12-12-21 Gaudete

December 12, 2021
Passage: Matthew 11:2-10
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John the Baptist was the greatest preacher the world had ever seen. Unlike so many popular preachers today, he refused to pander to the crowds or cower before the elite: he was totally uncorruptible – no money would change what he preached, no political considerations decided what he said, no praise of men determined his words. He spoke the truth to power, called out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, condemned the immorality of Herod. Jesus says it – he was no reed shaken in the wind, no coward who bent this way and that depending on which way the cultural winds were blowing. The modern equivalent of a reed shaken in the wind would be the liberal churches of our time, who will change their position on women in the church, on marriage, on homosexuality, on creation and evolution, on abortion, on anything at all, if that’s the way the culture swings. Or the weak-kneed pastor who will say what he needs to say just to keep his cushy salary. John the Baptist was no reed shaken in the wind. He didn’t need a salary. He ate locusts and wild honey and lived in the wilderness. As the great poet Bob Dillon once sang, When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose. But John did have something. In fact he had everything. Because he had the truth. He stood on the truth of God’s word and that word didn’t and doesn’t change. Everything else will change, but not that – as John himself, the voice in the wilderness, cries out: “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty as the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”

People pleasers are comfort seekers. The only reason I have ever failed to speak the truth when I was called upon to do so, is because I didn’t want to make a situation awkward. Why not? Why not make it awkward? Because I want my own comfort, that’s why. Having people mad at you or looking down on you isn’t comfortable. But John the Baptist simply didn’t think that way. He had God looking down on him and he knew it. And so he was constantly more concerned about what God thought of him than what people thought of him. God showed this even in John’s clothing. He was a freak, a spectacle, dressed in camel hide, living in the desert. He didn’t seek his own material comfort. His comfort was the Word of God. So Jesus says it – he didn’t live in a king’s palace, didn’t wear soft clothes.

This is the picture of what a preacher of God’s Word is supposed to be, not the clothes or the diet or the environment, but the uncompromising stand on the Bible. A Christian preacher doesn’t preach to please the world out there and he doesn’t preach or teach to make sure everyone likes him. He’s faithful to God’s Word, loves it, and so loves the people by giving them what they really need, what God died to give them – the truth.

And this also meant John’s preaching was practical – it changed people’s lives. The caricature of John is of a stubborn, unbending, hard man, who did nothing but preach hell and brimstone. But that’s just not the right picture. He did call everyone to repentance, did tell them they were poor miserable sinners in need of a Savior. But he also preached that Savior, preached comfort and pardon, that the Lord would come to His people and give them from His own hand double for all their sins. John, remember, is the one who pointed to Jesus and shouted, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

And this truth changes lives. It is life. It forms the Christian life. What should we do, the tax collectors asked John? And he said, Don’t collect too much money. Don’t steal. God is coming in human flesh. Are you really going to live life acting like its goal is gaining more and more money and stuff when the Creator of the universe is about to visit this earth? What should we do, the soldiers asked him, and John said, “Be content with your wages and stop using your muscles and your position to bully people. The Son of God is coming to become your Brother, to redeem the whole world by His humility and His suffering and His death: how could you possibly insist on your own right when God is giving up His right for you? How could you possibly be discontent with your station in life, when God is leaving heaven and coming down to you to raise you to everlasting glory?

Act, in other words, according to reality, according to the truth. The truth is very obviously not that money, or winning an argument with your spouse, or getting all the right things for Christmas on time, are going to make you happy or solve your problems or make you content. You’re a sinner, evil dwells within you, was born in you, is knocking on your door, and it leads to death and eternal separation from God: that’s reality, and it’s a much more pressing reality than whatever petty concerns you might have about shopping or having enough money or someone hurting your feelings or insulting your pride. God is coming. God is coming to save you from your sin. God is coming to take on human nature, to become a baby, and to live for you and die for you and rise from death as its Conqueror. Seek Him when He may be found. Live life looking forward to meeting Him. Don’t spend it obsessing over things that are passing away. That’s what John preached. And this truth prepared men and women and children to receive their Savior.

So if Paul could say that he could find nothing blameworthy in himself as a preacher, because he had preached the truth, John the Baptist could say it without fear of pride or bragging – he did what God sent him to do, he preached the truth without compromise, even to the point of his own imprisonment – he was in prison by the way for preaching the truth about marriage between one man and one woman: Herod the king didn’t like that, and our Herods, our politicians, don’t like it either. Too bad. God exists. Jesus rules in heaven and on earth. He comes to judge the nations. Marriage is what He says it is and what His creation shows it to be: the lifelong union of one man with one woman, for mutual companionship and for the raising of a Christian family. And we’ll stand on that beautiful truth without compromise, so help us God.

