Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This morning’s Scripture is from the Gospel Lesson just read: Matthew, chapter 11 and I would like to re-read a couple of verses to you again,
“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.” (Matthew 11:5-6)
Prayer: All praise, eternal Son, to Thee, Whose advent sets Thy people free, Whom with the Father we adore, and Holy Spirit evermore. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ,
“Christmas Time Is Here” –Not only is it true, (and today’s weather especially seems to want to prove it!) but that is also the title of one of my favorite holiday songs. We’ll remember it as the theme song from the Christmas television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I’ve always been a big fan of the Peanuts characters–especially when I was young. I had Peanuts paperbacks, bed sheets, and even a Charlie Brown waste-paper can.
It was a really big deal for me when Peanuts creator Charles Schulz made a Christmas special. I was a big Charlie Brown fan. But I also really liked Linus, too. He and his sister, Lucy, were preacher’s kids. Linus always had the philosophical and intellectual
A few years later Charles Schulz came out with another special for Halloween. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was also hugely popular. In a comic strip from that time, Linus and Charlie Brown were discussing their corresponding beliefs in the Great Pumpkin and Santa Claus. Linus says, “It doesn’t manner what you believe in Charlie Brown, as long as you’re sincere.” When I saw that I was devastated. Somehow Linus’ theology had become flawed.
This morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 11 flies right into the face of that kind of thinking. Jesus says that it does matter what you believe, and–more pointedly–it matters greatly what you believe about Jesus. Either you believe Jesus is the Christ and Messiah, and the Savior of the world or you are offended by Him. And John the Baptizer, like the prophets who came before him, and the apostles after: they all believed, preached and confessed that Jesus was the Christ: the Savior of the world. And blessed are we to know this and to believe it also!
Now admittedly our Gospel reading isn’t an easy one. And the real difficult part is about John sending his disciples to Jesus to ask if He indeed was the Christ. Some modern Bible interpreters have misunderstood this portion of Scripture to mean that John somehow faltered in his faith and wasn’t sure. They think that perhaps he was having second thoughts and doubts about his ministry–especially since he had landed in prison. They suggest that John became unsure about Jesus because he didn’t see Jesus ushering in the kingdom of God like he had hoped.
Well, they are wrong. There is no doubt here in John’s mind. He isn’t faltering. For one thing it doesn’t make any sense that John, who pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” is unsure about the content of all his preaching those many months–perhaps a year and a half. As Jesus points out–John wasn’t the kind to be easily shaken in a wind; he wasn’t so fancy that time in prison would make him rethink his faith and preaching.
Now there are plenty of preachers in the world today like that, as I am sure there were in Johns’ day, who only go with the popular notions or current trends in theology–but John wasn’t one of them. Jesus makes that clear when speaks so highly of John.
Second, John was a prophet! Jesus even says, more than a prophet! John bridged the gap between the Testaments. Like the prophets, John spoke about the one Who was to come–of the Kingdom of Heaven being at hand, of the Christ being near–ready to glean the harvest of grain and burn the chaff.
But John also saw the Christ. He pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God.” John call people to repentance of their sins. He baptized. And in these ways he was like the apostle’s and evangelists. And yet, he–John–who among those born of women is the greater, did not see the outcome of Jesus’ life and ministry.
How Jesus suffered and died, fulfilling the Law and the Prophets by his active and passive obedience to will of the Father. John never heard the Father’s voice at Jesus’ Transfiguration which spoken, “this is my beloved Son”–just as it had done at His baptism. John never knew of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem; of His betrayal and trial; of His death on the cross of our sin and shame–where He fulfilled all Scripture–even saying that He thirst and “It is finished!” Nor did John hear the good news that Jesus was arisen and that He ascended to heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand and that He is coming again in judgment. John knew none of these things, as we are blessed to know because a short while after these things described in our Gospel took place –Herod had him put to death.
But John and his disciples had the miracles. And John desires that his disciples hear from Jesus own lips what the coming Kingdom was like.
In the salvation we have in Jesus Christ we, too, look for a time when we will be completely healed of all our sicknesses, diseases, troubles and weaknesses. We know it will be that way in heaven. But we also know that the comfort of the forgiveness of sins makes the hope and joy of life and salvation real for us now.
Some people refuse to believe in Jesus because they don’t ever get to see miracles. While John didn’t need that, apparently his disciples did.
C.S. Lewis says this about miracles and the need for them,
You are probably quite right in thinking that you will never see a miracle done:…They come on great occasions: they are found at great ganglions of history–not of political or social history, but of that spiritual history which cannot be fully known by men. If your own life does not happen to be near one of those ganglions, how should you expect to see one? If we were heroic missionaries, apostles, or martyrs, it would be a different matter. But why you or I? Unless you live near a railway, you will not see trains go past your windows. How likely is it that you or I will be present when a peace-treaty is signed, when a great scientific discovery is made, when a dictator commits suicide? That we should see a miracle is even less likely. Nor, if we understand, shall we be anxious to do so. “Nothing almost sees miracles but misery.” Miracles and martyrdoms tend to bunch about the same areas of history–areas we have naturally no wish to frequent.[i]
What Lewis is saying is that requiring a miracle in order to believe is to demand more from yourself than from God. God can do a miracle all right. But are you able to go with what comes with miracles? Presumably all of John’s disciples suffered deaths similar to John’s and Jesus’.
But we shouldn’t be discouraged. For Jesus says here that “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11) What this means is that while our lives may not be filled with great miracles–and even great preaching–what is least should not be looked down upon. God works mighty things through the humblest of means.
Mary was a humble virgin of lowly means. Joseph was a righteous man with a fiancé that was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Bethlehem was not at all a great city. And the shepherds were the ruffians of their day. But God worked miracles through each. And He does with each of us today.
As we gather around Word and Sacrament–His Means of Grace strengthen and support us in faith. As Jesus says, “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.” Amen.
[i] C.S. Lewis, Miracles chap. 17, para. 5, pp. 167–168.