The Third Sunday in Advent, December 16th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Doubting Christmas - Matthew 11:2-11
John the Baptist is doubting the Good News of Christmas. What about you?
John the Baptist is doubting the Good News of Christmas. That is to say, this wild preacher with the watery pulpit, now dry-rotting in Herod’s jail, is doubting the Incarnation, which is a theological term you really want to know, because it means Christmas. I remember it because I know ‘chili con carne’ is Spanish for chili with meat. Other people remember it because in biology class they learned ‘carnivore’ means meat-eater. Either way, the connection to meat is this: Incarnation means ‘en-flesh-ment,’ as in “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Incarnation refers to the fact that the eternal Son of God took on human flesh, being conceived in and born of the Virgin Mary. So, in effect, Incarnation means Christmas.
But John the Baptist is doubting the Good News of Christmas, of the Incarnation. John was not the first public preacher to proclaim that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God; angels, shepherds, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, quite a few people let the cat out of the bag before John. Really good news is a hard thing to keep secret. But decades had passed since Jesus’ birth, and He was unknown, again. So God appointed John as the official herald, the forerunner, sent to prepare the people for and announce the arrival of God in the flesh, the Almighty, walking in our midst, Jesus of Nazareth, the long awaited Christ. Indeed, as we do every Lord’s Supper, we’ll sing a paraphrase of the Baptizer’s most famous line in a few minutes: O Christ Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world. John said it first, pointing his bony finger at Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Yes, John is a Christmas Evangelist, for the Good News of Christmas is that God’s Son has taken on human flesh, in order to take away the sin of us all. John the Baptist was God’s chosen herald to announce the beginning of Jesus’ great work.
But now that Jesus has begun His work, John is doubting that Jesus really is the Christ, the Son of God. Hearing reports of the deeds of Jesus, John sends a delegation of his disciples to ask: "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" Despite his divine calling to announce that Jesus is the One who is to come, the Christ of God, John is now doubting the Good News of the Incarnation, doubting the Good News of Christmas. What about you?
John has, at least in my way of thinking, some pretty good reasons to doubt the Good News of Christmas. First of all, John is in prison, arrested by King Herod for insulting Herod’s wife, by condemning the royal couple’s adultery. John had the temerity to point out they were living in sexual sin, because Herod had stolen his wife from his brother. John can probably guess what his fate will be. He will die for his unflinching condemnation of sin, die for not worrying who takes offense at the truth. If I were John, called from before birth to be the of forerunner to God’s Savior, and then I was thrown into prison for being faithful to the Word of that same God, I might be bitter. This is the thanks I get? I might well doubt that this Jesus really is who I had said He was.
But this doesn’t seem to be John’s issue. No, Matthew tells us John heard of the deeds of Jesus, and they prompted his question: Are you the One, or not? Apparently, something Jesus has been doing is confusing John. What has Jesus been doing? Well, immediately prior to our reading, Matthew reports how Jesus chose the twelve, and sent them out to preach. Jesus seems to be building the foundation for a church, training His Apostles for ministry. Maybe this confused John the Baptist. If John expects the Kingdom of God is coming to its consummation and revelation right now, then why would Jesus start building a church? What need does the Christ have for more preachers, if the new heavens and new earth are about to happen?
Jesus may have confused John’s expectations in other ways. Since their last encounter, when John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, Jesus has been teaching, and healing, doing many miracles, doing the kinds of things Jesus refers to in the answer He sends back to John: 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."
John the Baptist is doubting the Good News of Christmas, that Jesus, Son of Mary, is also the Christ, the Son of God. Perhaps John’s doubt, perhaps the budding offense that John is feeling has to do with his expectation that Jesus should be preaching hell-fire and damnation, wiping out the wicked, bringing the wrath of God, right now. Instead, Jesus is just teaching, and helping people, people John full well knows don’t deserve the mercy they are receiving. John might be doubting Christmas, because he expects the Christ to bring condemnation into the world.
Are you doubting the Good News of Christmas? Perhaps you are not sure in your gut that this Christmas is going to be good. The horrible murders in New Town Connecticut give me doubts. I want to see God do something, to unleash His wrath against this wickedness, because we certainly need help. We all feel a frustrated horror at the savagery committed at that school on Friday, and a longing for justice, even though we know justice will not bring back the dead.
Maybe there’s someone in your life whom you think God should punish, someone on whom you’d enjoy seeing some condemnation fall. That certainly can ruin Christmas, whether your anger is just, or not. If your anger is just, if you are truly suffering unjustly from a wicked person, without any guilt of your own in this matter, then indeed, like perhaps John the Baptist, you might be troubled, because Christmas seems to come for the wicked, just as much or more as for the good. If, on the other hand, your anger is not so pure, then you’re really in a mess. No doubt you see true wickedness in your enemy, but you also know the guilt and wickedness in yourself. If you are caught up in a selfish squabble between two sinners, if your life is consumed with bitterness and anger, then no amount of Christmas tinsel is going to make your season bright.
I pray that your life is not consumed by anger and strife, for the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God. But, while John was in a literal prison, there are many other prisons which might cause you to doubt the Good News of Christmas.
