Baptist was a big deal. And I don’t say that just because of what the Gospels
of the New Testament tell us about him and his importance. Writing some sixty
year years after John’s death, the Jewish historian Josephus tells us about
John’s ministry. John made such an
impression on people that he was remembered decades later, and Josephus
considered John the Baptist to be historically important – someone that merited
inclusion in the history that he was writing.
up in the wilderness of Judea. He was
certainly an unconventional figure.
Matthew tells us that John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt
around his waist, and that his food was locusts and wild honey. His dress recalled the way the prophet Elijah
is described in the Old Testament.
John had a simple message: “Repent,
for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
He called people to repent because the kingdom of heaven – the end time
reign of God – was about to arrive. And John did something that was very
unusual – as far as we know, he was the first person to ever do it. He baptized people. Now first century Judaism was very familiar
with ritual washings. But all of these
were self-administered. John was unique
in that he administered the baptism to others.
It is for this reason that John was known as “the baptizer.”
John called people to repent because
God’s reign was about to arrive. They demonstrated this repentance by submitting
to John’s 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.”
John called people to repent because
the kingdom of heaven was at hand. And he left no doubt about what this
meant. 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 spoke of one coming after him who
would be far mightier than he. This
coming one would bring God’s end time judgment.
He would carry out the separation of the Last Day. He would bring salvation to God’s people, and
judgment upon the wicked. He would
gather the wheat into the barn. But the
chaff he would burn with unquenchable fire.
Jesus began his ministry by coming to
receive John’s baptism. John perceived
that there was something amiss. He said, “I
need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus said to John, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all
righteousness.” Jesus told John that
this was part of God’s saving action to put all things right. Jesus was the coming one, and receiving
John’s baptism was part of his end time work.
In chapter four Matthew tells us, “Now when he heard that John had been
arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.”
The start of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee coincides with John’s
imprisonment. King Herod Antipas had
divorced his wife, and married the daughter of a king, who had divorced his
brother Phillip in order to be with Herod.
Herod had married his brother’s wife.
John the Baptist was a prophet whose ministry was to call people to
repentance. He called all people to
repentance, and like prophets before him in Israel this included
kings. King Herod wasn’t going let this
go on. So he had John imprisoned.
Matthew introduces Jesus’ ministry in Galilee by saying, “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.
great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from
Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”
Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of
God – the reign of God – had arrived in his person. But Jesus was more than talk. His miracles of
healing demonstrated the truth of this.
In fact, the miracles themselves were the reign of God present and already
at work. In the chapter after our
text, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being able to cast out demons because he is
in league with Satan. After pointing out the absurdity of this claims – after
all, why would the Satan harm his own rule? – Jesus said: “But if it is by the
Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come
John sat in prison, but even there he
heard about the deeds of the Christ. He
heard about the miracles that Jesus was doing.
And for John, it didn’t make sense. Yes, Jesus was doing amazing
things. However, nothing had changed. The wicked were still in the world. In fact, a wicked man was running John’s
world as he had him locked up in prison.
John had expected the coming one to bring God’s end time judgment that
did away with the evil forever. He was supposed to burn up the chaff with
So John sent a question to Jesus by means of
his disciples: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for
another?” It was a real question that arose out of John’s confusion. And if we
are honest, it is a question that arises in our minds too.
We are preparing to celebrate Christmas. We have put up Christmas trees and our homes
are decked out for the season. We
prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ – an event announced by angels.
But what has changed since Jesus’ birth?
Every morning I pray for members of our congregation and others. I have
an actual list, and it’s a rather long list filled with people who have cancer,
or mental illness, or health problems that threaten their life or make it hard. It’s a list filled with people who are
dealing with relationships that are messed up and make life challenging. And then beyond that look around us – it’s as
if the world has gone made. We are told
that girls are really boys, and boys are really girls, and if you happen to
point out that a person really is one or the other – then you are the one who
is the problem in society.
When Jesus received John’s question he answered: “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.”
