✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
There is a painting by Matthias Grunewald that depicts Jesus on the cross and John the Baptist to one side. John had actually already been martyred before Good Friday, but the artist makes an important theological point by depicting John the Baptist with a larger than life hand and finger pointing at Jesus as if to say, “Focus your attention on Him; behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Everything John the Baptist did was about Jesus, even when he was still in his mother Elizabeth’s womb. He leaped for joy when, while yet an unborn child, he heard the greeting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, come to visit her cousin Elizabeth. John knew that his Lord, God in the flesh, was near, and so he danced in her womb, and Elizabeth knew this was no ordinary kicking that a baby does. John knew the Messiah.
And later, when he made the wilderness his home and made locusts and wild honey his food, despite the crowds that had amassed from all around to hear him preach and receive his baptism–John knew that suffering was in his future. After all, if Jesus is the Lamb of God who will be sacrificed, what will happen to the forerunner of the Lamb? John would later say of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
However, when that decrease came, when John was thrown into prison for preaching against King Herod’s adultery, John’s disciples may have become more than a little distraught at what was happening. John had been languishing there now for many months. “If Jesus were really the Messiah, wouldn’t He free John from prison or do something to help him? What’s going on?” Such was the darkness of their thoughts.
Our own thoughts are prone to similar darkness. Afflicted with degenerating bodies, strained relationships, or an uncertain economic future, there is the darkness of our hearts, prone from their core towards sin. It is the darkness of lust that drives you like an animal; the darkness of greed and envy that has you measuring life by what you possess and idolizing things; the darkness of loneliness, resentment, bitterness, and despair that has you wondering if the promises of God are real. Why am I suffering? Why doesn’t Jesus do something?
The Christmas cookies, the drinks, the sentimental Christmas shows and music, the delivery guy arriving with a package you ordered, that pushes back the darkness, but it is only for a moment. The darkness always returns. And the only ending, it seems, is the final darkness of closed eyes in a casket. All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers and the flower fades.
Repent, then; turn from the shallow emptiness of this world, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The King Himself is near. There is only one remedy for the darkness of our souls, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. To Him we pray every year during this Advent tide, “Lighten the darkness of our hearts by Your gracious visitation.”
That advent, that visitation of our Lord Jesus, is the ultimate cause for all true rejoicing. This Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday, rejoicing Sunday, for the words of St. Paul ring out in the Introit, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” Rejoice in every circumstance, every time, both good and bad, and especially when the darkness of our hearts seems as if it will suffocate and overwhelm us.
Now that is not to say that the Christian faith is built on the power of positive thinking, on having a “Don’t worry, be happy” attitude. Rather, we “rejoice in the Lord always” precisely because “the Lord is at hand.” The Light is here that pierces the darkness, even the darkness of a dungeon.
In the midst of tribulation and uncertainty, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus a question, and by doing that He pointed them to Him. That’s where he would point us still to this day in the midst of our doubts and troubles and uncertainties. Look to Jesus. And so Jesus’ reply in today’s Gospel is for us, too, “Report to John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
Notice what kind of people Jesus came for–not those who are proud in their own righteousness and self-sufficiency, but the weak and the helpless and the unrighteous. Are you beginning to lose your sight or your hearing? Are your legs and your arms not working like they used to? Are you contending with some ailment or disease? Are you living from paycheck to paycheck? Do you feel unclean? Do you sense the death in you that sin brings? Then Jesus is for you. He took on your flesh and blood in order to redeem your humanity, to cleanse you, to restore you in both body and soul to the fullness of His resurrection life.
In Jesus’ response there was one phrase in particular that both John and his disciples needed to hear. Our Lord sees into the days ahead when these men will be weeping and brokenhearted, when John is put to death so cruelly and senselessly. Jesus’ reply contained these precious words: “and the dead are raised up.” John would rejoice at those words too, and maybe they were the last words he whispered to himself when the sword was raised to behead him: “The dead are raised up.” With their beloved John dead, where else could they turn, but to the One who raises the dead–back to the One whose every deed revealed the secret that He is the Lord in our flesh and blood, the Eternal Son of the Father come to save us from sin and death.
The dead are raised up. That’s a word that we need to hear, too, especially in these darker days as Christmas approaches when griefs and burdens can weigh heavier. We remember those we love, whose presence brightened our days who are separated from us either by distance or because they are now departed from this life. John sends us to Jesus, because only Jesus can give us what we need. Only He is the God who came to know all our sorrows, who lightens our darkness, who forgives sin and raises the dead.
“Comfort my people,” says your God. Cry out to the church that her warfare is ended. All that you’ve been battling–the world and its troubling ways, the devil with His damnable lies, your own flesh that wants you to give in to the enemy–know that the Lord has taken up the battle for you, and in Him the war is already won. Blessed are all those who take refuge in Him.
Though the grass withers and the flower fades, Jesus took the withering curse of sin into His own body and He broke the curse, putting it to death on the cross. All the power of the devil to drag you down to hell, all the power of sin to condemn you was completely destroyed and abolished in Jesus. Your iniquity is pardoned, freely, abundantly; you have received from the Lord’s hand double forgiveness for all your sins. That Word of God spoken to you stands forever, even as Jesus Himself stands forever, risen and reigning at the Father’s right hand. Deliverance is coming! On the Last Day, the deaf will hear and the blind will see, the lame will run and dance, and the diseased will be healed, for the dead in Christ will rise to everlasting life. No man was greater than John the Baptist, and yet the most insignificant participant in that glorious resurrection is even greater.
Like John’s disciples, then, you are now given a mission. Go, tell your neighbor, locked in the dungeon of sin and death, what you have seen and heard from the mouth of Jesus: that their sin is covered, that they have been put right with God, that there is light in the darkness, and life in death, and meaning in suffering, and gain in loss all thanks to Jesus. Tell your neighbor about the signs–sinners cleansed from the leprosy of sin in Baptism, the dead raised to life by the word of forgiveness, the hungry and thirsty refreshed by the Body and Blood of the Lamb, given and shed for the life of the world.
Blessed is the one who is not offended because of Jesus or His cross. Blessed is the one who sees the light of Christ in the darkness. Blessed are you, trusting that Jesus is the One who is to come and you need not look for another. The Lord is at hand, here at the altar. Here is your Comfort. Here “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to the Rev. Christopher Esget)