I have a question for the adults who are here this morning, and it is this: Is you life today what you expected it to be? Can you say today that things have turned out as you had planned?
Most likely, for almost all of us, the answer is no. We make plans, and then sometimes we change our mind. New experience and information may cause us to adjust our plans. Sometimes we find we it is we who have changed, and what once sounded so good now does not interest us all. And then sometimes God allows circumstances to enter our life and alter it in unexpected ways. We learn that God’s plans and our plans are different – and that we are going to be doing it God’s way.
As Christians, we are called to accept this in faith. We believe and trust in God even when things aren’t going as planned. Because we have seen what God has done in his Son Jesus Christ, we know that we can trust in the Lord and his good intentions for us.
In the Gospel lesson this morning, we find John the Baptist in prison. Things have not gone as he had expected. Yet while we recognize that this is part of life as God’s people, John the Baptist did not expect it. He didn’t because John was very different from you and me. He was God’s prophet. And he wasn’t even “just a prophet.” He was the “prophesied prophet.” He was the prophet whom earlier prophets had foretold. John’s prophetic ministry was itself a fulfillment of prophecy.
We hear one of these prophecies in the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah chapter 40 which speaks about a voice in the wilderness. Matthew tells us in his Gospel: “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
We hear another prophecy at the end of the Gospel lesson where Jesus asks, “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.’” Christ tells us that John the Baptist is the end time prophet foretold by Malachi.
John knew what he was. He showed up in the wilderness dressed like the prophet Elijah as he wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist. And John knew what he was there to do. He had come to call Israel to repentance in preparation for the coming one who would bring God’s end time judgment. 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 had met the coming one. And then, things had started to go sideways. Matthew tells us: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘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.’ Then he consented.”
John called people to receive his baptism as demonstration of their repentance before God. But now Jesus – the coming one – submitted himself to this baptism. Then he went off and began a ministry. He announced the same thing John the Baptist had said: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He started to preach and do miracles – he healed people and cast out demons, and even raised the dead.
But nothing else changed. The Last Day didn’t arrive. And in fact, while Jesus was helping many people, he wasn’t bringing judgment. No chaff was being burned up. Instead, the powerful continued to do what they wanted. King Herod Antipas had sinned by taking his brother’s wife for himself. John the Baptist called him out for this. And Herod showed John who was in charge. He had John thrown in prison.
This is not what John had expected. Things had not turned out as John had planned. And this was utterly confusing because as the prophet sent by God, John knew that what he had said was the truth. He was right. So how could things have turned out so wrong? John didn’t understand. Doubt had begun to pierce his prophetic certainty.
And so we hear in our text: “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Christ, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” John asked whether Jesus was indeed the coming one. He asked whether he had gotten it wrong.
Jesus answered, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus pointed John to what he was doing. And he did so using language from the prophet Isaiah that described God’s end time salvation. Jesus’ answer was that yes, he was the Coming One. But then he added, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Our Lord acknowledged that this arrival of God’s kingdom – his reign – did not look exactly like John expected. But he warned against being offended by this.
Jesus was the Coming One. And John was right – he will be the One who will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Yet Jesus had not been born in Bethlehem in order to do that now. Instead he had come to be the suffering Servant who gave his life as a ransom for many. He had come to fulfill the Father’s saving will and sacrifice himself for you. Before Holy Week he predicted his death for a third time as he said, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
Jesus’ ministry was going to the cross. He would win the forgiveness of sins by dying for them – by receiving God’s judgment against them in our place. He would not sit on a throne in judgment, but he would be enthroned on a cross in pain, suffering and weakness. And during his ministry after the first prediction of his passion he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
Our Lord wasn’t kidding. The way of the Church; the way of following Jesus has continued to be a way of the cross. It does not look impressive. It is one of suffering and sacrifice. For a long time Christians in the United States have been able to pretend like this was not the case. Our culture had been influenced by the Church just enough to make things comfortable. We were lulled into thinking that there could be a life in the faith with no cross.
But this was an illusion. The cultural Christianity may have been comfortable, but it was more about the culture than Christ. It did not take sin seriously. It did not take the devil seriously. And therefore it did not take Jesus Christ seriously as the only Savior from sin, death and the devil. The Gospel causes people to stumble because of what it says about who we really are. The Gospel offends because it says that Jesus is the only answer.
Now, the culture no longer makes things comfortable. Instead increasingly it makes things uncomfortable. If you are going to believe and confess the Christ and faith of the ecumenical creeds; if you are going to believe and practice the basic Scriptural truths about marriage and sexuality, you will face the world’s anger. You will face the world’s pressure to give in, and go along to get along. Are there areas of your life where you are already doing this?
Things had not gone as John the Baptist expected. As he sat in prison, he asked the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus’ answer said that yes he was. John wasn’t wrong. Jesus Christ went to the cross to be the sacrifice for your sin. But then on the third day he rose from the dead. Forty days later he was exalted in his ascension into heaven.
Jesus has promised that he will come again. Yet his second coming will not be as a helpless baby in a manger. Instead, he will return as the almighty Lord who sits in judgment. He will be what John the Baptist announced. Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Indeed, to use John the Baptist’s metaphor, he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
In John the Baptist’s question this morning we see the situation that faces us. Jesus Christ and his Means of Grace may seem like they are not getting the job done. Our Lord’s response to John says that, yes, they are. For Jesus is the One who brought the reign of God through his death and resurrection, and now he continues to work through these Gospel gifts. He brings that reign in a way that people are able to reject; in a way that people are able to oppose.
Yet in this way he gives us forgiveness, salvation and eternal life. He gives us strength to take up our cross and follow him. And we do so in the knowledge that it will not always be this way. Instead, this is the way that leads to the joyous welcoming of the almighty Lord on the Last Day. And so blessed is the one is who not offended by Jesus. Blessed is the one who is not offended by his Means of Grace. Blessed is the one who walks in faith and confidently prays, “Come Lord Jesus!”