The Unnamed Messengers

“St. John the Baptist in Prison Sends His Disciples to Question Jesus” by Ermenegildo Lodi

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“And John, calling two of His disciples to Him, sent them to the Lord, saying, ‘Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” (Luke 7:18-19).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Elizabeth, Gabriel, John, Mary, Zechariah—these are the usual names we hear each Advent. Their inclusion in the story by name makes our understanding of the Incarnation inseparable from their particular parts in the story.”[i]

But there are others in Scripture who, even though they had a significant role to play in relation to Jesus, remain unnamed. I am thinking, for example, of the shepherds keeping watch by night, the thieves crucified with Jesus on Golgotha, and the owners of the colt Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The biblical authors did not feel compelled to tell us their names, but this does not diminish the significance of their interaction with Jesus. Indeed, sometimes it is the unnamed characters in the Bible who can most help us find our own place in the biblical story.

At the center of this week’s reading from Luke 7 are two such people. “Luke describes them only as disciples of John. He does not tell us their names, but rather focuses our attention on the task they are given.”[ii] John sends these two disciples to ask Jesus a question. Their question is one every thinking Christian asks at some point in life, and the answer they receive from our Lord is ultimately the only answer any of us ever receive. For as you’ve probably noticed, the Lord does not find it necessary to answer all our questions. But He does give us all the information we need to know for salvation, life in this world, and eternal life.

Back to the unnamed messengers… The place from which John sends them highlights its urgency. John has not been mentioned in Luke’s Gospel since 3:20, when he was put into prison. Presumably, he is still locked-up for being faithful, still in danger of execution (which was coming) for doing his job, and still suffering the darkness of sin despite the arrival of the Light of the World. “His question reveals uncertainty about the very message he has been proclaiming. It reveals the challenge of living (and dying) by faith. Luke thinks the question is worth repeating. John tells them what to ask in verse 19, and then they ask it in verse 20, ‘Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”[iii]

Much debate has raged over the centuries whether John doubts that Jesus is the Messiah or if it is only his disciples who doubt. Some, who cannot imagine such a strong character as John wavering in his faith, explain that, although John himself never wavered in his faith, he sent his disciples with this question so that they might come to see Jesus as the Messiah and begin following Him.

But what about the possibility that John’s question was personal? Recall how John prophesied that the Coming One would act in fiery judgment (Luke 3:7ff.). Yet Jesus was not doing that. Now, as he faces death for his life’s work, John seems to have been assailed by doubts. That’s natural, isn’t it? People at the end of life often look back and ask, “Did my life mean anything? Have I accomplished what God intended for me?” This is especially true if life has recently taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Would it be so surprising if, under his current conditions, this great man of faith also looked back and wondered?

A straightforward reading suggests that not only John’s disciples but also John himself questions Jesus’ messiahship and that he sends his disciples to Jesus find out the truth. Indeed, in the Gospel, all human observers of the ministry of Jesus struggle with the way in which Jesus demonstrates He is the Messiah.  

In His first sermon, Jesus announced that He was present to set the captives free. Who is more captive than John the Baptist as he sits in prison because of his ministry as the forerunner of Jesus? The scruffy prophet has to be wondering why he’s still sitting there. John was raised up to proclaim, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). But the progress or manner of Jesus’ ministry has not been what John expected.

Riddled with doubt, John takes his doubts to the right place—Jesus! And Jesus tells the unnamed disciples, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22).

The miracles that are reported to John are significant in that they point to the blessings of the Messiah that come when the new era of salvation breaks in, as Isaiah prophesied. In adding the words, “And blessed is the One who is not offended by Me,” Jesus also takes John and his disciples back to the writings of Isaiah, where the Lord had said of the Messiah, “And He will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (8:14–15). Would John, like many others, be offended by Jesus when He does not meet their messianic expectations?

There are, at this point, two possible stumbling blocks that could cause observers to be scandalized. First, the offense could come simply from identifying Jesus of Nazareth as the prophesied Messiah. The miracles and teaching of Jesus identify Him as this Messiah. But not all are willing to acknowledge this. The people of His hometown, Nazareth, were offended because they thought they knew Him too well for Him to be the Messiah (Luke 4:22). Others in Israel wondered if anything good could come out of a hicktown like Nazareth (John 1:46).

