You see the phrase on lawn signs and social media posts: “Jesus is the reason for the season.” This brief statement is, of course, intended to make the point that Christmas is about the birth of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. It is not about Santa Claus, or Christmas trees, or Christmas presents or any of the other things that crowd this time of year.
Jesus is the reason for the season. But if this is so, when we look around it seems to raise another more basic question. If Jesus is the reason for the season, is there really any reason to celebrate this season?
Think about the recent events in this congregation. We have had a whole series of members diagnosed with cancer – some of them very serious and life threatening conditions. One of those members, Herb, died abruptly in a way that no one expected. A surgery that Genna had in the follow up to cancer treatment failed, and then she had to have another surgery. Ryan broke the bones in his lower leg, which has now resulted multiple surgeries and intensive treatment with antibiotics because of infection. He has been at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis so many times recently that I think that now he may have hospital room with his name on it.
Jesus is the reason for the season. But if this is what life looks like after he has come to our world, we may want to ask whether he really is the reason to celebrate a season. Maybe we should be looking for someone different – someone better.
This is the question that arises in our Gospel lesson this morning. Our text begins by telling us, “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?’”
Those first six words, “Now when John heard in prison,” should catch out attention. John is John the Baptist. Matthew tells us about John, “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.'’” Matthew tells us that John is the prophet prophesied by the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament.
And it’s not just one prophet who spoke about John. Jesus himself says in our text, “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” And then after our text he adds “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” Our Lord indicates that John is also the one prophesied by the prophet Malachi.
John looked the part of a prophet. Matthew tells us, “Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” And he captured people’s attention. We learn, “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.”
John called people to repentance because God’s kingdom – his reign – was about to arrive. In particular, John proclaimed that there was one even mightier than he who was coming. This one would bring God’s end time judgment. He said, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 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 called all people to repentance – and that included King Herod Antipas. When Herod took Herodias, his brother Philips’ wife, for himself, John told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod was king, and he didn’t have take that from anyone. So Herod showed John who was in charge. He had John thrown in prison in one of his fortresses.
We learn that John’s imprisonment marked the start of Jesus’ Galilee ministry. Matthew tells us, “Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.” Our Lord began his ministry of teaching and healing. Matthew reports, “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”
John had baptized Jesus. John was hearing reports about Jesus’ ministry. And yet, John sat in prison. No end time judgment was occurring. No chaff was being burned up. Instead King Herod Antipas ruled and lived in luxury while John the Baptist was in prison. This wasn’t what John the Baptist had proclaimed. This wasn’t how things were supposed to work. And so Jonn sent a question to Jesus through his disciples: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
In our text we hear Jesus’ reply: “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 referred to the acts of his ministry – examples of which have all just occurred in the Gospel. And he did so using language that calls refers to several passages from the prophet Isaiah that spoke about God’s end time salvation.
Our Lord’s answer was: Yes! I am the One.” But then he added: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Jesus agreed that things didn’t look exactly like John expected. But Jesus declared that he was the presence of kingdom of God – the reign of God in this world. He was bringing God’s salvation in God’s way – and blessed is the one who is not offended by this.
John the Baptist didn’t live to see how things turned out. Goaded on by Herodias, Herod Antipas had John beheaded. Evil won as God’s prophet was murdered. Yet this event pointed forward to another unjust death – one that would have shocked John the Baptist.
On Good Friday, Jesus the One who was to come, died on a Roman cross. He died the death of a criminal. He died in weakness, shame and humiliation. He died in pain and agony. One could not imagine an event that contradicted more completely John the Baptist’s preaching about the coming one.
But then, on the third day, everything changed. God raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection we come to understand that Jesus’ suffering and death was God’s action to remove the sin that separated us from him. Because Jesus gave himself as the ransom, we are now forgiven.
After his resurrection, Jesus had his disciples meet him on a mountain in Galilee. He told them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” As the risen, exalted, and now ascended Lord, Jesus has all power. And he is indeed the coming One who will pronounce the final judgment. As Jesus said, “"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” And the chaff will be burned up for Jesus declared that he will say on the day, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
John the Baptist was not wrong. He just did not understand the timing of Jesus’ saving work. He did not understand that suffering preceded glory in order for Jesus to fulfill the Father’s will. He did not understand that until Jesus returns in glory on the Last Day the “now” and the “not yet” of God’s reign overlap.
This insight becomes the key to the way we think about the circumstances I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon. It is the key to understanding the presence of disappointment, failure and suffering in our lives that lead us into the temptation of doubting God.
We live in the “now and the not yet”. Jesus Christ has died and risen from the dead. He has made you a forgiven child of God through the water of Holy Baptism. Through faith in Christ you are justified – you already know the verdict of the Last Day. God will declare you innocent and not guilty on account of Christ. And in the present God’s reign continues to come to you through Christ’s Means of Grace. Through these Jesus gives you forgiveness and strength to live the life of faith as we face the “not yet” that surrounds us.
There is no denying the presence of tragedies and hardships that we continue to encounter in this fallen world. Yet Jesus declares to us that in his death and resurrection he has already won the victory for us. He assures us that his kingdom – his reign – is still at work in our midst now.
And he also warns us, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” We must be willing to accept the way that God works for now. We need to recognize that God also uses hardships as the means to crucify the old Adam in us and turn us to rely on God.
We have seen God work our salvation through the means of the cross. What looked like failure and weakness was God’s most powerful act for us. We know this because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. The risen Lord is the reason that we can continue confidently in faith as we look for the day when the “not yet” will end forever