The Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete)–12 December 2021
2 When John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
7 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? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” (ESV)
Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? Are you stunned by John the Baptist’s question? After all, John was the greatest prophet born of men. He baptized Jesus and he saw the Holy Spirit descending as a dove upon Jesus and he heard the Father’s voice saying: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17). How on earth could John the Baptist ask Jesus if He is the Coming One, the Messiah?
But what about you? You have been baptized into Christ. You have learned what Jesus did and preached in the Word. You have eaten and drunk the Lord’s Body and Blood. Your sins have been absolved, taken away, in Holy Absolution. How could you ever doubt the saving power of Christ?
But sometimes you do doubt, and so do I. We all have our dark moments of doubts and fears. Going to church, confessing our sins, hearing the Word, praying, and receiving the Sacrament—all these things can have a sense of repetition that sometimes seem meaningless. Here we are, another Christmas and things are no better than last year. And in our hearts, we are tempted to ask: “Are You there, God, or am I alone with my doubts and fears?”
In our text, John the Baptist is sitting in prison, waiting to be executed. He is sitting in prison because he dared to tell King Herod: It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife (Mark 6:18). King Herod did not take kindly to being called an adulterer, and so he throws John in prison. Even in prison, John hears about the deeds of Jesus, and he decides to send his disciples to ask Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?
Now, why did John send his disciples to Jesus? Some Bible scholars say that John was not asking for himself, but he sent his disciples to Jesus so that they would not lose faith after John’s departure. Others hold that John himself had doubts and that John himself needed reassurance and comfort from Jesus.
These two views do not have to be mutually exclusive. For it is obvious that John would have wanted to point his disciples to Jesus. Already, in the early days of his ministry at the Jordan, John was pointing his disciples to Jesus, saying Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29)! And when it was reported to John that Jesus was becoming more popular, John assured his disciples that that was just fine: you yourselves bear me witness, that I said, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.”… He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:28, 30). And so, as John is decreasing in Herod’s prison, he points his disciples to Jesus once again. He sends his disciples to Jesus because he knows that these disciples whom he loved so much needed much more than he could ever give them. He sends them to Jesus. John also sends us to Jesus, to the Only One who can lighten our darkness, to the One who brings us the good news that He is the forgiver of sinners and the resurrection of the dead.
Perhaps it was for his disciples’ sake that John sent them to Jesus. Maybe it was they who were doubting, and to alleviate their doubts John sent them straight to the Source. But it could well be that even John, greatest of all, knew doubt and fear. At the very least, we can say that John, being a sinner, struggled against his fallen flesh just like the rest of us! Yes, the preacher of repentance himself needed to repent. The truth is every one of us is at times weak in faith. We all have those dark nights of doubt, sorrow, and fear, of wondering if God is really here, and if He really cares about us. Sitting in Herod’s prison cell, John had not yet been transferred to glory. He was still both old and new Adam, struggling against his fallen flesh, even as he had preached for all people to struggle against and to repent of their sins.
We do not know the state of John’s heart as he sat decreasing in Herod’s prison, waiting for his execution. But we do know that as we struggle against our flesh and endure all kinds of suffering, we can learn a great deal from John.
First, John pointed his disciples to Jesus! Now, when you and I are suffering, don’t we often spend our days complaining and worrying? We forget that our suffering is a golden opportunity for us to trust in the Lord, to pray fervently, and to confess Christ to our neighbour. At the time we’re going through it, our suffering seems so intense, even unbearable. But once we have finished, we look back and regret that we were not a better witness to our neighbour. In contrast, look at John. Suffering in prison, John points his disciples to Jesus! And in Christ, that is our calling as well, to point others to Jesus. When you are suffering, why not say to an unchurched friend, “you know, it’s not easy what I’m going through, but the Lord is with me and He gives me such comfort and strength through His Holy Word. I would be so happy if you would join me one Sunday to hear the Good News of the Lord’s love.” By God’s grace, then, be like John the Baptist and point people to Jesus.
And secondly, in his suffering, John himself looked to Jesus. Even if John did have his doubts, he had not yet lost his faith, for every believer may simultaneously believe and doubt. After all, faith is not the absence of doubt. Rather, faith is believing and clinging to God’s Word in spite of doubts and in the midst of danger and suffering. Faith looks to and trusts in Jesus. And because we daily face struggles and temptations, we need also daily to be reassured and comforted by our Lord Jesus and His Word. At all times, then, we need to look to Jesus.
What a marvelous example of faith we have in John, who pointed his disciples to Jesus and who himself looked to Jesus for reassurance and comfort. But it is not enough to simply tell you of John’s faithfulness in the midst of suffering. I must also proclaim what Jesus does for sinners in need!
When John’s disciples ask Jesus if He is the One to come, do you see what Jesus does? He points to His works— the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up. And He points to His word—the poor have good news preached to them. Through the testimony of His works and words, Jesus is saying that the prophecies about the Messiah are all fulfilled in Him. It is as if Jesus is saying to John, “I am doing what I have come to do. Yes, I am the One, the Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. John, hold fast in your faith.”
In the midst of our struggles and sufferings, Jesus does the same for us. Our Lord points us to His works and words of healing, by which we are saved for all eternity. Jesus points us to His works, especially His great work of dying on the cross and rising again to give sinners peace with God. For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:19-20). Jesus, the risen, victorious Prince of Peace, established eternal peace through His death on the cross. And now He points you to your baptism, where you first received this peace with God. He points to your pastor’s word of Absolution, by which Christ Himself forgives you. And He points you to His Holy Supper, which is a feast of divine peace that strengthens and sustains you as you endure life’s trials. Through His holy works of Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper, your gracious Lord gives you a healing that will last forever. He comforts you with the glorious promise that since [you] have been justified by faith, [you] have peace with God through [y]our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).
In the midst of our struggles and sufferings, Jesus also points us to His Word; He comforts us with the good news of salvation. The poor still have the good news preached to them. You are the poor—the poor in spirit—and so you are truly blessed, as our Lord said, blessed are the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3). Your spiritual poverty is evident through your confession of sins, through your crying out to the Lord, through your seeking of Jesus even in the midst of life’s afflictions. And in your great poverty and need, Jesus speaks to you a word of great comfort. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). Yes, take heart, my son[, my daughter]; your sins are forgiven (Matthew 9:2). [Take heart, for] My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Yes, the Word that the Lord speaks to you and me is the good news that Christ has paid for our sins and that through His suffering and death He has redeemed us from eternal death.
Your gracious Lord has given to you the inheritance of the baptized—forgiveness, life, and salvation—as a pure gift; you are forgiven, you live, you are saved, not by works, but by grace through faith in Christ. Christ, the Lover of sinners, the Saviour of the nations, Emmanuel, is your Lord. Your heavenly Father has given you His Holy Spirit so that by that His grace you trust in the holy works and words of Jesus—the work of salvation which Jesus worked in His living and dying for you, and His word—His promise—of forgiveness and eternal life.
Baptized into Christ, you now embrace the Lord’s work and word of salvation and you rejoice in it. You hunger for the Lord’s salvation and you are reassured and comforted by the precious promise of life in Christ. You are the children of God. You are those from whom He has removed all guilt and shame, upon whom He has bestowed His holy Name, for whom He gave His life. And by His grace, Jesus keeps you in the faith, even in the midst your doubts and fears, and He continues to keep you until you come to your proper place, to your true home, to the loving arms of your Saviour. Praise be to God! Amen.