Advent and the Cross
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Matthew 11:2-6
December 15, 2019

We read these words from Matthew chapter 11: Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “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” (Mat. 11:2-6, ESV).

If Jesus is the promised Christ, if Jesus brings the kingdom of God in Himself, then what should we expect to happen? What should our lives necessarily look like? What should the world necessarily look like?

This is the question that John the Baptist was struggling with. It is a question that we may also struggle with, from time to time. This question could also manifest one of the biggest confusions of our times: confusing the kingdom of God with the kingdom of this world; the confusion that physical existence must reflect the perfection of the kingdom of God and prove God’s presence, victory and love; that the manifestation of the kingdom of God is when there is no trouble, evil, or difficulty; that society should look like Dulac, you know, the perfect place that Lord Farquaad ruled in Shrek.

For starters, it may seem strange to state that John was struggling with these questions; that John was struggling with doubts about Jesus. Many in church history have not thought it possible that John could have been subject to such spiritual struggles, struggles of faith in Jesus. But then again John was a real human being, a sinner, like you and me.

Jesus seems to have thought that John was struggling. This is the case because of the answer He gave John. It is also because the answer He gave was directed at John. Jesus told John’s followers to go and tell John the things you hear and see. Go and tell John.

So, John is struggling. He is in prison, unjustly. All he did was tell the governing authority what God considers and judges to be right and wrong with respect to sexual morality. The governing authority didn’t like that and so punished John and put him in prison.

The governing authority in that case was a son of King Herod the Great. This son was called Herod Antipas, which means in place of his father. We’ll just call him Herod the Second. Herod the Second was ruling Galilee at the time of our Gospel reading.

King Herod the Great was the Herod involved in the story of the wise men who came to worship Jesus at His birth. King Herod the Great is the one who tried to get rid of Jesus by killing the newborn sons in the region around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger (Matthew 2:16). It seems that the apple did not fall far from the tree with respect to Herod the Second, who has now put John in prison for speaking the truth.

King Herod actually had four sons, one of which was Herod the Second, and another of which was Philip. Herod the Second was ruling Galilee. Philip was ruling a region north and east of Judea referred to as Trachonitis.

Herod the Second had married the wife of his brother Philip, while Philip was still alive and still married to his wife. John simply told Herod that it was not lawful for him to marry Philip’s wife, under those circumstances. So, Herod the Second put John in prison. You might recall the story then about Herodias, the wife of Philip, asking for John’s head on a platter after Herod promised to Herodias’s daughter that he would give her anything, after she had danced for him (Matthew 14:3-12).

But now coming back to John. He had proclaimed that the One greater than he was on the scene. John said of him that the “winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear this threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). When the Messiah comes, He will stamp out the bad guys and rid the world of them. This is what we would expect from any super hero, right?

Aren’t Herod the Second and his awful wife, Herodias, the chaff? They sure are. Isn’t John the wheat? He sure is. Shouldn’t the coming one, the Messiah, be burning up the chaff and gathering up the wheat, then? Did not God promise that the Messiah would come with vengeance, with the recompense of God to save John, and others in Israel? (Isaiah 35:4). That is verse 4 of the Old Testament reading today.

But Jesus wasn’t doing any of those things, at least not in the way that John thought it was obvious they should be done. And now John is in prison, suffering unjustly at the hands of the chaff. This isn’t the way its supposed to look if the Christ is on the scene, is it? This isn’t the way its supposed to look if God’s reign is breaking in, is it? God should be killing the bad guys, shouldn’t He? This isn’t the way its supposed to turn out for the prophet, for the faithful, for the believer in the Messiah, is it?

The darkness of despair, of deep doubt, of failing faith in God’s control and plan and purpose in Christ, was descending on John’s soul. You can imagine how the Devil was attacking him in prison.

John did the right thing in the midst of this darkness, doubt, and struggling faith. He came to Jesus.

