Monday, December 17, 2007

"Hope Against All Hope." Matthew 11:1-15 Advent III

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Dear Children of God who put their hope in the coming One:
This morning we have three inter-related readings from Holy Scripture that I believe God and his Spirit has guided the Church to hear and to take to heart on this Third Sunday in Advent. From Isaiah the Prophet we hear a breath-taking description of the restoration of the promised land — the restoration of the garden of Eden — ushered in by the coming of the Messiah. This was the restoration longed for by the Old Testament people of God, a re-creation they put their trust in, even though they did not see it's fulfillment before their death.
This specific hope in the One to come and make all things new again was a longing that saving faith produced in the generations of believers from the days of a wandering Adam to the days of those who wandered into the wilderness to receive God's work of preparation through John the Baptist.
And this is the hope that John had himself, even when he was arrested and put in prison: the restoration not only of the land of God's people but the restoration of God's people was at hand. Now everything would be different with the advent of the Messiah, the coming of Jesus. That's why John had instructed his own disciples to now follow the greater One, the One who must increase as John decreases and steps backward, out of the spotlight, that the focus might be on the Son of God alone, come to reign.
May God bless the preaching of his Word this morning, that, we might join all the faithful who have gone before us, hoping for the coming One - hoping with God-given endurance, patience and faith.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the eleventh chapter:
When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. (Matt. 11:1 ESV)
Saint Matthew presents Jesus' ministry in two parts, and the first verse of chapter eleven begins the second half. Up until now things had gone pretty well. The crowds had favorable things to say about what Jesus had been saying and doing, but the Jewish religious leaders were becoming more and more determined to gain the upper hand as the crowds were increasingly swayed by Jesus and his forerunner John. Here, Jesus complements the stationary ministry of John the Baptist in the wilderness by the Jordan by sending out his disciples to towns and villages to announce to the lost sheep of the house of Israel: The kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 10:7) Having completed his directing of the disciples in their work of preparing God's people for his arrival, he presses on towards the goal, all the while sowing the saving seed of his Word through his teaching and preaching. Jesus has completed the first phase of his coming that Matthew began to narrate way back in chapter 4, and now he will move on to the next. The work of preparation through all the prophets came to completion as the Word of God made flesh finished directing all he has sent out with his Word to prepare hearts and minds for the advent of their redemption. In Christ and his Word, the end-time reign of heaven, the hope of all the faithful, was now breaking through.
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?” (Matt. 11:2 ESV)
There is nothing more risky that putting all of your eggs in one basket, in betting it all on one horse, in putting all hope in one thing, and in one thing alone. That's what makes marriages and families and church families built on the foundation of Christian faith a risky affair. Every hope and every dream placed in one direction and goal, placed upon one person. And so it was with John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. John had placed all his chips on the son of Joseph and Mary, the Son of God.
In God-given faith he hadn't considered a "Plan B," a way out, an exit strategy. From the very beginning God had given him the ability to bank it all with his younger cousin Jesus, right from the day he had heard the voice of the mother of his Lord and leapt for joy that the Messiah had come — come to save and redeem John and his parents and his nation. John grew up in the Spirit of the Lord and a contingency plan had never been in the cards. John put all his hopes and expectations in this ordinary-enough looking man who — nevertheless — spoke with the authority of heaven and accomplished works only the Messiah from heaven could effect.
This question John lays at the feet of Jesus is pivotal in the Gospel of Matthew and it's importance continues to be reflected in our own culture and art. From episodes of Star Wars to the Matrix, the question continues to be asked for those who hope against hope as they place their faith in opposition to the world and their old nature and ask, "Are you the One to come, or shall we look for another?"
John, the greatest of the prophets, at the end of his calling, at the end of his life, struggles with the object of his hope. John was asking himself, "Is the one I have pointed to really the One? And if so, how can it all end up like this? No different than any of the other prophets that came before me. I thought, I believed, things would all be different now. He's come. He's here. Everything's in place. But look at me. Poor me. I have given everything and I have, seemingly, very little to show for it."
Can you identify with John the Baptist, chained to a prison cell for endless weeks and endless months?
Have you every questioned the object of your hope? Have you ever thought to yourself, "Christ has come to me, so why isn't my life and circumstances changed? Why do I still doubt? What is God telling me in the midst of my struggles and pains — when I want to throw in the towel, when I just can't seem to live in hope anymore? Where is my Messiah now?"
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.” (Matt. 11:3-5 ESV)
"The poor in spirit," those who have nothing to offer before God, stand as the introduction to the Beatitudes of our Savior, as he preached to his disciples the reality of the kingdom of God being ushered in through God's Son. In Christ, the disciples were, even then, blessed.
And what Jesus attributed to his followers he now attributed to John. It is as if Jesus were saying, "Go and remind John what he has actually known all along: In me the blind receive their sight and the lame walk. Lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear. Even the dead are raised up. And — all this points, just as you have pointed John — to the fact that in me, and in me alone, the spiritually poor have the life-changing, hope-producing Word preached to them."
In Christ, people are delivered from the effects of sin in this life as a testimony to the greater work of Christ as he delivers the faithful, the hopeful, the waiting, from the eternal effects of sin and sinfulness.
"The poor" is shorthand for those who confess that, before God, they have nothing good to show for themselves. They are spiritually bankrupt. They do not possess the human ability to earn God's favor or love or escape from all that they by their sins have deserved.
They must put all their hope — they must put their entire salvation — into the hands and care of another: the Messiah, the One who comes to establish his last-day kingdom of grace and mercy and forgiveness and restoration.
“And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matt. 11:6 ESV)
There were plenty in Jesus' day who took offense. Some he grew up with. Others within his own family. Some who were hoping for something better and more glorious and more powerful. Someone who would let sinners and unbelievers have it right between the eyes.
But Christ appeared as we would have never imagined: taking our fallen-ness, our weaknesses and infirmities right from the start through the miserable conditions of his birth. And he took our sins all the way to his innocent sufferings and death.
John suffered because of his hope. And even in that, he pointed to his Lord and the offense that only God can remove: the Lord will restore the promised land, the gracious reign of God, the Garden of Eden, as he comes to establish salvation through the offense of a poor manger and a repulsive Cross.
Each of us here today was created to hope - - to live our lives in hope and longing for the restoration of all things, something humanity has not enjoyed since the beginnings of time.
But we have, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, been given such a great gift and such a great hope. And with that Christ-given hope we can let everything ride on Jesus and his Word of promise.
Only faith in the One to whom John pointed can see us through the days when we say, "I can't make myself hope any more."
Follow John in putting all your hopes and expectations in this ordinary-enough looking man who — nevertheless — spoke with the authority of heaven and accomplished works only the Messiah from heaven could effect. Put your faith in the One who became poor, that you might become rich. Put your hope in his Word and Baptism and Supper. And then, after all, wait for his appearing.
He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 11:15)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.