Gaudete, Advent 3: Released from Prison

Lessons: Isaiah 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, Matthew 11:2-11
Hymns: 344, 346, 347, 343, 333

      Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

      In today’s Gospel, St. John the Baptist is in prison. He found himself there because he preached against King Herod, saying, “It is not lawful to marry your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:17-18). You see, King Herod had a brother named Philip. Philip had a wife named Herodias. Evidently, she didn’t want to be married to the king’s brother, but to the king. And evidently the king wanted his brother’s wife as his own, so he married her.

      St. John the Baptist did not weigh the political ramifications for preaching against the king. He said what needed to be said. After all, he spoke God’s Word and no man has any authority to change God’s truth or God’s ways. Of course, earthly kings establish laws and do pretty much whatever they want. So when John told Herod that his marriage is illegal, John wasn’t referring to the laws of the state, but to God’s Law. And God’s Law applies to everyone, whether they want it to or not. So, risking his own life by speaking against the king, John spoke the truth. Many may make an argument that John was unloving for his narrow viewpoint or for bluntly saying what needed to be said. However, John spoke God’s truth, and it is never unloving to speak God’s truth. For love rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6).

      John’s words to the king were not protected under the First Amendment. And so, the king threw John in prison. King Herod really wanted to kill John the Baptist, but John was too popular among the people (Matt. 14:4). Finally, one time Herod threw himself a birthday party and Herodias’s daughter danced and pleased the crowd. Adding to the crowd’s delight, Herod promised he will give anything to her, up to half the kingdom. She consulted with her mom and announced she wanted John the Baptist’s head. This was granted and it was delivered to her on a platter.

      John’s imprisonment and execution were the result of faithfully exposing the sin of a man in government. In our day, many think the Bible teaches a separation of church and state in which the church should not inform the government of anything. But this view is not backed by Scripture, not even our Constitution. Instead, it is fitting for Christian beliefs to inform those elected to serve in office.

      John’s imprisonment draws some parallels to today.

      As the year of our Lord 2020 comes to a close, many feel they are in a kind of imprisonment. We no longer have the same freedom we once did to gather in large groups. Everywhere we go, people’s faces are covered by masks. Many celebrated Thanksgiving alone and will do the same for Christmas. I’m not interested in going into all the pros and cons of all these safety measures; instead, I’m pointing out that for many this all seems like imprisonment.

      For some, it is much worse. Consider those who are hospitalized or reside in senior care facilities who are unable to receive visits from loved ones. No visitors in or out. Earlier this year, many went months without any visitors, besides staff and other residents. No children or grandchildren. No one from Church. No friends or neighbors. They were confined. And some still are. Like John the Baptist, they didn’t do anything to deserve such conditions, but it was inflicted upon them by things outside their control.

      Now, we know these restrictions will not last forever. Perhaps we’ll see an end to this pandemic in 2021. Perhaps our good Lord will see us fit to endure it longer. Perhaps Jesus will return soon and usher us into His eternal kingdom. For those who find themselves alone due to the pandemic, they can take comfort in knowing that Jesus is present everywhere, and that He will never leave them nor will He forsake them (Hebrews 13:5).

      Others feel imprisoned by their jobs. Perhaps the working conditions are poor, or it is a dead-end job. Maybe they don’t qualify to get better employment, so they are stuck. Thankfully, our identity is not found in jobs, but in Christ. His name was placed upon us in our Baptism. We have a new identity, for we are adopted into God’s family and Jesus is our Brother.

      Some feel they are imprisoned by their bodies. They may have aches and pains. They may not be satisfied with their appearance. But we know that, when Christ returns, He will make all things new. Our aches and pains will be gone. Our bodies will be perfect and glorious, just as God had intended before there was sin. We will be immortal and will live with our Lord with incorruptible bodies.

      Others may be imprisoned by other circumstances. Perhaps their family life is poor, they’re addicted, they’re being manipulated or blackmailed, they’re victims of crime, or whatever the case may be. Help is always available. They can turn to the Lord in prayer. Ultimately, God will grant them a resolution through their trials and troubles. Remember these words of the Bible: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

      St. Paul who wrote these words described himself as a bondservant of Christ in today’s Epistle. So was John the Baptist—a slave to Christ. They were stewards of the mysteries of God. They were bound to the Lord’s Word and only preached God’s truth. Yet, they were free. For they believed the Gospel of Christ, which frees sinners from their sinful state.

      You see, there is something that had once imprisoned all of us—and that is our sin. Our sin enslaved us, leading to death. We could not shake ourselves from our sinful state. Even now, as God’s children, we face temptation daily and find ourselves continuing to do the evil that we hate. We cannot purify ourselves of our sin. The wage of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). We deserve nothing but temporal punishment and eternal death for our many sins.

      But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. He came into this world and withstood temptation and perfectly kept the Law. He paid for our sins on the cross when the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all. We are blessed to have this good news preached to us. For when the Son of God sets us free, we shall be free indeed (John 8:31-32). We are now released from our bondage to sin, death, and the devil. In Christ, we are forgiven of all sin and are covered with His very righteousness, we will live eternally in perfection, and we are now children of God. As recipients of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are no longer under bondage, but we are free.

      Yet, Satan is still trying to tear us away from this freedom we now enjoy. He tries to instill doubt, anxiety, and fear. Imagine what it was like for John the Baptist as he sat in prison, or for his disciples who were in anguish by the injustice John was enduring.

      We do not know why John sent his disciples to ask Jesus if He is the Coming One or if they should look for another. Some think John was in doubt as he endured imprisonment. Others said he had no doubt but wanted to direct his disciples to Jesus who is truly the author and perfector of our faith (Heb. 12:2). While I can’t tell you who’s right, I will tell you I tend to agree with the latter position—that John was faithfully directing his disciples to Jesus.

      Jesus then takes the opportunity to tell John’s disciples not only of Himself and His work, but of John and John’s work. Jesus confirmed the work and preaching of John when He pointed out that John fulfilled the prophecy of Malachi—that John is the prophet who will prepare the way of the Lord.  

      When John began his ministry, he declared, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). And when Jesus began His ministry, He also declared, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). They both proclaimed the way to be released from the bondage of our sin—through repentance worked by God the Holy Spirit as we hear God’s Law and through faith worked by God the Holy Spirit as we hear the Gospel of Christ.

      Jesus brings release from the things that imprison people. As He testified, “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 the Good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:5). And this same Jesus is at work today in our lives. He is with you to bring you comfort during your trials, strength to endure your afflictions, and patience until that time He chooses to release you from your troubles.

      John ultimately was released from prison. Of course, Christ Jesus released John of his imprisonment to sin by dying for him on the cross and working saving faith in him—faith which lead him to leap in his mother’s womb at the voice of Mary (Luke 1:44). And John was released from being behind bars. He wasn’t set free back into this sinful world, but was received into Heaven.

      John was precious in God’s sight. And so are you. Just as God brought John through all his trials to Himself in Heaven, so also God will get you through all the things that you face which seem to be imprisonment and God will bring you to be with Himself in Heaven.

      And for this blessing of God’s mercy, we rejoice in the Lord always (Phil. 4:4-5). Amen.

      The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting.  Amen