that bread and wine is Jesus’ body and blood.
And when doubt does shake your faith and temptation overcomes you, your ears of faith cling to Jesus’ words, which forgive you and strengthen your faith. Satan attempts to distract your ears of faith from Jesus’ words. He wants you to think your faith isn’t strong enough, that Jesus doesn’t forgive you, that the Law can still condemn you. When this happens, listen to God’s Word. God’s Word is all your ears of faith need to be strengthened and receive forgiveness from Jesus and silence the Law’s accusations and Satan’s lies. God preserves your ears of faith as a gift.
With ears of faith, the Advent of our LORD does not offend us. We are not offended by the babe in the manger, but we marvel at the truth that the God who preserves the heavens and the earth joins our human race as an infant. We don’t hide our eyes when we see Jesus on the cross, but we look at him who cleanses us with his blood. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is no myth to our faithful ears. Rather we confess it according to the Scriptures.
Through your ears of faith, Jesus reveals to you that you have a greater identity than being spiritually poor. In fact your identity is even greater than that of John the Baptist,the greatest born of woman. Jesus has given you the identity of a child of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus cleanses all your guilt. He breaks the chains of the accusing Law. He makes you spiritually alive. You can have no greater identity than that of a child of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let us then pray that God would preserve our ears of faith and our new identity, so that we continue to hear his holy Word, and wait with great anticipation for the coming of our Savior Jesus, who comes soon to join us to himself in Heaven.
O grant, dear Lord of love, that we receive, rejoicing,
The word proclaimed by John, Our true repentance voicing,
That gladly we walk Upon our Saviors way
Until we live with him In his eternal day.