3rd Sunday in Advent
December 11, 2016
Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior Jesus. The basis for the sermon is our Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 11.
My dear friends,
Have you ever made a Christmas list…you know, what you want for Christmas? In the days before the Internet and on-line shopping (yes, I’m THAT old), my brother Mike and I would put either an “S” or an “M” by the toys we wanted from the Sears catalog. When it came to making a list, when I was a boy it was pretty easy regarding what I wanted: G. I. Joes, a Johnny West (a cowboy version of G.I. Joe) or Six Million Dollar man action figure, Hot Wheels (LOTS of Hot Wheels), those plastic green army men (you could never have enough green army men), and Nebraska Cornhusker stuff. By the time I was a teenager, a lot had changed. I lived in northern Minnesota so my Christmas list changed with my age, my re-location, and changes in culture. As a teen I included on my Christmas list a boom box (an 80s requirement), hockey skates, a Super Nintendo (no one played Atari anymore), and Nebraska Cornhusker stuff. Looking back on my youth, I almost always got what I wanted for Christmas, and as an adult I now realize how hard my folks worked to make sure that happen. The Rolling Stones sang “you can’t always get what you want” but seemingly I did. What a blessing.
Today’s Gospel lesson also has a list…a very important list. Let’s set the scene. John the Baptist is in prison in the fortress Machaerus not for anything he had done wrong, but because of what he did that was right. He had been put there by King Herod Antipas a year earlier because John had spoken up about Herod marrying his brother Philip’s wife Herodias. When John said it was not lawful for Herod to have her as a wife (14:4) – boom! – Herod threw John in prison. So from prison John sent word by his disciples to Jesus to ask a very important question and it has nothing to do with his appeal: “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?” (11:3). Much speculation has been offered about why John asked this and for whose benefit, but that’s not what I want to focus on here today.
Instead, what is important is Jesus’ response, and it’s the list we’re considering: “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” (Mat 11:5-6 ESV).
Do you think that’s what John wanted to hear? Think about it. John is IN PRISON…he is languishing away wondering if he’s going to get out, and so he asks THE question in his mind. Is Jesus for real? And he gets a list in reply. Man…what a disappointment. Sure, not getting what you want from your Christmas list can be bad, but this…this is life and death stuff here. Because we sinners always carry sin’s consequence death around with us like a heavy suitcase (2 Co. 5:2-4), life is not always what we would expect. There are disappointments at home, at work, in relationships, in your family, or at school. And with disappointment comes suffering. Because of sin and our sin condition, life is not always Christmas morning with everything you wanted waiting under the tree.
When I was a young man, my Christmas list underwent a transformation: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1Co 13:11 ESV). When I was a young man, my Christmas list changed to reflect my needs as a married father of 2: power tools, dress clothes and a briefcase for my new job at Solvay Pharmaceuticals, a rifle for deer hunting, and Nebraska Cornhusker stuff.
What did John need? To be out of prison? No, in fact he would die there (14:10). Jesus gave John what he REALLY needed. For John there are only the words of Jesus, and an AMAZING list: the blind see again (Isa. 29:18, 35:5), those who are paralyzed walk around (Isa. 35:6), the lepers are cleansed (Isa. 53:4 & Matt. 8:1-4), the deaf hear (Isa. 29:18-19), the dead are brought back to life (Isa. 26:18), and the poor hear the Gospel (Isa. 61:1).
Consider the sequence. Straightening out crooked bones, restoring hearing and sight, and curing leprosy are difficult, and raising the dead is impossible. More important than all these physical miracles is that the poor have the gospel preached to them. Blindness, immobility, leprosy, deafness, and death are a pretty lousy list, but none of those could ever be dealt with without the last item on the list: the poor have good news preached to them (11:5).
No miracle will deliver John from imprisonment or save him from execution. He will have to be content that sins are forgiven in Christ, for that is what it means that the poor have the Gospel preached to them. True faith feeds not on miracles but on the Gospel. Knowing what Jesus has said, and more importantly done, we face the let-downs, the disappointments, the unfilled wishes of life roll off our figurative backs because as forgiven, redeemed, loved sinners we know what is the most important aspect of life…it is the ultimate list: Jesus Christ was born, suffered, died, rose again, ascended into heaven, and will come again. That list keeps us keeping on even when the circumstances of life – even with all its unfulfilled lists – dishearten us. The fulfilled list of Jesus lifts our spirits and heals our hearts, and it changes our lives not just at Christmas but every day of every year.
What’s on your Christmas list this year? Now that I am a married man of almost 29 years, a father of 2 and a grandfather of 2, my Christmas list is again very different from years past. What’s on my list this year? That no one would be lonely this time of year, that every addict would find and keep sobriety, that every child would have a Christmas present, that families would experience a great revival of closeness and our country would experience a revival of morality, that every home would experience peace, and that the poor in spirit would hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. I truly hope I get what I want.
Well, that and some Nebraska Cornhusker stuff.