In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Matthew 11:2-6: 2 And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of[a] his disciples 3 and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” 4 Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: 5 The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6 And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… Here we are in our world with so many people who are overweight, in debt over their heads, and depressed. Too many people are divorced, lonely, afraid, worried about the future, addicted to drugs. People are self-righteous, they are hypocrites, and they are liars.
And then there is John the Baptist, that contrary, extreme figure of biblical history, dressed in a coat made of camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, a man with a wild look in his eyes and pointing his finger at people. Manners and Mama’s rules don’t apply to prophets.
And here we are. What good is John? His scathing rebukes don’t help; they just hurt. Who does he think he is? He is no better than us! Oh, sure, the Bible calls him the greatest of those born of woman – fine! But he still has a mother, he still inherited the sinful nature from his parents just like the rest of us.
And we run from his words, we hide, we evade, we cover…we even attack.
And there is John, born into a priestly family from the dead, barren womb of his mother Elizabeth. He is the last of the prophets. He is the “Voice crying in the wilderness.” He is the forerunner and baptizer of Christ. His purpose and message is as simple as it is impossible: prepare the hearts of men for the Messiah! John’s job was to comfort his hearers by destroying them, by tearing down the mountains of pride, by building up the debased and dejected, by calling them on their warfare with God and their guilt.
And he does all this in order that he might level that accusing finger at Mary’s Son and give the Church a new song, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” In Him, that Lamb of God, in Jesus, by Him, your warfare is ended; in Him and by Him your guilt is removed. He does not wither and fade. His promises do not go unfulfilled. His Word is true. He will feed you, He will gather you, He will carry you, and He will lead you.
And for all that John ends up in prison. He was no more successful or popular than the prophets before him. His stern, unbending message had cost him. The powers that be would not tolerate his demand for repentance. They balked at his damnation of their impurity. They thought they were above doctrinal review and rebuke. And so they resorted to violence; they threw John in prison and they were going to have him killed.
And from that dungeon, from that first-century death row cries the Voice of faith. He asks, “Are You the Coming One, or do we wait for another?”
Was that stern desert preacher – that demander of repentance – was he doubting when he asked that question? Perhaps. Perhaps this man who was not swayed by the opinions and pressures of men; perhaps this uncompromising prophet was having a moment of weakness. Perhaps he was having nagging doubts about what was happening and why he had been forced to give up his duties in exchange for a prison cell. Or maybe the wait itself had finally gotten to him. Exactly why was his Divine Cousin waiting so long? The Kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus, so, come on, get at it!
It’s not hard to see that between the prison food and the guillotine hanging over John’s head he had plenty to bring him down, plenty to get him depressed. But worst of all scenarios, though, is this thought that might have plagued him – the though that he had somehow made a mistake, that the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the Father’s booming voice out of heaven were only a dream. Was it only a dream that Jesus really was the Messiah, the One coming to make atonement for the sins of the world?
Was that really real?
Here we are, and there is John. And perhaps we are not so different after all. John had his problems too, although we do not know what they would have been. Maybe his parents were getting a divorce. Maybe his girlfriend had left him. Maybe he had a nasty habit that he couldn’t break. His flesh, like ours, was no more durable than the grass of the field, and his heart too was blackened by lust, greed, and hate – in a word, sin.
But still, in the midst of trouble, from inside Herod’s prison, with his own personal package of weaknesses and sins, John had faith. He who had leaped in his mother’s womb for the joy of God in Mary’s womb believed that Jesus had the answers. He did not sit back in his prison cell and “think about Jesus.” Instead he sought and demanded a word from Jesus, for that, dear fellow redeemed, is what faith always does; it does not turn inward on itself, for that is the way of despair. No, faith goes to where God promises to be.
Are you feeling depressed? Read the Bible. Are you lonely? Read the Bible. Are you afraid, worried, uncertain, struggling with temptation, angry? Read the Bible. I went to college to learn this. It isn’t all that difficult, but still I haven’t really learned it; none of us have. Well, John did, but he had to have his head separated from his shoulders first. Now, of course, he knows it perfectly.
So how and where is the Bible read? In the middle of the night it is read in your bed. In the middle of the day it is read at your kitchen table or the couch. But that is not all; for, as I said, faith goes to where God promises to be, where the Bible itself directs us. It directs us to Confession and Absolution; it directs us to the Divine Liturgy; it directs us to the Sacrament of Christ’s Holy body and blood; it directs us to the community of saints and to congregational prayer.
Sometimes people say, “But Pastor, I didn’t get anything out of church. I wasn’t fed.” Is that so?
It is like a 12-year-old boy with frostbitten ears who stands in front of a full refrigerator for hours at a time complaining that there is nothing to eat! Imagine thinking that only sugary snacks, empty calories full of carcinogenic chemicals can satisfy you while despising the glory of God’s bounty in vitaminpacked fruits and vegetables. I don’t have to imagine it, for I have done it, and I’ll bet you have too. And you know what comes next; it is what always comes next, the preaching of John: repent!
And listen to how our Lord responds to John’s questions. He sends those disciples back to comfort him with news of prophecy fulfilled! “Tell John that the darkness is being dispelled by the Light, that creation is being brought back into order, that the Fall is being reversed: “the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the lonely have” company, the fearful have courage, and sinners are forgiven. That is to say, “the poor are having the Good News” – the News of God’s selfsacrifice to ransom men back to the Father – “preached to them!”
“You too, John,” says our Lord, “I will not forget you. I will not leave you in prison. I love even you, for Father knows best. Soon, soon it will be complete, and I will relieve you of your burdens and give you rest.. Your warfare, O greatest of My warriors, is also ended.”
And there is John: strengthened in prison by the Word of Christ to face death and the life to come, a prophet of the highest, an example of living faith.
And here we are: forgiven, renewed, strengthened, restored, in fellowship with John and all the saints who have gone before us and who are with us. Here we are: with the Spirit of Holy Baptism in our hearts, a confession of joy and thanks upon our lips, commended to the Father by grace, and about to receive the very body and blood of Christ into our dying flesh as the seal of the resurrection and life to come.
Indeed, come, Lord Jesus, come!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.