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Third Sunday of Advent
“Dry Up and Fall Away”
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
St. Matthew 11.2-10; Isaiah 40.1-8
13 December 2020
+ In the Name of Jesus +
The world, because of fear, says: You could die.
God, because of sin, says: You shall surely die. Dust you are and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 2:17)
God says it this way through the prophet Isaiah:
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers [dries up], the flower fades [falls away or falls down] when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40.6-8)
The breath of the Lord blows and life withers, dries up, falls away. The Lord is in control of life and death. He gives and He takes away. The prophet Isaiah is echoing Moses in the ninetieth Psalm :
You return man to dust… they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh… So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90.3,5-9,12)
King Hezekiah, the faithful king of Judah at the time of the prophet Isaiah, had been told that his days were numbered. He had just witnessed the Lord’s angel of death annihilate 185000 Assyrians in one night, saving Jerusalem and Judea from certain defeat. Hezekiah no doubt thought he had been spared. However, the Lord immediately inflicted him with a deadly illness. Hezekiah prayed earnestly to the Lord to be spared – and the Lord spared him. He had fifteen years to live. However, God then said through Isaiah, that Israel and Judah were to be taken into exile. Despite the temporary reprieve, the open iniquities and secret sins against the Lord over the centuries by God’s chosen nation were to be brought to account. It was God’s holy will.
Hezekiah is told of God’s judgment and yet still says, “There will be peace and security in my days.” It seemed he was in denial. The works of God were good for a time, yet, the death, uncertainty, and hard times which loom ahead don’t seem believable to him.
It is at this point we hear our Old Testament text today. Even as God brings discipline upon His people, even as the faithful King doubts and denies what he faces, God still brings good news. He doesn’t totally give up on Israel. He doesn’t give up on you:
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Warfare is over. Pardon and forgiveness is coming. There is a word of hope for the future – God Himself is on the move, God is at work for His people, coming down the royal highway through Bethlehem to Jerusalem’s cross to make all things good for those who love Him and trust Him. All flesh will see that God’s glory will shine forth, even out of the darkness and death of this temporal, transitory world. God’s Word of promise and hope – that He will save His people from sin and death – that Word stands forever.
Years later, another prophet faced death and was rotting away in evil King Herod’s prison out in the Judean desert. John’s disciples must have been perplexed, maybe in denial like King Hezekiah. Why was John the Baptist going to take it on the chin if he had indeed pointed to the long-expected Messiah? Why do God’s faithful have to dry up and fade away like the grass of the field, when they’ve seemingly been good and pious and devout, when they’ve even stood up to evil and wicked men with the truth of God’s Word? Wasn’t this God’s appointed time to make things right in the world? Jesus, aren’t you taking too long and going about things in the wrong way?
So the Baptizer sends his men to Jesus to say: “Are you the one who is to come or are we in expectation of another.”
Jesus gives a word of comfort back, as He gave through Isaiah to Hezekiah. My deeds are the works of the Father and the Son – God is at work in the world, shining forth His glory to all flesh, making all things new for the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead even. The poor people of this world, withered and fallen in death’s throes, have the Gospel preached to them. The Word of the Lord stands forever – even if all else fails away.
So do not be offended, or scandalized by the appearances of things in this transitory, dying world. Jesus is not negligent. His will is always holy and right. God works all things together for good to those who love Him – even if that means suffering in prison, suffering sickness, uncertainty, even ultimately being beheaded as John was. Our Lord is gentle with us, even with rebellious, doubting, impatient, angry children. He did not give up on Israel or Hezekiah, He did not give up on John the Baptist or his disciples. He does not give up on you.
All flesh is grass. Even the greatest flesh born of woman is still grass. It withers and fades because the breath of the Lord blows upon it. Our days are numbered. But the Word of God stands forever.
In all our suffering we should look to the comforting Word of God. For there we find the Lord Jesus Christ, who promises to work good through our sorrows and despite our impatience. He says: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. In Me, you have peace” and “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” St. Paul writes: “God is faithful. He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able. (He will enable you) to bear it.”
We cannot know the truth of or be comforted by God’s saving death and resurrection, His gracious forgiving of our sins by His sacrifice, apart from the Word. King Hezekiah, ancient Israel, the prophet Isaiah, and later John the Baptist – all of them do not get to see Jesus perform miracles nor see the grand master plan behind it all lined out for them in every detail. They simply had the Word of comfort that the Savior will come or has come to do the saving work of His Father in heaven, and even if we die to this life, His saving work is enough. In prison, all John has is the Word. Kings, prophets, apostles, the greatest of those born of women, all of you in God’s Kingdom: all must live by the Word and by faith.
The world, because of fear, says: You could die.
God, because of sin, says: You shall surely die. Dust you are and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 2:17) You are like the grass and flowers of the field – destined to dry up and fall down in death. (Is. 40)
But St. Paul, because of Baptism, says: You died, and your life has been hidden with Christ in God. (Col. 3:3) Your life has been buried with Christ in Baptism. (Rom. 6) And our Lord Jesus says: Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:26)
This is how to face the grave and its seeming finality. This is how to face injustice and martyrdom, the loss of income and false accusations, the betrayal of loved ones and an uncertain future. This is how to address your own impatience, fear, and anger, your doubts, anxieties, and sleepless nights. In every affliction arm yourself with the Word that stands forever, look not to your own crosses and the wrongs you endure, but to the cross of Christ who goes willingly, a Lamb to the slaughter, the innocent for the guilty. Thus your true warfare is over and your iniquity is pardoned.
Do not be afraid, friends in Christ, of being grass that withers and the flower that falls away. We do have to die to this life, with our Savior, in order to truly find life with Him. Allow that God will teach you to number your days, according to His good and gracious will. In dying to this fleeting world, we gain real and abundant and never-ending life with the living Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, who stands forever having made the double payment for your sins that you would live forever with Him.
And while you have the blessing of another day from the Lord, live with a joyful resolve, like people who have the true and living hope for today and tomorrow Christ has given you. Cast away the works of darkness, live as children of the day, and do as the Lord says and go and tell what you see and hear: You who were once blind have received your eyes of faith, you who were once deaf to the Word of God have been given ears to hear His voice, and you who were once under the curse of death have been given the promise and hope of eternal life. Blessed indeed are those who are not offended by Jesus. Blessed indeed are those faithful unto death – for Jesus has given them the crown of life.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +