Sermons, Uncategorized

Good News for the Poor

“John the Baptist in Prison” by Cornelis Galle the Younger

Click this link to listen to sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1IYwgZuMmM401C42wNpeiRQolp6jga93Y/view?usp=sharing

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?” 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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me” (Matthew 11:2-6).

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

In his weekly radio program, Garrison Keillor would end by saying that in Lake Wobegon all the children are above average. Fictitious or not, there is some truth in this. Every parent’s child has hidden talents waiting to be discovered. Our job as parents and teachers is to recognize their abilities and help them to perfect them. Without a sense of who they are and what they can do, they will not have the confidence to reach the goals they have set for themselves. Many people lead non-productive lives because they do not have a goal. Very few of us achieve all our goals, but by accomplishing some we have the satisfaction that we have done something with our lives.

If there was ever a man who could have a proper sense of himself from the time he was a child it had to be John the Baptist. When Zechariah learned from the angel that he and his wife were going to be parents, in their old age, after many years of barrenness, he fell into unbelief. As a sign to Zechariah, God deprived him of the ability to speak. He regained the ability to speak only when the child was born, and his father named the miracle baby John. Zechariah sang a hymn we still use in Matins, the Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people” (Luke 1:68). In this song, Zechariah spoke of how their child would be the prophet of the Most High.

From his childhood, John knew that he would go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way. He would begin to lead the people out of darkness by bringing them to Christ. John’s life was shaped by the stories of his birth. He knew who he was and what he was going to do. John had a sense about himself. He was not simply another child, but the one whom Isaiah called the voice crying in the wilderness. Valleys would be lifted up and mountains lowered to prepare a level road for the promised Messiah. John would stand on the edge of darkness pointing the people to the dawn emitting from Christ, the Sun of Righteousness. God chose John as the watchman on Zion’s walls to signal the coming of a new day.

John the Baptist’s sense of himself as a child was confirmed by his success as a preacher. He was so eloquent that some thought he was the promised Messiah. After John died, his memory had such a hold on the people that they thought Jesus was John the Baptist come back from the dead. Even though John made it clear that he was not Christ, he was the last prophet that God would send, the one who would identify Jesus as the Christ. In John’s pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, God was using John to bring the old era to an end.

Those who grow up without life’s ordinary disappointments often have a difficult time dealing with setbacks later in life. Many a hometown high school football hero or homecoming queen has caved into the pressure when they find they are no longer the big fish in the small pool. People who have been healthy all of their lives often have trouble coming to terms with the frailties and limitations of old age. Setbacks can be devastating for those who have traveled a relatively smooth road through life.

This might have been true of John the Baptist, the miracle child born to aged parents and predicted by prophecy, God’s last prophet, the eloquent preacher with audiences so large that Matthew says that all Jerusalem and Judea went out to hear him. Now in his mid-thirties, his prominence and successes have been changed for a prison, not because he had done anything wrong, but because he had done everything right. We can see how the man who preached how the Christ would release captives from prison might expect that Jesus would spring him from prison. John, who pointed to Christ as the light of world, might expect that the darkness of his cell would soon be exchanged for brightness of day. But it wasn’t happening!

We Christians know that life can become so miserable that, like Job, we are forced to ask ourselves if God really cares for us. Perhaps we go to the extreme and question whether God even exists. John’s question is a little different. He sends his disciples to ask whether Jesus is the Christ: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John, who had pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, toys with the idea that he may have made a misidentification. If Jesus is not the Christ predicted by the prophet, then John’s ministry has been a total waste.

Some scholars cannot accept that the great preacher did not believe his own sermons; they have hypothesized that John asked this question not for himself but for his disciples. John did not want his impending execution to cause those who’d heard him preach to lose faith in Jesus as the Messiah. But such an easy and attractive solution, putting the burden of unbelief on John’s disciples and not on John himself, has no support from Scripture. This reading is about John’s conflict with unbelief and how Jesus deals with it. John’s doubts do not detract from his importance or his greatness. Jesus calls him the greatest man born of woman.

A large segment of the conservative Protestant population holds that believers will never lose their faith. They claim that those who lose their faith never had faith. The cliché is “once saved, always saved.” Wrong! For us Christians, there is never a time when faith is very far from the edge of unbelief. Satan never leaves Christians alone, but each day he works harder to take us away from Christ. John was no exception. The sad reality is that preachers can lose the faith they preach to others. Preachers and hearers are not immune to unbelief.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John’s question is as honest as they come, and it is not surprising, given the context. Even though he was there at the Jordan to see the heavens opened, even though he heard the Father’s voice, even though he saw the Spirit descending like a dove, even though Jesus would identify him as nothing less than Elijah himself, still, there he sat, in prison. There he sat, awaiting his executioner. John looked around at what God and His Messiah were not doing, and even the greatest among those born of woman had his doubts.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” This question lurks in the hearts of all God’s people who suffer in their faithfulness. Every Christian asks it at some point (or multiple points) in life. There is no sugarcoating the fact that the kingdom of heaven, as it comes about through Jesus, does not make everything better; not yet, at least. It does not remove the tears or dispel the fears which characterize life in this dark valley.