These are all miracles that Jesus has been doing – in fact they
have just been narrated in Matthew’s Gospel.
They are also words that quote or allude to several passages from Isaiah
that describe God’s end time salvation.
Jesus’ answer back to John is an absolute yes. He told John that yes, he is the coming
one. The miracles themselves were the
presence of God’s reign.
But then Jesus added: “And blessed is the one who is not
offended by me.” Our Lord admitted that
though miraculous, what he was doing did not look like John expected. He wasn’t bringing the last day. And
actually, things were only going to look even less like what John thought they
Jesus had received John’s baptism in order take on the role of
the suffering Servant – the one who suffers and dies for the sins of
others. Even as Jesus performed mighty
miracles he told his disciples, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into
the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised
on the third day.” The baby whose
birth we celebrate at Christmas came into this world to suffer and die on a
The world around us celebrates Christmas. Of course they do –
they’ve turned it into a rocking good time.
But the world doesn’t pay any attention to Good Friday. And why would it? Jesus died in the weakness
and failure of the cross. He ended up as just one more individual that was
crushed by the injustice, the cruelty, and the evil of this world.
Jesus was crucified and buried. But he didn’t stay dead. On the
third day, God raised Jesus from the dead.
In that resurrection, his disciples learned that Good Friday had in fact
been something far different that it appeared.
Rather than weakness and failure, it was God’s single great act
to take away our sin – to reconcile us to himself. And Jesus had passed through
death in order to defeat it forever. Risen
from the dead with a body that can never die again, Jesus then ascended into
heaven as he was exalted to the right hand of the Father.
Our Lord has now given us the Gospel – the good news of what he
had done for us in his death and resurrection.
He has given us his word of Scripture.
He has given us Holy Baptism by which we share in his saving death. He given us Holy Absolution through which he
speaks forgiveness to us. He has given
us the Sacrament of the Altar through which the exalted Lord gives us his true
body and blood, given and shed for us.
Through all of these means the Spirit of Christ gives us forgiveness and
strengthens us in faith toward the risen Lord.
Like Jesus’ answer to John, our Lord’s answer to us is: “And
blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Jesus’ saving ministry did not look like what
John expected as he sat in prison. Jesus’ saving ministry in our day probably does
not look like what we want it to be as we, our family, and friends suffer in a
fallen world. But because Jesus is the risen Lord his saving work is
indeed powerfully present in our midst. Because the One crucified on Good
Friday has risen from the dead and shown us what Good Friday really meant for
us, we can now trust him in the midst of circumstances that make no sense to
us. We can do this because Christ has
revealed the depths God’s love for us in a way we never would have expected.
And because we know Jesus Christ as the risen and ascended Lord,
we now understand that he is also exactly the coming One John expected. We heard about this in our Gospel lesson last
Sunday. Christ who came as a humble baby
at Christmas will return on the Last Day.
He will raise the dead. He will
judge all people. Those who have
believed in him – who have been baptized into his forgiving death and
resurrection – will be gathered to live with him forever in the new creation.
Those who have rejected Jesus Christ will be judged on the basis of their own
sins. They will face the eternal judgment that John the Baptist described with
the metaphor of chaff being burned up with unquenchable fire.
And John the Baptist? Here will be there with us to see that Jesus
is the coming one he foretold. In our
text Jesus says that John is a prophet – more than a prophet because he is the
promised Elijah who prepares the way for the Lord as he brings the end times. The
apostle Peter tells us, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who
prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired
carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in
them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and
the subsequent glories.” The prophets didn’t always understand how exactly God
was going to fulfill the prophecies that were being delivered through them.
John didn’t understand that the coming one would come to this
world twice. During Advent we prepare to remember that the Son of God
became flesh in order to bring God’s saving reign by suffering and dying on the
cross. But the risen and the exalted Lord will return a second time to do
exactly what John expected. Jesus sent word back to John to sustain him in
faith. We hear the same word today and it does this for us as well: “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.”