Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 22:45 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
After the messengers of John go away from Jesus to tell John what they have seen and heard, Jesus begins to speak to the crowds about John. “What did you go out in the wilderness to see?” Why did you go out to see and hear John? Was it because you thought he would be like a reed in the wind, wavering, first saying one thing and now saying another? No, of course not. Was it because you thought you would see someone dressed in soft clothing, surrounded by luxury and abundance? No, you went into the wilderness, not into a palace. So what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, and more than a prophet, because this is the one of whom God spoke, through the prophet Malachi: I will send My messenger before My face, to prepare My way. But now, in the mouth of Jesus, it is revealed that when God sends a messenger before Himself, it is a messenger before the eternal Son in the flesh. This is how God appears in the world, in the flesh of Jesus.
That is what they should have heard in the wilderness: John’s preaching and baptizing was the preparation for God to appear in the world. And what happens when God appears in the world? Isaiah told us. In the wilderness, there will be blooming and rejoicing; in the wilderness there will be water where before there was only dry, dusty desert. And what does water in the desert look like? It looks like blind people seeing, deaf people hearing, lame people walking, and good news preached, both to the materially and the spiritually poor. And that, of course, is what Jesus tells John; this is what has happened. That means God has appeared in the world.
But, really, is this it? Is this what the Reign of God in the world looks like? Because healing the blind, deaf, and lame is impressive, but there were still lame, deaf, and blind people. Raising the dead is great, at least for the two or three people whom Jesus raised. As it was then, so it is now. We still have hospitals, medicine, doctors, glasses, hearing aids, crutches, and funeral homes. Sin and death are as rampant as they were when John preached in the wilderness, and people confessed their sins, and were baptized. We still have Advent.
And while Jesus is talking, John is still in prison. People disagree about whether he was having his messengers ask this question—are You the coming one or should we keep waiting for someone else?—for their sake or for his. I admit, I’m inclined to think that it is a genuine question, to which Jesus gives a genuine answer. But either way, whether he’s asking for himself or for them, he’s still in prison. The judgment on the wicked has not yet come, and the ax that was laid to the root of the trees seems to be delaying longer than it should. We look around at the world, and it seems like just about now would be a good time for God to bring an end to the wicked.
Is this same old, same old what the Kingdom of God looks like? Yes, Jesus says. In fact, this is exactly what the Kingdom of God looks like in this world. From the time of John the Baptist until now (and until now), the Kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violence seize it with force. They take John and imprison him and cut his head off. They take Jesus and arrest Him, beat Him, mock Him, crucify Him, and bury Him. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like, and still those who believe the word of Jesus are put in prison, and persecuted, and killed. Still the violence of the violent ones rages against God and His messengers and His Love in the flesh of Jesus.
And we get no more answer than John got. Look at what Jesus did and believe that He will finish what He started: that the little, barely noticeable trickle of healing, and feeding, and gathering will someday become a flood of rejoicing in the wilderness. That the day is coming when the single blooming rose in the wilderness of this world will become a desert full of flowers. That the day is coming when the way prepared for the Lord will be revealed as the way of Holiness for the redeemed of the Lord, when He will gather us all together from wherever we have been scattered, and come to Zion with singing. Everlasting joy will be upon our heads, and we shall obtain the fullness of gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away forever.
So what did you go out of your house to see? Not what’s happening in the world. That is clear, and always has been. No, what did you come here to see? The full glory of God in all the majesty and splendor of eternity? Or maybe for all your problems to suddenly dry up and go away? Did you think that believing in God will make your life materially and financially better? Or that the appearance of God in the world would immediately remove all the evil in the world? Well, God is removing wickedness, but He’s starting with you and me. John is still preaching: repent and confess your sins. Become a different person and bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor and the weapons of light. Jesus is coming!
Indeed. Confess. But confess and repent unto, or toward, the forgiveness of sins. Because Advent means that not only is John preaching, but Jesus is preaching too. He is bringing the Kingdom of God to you now, in the forgiveness of your sins and the salvation from yourself and from this evil generation. Jesus has come, and He stands among us not yet with the fire of judgment and purification, but humble, bringing salvation. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like in this world, always under the cross. It looks like it always has: water, bread, wine, words. It looks like promises made, awaiting their keeping in the fullness of God’s time. It looks like the people of God gathered and awaiting from the Lord great and abundant mercy, which He freely gives. Is this all the Kingdom of God is? Yes, because it is Jesus ruling and reigning in mercy; but also no, because we have not yet seen the wilderness of this world transformed into the paradise of God. But the day is coming. Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you. Then all the signs that Jesus did will become the rule, rather than the exception; the whole, rather than the part; for all, even as for some. Let those who have ears, hear the word of the Lord.
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, 12/10/22