Third Sunday in Advent - "Comfort for the Shaken"
And Jesus answered them, Go and tell John what you hear and see. In the name of Jesus + Amen.
We just sang “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” and being comforted is what this story is all about. Comfort those who sit in darkness, mourning ‘neath their sorrows’ load. John the Baptist is sitting in darkness, imprisoned for preaching to King Herod to repent from immorality and fornication. He is innocent and has committed no crime, only been bold throughout the whole mission he’s been assigned and drafted for in his life by the Lord Almighty. You see, John was the one foretold of by the prophets long ago to be the one to prepare the way of the Lord. John is the last Old Testament Prophet (the new Elijah) proclaiming to make straight in the desert a highway for our God. But now he sits locked up, awaiting his own beheading requested by the wicked Herodias, Herod’s evil wife.
John knew that the Word of the Lord endured forever. He was the one who pointed to Jesus as he came to be baptized by him and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Now what? How would you feel if you got that commission, performed it flawlessly and now were about to become a martyr? So perhaps John begins to question himself, did I do all that for nothing? John sends a couple of his disciples over to Jesus to question him: Are you the one? Are you really the one who is to come, or did we get the wrong guy? Should we, the chosen people, keep looking, waiting for another?
John and all of Israel expected an advent, a comforter, the One who was to make peace; to answer the cry that their warfare is ended, that their iniquity is pardoned / fulfilled / granted release. Well, first off, we know that John the Baptist was obviously allowed to have visitors to his cell block. How else would he have been able to send them if he hadn’t first spoken with them while incarcerated?
During the five years I spent working in and for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, I got to know the prisoner visitation process pretty well – the modern day one anyway. Visitation for inmates was a highlight of their doing time. Most of the time it would be scheduled for family members, or it could be kind of random if it was for an attorney visit representing them in their trial or some legal agency coming to speak with them of the allegations and of their case. Where I was stationed, the majority of the population were not fully sentenced yet; the facility I was at was a Metropolitan Detention Center.
But although it could be a good visit, before entering into the visitation room and then afterwards, before going back to their housing unit, the inmates had to be stripped searched both times to make sure they weren’t sneaking anything out or back in the prison. That wasn’t a highlight of their day for sure. It was quite shameful. A good analogy of days in our lives where we felt our lives were stripped bare and thoughts feeling like we’re the ones on trial. But they longed for a sign going into visitation. A sign their families were ok, a sign that their children still remember who they are to them. A sign maybe from the lawyer saying they have a break in the case, a positive note that sides in their favor. There could be a really big hope that they would be told they’re about to be released.
True, most of these guys weren’t as innocent as John the Baptist but they still questioned if they still had to stay or if they could go. You’d have to get inside their head (try to put yourselves in their place) to fully understand the suspense, anxiety, and beckoning of these moments. They needed a sign. A sign of hope, a sign of comfort; something to at least hang onto for the interim. This is the mindset of John in prison. He had hoped the Messiah actually was here. He felt his presence when he was face to face with him, but not so much as the day draws near for his head to be put on a platter. Jesus knows this so he responds to the messengers “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Not, what you’ve seen already, in the past, not even what you’ve heard already long ago, but here and now; hear this, see this right in front of you. This same account in the Gospel of Luke is where it more clearly tells us that Jesus did the miracles and signs he listed right in front of these two men that very moment. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are no more leprous, the deaf can now hear, and dead people have risen….On the way where Jesus was now in the wilderness, Jesus had raised up a dead boy who was being carried away from town in a coffin you see. So, he gives the messengers all that and then some. Yeah, the raising of the dead part in and of itself is astonishing but if Jesus at that very moment wanted to issue forth a command for the dead to rise, he most certainly could have done it and made it happen. Who’s to say a person across the way then in a tomb didn’t get up and start to breathe once again. Jesus performs all these miracles in front of them as a sign to go and tell John.
And then there’s this one too: “the poor have good news preached to them.” The poor it says are gospelized. And that’s not just meaning poor people, folks who have little to no money. No, the poor are the “poor in spirit,” the deeply destitute, the ones, properly speaking, who are bent over in depravity. Yes, Jesus says go tell John all that and also relay to him that “blessed is the one who is not scandalized in me. Scandalized is the very word Matthew uses right there in verse six.
Jesus gives them signs to report back to John. Signs that were foretold of the coming Messiah – that only he could perform them. They were the initial signs of comfort for the people and in those days on up to the beginning of the Christian church, the followers of the way were given many signs as proofs the Scriptures had been fulfilled and as an entrance piece into the age of the church to come with her unique signs still taking place for the present generation.
So then the messengers departed from there, went away and head on back to John the Baptist and report what was going on during this whole discourse and sign giving. Now there were many people crowding around this scene, listening in on these things and eyewitnesses of all that just had been said and done. And many of them also were the ones who had come out to the wilderness to hear John the Baptist preach and prophesy and prepare the way of the Lord.
Jesus sees inside their hearts and gets that they now have questions about John, should they have listened to him? Jesus discerns doubt pressing in on them, so he began to speak to the crowd it says concerning John. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” Did you think John was like a reed shaken by the wind? Jesus uses an illustration that was right there in front of the people, reeds and cane sticking up out of the soft parts of the ground on the edges of the banks of the Jordan river. Cane snaps easily, especially with just a little high wind. We had high winds, in excess of 25mph, here in Maywood Monday night. At our house we had some larger objects go off into the whole other side of our back yard, pushed by the wind and people who had trash out on the curbs, many cans were knocked over lying in the road. So, you can imagine what can happen to a circular hollowed out thin wood-like marsh stick, what it would look like after a wind like that.
The people on the scene saw those reeds shaking in the wind and had seen them break easily by the wind before. Has John finally broken, is his faith falling apart? Jesus uses the wind too as example because it has to do with what John was doing and teaching in the wilderness. Wind there is also the term used for doctrine, teaching. So, a reed shaken by the wind means, did you think what John was proclaiming was false doctrine?
Jesus goes on: what then? A softy, a king? No, John is a rough and tough wilderness dude. Wore rough animal clothing, ate bugs. Not the things of kings. He didn’t live in a house; this was his home. Jesus is commending John here. He is speaking highly of him, setting him up on a pedestal for being who he was called to be. Were you looking for a prophet? Well, John is the preeminent prophet of all prophets because he is the complete, total package, messenger of the Lord who went before the people to awaken their advent hearts. To prepare the way.
The definition of a prophet is: one who speaks the words of the Lord back to the people. And to prepare is the word for construct, build, design. Advent is a construct that builds off the fulfillment of the Word of God which stands (is fortified and solid) forever. Jesus praises John : “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist,” except the One who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than him. John was pretty least though. Homeless, unsheltered, humble as all get out. It was John who told Jesus he wasn’t even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal straps, the duty of a lowly servant. He put himself below that. Then Who is this least in the kingdom of heaven person? It is Jesus and only Jesus who could become more least than that. To become least in the kingdom of heaven means to be cast out of heaven and to die the most horrific death possible known to man and all for being spotless and blameless, one without sin. To die on a cross that way, there is no getting micro smaller than that in comparison to the grandeur of heaven.
John wasn’t sinless though. He knew he couldn’t take away the sin of the world so he wanted to make sure he knew the One who could. That was the comfort, the visitation John longed for while sitting in prison alone now. See, this is a comfort for the shaken story because like the inmates in the detention center – it is as if the judge himself burst forth into the visitation center, pointed at every inmate in the room, made an announcement to all us officers, to the lawyers and to the families and issued the loud statement to release them, give the not guilty verdict and tell everyone they have been pardoned and the sentence is now wiped out, no longer even written down anymore in the record books. Who or how can this be?
From stanza two of our hymn: God will pardon, blotting out each dark misdeed; all that well deserved His anger He no more will see or heed. That’s comfort for the soul. That’s grief passing away. Remember heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away? God will change her pinning sadness into ever springing gladness, we just sung.