John was in prison. And John, this perfect preacher, this man whom Jesus praises as the greatest of those born among women, he sends his disciples to Jesus and says, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” I don’t know if he’s doubting here. It seems obvious he is, but really smart and pious people like Martin Luther insisted he wasn’t. I don’t know if it matters. Because what is certain is this – John wanted to hear the Gospel, he wanted to hear the truth, he wanted it spoken in his ears. It didn’t matter how much and how faithfully he had preached it in the past. He needed to hear it now. And this teaches us three things.

First, that pastors need to hear the word of God just as much as everyone else. When I preach I preach also to myself. Pastors can’t stand up here as your judge picking away at your faults and your sins as if they have none of their own. Your pastors are very aware of their own need to hear the law, we sincerely kneel at that altar and say with you, “I a poor miserable sinner,” our greatest joy in life is to receive with you the forgiveness of our sins and the body and the blood of our Lord that give us life forever with our God. The office of pastor, though it does require more knowledge of the Bible and biblical languages and history and ability to teach, doesn’t render a preacher holier than thou or in less need of forgiveness than you.

Second, if John the Baptist still needed to learn, not just to receive the forgiveness of his sins, but to learn about who Jesus was and who we are to be in Him, if the best and greatest preachers still have things to learn from God’s Word, then never think that you’ve learned it all, never think that Christian knowledge is learning that can be exhausted in this short life on earth. Martin Luther famously said that no one should consider himself to have learned the Bible enough unless he’s spent a hundred years reading it, studying it, teaching it. The point being it’s not going to happen in this lifetime.

I was sitting at a coffee shop yesterday and couldn’t help listening in on a fellow spout off very confidently some very embarrassing nonsense about all religions being the same, about Jesus being a Jew and not a Christian, about aliens and angels mating with humans, and despite his absurd self-confidence and his overbearing volume and his complete lack of coherent, logical argument, I was at least impressed with his enthusiasm. He was excited about the nonsense he was talking about.

We have the truth. We should be far more excited about it, far more enthused about it, far more eager to learn more and more and more about it. When Jesus tells us to be like little children, this is at least part of it. They are always asking questions. Always seeking more knowledge. Always excited to learn more. And the more they learn, the more questions they have. John the Baptist sat in that prison wanting to learn more, wanting to hear that Jesus was fulfilling all the prophecies of the Old Testament, wanting to know the diseases he cured, the Gospel he preached, whom He preached it to, what it meant to be the greatest of the prophets, and how being a simple Christian is greater than any office and any power in all the world.

And finally, John teaches us to learn this truth from Jesus. Jesus is the truth. John preached Jesus, He said, “He must increase and I must decrease.” And here he doesn’t give his own opinions about Jesus to his disciples. He sends them to Jesus to hear the truth from Him.

We don’t go seeking the truth like that guy in the coffee shop, blindly groping about and trying to find it from this religion and that religion, or as my mom says, being so openminded that our brains fall out. No, we seek the truth from Jesus. We are biased toward Him. Because He is no Buddha, no Mohammed, no Joseph Smith who invented silly unworkable fantasies. He is no religious dreamer. He is the Lord who could point around Him, it was so obvious, point around Him and say look and see, hear and understand, the blind are seeing, the deaf are hearing, lepers are cleansed, the lame are walking, the poor have the Gospel preached to them, the Kingdom of God has come. As He later said to the chief priests, I did nothing in secret. His works were known to all. And then He did exactly what He said He would do. He said He would be betrayed and suffer and die for the sins of the world and He did. He said He would rise again the third day and He did. He said this Gospel would be preached to all nations. And it has. And blessed are they who are not offended at Him.

This is why you stubbornly hold to the truth and you insist on getting it from Jesus. Today is called Gaudete, which means “rejoice.” The truth cheered John in prison and it made him face death with confidence. He got the truth from Jesus. That’s where he got it. And that’s where we’ll get it. When Jesus says that those who are least in the kingdom of God are greater than John the Baptist he’s not insulting John, he’s telling us how precious a thing we have in this truth, how much more reason we have to rejoice than John. John never got to hear the truth of how Pilate condemned Jesus to death, how nails and spear pierced Him, how He cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me? He never got to hear the truth that Christ was risen, that it had happened, that it was a reality, that death was conquered, sin paid for, heaven opened. He never got to take Jesus’ true body and blood into his mouth. He never got to hear the truth, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He never got to hear the truth of Pentecost and never got to see how the Gospel spread to all creatures. We have. We will not have the glory of being the forerunner of God when He came to visit this earth in human flesh – that belonged exclusively to John and he is the greatest of those born of women for it. But we have something greater. We have been born of God Himself, we receive the flesh and blood of the eternal Son. We have the truth John preached would come and the truth Jesus fulfilled. God grant we never be offended by it, that we treasure it as more precious than life itself, that we – though the least – rejoice to remain sons of the Kingdom of heaven. Amen.

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