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. And 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/Evangelized. 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 the 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, your unworthiness: on the one hand, you have the knowledge that 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 have the understanding that 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 possess a knowledge of your condition, of your failures, how you are unfit even for the simple tasks of life.
And that's fine and good, that's what the Law does. This is how far John has taken you. You are good disciples of John. But this is not enough, there must be something more. 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 has come 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 absolution to forgiveness and eternal life. That / is really what is needed, that / is what is more, that / is where John was leading you.
The liturgical name for this Sunday is Gaudete. It's a Latin word that means rejoice. For us sinners, repentance and forgiveness is the only road to lasting joy. And that's really hard to find in this world, isn't it(?): one who is truly joyful. You, Christian, can be one like this. We sell ourselves short when we ignore sin. A sinful spirit and guilty conscience produces bitterness and hatred; it makes one mean.
I've heard a phrase before which causes me to be a little concerned (perhaps you've heard it too, or at least a form of this phrase): Lutheran guilt. The concept behind this is that the main reason to come out to church on Sunday is to get your healthy, Lutheran dose of guilt so that you don't get too out of control with joy or rejoicing. How terrible! I hope your mind hasn't been infected with this rubbish. “Lutheran guilt”--as if we've got the market cornered on bad feelings or something.
Really, above any other denomination, we Lutherans in fact have the most to be joyful about. There is more Gospel among us than any other church body. As a bit of proof of this: you know what the opponents of the Reformation called the first Lutherans: Evangelicals; those who had the Gospel! They used it as a derogatory name, and we said, “Thank you, how blessed we are to have the Gospel.” The Gospel is not about guilt, it is all about freedom from guilt. Comfort, comfort, ye my people. That's the message for today, and always.
Pr Matthew Harrison, our Synod's President, wrote a book that's called, “A Little Book on Joy.” He goes through the whole Scriptures and meditates on this word, Joy. One very interesting thing that he finds, that applies especially to this day in the Church Year, he found that, even in repentance, there is joy/rejoicing.
Even when you consider your sin. When you hear God's harsh and damning Law, and you consider that you are a sinner, / what stays always in the back of your mind, is that Jesus came / for sinners. Every sin you confess, every evil you repent of, is just one more burden that has been taken off of you.
Being led by a theologian like President Harrison, perhaps this one perception can be changed: not “Lutheran guilt,” but rather “Lutheran freedom,” and “Lutheran rejoicing.”
Especially on this day: Gaudete. Your sin is forgiven you, your warfare is over, you have the Gospel preached to you. Rejoice. You have come out here, through the wilderness, to this oasis, to rejoice, and to feast, and to celebrate. Rejoice in the Lord always. Gaudete.
In +Jesus' name. Amen.