Gaudete, the Third Sunday in Advent: John in Prison

John in Prison
While in prison, John the Baptist sends his disciples to see if Jesus is the coming Messiah. In the background, Jesus is teaching the disciples about John (Matt. 11:2-11). From a book by Viet Dietrich summarizing the entire Bible (1562).

Lessons: Isaiah 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, Matthew 11:2-11
Hymns: LSB 347, 354, 345, 344, 349

Listen to the entire service here (the sermon alone is above).

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

      If your church says one thing and the world around you is saying another, which do you go with? Your church? Or the world? If you and your church are Christian, you’ll go with the church.

      If your pastor says one thing and your friends or family are telling you another, which do accept? Your pastor or others close to you? Provided your pastor is teaching from the Bible, you go with your pastor, regardless of how many friends or family tell you otherwise.

      If your church tells you one thing and you find another church that says another thing, which do you accept? You accept the one that is teaching what the Bible teaches, even if it goes against your own deeply-seated, personally held beliefs.

      Going along with the truth of Scripture is a hard thing to do. It might seem to be rather impractical or out of touch. It often goes against our own flesh. The first thing we need to do is stop following the feelings and emotions that contradict the Scriptures. Our desires and feelings must be conformed to Christ and His Word. Of course, our sinful nature will fight to gain the upper hand, as Satan keeps tempting us.

      The next things we must do is stop pretending there are experts out there who somehow know more than God does. Seriously, whenever God teaches something, we simply must say, “Yes, Lord.” For who can possibly counsel God? Who really knows more than He does?

      Another thing we need to do is recognize God is not bluffing us when He threatens with temporal punishment or eternal condemnation. The explanation to the Conclusion of the Ten Commandments is something for us all to remember, “God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore, we should fear His wrath and not do anything against them.” I don’t think many people take God seriously when He threatens Hell for those who live in ongoing, unrepentant sin. The Church condemns cohabitation and all these alternative sexual lifestyles not to pick on people or make some people out to be worse than others, but instead because God teaches that those who engage such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Recall these clear words of Scripture: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). This Bible passage is not pronouncing condemnation on those who have committed these sins in the past and have repented or on those who are tempted by these things. Instead, God is teaching us that all who continue in these without repentance and turning from their sin will face eternal death. This serves as a warning that we do not just assume that those we want to be in heaven with us will be going there. Repentance and faith must still be found.

      If your loved one who is engaging in sin and is doing nothing to stop himself from that sin and he dies tonight, do not think that God will somehow change His ways and His teachings just for your loved one. This is why we must warn those engaging in ongoing, unrepentant sin. This is why we should not take the 10-year “oh he’ll come around” approach. What if he dies tonight? Or what if Jesus comes back today?

      As we teach these truths, we also confess that God is merciful. He sent Jesus to pay for your sin and mine. And in mercy He calls sinners to repent—to turn from their sinful ways, and to trust in Christ Jesus who bore our sin in His Body and went to the cross to shed His innocent Blood as the ransom payment for our sin. In mercy, He sends preachers to warn against error and sinful lifestyles. Because of this mercy of God, I don’t have to suffer God’s wrath for my many sins. I won’t be judged to Hell. Instead, I will be acquitted and judged righteous. For I plead guilty of my sin, for my spirit is willing, even as my flesh is weak. Yet sadly, many forfeit this mercy by continuing in the very sins they have been warned not to commit.

      That is the mercy God had on King Herod when God sent John the Baptist to warn him. You see, King Herod was coveting and was being tempted with adultery. His brother, Phillip, was married to a woman named Herodias. She and the king wanted to be married to each other. So, the king who is used to getting his own way, decided he would marry his sister-in-law. As a minister sent from God, John the Baptist stepped in and said, “That is not lawful.” Human reason would say John should have kept to himself—that he has no right to get involved in the affairs of other people. But God sends ministers for a purpose.