Second, the scandal could come because at His first Advent, Jesus reveals Himself primarily as a Messiah of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, and not one of vengeance. He has come to serve, to seek, and to save. His ministry now is not to execute judgment, but to absorb God’s wrath for sin.

Many expected the Messiah to come in wrath to execute vengeance upon those they considered to be enemies of God and Israel. Instead, Jesus comes in solidarity with all human sinners and bears in Himself the vengeance and wrath of God against His enemies, including us and our sin. That is why Jesus’ ministry is filled with miracles of forgiveness and release for those who are in bondage. Jesus is the One who comes to bring mercy, compassion, and forgiveness!

“Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John may have been the first to articulate this question, but every follower of Jesus who has encountered difficulty and suffering for their connection to Jesus has asked it at some point. I can imagine a number of profiles: The pastor who faithfully proclaims the commands and promises of God in Christ, and yet sees his congregation diminish in size and influence and viability; the grandmother who returns to the exhaustion of parenthood to care for a grandchild because the parents are unable to do their duty; the single man who channels his love for a family (that God has never provided) toward needy members of his congregation; the young man or woman who, despite the pressures to give into the world’s encouragement to create their own identity, refuses to make God in their own image.

What do these people have in common? They are suffering for doing good, for living and serving faithfully in Jesus’ name. They remain unnamed to most people, and they share the same question asked by these unnamed messengers: “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Jesus’ answer is ultimately the only answer we get. “If you want to know who I am,” Jesus says, “look at what I do and listen to what I say.” The messengers presumably saw these things for themselves. But John did not. When they return to John, they only had a report, only a witness, only a word, only a promise. It doesn’t sound like much—the witness of a couple of unnamed disciples—but it was enough for them. And it still is today.

And so today, the Lord sends you another messenger. His name will never be listed in the history books, but that’s okay. What is important is the message that he brings, in so far as it is of whom Jesus is and His Word and His works.

Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. What does Jesus do? He performs miraculous healings and proclaims God’s Word with authority. Though equal to the Father, He submits to His Father’s will and remains faithful unto death. Though very God, He humbles Himself under human authority, even when treated unjustly and cruelly. He suffers the scorn and mocking of sinful man and the righteous wrath of God in payment for the sins of the world. On the third day, He rises from the dead, conquering our greatest enemies, sin, death, and the Devil. He ascends to heaven where He lives and reigns on behalf of His Bride, the Church. One day, He will return to judge the living and the dead. He will take you and all who have believed in His name to be with Him forever.

And having now heard this Good News, you go out into the world as His messengers. Equipped to follow in the steps of these unnamed disciples you bring the message of Jesus’ saving work to the people in your lives—your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers. Some of them may have never heard this Gospel before, or at least, have not ever really listened. But many others might be in the same position as John—believers under trial who need some reassurance. Remind them of what the Lord has done and who He is.

Here are some examples:

The pastor who questions his ministry? Remind him of God’s promises. “You are not called to be ‘successful’ by worldly standards but to be faithful. Sow the seed of the Word and trust that God will bring forth a harvest in His own way and timetable. As St. Paul writes: ‘Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:2). ‘Be steadfast, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor has not been in vain’” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

The grandma who finds herself raising another generation? Encourage her. “What you’re doing is important. Jesus says, ‘As you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40). It is a particularly good thing that you are doing for your family, but it can’t be easy. I will be praying for you. But more than that, I want you to know that I am willing to help. Call me if the kids need a ride. Call me if you’re worn out and need a break. Call me if you just need to talk to an adult for a while. And remember St. Paul’s encouragement to the Christians of Galatia, ‘Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith’” (Galatians 6:9–10).

The lonely single man? Remind him that Jesus was a single man Himself. “Jesus knew loneliness. He knew what it meant not to fit in and not to have a place. He knows what it meant to rely on others. Our Lord understands more acutely than any of us what it means to be single, what it means to be truly alone. His disciples abandoned Him. His own hometown rejected Him. He was tempted by Satan himself. Despite all this, He’s also the one who willing took on all the sin and shame and dirt of the world. And He did it alone.

