Gaudete – Third Sunday in Advent
“What Did You Go Out to See?”
Seminarian Andrew Keller, Vicar
St. Matthew 11.2-11
15 December 2019
+ In the Name of Jesus +
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Advent is a season filled with expectations. For many, these expectations are about what presents they will receive, what food will be served, and how many people will they host. When expectations are low, this can lead to pleasant surprises and excitement. However, when expectations are high, disappointment often follows.
Jesus, in the Gospel reading from St. Matthew, addressed the crowd’s expectations concerning John the Baptizer. John was recognized as a great prophet, perhaps Elijah come again. His clothing was ragged, but his preaching fiery. Some expected him to be the Messiah, come to reestablish David’s kingdom on earth and overthrow the occupying forces of Rome. Yet, now that he was imprisoned, they flocked to Jesus. In response, Jesus asked them three times, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”
Did they go out to see a reed shaking in the wind? A reed being blown in the wind implies that its base is not strong, and even a soft breeze can move it. This implies that the man who shakes in the wind is a man who has no backbone. It is a man who says one thing, but when trouble appears, he withers under the pressure, and turns into a ‘yes-man.’ John was no such prophet, but called the Pharisees, “A brood of Vipers,” and spoke out against Herod’s sin, which led to his imprisonment and ultimately his death. If they were looking for a reed shaking in the wind, they would have to look elsewhere.
Did the people go out to see a man in soft clothing? Jesus filled in the context we are missing when He said, “Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in king’s houses.” John had told the crowd that he was preparing the way for the one who was coming. Given the expectations of who this Messiah would be, namely a political or military leader to bring Israel to prominence, John’s appearance did not fit. He wore camel skin, likely had long hair, and dined on locust and wild honey. This is hardly the behavior of a royal herald, nor the wilderness the courtroom of the king to come.
Did the people go out to see a prophet? Yes, but did they understand his message? Unlike the previous prophets, John was the chosen prophet to prepare the way for the Messiah, as the Gospel of St. Matthew applies the prophet Malachi’s words, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.” John’s preaching was always pointing ahead to the one long expected. He witnessed and proclaimed the Lamb of God, come to take away the sin of the world. He baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. Yet, he would not witness Christ’s ultimate victory.
Did the crowd expect John the Baptizer to be thrown in jail? Did John expect this? Rotting away in a cell and being beheaded do not fit spineless preachers or royal pages, but more often than not this was the path of the prophets. As the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, he was persecuted and killed for the right preaching of the Word, in the line of his predecessors. Yet, John’s death prefigures what the Word made flesh will go through. Jesus, a prophet, priest and king, also was persecuted for His preaching, thrown into jail, and crucified. His crime? The proper preaching and teaching of the Word. This certainly was not the expectation the people had for the Messiah.
Like the prophets, John the Baptizer and Jesus before us, the Word preached in its truth and purity will bring about persecution today. Is this the expectation of Christians today? Or do they expect the life of a Christian to be as the mega-church pastors portray: nice suits, stadiums full of people cheering, a private jet or two, a life of luxury and success. These are the wrong expectation of the life of discipleship. Their preaching is often a preaching of prosperity-do good and good will come to you. When this is the expectation, those whose lives do not improve think that they aren’t doing enough to merit God’s love and providence. The preaching of life centered around karma is not proper preaching of the Gospel. Instead, the right preaching is of Christ crucified and a life shaped and born under the cross. In a world of sin and death, suffering will come to us all in many ways. You might not suffer in the same way as John or the prophets. Perhaps you will have an accident and have to battle insurance companies for thousands of dollars. You or a loved one receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer. You or a loved one pray fervently for a child, with no apparent answer. You lose the job that your family depends on for sustenance. Whatever you might be going through, the life of the Christian is not a carefree one, nor did Jesus promise it would be.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, what did you go out to see? Are you seeking a pastor who is non-judgmental and will validate any sinful life choice? Are you seeking a service tailored around your enjoyment, which doesn’t remotely touch on sin and the need for repentance? Are you seeking a faith healer, a life coach, or a televangelist?
Of course not! You came here because this church preaches what St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians says, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” You came here to have the good news of Jesus crucified and risen preached to you. You confess that, even though you face suffering, restoration is found in Jesus. You came, not as ones scandalized by Him, but fully dependent on Him. His Word testifies that He is truly the Christ, that by His death and resurrection, you are no longer in death’s grasp but are inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. You could not come by your own accord, as we confess in Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed: I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” You came because He has called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light.
This Advent, we look forward to Christ’s coming, not only in the manger, but also on the Last Day. What should our expectations be? Recall what Isaiah prophesied, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.” God is faithful to His Word. He promised that all who hold to Christ crucified and risen shall live eternally. He called you to Him by the Gospel, that when you close your eyes in death, it is not the end, but will take you and all believers in Christ to Himself in Heaven. When you suffer, grieve, or near death, know that He will not disappoint these expectations. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.