In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Whenever we come to the end of another calendar year, people begin to assess. They look back over the year just past, and they start assessing; they start making lists of the best books, or movies, or music. Lists of the most significant news stories, lists of famous people who died during the year. Or, as the fake news site ClickHole had it, “7 People We Wish Had Been Born in 2015.” And more than that, there’s personal assessment as well. You look back over your year, and you consider what happened, and perhaps you make resolutions for the coming year.
A lot can happen in a year, both good and bad. You know it well. And consider John, who gets the focus for half of Advent: in the space of a week we have essentially heard the bookends of his “career.” Between chapter 3 and chapter 7 there is roughly a year or so. In chapter 3, John is preaching about the Coming One, who is coming after him, though He is before Him. The Coming One, whose sandals John was not worthy to untie, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And John baptizes Him in the Jordan with the sinners. But by chapter 7, John is asking whether Jesus is that Coming One. In chapter 3, John is preaching a baptism of repentance to the brood of vipers, the children of snakes; by chapter 7, John is sitting in the den of “that fox” (13:32), Herod. In chapter 3, John is living in the wilderness of the Jordan; by chapter 7, he’s dying in Herod’s prison. A lot can happen in a year, John found out.
So he sends two messengers to Jesus to ask Him, “Are You the Coming One, or should we wait for another?” Are you the one for whom we’ve been waiting, or should we keep waiting with joyous, hopeful, eager expectation? John has no doubt that the Messiah is coming; the question is whether Jesus is that Messiah. The messengers get to Jesus, and ask Him John’s question, and Jesus says, “Go and declare to John what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and not just the rich, but the poor also, have the good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not scandalized, offended, caused to stumble and fall away from Me.” Go and tell John what you have seen and heard. But that’s what started the whole question in the first place: these same disciples went and declared to John—it’s the same word—what they had seen and heard; they told him all these things. What things? That Jesus had healed a centurion’s servant with a single word; they had seen and heard it. Jesus had raised the dead son of the widow from Nain, literally putting an end to that funeral procession. They had seen what He had done and what He had said. And they went and told John, who told them to go ask Jesus.
Now I do not know for sure whether John is asking a sincere question; people have long argued over whether John is asking for his own sake, or for the sake of the disciples who ask Jesus the question. People can’t quite believe that after everything John had seen and heard and done, that he would really be able to ask Jesus, “Are You the Coming One?” I’m not so sure. Actually, I’m inclined to think that John could very well be asking the question. A lot can happen in a year. He’s sitting in prison, knowing that the Messiah was going to free the prisoners; and yet, there he sits. He’s counting the stones in the wall and the cracks in the ceiling, and maybe the question really does arise in his mind. But I don’t know that; and no one else does either. What I do know is that, either way, John was still a man, and he needed the promise. What I do know is that we still need the promise. But it’s true, John doesn’t seem like the wavering type. Jesus asks the crowds, What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed being shaken by the wind? No; you know John isn’t going to be easily shaken. He has a message to proclaim, and he’s going to do it. What, then? A man dressed in soft clothing, living in luxury, swayed by comfort and affluence? No; those sorts are in kings’ palaces. What, then? A prophet? Yes, and even greater than a prophet, because John is the conclusion, the end, the completion of the prophets, in the Old Testament sense: Jesus is the fulfillment of all prophecy. But that’s not how you come to greatness in the Kingdom of God; there, the last are first and the first are last; there, the greater serves the lesser.
But whatever we make of John, the words of Jesus about John remind us that we are of both kinds: both the wavering and the comfortable. And blessed is the one who does not stumble and fall away from Jesus because of either circumstance. A lot can happen in a year, both good and bad. Sometimes it’s the suffering that shakes you like a reed in the wind. Sometimes it’s the sorrow and the mourning that shake you to your core, and make you wonder what you have ever really believed. Perhaps you’re imprisoned by your thoughts, your emotions, your family, your health, your life. Or maybe it’s the opposite: things are great; you’re comfortable and things are going well. You’ve got the soft clothing of comfort, and it’s complacency that has wrapped its warmth around you. And perhaps that’s the more dangerous for us. When you are suffering, grieving, mourning, you might be turned to the only One who can save you. When you’re comfortable and complacent, you might be turned only to yourself. But blessed is the one who is not scandalized by circumstances, whether good or bad, and falls away from Jesus.
