The Third Sunday in Advent
December 12, 2010
Text: Matthew 11:2-11
Dear Friends in Christ,
An announcement in a church bulletin said: Tonight we will have our annual hymn sing in the park. Bring a blanket and be prepared to sin.” I suppose there are some who would say my singing is the sin. The bulletin didn’t have it quite right. Often times there are things that aren’t quite right. Another example occurred at a baseball game. A hall of fame baseball player was introduced: “He’s one of the game’s great immoral players.” That may be true, for some of these guys set more records in the hotels than on the ball fields, but I don’t think that’s quite what the speaker had in mind. Of course in recent years we’ve been debating if all the muscles on the ballplayers are real. They used to ask live or Memorex, now they ask weight room or steroids. Somehow all of these seem just a little off the mark.
A lot of people didn’t quite understand who this John was. John the Baptist preached in the wilderness. His ministry spanned about a year, perhaps even a little less. He basically started down by the Dead Sea, worked his way north to Galilee where He baptized Jesus, then went back south. Near the end of his ministry he was baptizing people by some pools in the desert which are about six inches deep. Finally, John went back north into Galilee to confront King Herod Antipas. Antipas had stolen his brother’s wife. Mind you, she was a willing participant, but that doesn’t make it right. John con- fronted Herod with his sin and Herod threw him in jail. Later Herod would execute John. In that brief time of preaching, John attracted a lot of attention. People were certain that he was a prophet. But then they had never seen prophet, nor had their parents or grandparents. It had been four hundred years since there had been a prophet. People didn’t know what to make of John and His ministry. Who was this John?
People didn’t know what to make of Jesus’ ministry either. Who was this upstart who came after John, who may in fact have once been one of John’s disciples? John’s ministry was at a standstill, but now Jesus was preaching to great crowds. So who was this Jesus?
John sent some of His disciples to Jesus. He probably was trying to get them to see that they now needed to follow Jesus. One would presume that John knew who Jesus was. He certainly seemed to know at the time of Christ’s baptism. So this mission was for the benefit of John’s disciples. They came and asked Christ if He were the “Expected One”? Christ gives a curious answer. He quotes Isaiah 35:5-6a to them. Now as good Jews they would have known the Scriptures and they knew immediately that Jesus was quoting the Word of God to them. It’s sort of a “da” moment. You know the signs, do I have to spell it out for you? That’s what Jesus is saying to them. Of course I’m the Messiah, who else could do all these things. I kind of picture Christ speaking to the disciples of John was an amused smirk.
Jesus then used this as an opportunity to speak about John. Again He points people to the Word - specifically Malachi 4:5. This was the prophecy that Elijah would return ahead of the Messiah. Jesus tells them that John is the Elijah that was to come. He speaks of John as the greatest of all the prophets, the greatest man ever born.
The next line is the source of some discussion. Luther thought that Jesus was referring to Himself. Jesus is the servant of all, therefore the least in the kingdom of heaven. So Jesus is saying, according to Luther, that John, as great as he was, was not as great as He, Himself. Jesus is claiming a place above that of John. The Australian theologian Henry Hamann, who taught briefly at Fort Wayne when I was a student, just before he died, suggests a different view. Hamann takes Christ’s words as referring to those who would live to see the coming of the new age, those who would live to see the resurrection and the birth of the Church. In this way, John is like Moses. He sees the promised land that Christ would lead His people into via His death and resurrection, but John himself will not be allowed to enter - at least not upon this earth. There are certainly other views as well. I present both of these interpretations because they are both pious and theologically correct. Neither does violence to the text. We can live with this debate.
How does this apply to us? There are two keys that we should take from this text. First, notice how Jesus pointed the people to the Word of God. I am constantly amazed at how people try to understand things apart from the Word. Now for my niece, who was unfortunately not really raised in the church, this is understandable. But many times we, in the church, seek answers from God apart from the Word. It is in the Word that we find our answers. The Word gives us the most important answer of all. We have a Savior from our sins. He is God and His name is Jesus of Nazareth. We can learn this no where else. This leads us right into the second point. It is important to correctly identify our Savior. John was a great prophet, but He cannot save us. Nor can Moses, Elijah or any of the prophets. God Himself must carry our sin to the cross. God must save us. In the Word we see that Christ has indeed done this.
Jesus here, is trying to show people that they were right to listen to John. John was important. He was a prophet of God. His coming was foretold both by Isaiah and by Malachi. He is the greatest of something old, something that was passing away. He was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. He is the one Old Testament prophet who intrudes into the New Testament. But John is not the Messiah. Jesus is the one promised from of old, the One who would crush Satan’s head, who would be a blessing to all the world, who would sit on the throne of David forever. Jesus is God in the flesh. Jesus is the One who saves all mankind from sin and death.
In Jesus’ day many people had questions about Jesus and John. Then and now the Scriptures teach us that John was the greatest of the prophets, and Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Amen!