This is what makes John’s question so important. His willingness to give it voice invites us to do the same. What struggles and doubts do you wrestle with? Perhaps you or a loved one suffer from poor health. You have prayed over and over again that the Lord would grant healing, but He just hasn’t done it yet. It might even be that the condition worsens. Maybe you are mired in mourning, gripped by grief after the loss of a loved one. You long to go back to a time when every thought of him or her brought a flutter to your heart and a smile to your face rather than the pain of a broken heart or the sting of tears to your eyes. Or maybe you’ve suffered from a bout of depression so deep that you wonder if you’ll ever get out of the dark pit and some days you’re not even sure that you’ll be able to go on. You look for a sign from God that there is some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, a ray of hope that will dawn with a new day. Or maybe anxiety has you so overwhelmed you feel like everything is coming at you at once.

It’s understandable that at this point John would have some questions. If Jesus is not the one who is to come, John has wasted his life. He’s never gotten married. Never had kids. He’s been living out in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s hair garments, eating locusts and wild honey like some lunatic. Preaching repentance in preparation for a coming kingdom that seem not to be at hand. He needs some answers ASAP.

A miracle is always a quick solution for unbelief—or so we think. Nearly every pastor has heard the excuse that this or that person would believe if only Jesus did a miracle, if only God would just give a sign. John would like to see a miracle, ideally, his release from prison. But for those caught between faith and unbelief, there are no miracles. For John there are only the words of Jesus: the blind see again, those who are paralyzed walk around, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the poor hear the Gospel.

Consider the sequence. Straightening our crooked bones, restoring hearing and sight, and curing leprosy are difficult, but raising the dead is impossible. More important than all these physical miracles is that the poor have the Gospel preached to them. This is the greatest miracle. The Gospel works the impossible, delivering forgiveness of sins and righteousness to those who are corrupt at their very core.

Jesus’ answer exhibits a two-fold character. On the one hand, His words offer the strongest possible “yes!” to the first part of the Baptist’s question. The deeds that Jesus has been performing are the long-expected signs of renewal and restoration in Israel. God is at work, establishing the new age of salvation!

On the other hand, Jesus’ words invite John to accept in faith the strangest of all paradoxes in the history of the world. The reign of God has broken into history in the person of Jesus, and He is the Coming One. But the power of evil men remains strong, and Christ will not overthrow that evil—yet. Jesus has come to save His people from their sins, yet He teaches His followers to expect opposition and hatred. God has come to rule and restore through this Jesus, and through Him alone. But only God can reveal to people the knowledge of Jesus’ identity, and many will be caused to fall into unbelief because of Jesus and His hidden ways of revealing God’s reign.

Nevertheless, to the Baptist and to all hearers since Jesus uttered these words, His final saying reaches out, inviting to faith and discipleship: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me” (Matthew 11:6). Only the one who takes Christ at His word regardless of life’s circumstances will attain to the blessedness God has promised in Christ—forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.   

There will be no last-minute reprieve. No miracle will release John from imprisonment or save him from execution. The Baptist will have to be content that sins are forgiven in Christ—this is what it means that the poor have the Gospel preached to them. Faith feeds not on miracles but on the Gospel.

The cross of Jesus is not mentioned in this text, but it certainly displays the theology of the cross. God, indeed, works in mysterious ways, often working His greatest good in the midst of suffering and trial. As theologians of the cross, we may not be comfortable with God’s ways, but we are familiar with them. We worship a God who died a cursed death, after all, in order to bring us blessing, forgiveness, and eternal life. No matter how much good might have come from His death in the end, on Good Friday evening there was no way to spin it.

As Jesus foretold in verse 12, the violence of the world would take Him by force, and it still does. Like the disciples who found themselves alone, afraid and in hiding, we continue to grope around in the dark, struggling to make sense of what seems like a backwards way of reigning over heaven and earth.

But resurrection is coming! John’s and ours! This is the promise to proclaim to the faithful as they suffer. The resurrection is coming for all who are not offended by Jesus and His ways. We see the beginning of this resurrection in Jesus’ fulfillment of the Word from the prophet: the blind were seeing, the lame were walking. The sick were being healed, the deaf were hearing, and the dead were rising. And the poor? Well, the poor were receiving good news!

And this is good news for poor, miserable sinners like you and me. We live by faith. We live, with John, in all sorts of uncomfortable places. We live by the witness of those who have seen, heard, and touched the Word of life. We live, and we wait. We wait for the final resurrection, for the full realization of Jesus’ restoring work.

As we wait, the Lord speaks to us in His Word—His Law that shows us our sins and leads us to repent; His Gospel that brings us faith, forgiveness, and life. In Holy Baptism, He has made us His children and gives us an eternal inheritance in His kingdom. In His Supper, He feeds us His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith, a foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve Him with joy. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father 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.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

Baptized with the Holy Spirit for a Life of Repentance

“St. John the Baptist Preaching” by Salvator Rosa

Click this link to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1YNk9_FyRJzQrSTm1a5Y53inMiEin65eV/view?usp=sharing

[John the Baptist said:] “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

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

Our Advent journey began last week with Jesus headed into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. Today we back up a few years and take a detour through the Jordan where Jesus began His public ministry in baptism, much as we begin our discipleship in Holy Baptism. The way of the Lord is a rigorous one because we always journey “in Christ.” But we know where we are going, and we know who we are. In this second week of Advent, we remind ourselves that we have been baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance.

We will soon celebrate Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, but already on these first Sundays in Advent, it’s clear that our destination is not an idyllic manger scene with an adorable baby. There is a cross to be suffered. And that means Jesus’ mission is serious business, not be “tagged along” by the casual traveler or the unprepared. Thus, John suddenly appears on the scene to prepare His way. An attention-getting appearance, to say the least! One that illustrates suffering and sacrifice along a weary way. A robe of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. A diet of locusts and wild honey. A voice crying in the wilderness.

John comes to prepare God’s people for the messianic journey ahead—to teach that the journey is one of suffering and deprivation, like Israel’s time in the wilderness. There is all righteousness to be fulfilled, pictured by Isaiah as filling in the valley, leveling the hills, making the Messiah’s paths straight. Anything that stands in the way will be bulldozed by the earthmover coming through. It is time to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

Crowds are going out to John from the entire region for just that purpose. They are confessing that they do need to repent. Then John’s baptism is washing away their sin, preparing them for the kingdom’s coming in the person of the Messiah. Others, though, come as hypocrites. The Pharisees and Sadducees are sure of their own righteousness because of their bloodlines and circumcision. They refuse baptism because they feel they have no sins to wash away.

John cuts through their hypocrisy in the most graphic terms. Calling them a “brood of vipers” is bad enough. For John to say that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham,” is a greater insult to the Jews, for Gentiles are considered stones, so John is saying that God can create children of Abraham out of Gentiles by means of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Unless these hypocrites repent, they will be chopped down like dead trees and cast into the fire.

John’s appearance is the signal that the Lord Himself is at hand. The coming kingdom is Christ Himself. Already now He is among the people. While John’s coming on the scene has made a huge splash, John is even less before the Messiah than the lowliest servant before the greatest master.

John baptizes with water for repentance. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When will this be? Certainly, He does, in part already, in His own baptism, in His crucifixion, and at Pentecost. But the context here, however, has the Last Day firmly in view, and refers directly to the salvation and judgment that Christ will administer when He returns in glory. On the Last Day, Jesus will pour out the Holy Spirit on those who repent and look for the coming of God’s kingdom in Him, and all such will be gathered into His barn and saved. On the other hand, those who persist in their unbelief and reject God’s reign in Jesus will receive on that day the unquenchable fire of eternal judgment.

So, are you properly prepared?

John’s simple message comes in two parts. The first concerns the kingdom, which is now at hand, not because of anything the people have done or are doing, but because God is at work. The second concerns how they should respond. They should repent. The two go together; the coming of the kingdom and the call to repent. This was true then, and it is still true today. God will judge all people. Therefore, all people everywhere must repent.

While the message remains much the same, the audience has changed. John preached before Jesus; before His baptism, before His teaching and preaching, before His death and resurrection, before His ascension. He preached to prepare his hearers for these events. In contrast, you come here after the fact. You have heard about the empty tomb and believe. You have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. You have begun a life of repentance. It would be inappropriate to call you a brood of vipers. You are neither Pharisees nor Sadducees.

And yet, you and I still need to repent. Despite our baptism, things in our life are not as they should be. The problem is not that we are unrepentant. The problem is our contrition is too small. Too often it stops short. It is a mechanical, transactional (and therefore distorted) version of repentance. I think you know what I mean. It is what happens when we feel guilty, ask for forgiveness, and then find relief in the words of absolution. This is good, as far as it goes. But too often, that is the end. We go right back to life as usual. We return to things in our lives which are not as they should be. After a while, the guilt mounts and we go back through the motions: repent, relief, repeat—but never truly repenting.

