Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sermon for Third Sunday in Advent

                                                                                                  Advent 3
                                                                                                  Mt. 11:2-10

            I have never been to Mount Rushmore. And I guess the reason for this is that if you are going to see Mount Rushmore, it is because you are going out specifically in order to see Mount Rushmore.  If you live in the Midwest, it’s not the kind of place you are going to stumble across. 
            Located in the southwest part of the state of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore is a long ways away.  It’s a long ways away in the vast expanse of the west. And it isn’t exactly on the beaten path, set as it is in the northern part of our country.  That part of our nation is a long ways away, and I am trying to be kind when I say that there probably aren’t a great number of reasons why you would go there.
            Mount Rushmore is southwest of Rapid City, South Dakota.  To the east there is Badlands National Park – and let’s face it, the name Badlands tells you a great deal.  Mount Rushmore is set in the vicinity of Black Hills National Forest.  From the pictures that I have seen, this is certainly a beautiful area.  But here again, there isn’t really anything there.  It’s a wilderness, a long ways from where we live.  It’s unlikely that many people here in Illinois are going wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to make a road trip to go see the Black Hills.”
            The truth of the matter is the Mount Rushmore was created in large part because there isn’t much that would prompt people to travel to that area of South Dakota.  Duane Robinson is credited with first conceiving the idea of Mount Rushmore during the 1920’s. He dreamed up the project in order to help promote tourism to South Dakota. He did it to help give people a reason to come visit the state.  And, I think we have to say that he was successful.  The National Park Service reports that three million visitors a year make the trip out in order to see Mount Rushmore.
            In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is talking about John the Baptist.  He asks the people, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” They hadn’t gone out into a place where there was nothing in order to see a reed shaking in the wind.  They didn’t go out to see a rich person dressed in soft clothing.  Instead, our Lord emphasizes that they went out there to see a prophet – John the Baptist.
            As we prepare for Christmas during Advent, this morning our text leads us to consider the one who prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist teaches us about the awesome importance of Jesus Christ who was born in Bethlehem.  But John the Baptist also teaches us about the unexpected character of Jesus’ saving work, and what it means for us.
            In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus has just answered a question that John the Baptist had sent to him through several of his disciples.  We learn in our text, “As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’”
            Our Lord refers to the way that large crowds had gone out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness of the Jordan River.  Matthew tells us, “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him.”  This wasn’t first time something like this had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last. The first century historian Josephus tells us about a number of occasions when people went out into the wilderness in order to see a person who seemed to be prophet.  People were looking for God to act, and they were drawn to someone who might be God’s prophet announcing the arrival of this saving action.
            People had gone out to see John in the wilderness because they went to see a prophet.  And Jesus announces in our text that they were exactly right.  There had been fakes in the past. There would be fakes in the future. But John the Baptist was the real deal.  He was a prophet.  And in fact, he wasn’t just a prophet.  He was more than that. Our Lord says, “A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’”
            Jesus announced that John the Baptist was not just any prophet.  He was the prophesied prophet.  He was the prophet of the end-times that Malachi had foretold.  John the Baptist was the final prophet who announced that God’s end time salvation was about to arrive.  He was the one whose presence announced that it was in fact the last days.
            This is something that we need to hear in these days leading up to Christmas.  John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the One whose birth in Bethlehem we are preparing to celebrate.  He was the one described by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson:      “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
            Christmas in our world is wrapped up in so much sappy sentimentality.  John the Baptist tells us that all of this is trivial nonsense when we consider what actually happened at Christmas. Christmas is about the arrival of the Last Days.  It’s about God acting in a definitive and mighty way to bring salvation to humanity and all of creation as the Son of God was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
            This is most certainly true. But in the circumstances of John the Baptist we are also alerted to the fact that things may not be as straightforward as we would like them to be.  Our text begins by saying, “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”
            John the Baptist is the last and greatest prophet.  He is the prophesied prophet.  He announces that God’s end time salvation is arriving.  And he is in prison, put there by a petty tyrant because John had confronted the king’s sin. Very soon the king will cut off John’s head, prompted by the vindictive scheming of his wife.
            It doesn’t make sense. It certainly didn’t make sense to John, and so he sent the question to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  John had proclaimed the arrival of God’s reign – a reign that would save God’s people and destroy all that is evil in this world. Jesus had begun his ministry.  And yet, now John was sitting in prison, put there by the kind of person John had said God was going to remove.
            Jesus responded to John’s question by sending back this answer: “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 answered John by pointing him to the saving work that he was carrying out – works that Isaiah had prophesied about the salvation of the last days.  Jesus’ answer to John was: “Yes!  I am he!”
            But our Lord went on to add something else.  He said, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  Jesus said that yes he was exactly what John the Baptist expected.  And he also said that he was doing things in ways that John did not expect. He was doing things in ways so unexpected that they could indeed be considered offensive.
            At the end of October I spoke to about two hundred pastors at the South Wisconsin District pastors conference in Madison, WI.  During one of those sessions, I told them that this is one of my favorite texts in the whole Bible.  It is because it speaks so directly to the lives that we live today.
            We are preparing to celebrate Christmas.  We will celebrate that the Son of God was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  We celebrated the same thing last year, and the year before that, and so on.  And yet, like John the Baptist in prison we can look around us and ask: “What difference has it made?”  We look around us at a world that is still filled with evil. We see a world that is becoming ever more hostile to the Christian faith. We see a world that is still filled pain, suffering and loss.  And those aren’t just things we find “out there.” Those are things we find in our own lives. And when we think about things in these terms, we can become frustrated with God. We begin to doubt God.
            The thing that I appreciate so much about our text is that Jesus meets this head on. He looks us right in the eye and says, “Yes it’s not what you expect.  But my saving reign is present. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
            The saving reign of God entered into the world at Christmas as God himself came to dwell with us.  Yet the purpose for which the Son of God came into our world is not one that we would expect.  He came not to be served, but to serve.  He came to submit himself to humiliation and suffering and death.  If we had stood there and watched him hang on the cross on Good Friday, we would have asked the same question as John the Baptist: “Are you the coming one, or should we look for another.”
            Yet in the midst of that weakness and suffering God was doing his most mighty thing. He was working the forgiveness of our sins.  And then on the third day, he did something else unexpected.  He raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  In the resurrection everything became clear. In the resurrection we learn that God had been at work all along in unexpected ways in order to give us forgiveness, salvation and eternal life.
            Now, the Lord who entered into our world at Christmas has ascended into heaven.  But because of what Jesus Christ did in his death and resurrection, we are now able trust that we are the forgiven children of God.  We are able to trust that God’s saving reign is present with us now, no matter what may be going on in our life and world.  We are able to do this because we have seen how God has already worked in unexpected ways in Christ. And because he has done this, we can trust that he is at work in our lives too.
            We know this, and so we are also able to encourage and support others.  We are able to point them to Jesus who died on the cross and rose from the dead. We are able to encourage them with the knowledge that in the death and resurrection of Jesus we find God’s great “Yes!” that gives us strength in the present and that allows us to look to the future with confidence and hope.  This is the word that we speak to one another – a word that goes beyond words as it prompts us to actions of support and caring.
            On this morning, we hear Jesus talk about John the Baptist. We learn that John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of Jesus the Christ.  He announced the arrival of God’s mighty saving action.  Because John is in prison, we are reminded that this mighty action takes place in unexpected ways. But because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we know that it is God’s saving action and that he continues to love and care for us.


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