 Jesus points to what He is doing: giving the blind their sight, causing the lame to walk, cleansing lepers, causing the deaf to hear, bringing dead people back to life, and preaching Gospel to the poor. Jesus tells John this because this is what Isaiah said the Christ would do (Isaiah 35:5-6). The purpose of Jesus doing them and pointing them out to John is to show who He is; that He truly is the promised Coming One.  

And what about us? Are we really right in proclaiming Jesus this Advent and Christmas as the King of kings, the ruler over all, the Christ and Savior of all human beings who call upon Him; the real desire of nations; the one who really brings God and satisfies the human heart? For we all have reason enough to think like John: if Jesus really is the Christ, the King, the Son of God, then my life and the world should look like ___________, you fill in the blank with such and such assured victory, power, glory, success; and my life and the world should not look like ___________, you fill in the blank with such and such thing that does not look like God being victorious and in control.

The problem humans have, that we have in our fallenness, is that the essential problem Jesus came the first time to deal with is not what humans are predisposed to think the essential problem is. The essential problem is that sin must be atoned for and death defeated in the sense of death being God’s just punishment on sin. The essential problem that the Christ must first deal with is the problem of God’s wrath against sin. This is because God wants to save at least some of us humans. The fact is that this world is under God’s judgment and is not eternal. Humans have the essential facts completely turned around.

The Christ came to deal with God’s righteous judgment in atoning sacrifice to save a remnant. This remnant will be those who realize that they and their existence need redemption that must first be accomplished; that they are in need of the forgiveness of sins.

And so the Christ could not come the first time in fiery wrath against the wicked, though He will come like that the second time. The first time, He had to come under the sign of the cross, to suffer and die so He could make atonement for the sins of the world; to be the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. This is what He did.

And this means also that our present age is under the sign of the cross. Through the Gospel, God is gathering for Himself a people who are hoping in an accomplished redemption so that He can save them from death and the wrath to come. The sign of our age, the age that John was introducing, is under the sign of the cross. It is the age in which God is working repentance toward sin and faith in Christ, as the one who atones for our sin and gives us the promise of the new creation in His resurrection from the dead.

Being under the sign of the cross does not mean that Jesus is not victorious and not with us. He is with under the cross, in the midst of the trials and difficulties. He is with you by His Word and Spirit to strengthen you in faith. His sure promise is that He is with you and the grace and love of God is sure for you in Jesus.

But being under the sign of the cross also means that there is no promise that your physical existence and all the relations we live in in this world will exhibit the perfection, love, and holiness of the kingdom of God. There will continue to be evil in the world. Christ will deal with this reality in finality at the end of the age in His power and glory. The kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world are not the same thing, and the kingdom of this world is under judgment. It is not eternal. Jesus proved that when He died on the cross. With respect to your life in this world, your life is hidden with God in Christ.

Maybe we could say that John should have known all of this, because he is the one who proclaimed those very words about Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 ESV). But let us not be too hard on John, for things were going quite badly for him. And we often forget the words of promise and who Christ is and God’s faithfulness in Christ when we are in the darkness of such temptation; when our lives don’t look to us like we think they should, if Christ and God and faith are real.

Like John, in those times, and all times, let us come to Jesus. And then let us take comfort and be encouraged by John and Jesus’s response to Him. If the great John the Baptist could struggle, then you and I are in good company when we struggle with life in this fallen and broken world. And we could hear Jesus then also speak to us as He spoke to John: “John you see all the good that I am doing for those who are suffering. Yes, I am the one. You are right to believe in Me and proclaim my coming. But I also came for a different purpose than to kill the bad guys, because redemption must be accomplished. For this I must lay down my life in atoning sacrifice as the Christ, and then take it again in victory over sin, death, and the Devil. This I will do for you and for all. Trust Me. Both the Father and I know what we are doing. And you will find rest for your soul in Me.”

Amen.



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