Acknowledging the confusion about repentance in their day, the Reformers spelled out true repentance in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession:

 We have attributed these two parts to repentance: contrition and faith. If anyone desires to add a third—fruit worthy of repentance, that is, a change of the entire life and character for the better—we will not oppose it… The sum of the preaching of the Gospel is this: to convict of sin; to offer for Christ’s sake the forgiveness of sins and righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life; and that as reborn people we should do good works.[i]

John is talking about repentance manifesting itself in fruit (Matthew 3:8). It begins with confessing sin (Matthew 3:6), but it does not stop with words of forgiveness. It continues with a new life of love and obedience. The Lutheran Confessions call this “total repentance.” It involves forgiven sinners showing forth their repentant hearts in the way they live.

We say that good fruit, good works in every kind of life, should follow repentance, that is, conversion or regeneration. Neither can there be true conversion or true contrition where the putting to death of the flesh and bearing good fruit do not follow. True terrors, true griefs of mind, do not allow the body to satisfy itself in sensual pleasures, and true faith is not ungrateful to God. Neither does true faith hate God’s commandments. In a word, there is no inner repentance unless it also produces the outward putting to death of the flesh. We say that this is John’s meaning when he says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).[ii]

To make it clear what they were referring to, the Reformers went on to speak of what sort of fruit repentance produces:

These good fruit are what the commandments teach: prayer, thanksgiving, the confession of the Gospel, teaching the Gospel, obeying parents and rulers, and being faithful to one’s calling. We should not kill, not hold on to hatred, but we should be forgiving and give to the needy, so far as we can according to our means. We should not commit sexual sins or adultery, but should hold in check, bridle, and chastise the flesh, not for a repayment of eternal punishment, but so as not to obey the devil or offend the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we should speak the truth. These fruit have God’s command and should be produced for the sake of God’s glory and command.[iii]

Repentance is not a one-time act. The entire life of a Christian is to be characterized by repentance. Our baptism should remind us to drown our old Adam by daily contrition and repentance.

Is it not time that we join the faithful in confessing our sins? Confessing our pride in who we are, our hypocrisy in wanting to look pious, yet living daily lives that deny our identity as children of God. Confessing that without forgiveness, we really will be cast into eternal fire. Confessing all our sins in thought, word, and deed, what we have done and what we have left undone for which we justly deserve God’s present and eternal punishment.

We confess that we are indeed poor, miserable sinners. Yet, we confess our sins with hope, because we now walk in the way of the Lord, looking for Christ to come again soon (Matthew 3:11-12). In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for His sake God forgives us all our sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.

You are a child of God. When you were baptized, you were baptized into the very “baptism” Jesus underwent—the baptism of His cross. You have been baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance. That means your life is now one of walking the way of the Lord—with all the wildernesses and deprivations and hard lessons and crosses that entails. But it also means that you walk the way the Lord walked in His resurrection—to everlasting joy in the kingdom.

What might such fruit look like in your life? Let’s take something rather simple and immediate—the observance of Advent and Christmas

Imagine how Christians celebrate Christmas differently than the rest of the world. This involves much more than simply saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy holidays.” At the very least, it involves paying more attention to the fruit of repentance than the things we place under the tree.

It will probably include generosity and mercy—helping out your neighbor in need. There are certainly many needs and many opportunities for giving this time of year. The fruit of repentance may include reconciling with those whom you  have become estranged. Confessing to them how you have wronged them and forgiving them for their offenses against you. The fruit of repentance will include making time each day for prayer and the study of God’s Word. And the fruit of repentance will certainly include making worship a priority. Christians will not plan worship attendance around family events, but family events around worship attendance. What better way to prepare for the coming of the Lord and to celebrate Christmas than to gather with your family for worship to receive God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament? It is only by that Word and Sacraments that you are motivated and equipped for genuine repentance on every day.

And so our pilgrimage to Jerusalem continues. With the people of Jerusalem who came to John in repentance and faith, we, too, come before Christ, who visits us now at the Table He has prepared to nourish us on our way. You who are clothed in Christ, receive Him again where He gives Himself for you! Already now the gifts of Christmas are given here in this Divine Service. Come confessing your sins and your faith as we prepare for Christmas by receiving the Christ Child here in bread and wine. Come to the Table, for it is time to walk in the way of the Lord. You are baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of 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] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 160–161). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[ii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 176). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[iii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 183). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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