Gaudete – The Third Sunday in Advent
“Are You The Coming One?”
Rev. Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus
St. Matthew 11.2-11
12 December 2021
Soli Deo Gloria!
John was entering year 2 in prison thanks to King Herod. From his prison cell John must have wondered where the kingdom of God was. Where was the justice? Where was the punishment for such sinners? Wasn’t Jesus supposed to be the Coming One to restore the fortunes of Israel?
Many commentators have refused to believe that John could have doubted. After all, he was the bold preacher of repentance and he had pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But prison does many things to a man. When would the change happen? From where he sat—deep in the bowels of Herod’s prison—things just were not as he imagined. John wanted verification.
“Could John have doubted” is the question that has kept scholars searching for an answer. Many think that John was asking—“Are you the Coming One, or should we look for another?”—on behalf of his disciples. Yet, Matthew does not have the disciples of John asking him to intercede; it is John himself who asks. And what to make of his question is the difficult point.
It almost seems that those who say that John was asking for his disciples believe that John could not have wavered. To that I would answer that John, great prophet that he was, acclaimed even by Jesus, was still a man. Moses, another great prophet, doubted or disbelieved many times. So did many of the other prophets. And there are the examples the disciples of Jesus themselves. Take Peter in our raredos painting. As he begins walking on the water he becomes afraid. Even though he is looking directly at Jesus he senses the danger all around him and begins to sink. As Jesus reached out to save him he asked,
“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” [Matt. 14.31].
There was an occasion on the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus and his disciples crossed the sea, a violent storm came up and the boat was beginning to fill with water while Jesus was asleep in the stern. Their question is important:
“Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” (Mt 8:25).
To which Jesus replied,
“Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (Mt 8:26).
Even being physically present with Jesus who had shown his power over all things did not stop them from disbelief, or if you are so minded, doubt.
In all honesty you and I must confess that we have doubted God’s Word many, many times. When things don’t turn out as we had planned, when our prayers are answered in ways that we didn’t want, when life hands us lemons, we doubt God. We disbelieve. We are guilty of unbelief because we have not trusted in God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. We have broken and continue to break the First Commandment.
Given this mountain of evidence from Scripture and from our own experience, why should we think John the Baptizer incapable of doubting? He was not perfect. Only One was perfect and that was our Lord Jesus Christ. He never doubted his heavenly Father nor his perfect will. He submitted himself to persecution, rejection, crucifixion, and death. Even in the throes of an excruciating death—and the root of that word is Crux or Crucis, the Latin word for cross—Jesus called in faith upon his heavenly Father. Into his hands our Lord committed his spirit.
It is fair to ask what John was expecting. Perhaps he was thinking of what Isaiah wrote:
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.” [(Is 35:4]
Vengeance and recompense jump out at us. John might have wondered where it was. Why wasn’t Jesus punishing sinners and overthrowing the Romans?
John used a Messianic title in his question. The ESV translation misses the point. The New King James gets it right:
“Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” [Mt 11:3].
“The Coming One” is the way the Greek text reads. Let’s take the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent, our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem.
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ [Ps. 118.26]
The Old Testament is full of references to the Deliverer who would come to save God’s people. He is described as The Coming One. The people on Palm Sunday were chanting those words of Psalm 118.26. They expected the Messiah, but the wrong kind.
John the Baptizer was a “man’s man.” He wasn’t swayed by popular opinion. He spoke straight from the shoulder, and that got him in serious trouble with Herod and Herodias, Philip’s stolen wife. Certainly, what was happening didn’t look like the reign of God. Because of that John doubted. So did the disciples. At his Ascension these same disciples who had witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection asked a question that showed that they did not yet understand the Kingdom of God. They asked:
“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” [Ac 1:6].
If ever Jesus would have done a face palm this would have been it! They would not “get it” until the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost to enlighten them.
We would do well to remember that John was in prison. He didn’t have the advantage of hearing and seeing for himself what Jesus was doing and speaking. Sitting in Herod’s dungeon John might have had second thoughts about Jesus.
We see our Lord’s mercy in telling John’s disciples to announce to him what he was doing and saying. John’s disciples were to act as preachers to John. They were to announce the things that Jesus was doing so as to remove any doubts. They were to tell John about Jesus’ miracles and that the poor were having the good news proclaimed them. They were to tell John that Jesus was fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. They are blessed eternally because this Coming One would free them from their sins forever.
From our perspective we also ask about the Kingdom of God. Why hasn’t our Lord returned? What’s taking so long? The world seems to go on as it always has. We wait. We wait for the final Advent of our Lord when he comes in glory as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
And yet, his kingdom has indeed come and comes even now. It comes humbly in Word and Sacrament. In these humble means our Lord heals our spiritual blindness, the leprosy of our sin, the lameness of our faith. In HolyBaptism the dead are raised up. We are given a new birth by water and the Word. We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. We belong to him. This is the Kingdom of God.
The final reckoning, in which our Lord will overthrow all evil, comes on that Last Day unknown to all but God.
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. [Mt 24:36].
Yet, Jesus WILL come in glory with all his holy angels and all his enemies will be put under his feet! As we heard at the end of the church year, the Lord is not slow to do what he promises. He is outside of time. Time has no value in eternity so our Lord is not slow to do what he has promised [2 Peter 3.8-10].
Perhaps we can say it this way for us. We struggle with the paradox of salvation already won and salvation not fully experienced. We find ourselves doubting if it is true. But hear Jesus’ own invitation to believe and be patient:
“And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” [Mt 11:6].
Literally, it is the one who is not scandalized by Jesus. To be scandalized by his lowliness him a person falls into sin. We are blessed when we are not offended by this Coming One who took on the form of a servant to make atonement for our sins. We are blessed in confessing him as the Christ. Today is Gaudete Sunday, the Latin imperative for “Rejoice” but that word doesn’t appear in any of the lectionary readings. It’s only in the Introit and those words come from St. Paul:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 [Phil 4:4].
The Coming One has indeed come at Bethlehem! The Coming One continues to come to you in his Word and Blessed Sacrament. Here he removes doubts and comforts us. And The Coming One will do as he has promised when he comes on the last day to raise our bodies and bring us to his eternal presence. And in that our rejoicing will never end!
In the Name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit.