God’s Promise Meets the Darkness - First Sunday in Advent
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Matthew 11:2-15
November 29, 2020

As Advent begins today, we see John the Baptist in prison. John had been sent by God to do two things; He had been sent by God to do them. But physical circumstances have turned dark and hard for him. One of the two things God had sent John to do was to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to prepare the people to meet the Coming One, the promised Christ. The other thing was to announce that the Coming One had arrived on the scene.

As part of his responsibility to preach a baptism of repentance, John had told Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee at the time, that it was contrary to God’s law for him to have his brother’s wife. Her name was Herodias. Neither Herod nor Herodias liked that very much, so Herod arrested John and put him in prison. There is an unfortunate spirit and principle that can affect governing authorities in this fallen world that when the word of God gets in the way of the governing authority, the Word of God, whether of the law or the Gospel, must be silenced. This is what happened to John.

But John was on God’s mission, wasn’t he? Jesus says about him that there was no greater man than John. This was because John, of all the prophets, got to proclaim that the promised Messiah had arrived on the scene. He was the forerunner of the Christ promised 400 years and more before. As Jesus says, He can be regarded as Elijah who was to come. “The one who has ears, let that one hear” (Matthew 11:15); that is, take heed to what has happened with John coming in God’s eternal plan of salvation.

Jesus also says, “All the prophets and the law prophesied until John.” That is, all the prophets and the law proclaimed God’s promise of the Messiah to come, the Coming One. Apostle Peter says that the prophets prophesied about the grace of God that would be coming to us (1 Peter 1:10). This grace concerns our salvation and the sufferings of Christ and His subsequent glories (1 Peter 1:11). Peter goes on to say that the prophets were not ministering to themselves when they proclaimed the promise of the Coming One. Rather, they were ministering to those who would receive the ministry of the good news that He has come. They were ministering to us.

John was the last in the line of prophets. He announced Christ’s arrival. So he is the greatest of the prophets. Yet, the least in the kingdom is greater than he. This is because the least little one in Christ’s kingdom has the substance of what the prophets proclaimed as promise: Christ Himself. We have Him now in the good news and His ministrations; we have Him now Himself by the Spirit in our innermost being.

Promise proclaimed. Promise here. He has come. He was born Jesus and Immanuel at Bethlehem. He comes in His Gospel presented to us in Word and in Sacrament, through which the Spirit works faith, hope, and love in our hearts. Your sins are atoned for, says this Gospel. Eternal life and peace with God is won, says this Gospel. It now comes in our hearing, in our sight, to lift our hearts to faith in God. He comes with His presence as He has promised: “Where two or three are gathered in My Name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). Promise proclaimed. Promise here. Let us take heed.

Yet, John is in prison. His physical circumstances are dark for him. And the darkness of the physical circumstances threaten him with spiritual darkness. That is what the darkness of physical circumstances can be used by the devil to do, isn’t it. To bring despair of God’s purposes, of God’s faithfulness, of God’s love. To cause us to doubt and give up on believing that God really does exist and is directing history, all history, your history, since on its surface, in its physical aspect, we experience craziness, evil, the threat of death, and brokenness.

Christ has come. But we continue to live in a fallen world, corrupted by evil, and broken. And none of us escapes this reality, in one way or another. And it was so for John.

But then there can be questions. Even the great one, John the Baptist, had questions; questions of the most serious kind. The questions were arising for John because of the darkness pressing upon him.

Now as we take to heart how Jesus answers John, we note an important thing at the outset: Jesus does not criticize John for having questions, especially as the questions are being forced by the darkness. He does respond to John’s questions with the teaching of God’s word, and in this case the teaching of the Gospel. This too is all we can do, along with sharing in anguish, being there.

John sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus if He really is the Coming One, or if they should be looking for another. This is rather remarkable. John was the forerunner of the Christ and pointed to Jesus as the Christ. Now He is asking Jesus if it is really true.

Why would John ask this from prison? It is because the question presses upon humans in the dark place; in midst of the injustice; in midst of the hardship of the brokenness of life. What should my life and the world look like if God’s Messiah has come? This has been a perennial question. And then if the world and my experience does not look like we may expect it to, then what? This is a hard thing, because it is not without pain.

Jesus does not give John a sure-fire metaphysical, philosophical, scientific, even theological, explanation and exposition of suffering. He answers John by way of promise and fulfillment. In this way He answers John by pointing to God’s action in Christ Himself. In this way Jesus is aiming at bolstering John’s faith, anchoring John within as his circumstances rage around him. “Go and tell John what you see and hear,” Jesus says to John’s disciples. “The blind see; the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, even the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:3-4).

