In the name of the Father of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What did you come out into the wilderness to see? I mean, think about, how inconvenient! For Goodness' sake, it's the wilderness. It's desolate, there's nothing out there but sand, a nasty river they call Jordan, and a grungy, un-socialized young preacher-man. How disappointing! But what did you expect way out there in the boonies? A man dressed in kingly apparel? You have no idea! But really, what did you inconvenience yourself to see?
This John the Baptizer: did you think his preaching would be like a reed that is blown around by the wind? What sort of message did you come out to receive from him? Did you think him to be a preacher who proclaimed man's wisdom, trying to win your favor by saying the right things in the right way to you, the right people? Did you think he was one who would be swayed back and forth by your opinion, of anything?
You would prefer a preacher like that, wouldn't you? A preacher who would give you good news of an earthly kingdom rather than the kingdom of heaven. Something you could really get your greedy hands on and increase your own glory. A flimsy reed-like preacher like that, who will accommodate his message to fit what you want to hear. But John is not this sort of preacher. Those sort of preachers aren't worth anything, they preach only about prosperity but are silent about the troubling things, the things that really matter, about sin and your unworthiness. But not John. He persists, speaks out, and does not keep silent to win people's favor. He dares to tell it like it is. He dares to speak God's Word of Divine Wisdom, which is contrary to human wisdom, even foolish to human wisdom, even offensive to those who are wise in the sight of men.
What did you go out to see? What did you expect? Did you not see that this man was a man of God, more than that a prophet of God, more than that greater than a prophet. A prophet was called by God to speak of the future coming of the Messiah. They were great men, carrying a great message. But John is greater. John did not carry a message of prophecy, but rather a message of the fulfillment of all prophecies. Combine the greatest of all the prophets of old (Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, and of course, Elijah, just to name a few), combine all their greatness, and there you have John, the Forerunner. “When you see the Forerunner,” the prophets of old would say, “then you know, the Kingdom of heaven is brought near. The waiting is over. Salvation has come. The day of the Good News message is upon you.”
Yes, more than a prophet. It's the last prophetic cry, it's the last leveling of the mountains and raising of the valleys, the time has come. Either you listen to this prophet (nevermind how horribly you have treated the prophets who have come to you in the past, God gives you now another chance), either you receive John's preaching now or it will be too late for you.
What did you come out to see? Well, never-mind that, it's an impossible question for you, for you can't see, you are the blind. And what's more, you are deaf, the leprous and the lame. You are the dead. Knowing that, you will be well prepared. By preaching that, the preparing one, John, will have done what he was called to do. He will have saved you from yourself, and from the destruction of the self-righteous, He will have opened for you the way of repentance.
This is what it is to be John's disciple: to know your sin and your sinfulness; to be confronted by God's Law; to fear the holy God by the knowledge of God's wrath on your sin. To be John's disciple is to know spiritual suffering, spiritual heartache, and to hate the cause of that suffering, your sin. But that's only one part. That's only the preparation. To truly be John's disciple is to finally realize that John is not the end, and neither is his message. John is the Forerunner of the End, the finger that physically points to Him whose message will fulfill all things. Finally to be John's disciple is to know that this One is coming, to bring comfort and relief, to make alive, and to save you.
You, poor ones, this is the good news. And it is preached to you. You are Gospelized. You are handed over to Another; just like in the Gospel reading, when John sends his disciples to Jesus, to ask Him the right question, “You, are you Coming One, or should we watch for another?” You have come through John's preaching, you have been exposed by the Law, you know your sin and sinfulness: on the one hand, you are the spiritually deaf, on the other hand, you don't confess this or even try to listen to the Word of Christ, the Bible, unless it is convenient to you. You know that, on the one hand you are spiritually blind, and on the other hand you don't confess this or even try to understand more about this Christ. In the same way you are spiritually leprous, yet you don't confess your sickness and you aren't all that urgent to seek out the true Healer in His medicine in the Sacrament. In other words, you know your condition, your failures, how you are unfit even for the simple tasks of life.
This is how far John has taken you. You are good disciples of John. But this is not enough. Now it is time for John to decrease, and for him to turn over his disciples to the One who has come. John has prepared you to seek out the One who turns your blindness into sight, who strengthens your legs not only to walk, but to run the race set before you. And as you confess your uncleanness and your unwillingness to hear God's Word, this One does not condemn you or make any judgments on you whatsoever. Rather, Jesus takes your judgment and is condemned for you to death. He takes your place, in order that, as surely as He will be raised again in three days, so you also, being united to Him in the death of repentance, you will be raised with Him in confession to forgiveness and eternal life.
So what did you come out in the wilderness to see? Why did you make the trip through the slush and icy roads out to this place? How inconvenient! Perhaps it's unclear why you come. Repent. For you have come to be prepared. You have not loved the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole mind and with your whole soul. Neither have you loved your neighbor as yourself; you haven't even loved your closest neighbor, your husband or wife or children or parents, like this. So be prepared: repent. But this is not all. Repentance is not the end. Repentance is just the beginning, death is just the beginning. Life is what comes next.
And just as death and life come as one package for the baptized, even so repentance and forgiveness are one reality.
If you have a 3rd-5th grade child in our Catechesis class, ask them this question sometime: “How have you kept the 10 Commandments perfectly?” We go through this every week. You'll see them first examine themselves, and then give you this answer (if they've been paying attention, that is): they'll first say: I have not. And they know it too, they can see that they mess up, that they don't obey you, their parents, the first time, every time; they know that their anger or belittling toward their peers is sinful and that it flows out of a sinful heart. But their answer won't stop there. They'll also say the following, which is the most important part of the answer, which is the Good News message for them, namely, “But Jesus has kept them all perfectly for me.” So “how have you kept the 10 Commandments perfectly?” “I have not, but Jesus has kept them all perfectly for me.”
Jesus has done it. You did not come here only to prepare. You have come, or rather God has gathered you all here this morning, in order that He might bring you through the repentance, bring you through the death to your sinful nature, and on into life, eternal life, now.
This is the Good News that is preached to you: a miracle of all miracles. The Word of God is spoken not only into your ears, but into your soul, giving you the very Life that it contains. That Life is Jesus. But there's more: The Lord's Body and Blood: it is not only placed into your mouth, but into your soul also, giving you the very Peace that it promises. That Peace is Jesus.
So do what you have come to do: repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is brought near. Repent: be not offended by John's message of death to your sinful nature. Repent: be not offended by Jesus' message of grace and mercy and your salvation. He is the coming One. He came in flesh because He loved you, He comes even now in Word and Sacrament to love you, He will come again to bring you into the fulness of that love in everlasting life with Himself and all the saints. You have come that you might die to yourself and be made alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In +Jesus' precious name. Amen.
[Artwork by Ed Riojas]
[Artwork by Ed Riojas]