John the Baptist sits in jail, waiting for Justice to rain down upon Herod. Meanwhile Christ preaches Good News, rather than wrath. How can we rejoice when there is no justice in this world?
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Good Morning! As someone who grew up in a liturgical church, I realize that Lent and Advent can be easy to confuse. I say the wrong name quite a bit and might accidentally say the wrong name this morning. That’s one of those pastor cliches. My pastor, from our parish down in Baltimore, kept putting Moses on the arc, which you just got used to after a while. Steph can tell you some of my favorite mis-speaks.
Anyway, both Lent and Advent have purple hangings; both seem to have lots of Bible lessons from Isaiah, and about John the Baptist, along with themes about the desert, repentance, and being prepared for the Lord.
The main difference is that during Advent, we have an overarching theme of Joy. In fact, today is Gaudete Sunday, a very old Latin name which means today we are to Rejoice, from Paul’s command in the Epistle lesson– Rejoice in the Lord Always, and Again I Say Rejoice!
But, as we can see in the Gospel Lesson, this is not always easy for Christians to do. Even the most faithful believers can question what God is doing in our lives, and if he is paying attention at all. We all can feel that way from time to time, just like John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, who spent years preparing the Messiah’s way, but he’s sitting in jail, frustrated and is certainly not rejoicing. In fact, he is confused and probably a little bit grumpy. As we walk through the passage, I think it is safe to say that few of us would be rejoicing if we were in his sandals and had his level of confusion as to what was God’s plan for him.
***Important note though***
In the end, please note, Jesus is not Condemning his cousin (or us for that matter) for not understanding His plans, God’s plan. That’s one wonderful takeaway from this lesson. When we see Jesus sympathize with John, we see him sympathize with us in our confusion and shortcomings.
In fact, Jesus gives John a great compliment, he calls him the greatest Old Testament prophet who ever lived! But with this compliment is a recognition that even those closest to God will not always understand what God is doing in our lives. Despite this, we are still called to rejoice. After all, where was the Apostle Paul when he wrote the Philippians saying Rejoice Always? A chained prisoner in Rome.
Chapter 11 of Matthew begins with Jesus having sent out the 12 disciples to preach the Good News, and then going out to preach the Good News himself. When Jesus goes out, his preaching is an encouragement to his audience. He also heals the sick, and brings joy with Him in his message. And this confuses and upsets John the Baptist. Yes that.
And it is important for us that we first understand things from John’s viewpoint, so that we can truly understand it from God’s viewpoint. Because there is a lot of John the Baptist in us and the world!
John is, in fact, so concerned with how Jesus is behaving that he sends his disciples to Jesus to say, “Jesus, are you really the Messiah after all?” That takes nerve. John says this because Jesus behavior does not seem to follow what he assumed the coming of the messiah would be like.
What had John preached about the coming Messiah. Matthew 3
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. 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.”
Now, there was other stuff he preached, of course, about people’s need to repent. But I think that’s what John was thinking about. Why?
Where was John? John was in jail, imprisoned by Herod Antipas’s wife for denouncing their illegal marriage. Herod had divorced his own wife and married the divorced wife of his brother.
And while Herod was terrified of John the Baptist and his message, his new wife wasn’t. She had had John arrested until she could come up with an excuse to have him executed.
In the meantime, John sits in jail and waits. And what was he waiting for? I think it’s clear, based on his preaching that he was waiting for the Fire of God to rain down on Herod, Herod’s wife and household for that matter, and the false Jewish leaders who had opposed him and his preaching which prepared Jesus’ way.
He had worked himself into a Psalm 73 mindset. I love Psalm 73 for its truth. It captures a feeling that all Christians can have from time to time when we see things just not going our way. It was written by Asaph, not David, it lays out Asaph’s anger at seeing wicked people prosper.
Asaph says that he was growing very frustrated trying to stay true to God. He was growing envious of arrogant people, and he ends up saying in verse 13: All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.
He says he was about to give up with striving to live a godly life until… until he went into the Sanctuary of God to worship, and from God’s Word, was able to discern ultimately their end, and his as well.
This is so important to understand. John is being honest. Honest to God and honest with himself. When he doesn’t understand what God is doing, he asks, just like Asaph, who in his frustration, didn’t go to the dens of iniquity to find comfort, but rather to the Sanctuary of God.
We all will have times in our life, when we simply don’t understand why God doesn’t just smite those who are mocking Him publicly. Whether it’s abortion or angry atheists trying their best to get every last remnant of Christianity scrubbed out of society.
God, why don’t you smite them!
God, bring the Fire and bring your Justice! That was John’s frustration, and why he asked if Jesus was really the Messiah.
Jesus’ response to John’s disciples was:
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.”
In other words, Rejoice in the Lord, even in Jail, and Rejoice in the Gospel going out for now, and don’t fear that your service for God was in vain.
Now, that is not saying that there will not come Justice for God’s enemies. Jesus addresses many times the consequences for those who refuse to listen to him.
After Jesus cleansed the temple two weeks ago, he warned those who heard him how the Temple would be destroyed within the lifetime of many of those who were listening to Jesus preach at the Temple. And it was, in AD 70, just as Jesus had foretold.
But the message we have this week is a message of encouragement for us to rejoice in the work which Christ has given us, even when it seems that the world is not listening.