3rd Sunday in Advent – A LSB #’s 331:2-3, 5-6; 434; 358:8-9, 11-12
Text – Matthew 11:12
From the days of John the Baptist until now the reign of heaven has suffered violence, the violent take it by force.
A young boy was helping his father repair the kitchen floor. He was sitting down when his father handed a hammer to him & suggested he get on his knees to use it. The boy didn’t listen & remained seated while trying to swing the hammer. His attempt at driving the nail failed, so his father took the hammer, while kneeling, & accomplished the task.
The father then reminded his son, “You can’t get this job done while sitting. You have to get on your knees to work.” Likewise for children of God. We are often lazy Christians trying to live out God’s calling while remaining seated. We don’t follow His advice & won’t gain real joy from our celebration of Christmas if we take that lazy road.
On our knees, receiving the blessings Jesus came to bring; on our knees in adoration, there we have the joy Christ brought when He came as Savior of the world. Due to our sinful pride or laziness, it often takes suffering to bring us to our knees. Again, because of our sinful nature, that seems backwards & we resist it with every fiber of our sinful being.
What, do you think, is the most common response to suffering? Isn’t it the question, “Why?” Pain & misery inherently strikes us as wrong, even when we know that we brought it upon ourselves. Why would God allow this? Why do I have to suffer? Why? Why? Why? So Jesus ends the Gospel reading by telling us, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Jesus has just told the crowds that were following Him, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the reign of heaven has suffered violence, the violent take it by force.” He’s making it sound like violence against God’s reign is normal, like it’s to be expected. In our heart of pain we ask, “Why?” Violence is not what you & I want to expect for following Jesus. That’s not how we want our Christian walk to be. Given his question earlier in the Gospel text it seems that John the Baptist also did not expect the reign of heaven to suffer violence. But apart from John having his head removed, what kind of violence is Jesus speaking of?
The basic answer is, “Any sort of opposition, fear or doubts about the reign of God here in time.” We could say, anything other than firmly believing in & trusting our Lord & Savior as good, gracious & almighty, is bringing violence to the reign of heaven. If you grasp what that answer means then you realize that you are guilty. Each of us here today is guilty.
John the Baptist, in the 1st verses of the Gospel reading, was guilty of doubting Jesus. For thousands of years, pastors, bishops & scholars tried to explain away the clear meaning of the text. They couldn’t believe that the great John the Baptist would doubt, & by explaining away the clear meaning those very church leaders were doing violence to the reign of heaven.
The reign of heaven is perfect, just & good, yet as those qualities reign over & in a sinful world they suffer violence. That is God’s plan epitomized by the suffering & death of His perfect, just & good Son at Golgotha. There on the cross, Jesus suffered all the world’s violence, from throughout history, in order to erase the debt that not a one of us could pay.
Because we are conceived in sin, every human being brings violence into this world, & in our day we see all too clearly what the sinful human response is to sin. Cancelling people is how sinners respond. God chose not to take that path. His desire is to save people, not to cancel them. He sent His Son to suffer with us, so we could be forgiven instead of erased.
That is a very costly approach for the heavenly Father to take, but He took it because He knew that even with His promises His children would struggle with doubt. Living by faith is not for lazy Christians who’d rather not get down on their knees. Living by faith leaves plenty of room for doubt because we cannot see the exact path on which our Savior is leading us. Life throws at us many reasons to question God’s loving presence & power. Some examples are extreme, like a seemingly healthy 45-year-old mother who, upon walking off the plane on a family vacation, collapses & dies without explanation.
There are the years of abuse suffered by a young girl at the hands of her alcoholic stepfather who leaves her wounded & hurting for life. The beheading of John the Baptist falls into this category of extremes. Terrible things happen & as far as we can see God does nothing to stop it. Living by faith is not for lazy Christians who’d rather not get down on their knees.
Not all suffering is so intense, however. It can be a slow bleed, like the silent struggle of a post-partum mother, or the long & lonely days of the nursing home veteran, or the learning disabilities which make every subject a battle for the high school athlete. Sometimes, God does not provide the support & strength we so desperately ask of Him.