      Today we reflect on the ministry of John the Baptist, and by extension, the pastoral ministry in general. John the Baptist was sent by God to warn sinners of the wrath to come, to call sinners to repentance, and prepare sinners to meet the Messiah. This is what pastors must continue to do today. It is tempting to think of pastors as merely motivational speakers who will make people feel uplifted. But their task is much greater than delivering a feeling. The Office of the Ministry was established by Christ so that pastors would serve as God’s instruments to proclaim His Word—warning sinners through the Law and comforting them through the Gospel of Christ.

      Both King Herod and Phillip’s wife, Herodias, wanted it one way, but God’s servant said, “No.” They thought of John the Baptist as the killjoy—the bad guy. Instead of recognizing John as the very voice of God, they made him out to be their enemy. Even though John was motivated by love as he spoke the truth, they took him as a hateful man who would not let them do what they thought was best. By refusing to listen to the counsel of John, they refused to listen to Scripture and to God Himself.

      Instead of humbling himself to God’s Word, King Herod figured he’s in charge of his own life and can set the rules and so he threw John the Baptist in prison for speaking against him.

      John could have calculated the cost. He could have reasoned, “I know the king won’t like what I will say so I won’t tell him.” Or John could have figured, “This puts my life on the line, and so I will love myself more and protect myself first than warn these two of God’s judgment.” But John would not do such things. For he was not a reed shaking in the wind, but he was a faithful man. He spoke the truth.

      And it landed him in prison. He was eventually beheaded for it. It wasn’t until then that the king had some remorse. He didn’t mind throwing a prophet sent from God into prison. In fact, John was more than a prophet—this prophet is the only one prophesied in the Old Testament—and he served as the forerunner to the Messiah.

      The king was sorry for John’s beheading, as you read in yesterday’s Bible reading (Matt. 14:1-12). But Herodias was not. He got what he wanted, though, which was his brother’s wife. Had he listened to the Word of God, he would not have brought this shame and pain upon himself and others.

      That is how it often goes. Look at the countless heartaches that would be prevented if people saved themselves until marriage. Look at how much better our world would be if people entered marriage reverently, deliberately, and with the blessing of God. Children need stable homes with their fathers and mothers who remain faithful to each other. The hookup culture so commonly promoted today, the high rates of cohabitation (along with the blind eye often given by churches), and no-fault divorce have all eroded the safeguards that have traditionally been in place to protect women and children, keeping them safe within the bonds of a family blessed by God.

      In the same way, God wants to keep us safe in this life through the bonds of a church family. He wants to keep us safe in the ark of His Church as we wade through the muddy waters of this fallen world. God has graciously ordered His Church to focus on sin and forgiveness, His Word, and the Savior of the Nations. For He wants us to be with Him in Paradise. He wants us to be recipients of His grace. He wants us to be comforted by the saving Gospel.

      That’s why men in the likes of John the Baptist are raised up by God to shepherd Christ’s people. John called sinners to repentance. He baptized them into Christ. He taught the truth, even when that truth was deemed unpopular. The times are right to demand only preachers who will be as faithful as John. Instead of having yes-men who will tell us only what we want to hear, we need those who will tell us what we need to hear, so that we avoid the path to eternal perdition.

      John was faithful, even in prison. His disciples were filled with sorrow as they visited him, knowing that he was wrongly incarcerated. But John refused to let them focus on himself. Instead, he sent them to Jesus to see if He is the Coming One. Earlier John rightly testified that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Even when he was in his mother’s womb, John was filled with Holy Spirit and leapt at the voice of Mary. John knew Jesus is the Coming One. And so, he sent his disciples to Jesus so they could fix their eyes on their Savior.

      Faithful preachers will not focus on themselves. Instead, they will faithfully preach the Scriptures, pointing you to your Savior. Pastors are, after all, bondservants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. It is required that they be found faithful to God in their service to God’s people (1 Cor. 4:1-2). God grant you joy in believing. Amen.

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