You might be trapped in your own selfishness and greed. Maybe for you Christmas is all about you. Maybe you’re held captive by material things, and you doubt that your family and friends will be giving you good enough gifts this year. Or, you might be caught up in that hellish lie that says the main thing about Christmas is to give great gifts, extravagant toys. Maybe you’ve fallen into the trap of trying to buy the love of your kids, family and friends, by maxing out your credit limit. If Christmas creates a prison of debt you will have to spend all next year paying your way out of, all the while still wishing your family loved you more, well, then the Good News of Christmas may not be very believable to you.
We’ve had a little bit of sunshine recently, but the season of light might be a bad joke to you, if the physical darkness of December is your jail, all those short, cold, gray days driving you into depression. Or the season of joy may seem just a big lie, if diseases like cancer, diabetes, arthritis, or simply the ravages of old age, fill your days and nights with pain. Perhaps you’re a caregiver for someone, a loved one, whose body is failing. Their decline saps your strength, and, (dare we say it out loud?), makes you doubt the goodness of God. Another pre-Christmas prison. Another reason to doubt the Good News of Christmas.
John is doubting the Good News of Christmas, the Good News of the Incarnation. You too, perhaps, doubt the Good News of Christmas. What’s the solution for our doubt? The Word of Jesus, of course, for only He can drive out our doubts. Jesus sends back a message to John in prison, a message that comes from the prophet Isaiah, who centuries before foretold that the Messiah, the Christ of God, would come and give sight to the blind, healing to the leper and the cripple, life to the dead, and would preach good news to the poor. And, Jesus reminds us, the Christ is also the one at whom we may take offense.
Jesus offends, because He doesn’t meet any of our expectations. But our expectations are wrong, wrong because we are all sinners, wrong because we suffer in this fallen world. When John, suffering in prison, asked his question, Jesus was just about to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, the new heavens and the new earth. He was just about to unleash the wrath of God on earth, destroying all the wickedness of man. And He was just about to preach Good News to all people. But the way Jesus did all of these, all at once, gives great offense. His greatest work, His greatest miracle offends our sinful pride. It is so offensive that we are always trying to remove it from the Christmas story.
The offense of Christmas is always the thing we are trying to remove, whether that is by replacing Jesus Christ with Kris Kringle, or replacing Church with family gatherings, or replacing our need to simply repent and confess our sins with promises that next year I’m going to be a better person. And sometimes we avoid the offense of Christmas by removing the middle stanza of “What Child Is This?” But this common omission does help us clearly understand exactly what the offense of Christmas is.
More often than not, hymnals and recordings skip over the offensive middle stanza of our Hymn of the Day, because who wants to deal with nails and spears and crosses, at Christmas time? In the first stanza we sing of a miraculous birth, and the joy of the angels and shepherds, nothing offensive in those. From the third stanza we hear a call to bring Him gifts, like the Magi did. Are we offended by this origin of our Christmas giving? Not at all. This little child brings salvation? O.k., whatever that means, fine. And of course, Mary sings a lullaby, how sweet.
But that second stanza: Good Christian fear, because the newborn, silent Word of God made flesh is lying in a cattle feed trough, pleading for sinners. Nails, spear, cross, such is the future of this little baby. Do we really have to sing that, at Christmas? Why?
Because the Cross is the Good News of Christmas. Without the offense of the Cross, where Jesus died for you and me, to take away our sins, without this particular offense, Christmas is just an empty spectacle, a midwinter excuse to eat and drink and pretend that there isn’t anything terribly wrong in our lives.
But with the Cross, Christmas is Good News indeed, for in it we discover the Incarnation is everything. All our prison walls are blown apart, for the wrath of God has fallen, but not on us. We deserve it, but by God’s mercy, the wrath of God has fallen upon the flesh of Jesus, where it has been swallowed up, and extinguished. For all those covered by His forgiving blood, God now has only love and blessing.
Pain and sickness and anger and sin still plague our earthly bodies, still plague our minds and souls, but in the flesh of Christ, the new heavens and the new earth are already complete, and are beginning to be revealed, to the eyes of faith. The Cross of Christ always brings the Resurrection, and in the Resurrected Christ we see what we will become, when our lowly, sickly, dying bodies are transformed to be like His heavenly body. Good News, indeed.
Violent men still kill innocent people, but for all who trust in Jesus, not even death can rob our joy, our victory. We may be offended that a baby was born to die, but thanks to Jesus, death has been swallowed up in victory. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death, and all the sufferings, of His saints, of His people, declared to be holy by the forgiveness of sins. For the sufferings and death of Christians show their fellowship with Jesus, and the Lord promises to bring you and all who trust in Him through all suffering and death, into His eternal health and joy.
Through the Word of God, sent to John in prison, sent to you today, Christ speaks words of comfort, comfort enough for all people. Through the Word of Christ, sent to your ears, and sent even to your mouth, at this altar, the flesh and blood Jesus, the Incarnate Christ, comes to you, forgiving you, restoring you, and reminding you that He has made you a child of heaven.
Good News, Christmas is coming. Joy to the world, and joy to you, in Christ Jesus, your Incarnate Savior, today, and forever and ever, Amen.