Doubts in this broken world are real & pressing. Doubts do not make us failed children of God. What doubts can do, with the power of the Holy Spirit, is bring us to our knees & turn us back to Jesus. Lazy Christians do not appreciate the joy that Christ brought when He came as Savior of the world. Christians who have suffered violence appreciate it completely.
John the Baptist suffered violence. Jesus suffered violence. The very reign of heaven suffers violence, & the true followers of Jesus have ears to hear everything that the Word of God teaches us. We should not be surprised by the suffering in this world, it is the consequence of our sin. Jesus is the one human being who is greater than our sin, & He came to save us.
We should not be surprised by the doubts that we & our fellow believers struggle with. They are a consequence of our sin but Jesus is also greater than our struggles & our doubts. Like John the Baptist, we too would like to see Jesus overthrow those who hate His instruction. The 5th commandment instructs us not to kill, but the state of Michigan enacts a law which encourages exactly that. Rather than overthrowing the government of Michigan, Jesus came to change the hearts of those who are in our government, so that they love Him & love what He teaches. Jesus wants to change our hearts as well so that we love our enemies.
The overriding issue of the Gospel reading is this, “What was Messiah doing?” Jesus’ works of mercy & healing were different from what John the Baptist expected. He was sent to proclaim that judgment was coming, which is entirely true, but 1st the Messiah was to come to offer mercy & healing for body & soul. Judgment will come soon enough.
John missed the fact that the healing & blessing of the needy were promised signs that the reign of heaven was breaking into the world & that the promised Messiah had come. That is the whole reason for repenting, is to receive Messiah & the blessings He brings. In fact, a repentant heart is one of the many blessings Jesus brings.
As you & I suffer the worldly consequences of trusting in Jesus & in His teaching, we will be tempted to doubt. We will be tempted to take the lazy road of following Jesus only when we don’t receive pushback from our culture. Each day, we’ll be tempted to remain seated rather than getting on our knees & surrendering our very lives to Jesus.
In answering the question of John the Baptist, Jesus reminded him of the words of the OT reading for today. He claimed to have begun fulfilling those promises that Isaiah was inspired to write. John would have known them by heart. Let’s use our ears once again to hear those encouraging words:
“The wilderness & the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice & blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly & rejoice with joy & singing… Strengthen the weak hands, & make firm the feeble knees. 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 & save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, & the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, & the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, & streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, & the thirsty ground springs of water… And the ransomed of the Lord shall return & come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness & joy, & sorrow & sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35:12a, 3-7a, 10 ESV)
That OT reading is a promise of salvation & blessing for God’s people looking forward to His delivering them from exile in Babylon & restoring Jerusalem. It’s also a picture of our deliverance from exile in this sinful world & the restoration of the eternal Jerusalem in heaven. That’s what the season of Advent is meant to highlight for us as we await Jesus’ 2nd coming.
John the Baptist’s question & doubts offer us an opportunity to take seriously the doubts we experience as we live by faith. If we get on our knees in humility before God we will grow as a community of believers who support one another in the struggle to live by faith, not sight.
By naming the doubts that inevitably arise, we are better equipped to live together by the faith we confess to believe. John sat in prison, wondering why God was not acting on his behalf. You may be afraid to name your questions & your doubts. You may feel shame or fear about your struggles. Jesus already knows them. He wants us to surrender those fears to Him.
As the Gospel reading ended, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” what Jesus wants us to hear is that He came to die for our sins & to rise for our resurrection to heaven. Jesus has created peace between you & your heavenly Father. That peace is real already now. The Holy Spirit is waiting to turn you back to Him so you will live in His peace instead of doubt. Amen.
Lamb of God, pure & holy, Who on the cross didst suffer, ever patient & lowly, Thyself to scorn didst offer. All sins Thou borest for us, else had despair reigned over us: have mercy on us, O Jesus! O Jesus! Lamb of God, pure & holy, Who on the cross didst suffer, ever patient & lowly, Thyself to scorn didst offer. All sins Thou borest for us, else had despair reigned over us: Thy peace be with us, O Jesus! O Jesus! Amen. LSB 434:1 & 3.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet