John the 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.
John showed 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.
And 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 upon you.”
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 unquenchable fire.
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 should be.
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 cross.
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.”