“He’s also the one who raised you from the dead, the one the grave couldn’t hold, so that you don’t have to be alone. He’s the one who joins you to Himself in Baptism, so that you are always someone’s, always His. He’s the One who places you into a family, a community, His Church. He’s the One who promises never to leave you, never to forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). He knows your loneliness. He understands your fears. He hears your worries. And He answers because you matter to Him.”

The young man or woman who seeks to maintain their own identity and to resist peer pressure? Remind them who they are, whose they are. “You are a baptized child of God, a co-heir of Christ.” Encourage them with the words of St. Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Please be assured. Even if the world does not know your name, the Lord Jesus does! Go in the peace of the Lord and share the Good News of great joy. Christ the Savior is born. For His sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[i] Gospel: Luke 7:18-28 (29-35) (Advent 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-718-28-29-25-advent-3-series-c.

[ii] Gospel: Luke 7:18-28 (29-35) (Advent 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-718-28-29-25-advent-3-series-c.

[iii] Gospel: Luke 7:18-28 (29-35) (Advent 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-718-28-29-25-advent-3-series-c.

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All Flesh Shall See the Salvation of God

“St. John the Baptist Preaching” by Paolo Veronese

Click here to listen to this sermon.

And [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (Luke 3:3-7).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

“All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” It is the last line in a string of Isaiah’s greatest hits in our reading from Luke 3. “After drawing from Isaiah 40, 57, 49, 42, and 45, Luke concludes by recalling a promise of God from Isaiah 52.”[i] “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The day will come when, as St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).

It is true. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God”—despite what we see here and now.

What we see now is more like Luke’s list at the beginning of our reading. Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod the Tetrarch, and his brother Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas, these were the power brokers, the political leaders, the movers and shakers. “They were in charge in John’s day. It did not look like God was running things.”[ii] It didn’t look like the Kingdom of God was dawning. Indeed, the imprisonment of John the Baptist mentioned in verse 20 raised significant questions about who was really in charge.

Most of these names mean little to us today. Today we have our own power brokers. There are political leaders such as Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, and Mitch McConnell, who wield power affecting all parts of our life. There are the titans of technology and commerce like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, and Jeff Bezos who exert influence through their financial resources and social media influence. The political pundits like Sean Hannity, Ben Shapiro, Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, and Joy Reid seek to  shape opinions and dominate the news cycle. You can see who is in charge, and what you see often has little to do with the salvation of God. In fact, it’s frequently in direction opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The world’s power brokers promise safety and security, prosperity and peace. Instead, they deliver political spin and sound bites, censorship, mandates, fear, abuse of power, cancel culture. The world’s power brokers will never be able to deliver the utopia they are promising because they fail to realize we are all fallen people who live in a fallen world. The world’s power brokers have little time for your expressions of your faith and opinions because they don’t fit their narrative.

So, you need to look beyond what you see and experience here and now. Direct your gaze to the day when God’s reign will usher in a life of perfect peace and harmony and joy.

“All flesh shall see the salvation of God”—and we have already gotten a glimpse.

The glimpse is Jesus, of course. He is our strength and our salvation. He is born in a manger and visited by shepherds and magi. He preaches the truth and heals the sick. He comes to the world and turns it upside down by calling everyone to repent and by offering forgiveness to all who believe.[iii] Isaiah foretold His coming, as did John the Baptist. They were all looking forward to the day when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

We, in contrast, look back. We look back to Jesus. We look back to His Incarnation. It is Advent, after all. But we also look back to His life and ministry. We look back to His suffering and rejection. We look back to His shame and His death. But we do not stop there. We look back, above all, to His resurrection from the dead, and we see His vindication and restoration. When we look back at His resurrection, He directs our eyes toward the future and His promised return. Like Isaiah and John, we look forward to that great and glorious day, trusting the resurrected One will return as He promised. This promise sustains our faith and shapes our lives as we have seen a glimpse of the salvation of God by faith.

“All flesh shall see the salvation of God”—and it is beginning to show in our lives.

