“How can this be?” On June, 7 1942 as the Japanese Navy was sailing back to Japan, this is what they were asking themselves. The unthinkable had just happened. The Japanese had suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Midway.
For the Japanese, World War II had begun as a string of amazing successes. The surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 was a stunning victory. They had quickly conquered Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines and the supposedly impregnable British stronghold of Singapore in as victory followed victory. Japan had achieved all of its initial goals and at the beginning of 1942 the commanders began to plan the next move.
Looking back, the Japanese coined a term to describe their outlook. The called it “victory disease.” They had achieve so much success so quickly, that they considered victory to be inevitable. They overestimated their power and underestimated the Americans.
The American aircraft carriers had been out to sea when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred and had escaped. They had proven to be a continuing threat. Admiral Yamamoto’s plan was to force them to meet him in battle by attacking Midway Island. There, his superior numbers would allow him to annihilate the American carriers.
Yamamoto believed that he would outnumber the Americans four to two in aircraft carriers since the U.S.S. Yorktown had just been severely damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea in the beginning of May. But the Japanese were mistaken on two accounts. First, the Americans worked around the clock and were able to repair the Yorktown so that it was ready for action.
And second, the Americans knew that the Japanese were coming. American intelligence had cracked the Japanese naval code, and they knew that Midway was the target. When the Japanese arrived, the American aircraft carriers were already in position and ready to strike. In the ensuing battle all four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk – four of the six that had launched the Pearl Harbor attack. It was what military historian John Keegan has called, "the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.” The Japanese could only ask, “How can this be?”
In our Gospel lesson this morning, John the Baptist sits in prison and is asking the same question: “How can this be?” Nothing about his ministry was going as he expected it to – which is very troubling when you know for certain that you are a prophet sent by God. Things were not happening as they were supposed to, and so John sent a question to Jesus by means of his disciples. He asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
John the Baptist’s ministry had gotten off to an impressive start. Would you expect anything less? After all, he was the “prophesied prophet.” He was the prophet that other prophets had foretold. We hear one of those prophecies in our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah chapter 40. As Matthew tells us: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”
John was hard to miss – he dressed like Elijah as he wore camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waste. He dwelt in the wilderness and lived off the land as he ate locusts and wild honey. People were looking for God to act. His action in the Old Testament was associated with the wilderness. And so they flocked out to hear John’s message and receive his baptism. Matthew tells us, “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
Even the Pharisees and the Sadducees came to check him out.
John’s message was clear. He called all to repentance because God was about to act. And John left no doubt about what this action would be. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John declared that God was sending the one who would bring the judgment of the Last Day.
This coming one had arrived. And much to his surprise, Jesus asked to receive John’s baptism. John wanted to prevent this. He said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” And so John baptized him.
Now, Jesus had begun his ministry. John was hearing reports that Jesus was doing amazing things. But he hadn’t brought God’s judgment against sin. He hadn’t brought the Last Day. And this fact pressed in on John because of where John the Baptist now found himself. John had spoken out against King Herod Antipas because he had taken his brother’s wife to be his own. So Herod Antipas showed John who was king. He had John thrown in prison.
John asked himself, “How can this be?” It didn’t make sense. And so John sent a question to Jesus via his disciples. It was the only question that mattered for John. He asked, “Are you the coming One, or should we look for another?”
John’s question is just as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. The question he asks is the same one – if we are honest – that we wonder about. We are getting ready to celebrate Christmas. We will celebrate that the Son of God entered into our world in the incarnation.
But it’s easy to wonder, “What difference has it made?” Sin is still here. It’s present in our lives as we hurt others. It’s present all around us. It still causes people to get cancer and die. It still causes violence and murders and wars. What’s more the Gospel isn’t believed by so many people. It’s rejected by people we know – by people who are our friends; by people who are our own family.
“Are you the coming One, or should we look for another?” That’s the question John asked. Jesus replied, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus pointed to the miracles that he was doing in his ministry. Yet he did so in a very special way. He used language from Isaiah chapters 35 and 61 – language that described God’s end time salvation. Jesus’ answer is a resounding, “Yes!” He leaves no doubt. But then he adds, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus says to you, “I am your Savior … if you are not offended by me.” Our Lord puts us on notice that he is doing things in ways we do not expect … and frankly don’t want. We will see this already at Christmas. God’s answer to the enormity of sin and evil in the world is a baby lying in a feeding trough for animals. But at least that scene is cute. Things only get worse because it turns out that his answer is a tortured man dying on a cross. And things don’t get any better because he says the answer is now the message about this crucified One – a message that people all around you reject as dumb and stupid. The answer is water and some words. The answer is bread and wine on an altar.
Jesus declares that he is the answer. And blessed is the one who is not offended by him. He says this because of what we have been hearing in our mid-week Advent readings. Jesus is the incarnate Son of God – true God and true man. He was present bringing the reign of God in his ministry through his message and miracles.
Yes, the cross looked like foolishness. But that’s because God chose to make the world’s wisdom foolish. St. Paul told the Corinthians: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to 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.”
The confirmation of this fact occurred in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his resurrection Jesus defeated sin’s most powerful outcome – death. By Jesus’ death, your sins have been forgiven. By Jesus’ resurrection, your resurrection and transformation has already started.
Jesus says to you, “I am your Savior … if you are not offended by me.” Jesus was mighty in the midst of humility. He was powerful in the midst of rejection. His resurrection and ascension demonstrated this was true. Now his saving work is mighty in the midst of humility. His Gospel is powerful in the midst of rejection.
There is no doubt that Jesus’ saving work is humble. It occurs through a word that is preached, when even people who claim to be members of his church don’t bother to show up and hear it. It occurs through water in a font, and bread and wine on an altar. But it is mighty for through these means the death of the Son of God becomes yours. Through these means you receive the ability to be in fellowship with the Creator of the universe.
There is no doubt that his Gospel is rejected. But it is powerful in that is it giving eternal life to all who believe and trust in Jesus. And it is powerful because the rejection of this Gospel brings eternal damnation.
Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who not offended by me.” This includes now the life that you live because of Jesus. Our Lord’s might is now shown in your humility - in your willingness to help and serve others because of Jesus. You have faith in Jesus. Martin Luther commented on our Gospel lesson that after trusting in Jesus you are to, “think nothing else then to do to your neighbor as Christ has done to you, and let all your works with all your life be directed to your neighbor. Look for the poor, sick and all kinds of needy; help them, and let it be the practice of your life that they are benefited by you, helping whoever needs you, as much as you possibly can with your body, property and honor.”
Like faith itself, this too will look foolish to the world. But the whole of the Christian life is founded on the crucified and risen One. And it lives in the confidence that Jesus is still the coming One. John the Baptist was correct. Jesus is the One who will clear his threshing floor, gather his wheat into the barn, and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. He is the One who will come in might and irresistible power as he brings judgment upon all who have rejected him and gives resurrection life in the new creation to all who have believed and trusted in him. Blessed is the one who is not offended by Jesus - blessed now, and for all eternity.