Jesus said that His generation was like those who would neither weep at a dirge, nor rejoice and dance at the flute. It was those who were not brought to repentant weeping by John who could not truly rejoice at Jesus’ coming. This is why we need both Advent and Christmas; Lent and Easter. So that we are not fooled into confusing the way things are, the circumstances, the emotions—both good and bad—with the promise. Advent is the way things are; Christmas is the promise. Advent reminds us that we are waiting, just like John, for the promise. We’re not waiting for Christmas, that is, for Jesus to be born. He was born a long time ago; and it was only a couple years before He died and rose again. We’re not waiting for the Messiah; He has come. We already have, now, His death and resurrection in Holy Baptism and the Holy Supper. We don’t have to wait. And yet we wait. We rejoice now, but not fully. We feast now, but it’s only a taste. Advent is the difference between faith and sight. And all of this that we have heard: John in prison; the Messiah come but things don’t look any different; our lives as we experience them versus what we heard and believed—all of this is very far from everything the world calls Christmas. The world cannot wait; it knows no future. Wait for Christ? We can barely wait for Christmas. So we have to cover up Advent, make it nothing more than the days leading up to Christmas. We can’t wait; we want all the good feelings now. We cover up Advent with tinsel and lights; shiny smiles and blankets of newly fallen snow. Who wants to think about how things are? Christmas might be our greatest form of escapism, into a world that has no evil in it, only sparkles and light. But John knows better. And Christians know better. Because we are not optimists; but neither are we pessimists. We are realists with the reality of God, revealed in Jesus Christ in this world. Death and suffering have a way of interrupting our perfect Christmas dreams, whatever they are. Sometimes we have to suffer Advent. John suffered Advent, waiting for the Messiah to release the captives. People in Paris, or San Bernadino, or in this congregation in various ways, suffer Advent. Advent, like Lent, are about the way things are, the way we see and feel and experience this world. Advent, like Lent, is about sin and death. Nevertheless, Advent, like Lent, points to present reality in Christ that is beyond what we can see and feel. Advent and Lent point to the hope that trusts in Jesus’ words in spite of circumstances.
600 years before Jesus was born, God spoke to the people of Israel through the prophet Zephaniah. Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon were breathing down the neck of Israel, and Zephaniah himself had prophesied that Babylon would come and destroy Israel and take them into exile. But then, toward the end of his prophecy, he says something strange. He says to Israel, “Yahweh has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies.” Which must have sounded sort of surreal to stunned Israel. Actually, Zephaniah, it seems pretty much exactly the opposite of that. He has cleared away our enemies? When Babylon is on its way? But when God speaks, it’s as good as done. It’s so certain, God speaks in the past tense, as if it had already happened. Zephaniah goes on: Yahweh says, I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. I will rejoice over you with gladness; I will quiet you with My love; I will exult over you with loud singing. Yes, even as Babylon comes south.
When God speaks, it’s as good as done. Though John died in prison, when Jesus raises the dead and preaches good news to the poor, it’s as good as done for John, and for you. Whether Jesus comes in a year, or two, or a thousand; whether He comes sooner or later, the Coming One continues to sustain us with His very real Presence, the same way He sustained John: with a word, a promise. John got nothing more when he sent his messengers to Jesus, and we have nothing more. Just a promise. But it is Jesus‘ promise, and that makes all the difference in the world. We have the words of those who saw and heard what Jesus said and did, and they proclaim it to us so that we might believe along with them and with John, stuck in a dead-end prison. Rejoice in that word! Rejoice in the Lord always! Whether this year brings you good or bad, again I say: rejoice in the Lord who stands near at hand. He will sustain you so that you cannot be shaken. He is the Coming One, who has come and will come again; who will finally put this long, tired Advent to bed, until we wake on that Christmas Day and Resurrection Day rolled up into one. That will be the greatest Day that we have never imagined. It’s as good as done; Jesus said so.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/12/15