Why does Jesus talk about these things? It is because Isaiah the prophet did, about 700 years before: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6a).

Jesus speaks promise and fulfillment to John, which is to say: “Yes, John, I have come. Yes I am He. Yes you still are on the road of God’s purposes in the Christ. Yes, even in the midst of what you are experiencing God is working out His plan and purpose, and it is not over yet.” Jesus’s aim is to lift His spirits with the Gospel. To say to an anxious heart: Fear not.

But does this then raise more questions? We hear Jesus talk about the fulfillment of the promise in terms of His wonderful deeds in physical reality. The blind see, the lame walk, even the dead come back to life, etc. And then maybe we get to thinking that this is the way my physical life should look like if I am a Christian and Jesus is for real. But our experience tells us otherwise. And so promise and fulfillment can seem like not such a straightforward thing; and maybe it can even seem empty.

I think it may help to consider that we need different kinds of salvation, and God knows this. And since God does work out our salvation in our physical reality, the physical aspect is going to look different in relation to the different kinds of salvation we need. The first kind of salvation we need is what we would think of as a spiritual kind. We need a salvation that brings the promise of God’s grace and love toward us in the forgiveness of our sins. We need a salvation that assures us that God has come in our flesh, to be Immanuel present for us in this broken world; to be Jesus who saves us from our sins. We need a salvation that sets our hearts aright with respect to faith toward God, so that we are strong within toward God, even as circumstances rage around us. For they will continue to rage until another aspect of God’s promise in Christ comes to fulfillment. But this aspect is not yet, though it will be.

But even this salvation of forgiveness of sins and Jesus being God with us are fulfilled in physical reality. So Jesus dies and rises for our forgiveness. And Jesus did the physical things He did, of which Isaiah speaks, to show who He is; to show that He is the Coming One. And so He assures John of this. It is real. See what I have done.

But then Jesus tells John, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6). This is to say, John, my coming now has a purpose, and it is not now to transform this world into paradise lost. Sin must be atoned for, as you know it must be. This may seem like defeat in physical terms when they put me to death. But if I were to exercise my power the way your anguish wants, then I would not really be redeeming you in the deeper way you need. So blessed are you when you are not offended by my apparent weakness; when you are not offended because the promise fulfilled now is the promise of an accomplished redemption; a redemption won by my blood.

But also do not despair John because this is also true of which Isaiah speaks: Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” This part of it I do not fulfill now, completely, but I will fulfill it in its time. Until then, there is an eternal Gospel to proclaim to all the nations in the redemption I win in the forgiveness of sins and life from the dead.

But for now, I will come to your heart and strengthen you from within. I will comfort many who hope in me with the knowledge in the soul that says: “Even though I suffer thus here at the hands of evil humans and as my participation in the brokenness of this world, I know to whom I belong and whose I am.”

And so you and I know that He has conquered sin and death for us and will make this our complete and total reality one day, along with all His people, when he comes with the vengeance of our God. His Name is Jesus. He has come. We receive Him now in faith as promise fulfilled. He strengthens us within even as we struggle. He teaches our hearts to rest in Him and to believe that He has something great still to do, which no eye has seen and which has not entered into the heart of man by natural lights (1 Corinthians 2:9). There remains promise in Christ that has yet to be fulfilled when Christ comes again, in which we have the assurance that God’s goodness will prevail and that His faithfulness cannot fail or be overcome.

Having said all that, we do have the promise of God’s faithfulness now, and we experience this faithfulness, even in the midst of struggle, as we await in faith the complete consummation. These words, that I am about to read, can capture this faith in God’s faithfulness now, even as this “now” involves a struggle for faith: “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

These words are from the Thanksgiving Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, on October 3, 1863. The great things President Lincoln spoke of were the many blessings in this life God faithfully continued to bestow upon this Nation, even as it was experiencing the carnage and agony of the civil war. President Lincoln’s proclamation is quite articulate and profound, and I recommend to your reading his entire address. It is not long and is easily found on-line.

God remains faithful to us now, though this now also involves the waiting in Christ for the consummation of all things. And one day, the promise made yet not yet fulfilled will be fulfilled. And ours will be the fulness of joy in body and soul, in the glories of Christ. This fulness of joy will be ours in a new creation where righteousness dwells and sighing and sorrow will be no more. We have come to believe this because we have come to believe Jesus is the promised one. We do not await another, but we await His coming again. And so we pray for Jesus to bless us with His peace; to strengthen us in His love; to embolden us in unconquered and unconquerable hope, and to come quickly again and save us. Amen.


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