The crowds of verse 10 of our Gospel ask John what they should be doing considering the coming of Christ. How should they prepare? All of Israel should be asking this urgent question in view of John’s ministry, especially the Pharisees and the religious establishment of Jerusalem. But the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers are the only ones to come asking, “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:10) showing that they are willing to demonstrate repentance by doing what John asks of them. The first sign of repentance is submission to John’s preaching, turning in repentance, and submitting to baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

John is concrete and direct. He gives directions appropriate for their context and vocations outlining how repentance will express itself in daily life. Each instruction has to do with attachment to things of this world. For the crowds, there is a general exhortation to perform deeds of mercy by stripping down the excess of one’s clothing and food and sharing it with others. For the tax collector this means not taking more than their allotted share. For the soldiers it means not using the power of their office for extortion or violence. Such deeds in daily life are “fruits in keeping with repentance.”

The temptation for those who live by the promises of God’s coming salvation is to look past the mundane and the ordinary in anticipation for the joy to come.[iv] But those who believe in Jesus, who look forward to seeing the salvation of God on that last day, busy themselves by serving others in common and daily ways. They fulfill their vocations with faithfulness and (when possible) joy, knowing their labor in the Lord is not in vain.

What would fruits in keeping with repentance look like in your life? It means different things for different people, depending on who you are and where you are in life. Only you can determine the specifics for your situation and vocations.

But there is some helpful general advice for all of us to be found in the Ten Commandments, as you seek to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength and all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself. This especially true of the positive encouragements of the explanation to each commandment in Luther’s Small Catechism.

How will we bear fruits in keeping with repentance? We will fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We will call upon God’s name in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. We will hold God’s Word and the preaching of it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. We will honor our parents and other authorities, serve and obey them, love and cherish them. We will help and support our neighbor in every physical need. We will lead sexually pure and decent lives in what we say and do. We will help our neighbor to improve and protect his possessions and income. We will defend our neighbor’s reputation, speak well of him, and explain all his words and actions in the kindest way. We will be content with the people, goods, and gifts God gives us.

I can’t tell you what it specifically means for you to do. But I can tell you how this is done: by the grace of God, that’s how. For you cannot do any of these things on your own. So, the Holy Spirit calls you by the Gospel, enlightens you with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps you in the true faith. The Holy Spirit who brought you to faith in Jesus Christ, sanctifies you by strengthening your faith and increasing its fruit within your life. He gives you new holy desires so you can strive to overcome sin and do good works.

Living in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance, you put to death that old Adam with all sins and evil desires, so that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. In the waters of Baptism, you have been buried and raised with Christ. Therefore, you should continually resist every impulse of the old Adam until he is drowned once and for all when you die. At the same time, you should continually give free rein to the new man until he rises in final victory on the Last Day.

In individual Confession, the Lord gives you have a safe place to name your sins so that they are no longer carried alone. The Absolution is spoken specifically to you and your sins are removed as far away as the east is from the west. There can be no mistaking to whom these words of Jesus are addressed: “I forgive you all your sins.”

Based on the word of forgiveness, the pastor may give you counsel and help in the struggle against temptation and enslavement to sin. Thus, private Confession and Absolution equips you to stand firm against “false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice” (Sixth Petition). This is a natural part of “producing fruits in keeping with repentance. Luther writes in the Brief Exhortation to Confession, “When I urge you to go to Confession, I am doing nothing else than urging you to be a Christian” (BEC 32).

In the Sacrament of the Altar, you receive the very body and blood of Jesus Christ in, with, and under the bread and the wine, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. As Christ gives Himself to you so completely with His body and blood, so, too, the Sacrament strengthens you to give yourself in sacrificial love and service to your neighbor.  

Paul’s prayer in our epistle reading is appropriate for you, too: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11).

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[i] Gospel: Luke 3:1-20 (Advent 2: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-31-20-advent-2-series-c-1.

[ii] Gospel: Luke 3:1-20 (Advent 2: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-31-20-advent-2-series-c-1.

[iii] Gospel: Luke 3:1-20 (Advent 2: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-31-20-advent-2-series-c-1.

[iv] Gospel: Luke 3:1-20 (Advent 2: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-31-20-advent-2-series-c-1.

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