Do you know what it means to be pinned down? Ever experienced that? I know I have. That’s what pinning means: like thumbtacks holding down an object to the wall. Or nails driven into hands and feet on the wood of a cross. But no more! Spring from that, hit the delete button on it; it’s been taken care of. Jesus proved it. Christ crucified, died, and buried and on the third day he arose again from the dead and now sits on high at the right side of God the Father Almighty. That from the Second Article of the Apostle’s Creed. What does it mean? I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.
Yeah, I know, that’s a long explanation from Luther’s small catechism because it is so very important to believe and understand. The poor are gospelized! Sins pardoned. Jesus proved it.
Or perhaps John was challenging Jesus. Or maybe he did it for the sake of his own disciple’s doubt, to comfort them with truth. But Jesus does comfort the shaken. In another analogy, Jesus pulls out the challenge coin you could say and responds. You ever heard of challenge coins? Know what those are? Usually attributed to the military; I have a couple. Challenge coins are these neat and heavy little metal coins because they’re the size of a silver dollar. They are typically designed with images and colors that represent your military unit, battalion, or Navy Vessel. The Captain gives them out to officers or if you’re lucky an enlisted member if he thinks you’re special. And what’s it good for? Well, you’re suppose to keep it in your pocket or your wallet in case you get challenged. Challenged means (and this is the best example because it is the most used in the armed forces) say if you’re out with your company at the bar, sitting there having a couple drinks and you go to your buddy or to the Ops Officer and say, hey, you have your challenge coin on you? And if they do and they can take it out and show you, then you have to buy the next round. If they don’t and you have yours on you and pull it out then they have to buy the guys in the bar from your entire unit a round. Trust me, it’s costly. I pulled this feat out before and the junior officer I did it to was highly upset- that at that time, a low-ranking enlisted guy even had a challenge coin in the first place. Well, the Captain had just given me one that day but why is a whole other story for a different time, or you can ask me over some coffee after the service today why I got one.
The point is Jesus pulled out the challenge coin with his signs and wonders and ultimately with his death and his defeat of death for you. Comfort comfort ye my people. Stanza 4 says it best: “And all flesh shall see the token that His Word is never broken.” Comfort for the Shaken. This reed cannot be broken because the cane and reed of the cross rent it asunder that is never be shaken by the wind again. Once for all. You have been purchased by the blood of the Lamb and Christ is in control. I like when Luther wrote: “You cannot remove one finger of your Lord Christ. You are not in control of yourself. Remind the devil of this purchase and say, ‘Listen, devil, if you want me, go up to Jesus Christ and ask Him yourself. He’ll give us both what’s good for us. He’ll give you a knock on the skull, and He won’t let me be plucked from His hand.
John the Baptist knew he was about to lose his head. I’d be shaken up too if I were him. But he also knew Who would give him a new one. Now today church you have the signs of this comfort. The token of the fleshly bread and of the chalice. Signs of redemption, the foretaste of the rejoicing feast to come. We advent that day but today receive the token and pledge of His body and blood given and shed for you. Now is the time of visitation, the hour has come for you to be set free. Come O Come Emmanuel, Comfort Comfort Ye My People, and Lo, How a rose e’er Blooming. Advent is meditative but it is also a season to be Gospelized in. Thirteen days if you’re counting and then we shall take part in remembering and rejoicing in His first coming. And everyday we are to rejoice also in His second coming. Let this now be comfort for the shaken. Behold your God comes. The mouth of the Lord has spoken. It is clear that the Lord loves to constantly give us images to keep Him in our hearts and minds. To live through these Gospel truths when Jesus walked the earth. So, if you’ve been shook, and if you ever have to go through a shaking again, take what you have learned this day and remind yourself of it, speak aloud to yourself even that the comfort comfort has been accomplished, will be. It lasts for all the time we wait. It lasts in the preparation and in the Season of Jesus – who is our ultimate comfort. As we started our service with: Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice. Let your reasonableness (that is your yielding spirit) be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand. In the name of Jesus + Amen.