3rd Sunday in Advent (A)
December 12, 2019
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Gospel, which was read a few minutes ago.
I have a little quiz for you this morning. Who can tell me what Moses, Sarah, David, Peter, and John the Baptist have in common? Can you guess? Well, what do we know about them? They’re all central characters in the Bible. They were all faithful and God-pleasing people. They were all instrumental in God’s plan to bring salvation into the world. And, one last thing they had common was that they all wavered in their faith. They did! Each one of them at some time questioned what God was doing in their lives and in the world. They looked around and what they saw caused their faith to falter. We would never say they’re bad people; in fact, we would say they’re wonderful examples of a strong faith in God. And yet, because they were human they were susceptible to doubts, just as you and I are. Martin Luther wrote, “Faith is something very tender and precious. It is easily injured.” He’s right, and as we make our way through this Advent season and as we look forward to the coming of Jesus we wonder, why do Christians waver in their faith.
Of all the people in the Bible, you’d think John the Baptist would be one who would never waver in his faith. He had certainly been told the story of his miraculous conception, he’d been told that he was the prophet who would prepare the world for the coming of Jesus, and he had seen the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus in the form of a dove. But not too long after he baptized Jesus, John found himself in prison for criticizing Herod and what he saw wasn’t really what he expected. He’s the forerunner of Christ, he’s the one that told the people, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” but here he is sitting in jail not understanding God’s plan.
He’d foretold the coming of God’s judgment, he’d talked about how Jesus was going to bring a winnowing fork to weed out the unbelievers and an ax to chop down unproductive trees, but nothing had happened. To the contrary, Jesus had chosen some followers to follow Him as He wandered like an itinerant preacher, and His message seemed to be more about love and serving one another than God’s anger and judgment. You can’t really blame John for being confused, can you? What he sees goes contrary to what he expected and so his faith wavers.
And while John saw what he didn’t expect, He also didn’t see what he wanted to see. Where was the baptism of fire that he had told the people to expect? If Jesus was the Messiah why were the Romans still in charge? If he was a great prophet, why wasn’t Jesus sending angels to rescue him from Herod’s jail? He proclaimed the Word of God just as he had been told to do and Jesus doesn’t seem to remember him. If he’s the faithful messenger of God why isn’t he seeing the Word of God conquering those who resist it? Why, in the words of Jesus, is the kingdom of heaven suffering violence? What he sees speaks volumes to him. Matthew writes, “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?’” John the Baptist doesn’t like what he sees and it doesn’t seem to make sense, so he questions Jesus. “Are you or aren’t you the one we wanted?”
Do we ever do that? Do we ever look around and allow what we see or don’t see to cause our faith to waver? We see innocent people killed by war and crime and we wonder why God didn’t protect them. Why didn’t we see God turn the hearts of those hell-bent on violence and destruction? We see hurricanes and tornadoes level entire towns, and while we see the power of God in the storms, we don’t see it in the faces of the dead. Why don’t we see God leading the storms to where they can’t hurt anyone?
We see disease take over our bodies, or the bodies of those we love, and we wonder why a God of Love would let people get sick. Our faith wavers when our prayers aren’t answered or when there isn’t the miraculous recovery that would show God’s in charge. Accidents of every type can strike any time and it appears that God isn’t even paying attention. Everywhere you look you think you see evidence that God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care or doesn’t love and so it’s tempting to question whether our faith is misplaced or not worth having.
Quite often, actually more often than I prefer, someone asks me something like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” You’ve heard this question before, haven’t you? Maybe you’ve even said it. The reason John the Baptist asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” and the reason Christians waver in their faith is because of what we’ve forgotten. We forget that Jesus works in unexpected and seemingly insignificant ways. He works through the misery in this world and He uses the pain sin inflicts to show His mercy.
Take John the Baptist for example. He doesn’t seem like much, does he? Bad clothes, bad diet, a downer of a message, and yet Jesus tells us today that “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Like the prophets before him, John wasn’t much to see, but what he looked like was nothing compared to what he had to say. The people weren’t supposed to go see him because of his appearance but because of the message that he delivered; the message of the coming of Christ. John the Baptist preached that forgiveness and mercy were at hand. The Gospel was coming in the form of Jesus Christ who would literally transform this world.
Jesus goes on to say about His kingdom, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” The Word of God, the Word that created the world, the Word that was responsible for all the healings is under attack. It’s even attacked when it’s in our hearts. Satan would like nothing more than to snuff out the flame of faith that burns in your hearts. When you look around and wonder what God is doing, when your faith wavers because of what you see, the Kingdom of Christ in you is being violently attacked. When you forget that the Word of God will endure forever, you waver. But remember His Word is more powerful than the evil in our world, remember that the forgiveness of sins will always defeat sin, remember that the Devil can’t stand before this Word and stand firm in your faith. We’ll stand firm knowing that the Word of God promises that God is our refuge and our very help in time of need. We’ll stand confident that our Lord will never forsake us, because regardless of what we see or don’t see, we have the Word of God which speaks to us and gives the peace, the protection, the healing, the life, and the forgiveness that makes us greater than John the Baptist.
Did you catch that in our Gospel? Jesus says that John the Baptist is the greatest, but then He says, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” It’s true, you are greater than John the Baptist. You’re greater than John because while John spoke of the Savior who was to come, you get to speak of the Savior who has come. Through faith, you’ve seen Jesus and the great things He’s done. Jesus tells John’s disciples, “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.” Everything Jesus did when He walked on this earth fulfilled the words of Isaiah, and everything He did points out to us that His power is just as powerful today as when He walked the earth. We read of those to whom Jesus gave the power of sight, of hearing, of walking and we read of those whom He raised from the dead and we know that He does the same things for us.
Jesus has power over everything – over sickness, death and violence, over accidents, sin, and doubt. Christ conquered all of these through His death, and the victory is given to us because we’re the poor who’ve had the Good News preached to us. The Good News tells us our sins are forgiven and that while it may not seem like it, God is in control and He’ll use everything bad that happens for His good and for His purpose.
Yes, bad things do happen to good people, but that doesn’t mean God’s not paying attention or doesn’t care. What it means is that Sin is in our world and will be until the end of time. But until that time that Christ returns, God’s Word is what we listen to and believe. God has promised that He won’t leave us, and He won’t. God has promised that salvation and faith are ours and so we believe it and know it to be true. Jesus says, “He who ears to hear, let him hear.” We have ears and we hear Him call to us. We hear Him comfort us in the face of sorrow and the appearance of evil.
Appearances can be deceiving, but Christ’s great appearance in His life, death, and resurrection means that nothing we see can change the fact that Christ is in control. We base this not on what we have seen or not seen, but on what we have heard, the Good News of Jesus Christ. And this Good News assures us that He is the one who came and He is the one who will come again.
In an Advent sermon Martin Luther said, “We should be careful not to follow our eyes; we should rather close our eyes and open our ears and hear the Word”. This is sound advice because when we base our faith on what we see, we’ll become like John and wonder if Jesus really is Lord. Faith wavers when we let our eyes deceive us into not seeing Christ at work in our world and lives. This happened to the saints years ago and it happens to us now. But when we hold onto the Word of God, when we let the Holy Spirit into our hearts and minds, we find the promise that Christ will keep us in the one, true faith. We need this promise from Him because in that promise we find the fulfillment of His Word. His Word may not seem like much, but it is the power of salvation and it assures us that no matter what we may see, what we hear from Him is what we know to be true.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen