Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. This Third Sunday in Advent is called Gaudete Sunday. The word Gaudete is a Latin word which comes from our Introit and means, “Rejoice!” And so, on this Third Sunday in Advent, we are invited to rejoice! “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4a).
Why is it so important that that we take time to rejoice during the season of Advent? Well, remember that Advent means “coming.” During the season of Advent, we celebrate the threefold coming of our Lord—He came, he comes, and he will come again. He came to earth 2,000 years ago to win salvation for us, as we remembered on the First Sunday in Advent. He will come again to make all things new on the last day, as we celebrated last Sunday. And he comes to us today in Word and Sacrament, as we especially recall today. During this time of looking back and looking forward at Christ’s comings, we must not lose sight of the way in which he comes to us today. I’m sure you know this from experience in your own life—when you spend so much time looking into the future and looking into the past, you often forget to appreciate what is right in front of you. So, my friends, We rejoice today because our God comes to be with us now.
2. The second half of our Gospel Reading, as well as our Epistle Reading, for this morning invite us to consider how our Lord uses his called ministers to steward the mysteries (1 Corinthians 4:1) of Christ’s coming to us today in Word and Sacrament. So, this morning, as we look more closely at the second half of our Gospel Reading, we will focus specifically on our Lord’s questions to the crowd. Our Lord begins by asking the crowd: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” (Matthew 11:7b).
The series of questions which follow this one invite us to consider the motivation which causes a person to come and hear God’s Word. This morning, we will consider:
1.) The motivation of the crowds to hear God’s Word proclaimed, and
2.) Our motivation for coming to hear God’s Word proclaimed.
In the end, we will see that We ought to find joy in hearing God’s Word proclaimed by his called ministers because this is how our Lord comes to us today.
3. First, we consider the motivation of the crowds to hear God’s Word proclaimed by John the Baptizer. Our Lord asks the crowd: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you’” (Matthew 11:7b-10).
Our Lord invites the crowd to consider their motivation for going to see and hear John in the wilderness. Through the use of rhetorical questions, our Lord provides three possibilities for why the crowd went to see John.
4. The first possibility is that they went to see “a reed shaken by the wind.” Now, for people who live in New England, this image might take a moment to fully take in because the topography of where we live is far different than that of ancient Palestine. Palestine, particularly the area in which John the Baptizer carried out his ministry, has much more open space than we tend to find in Maine. The image of “a reed shaken by the wind” is one that necessitates a flat, open space to understand. Perhaps a similar image, more familiar to our part of the world, might be helpful. Imagine that you are out by the water somewhere and you see a flag on a pole. The flag pole could be right on the shore or mounted on a boat—it doesn’t really matter—just imagine the flag pole by the open water. All of a sudden, you see a storm moving in. The wind starts howling, and that flag begins to toss and shake and flap in every direction at the whim of the wind. This is the picture of “a reed shaken by the wind.” If the crowd went out to see a man like this, they were expecting someone who would have no strong convictions of his own, someone who would be tossed about by popular opinion, yielding to it no matter what it happened to be at the moment. “A reed shaken by the wind”, however, was about the farthest thing from John the Baptizer as you can imagine.
5. The second possibility is that they went to see “a man dressed in soft clothing.” Or, to put it more colloquially, they might have gone out to see a “soft” man—one who likes to live the good life of ease, comfort, and pleasure. These are the kinds of people whom you find in king’s houses—that is to say, with the politicians. These kind of men often value political savvy and cunning manipulation over hard work and truth. This, of course, was not John. John was not dressed in soft clothing, literally or figuratively. He was literally dressed in a poor man’s clothing of hair and leather. He also had no time for politics and being “with the times.” He had no interest in being funny or clever. Instead, he preferred to unashamedly preach the blunt truth of God’s Word. Ironically, this is what landed John in the king’s house. John was in prison in the king’s house not because he was “dressed in soft clothing”, but because he was the exact opposite.
6. The third possibility for going to see John that our Lord offers is that the crowd went to see “a prophet.” Now, for as blatantly false as the previous possibilities were in terms of their applicability to John the Baptizer, this possibility could not be more true. John the Baptizer was, indeed, a prophet. In fact, he was “more than a prophet.” In other words, John was not just an ordinary prophet. He was a very specific prophet. He was the prophet foretold by Isaiah and Malachi. John was the one who had come to prepare the way before Christ (Matthew 11:10). John had come not to draw men to himself but to point men to our Lord Jesus. This is what the crowd saw when they went to the wilderness to see John—they saw a prophet who was called to prepare them for the Lord’s coming.
7. Now, as we turn to consider our motivation for coming to hear God’s Word proclaimed, we must recognize that from our position nearly 2,000 years later, we cannot judge the motivations of the crowd. We have no way to know for certain which of these possibilities best explains their internal motivation for going out to see John. However, what this text does invite us to do is to examine our own motivation for coming to hear God’s Word proclaimed. To put it differently, this text invites us to consider why we are here. So, what did you come here to see? Did you come here to see a pastor who is entertaining and yields to popular opinion, telling funny jokes and using clever illustrations from the pulpit? Did you come to see a pastor who is “with the times” and has political savvy to dance around feelings and avoid offending anyone? If that’s what you came to see, I am not sorry to disappoint you. As your pastor, I have no interest in trying to be funny or clever from the pulpit. I have no time to dance around feelings so as not to offend. Your pastor is here to prepare the way for Christ. It’s not about the person hidden behind the vestments. It’s all about the one who is at work through the mouth of the pastor despite his own faults and failings. It’s all about the one who is present among us to offer us his saving Gospel of grace and forgiveness through the Word and Sacrament administered by the pastor. Your pastor is nothing more than a steward the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1), as Saint Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle Reading.
8. Ultimately, I cannot judge your motivations for coming today either. That is between you and the Lord. But, as your pastor, let me exhort you: Don’t come here for me. Don’t even come here because of the great people who are here with you. Come here because our Lord comes to meet you in this place. Christ is here. He comes among us. Rejoice because you have certainty of this promise! “The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:5). He comes to us today in Word and Sacrament. This is why we gather. The fact of our Lord’s coming to us in Word and Sacrament through the pastor’s mouth is the true joy which fills our hearts, despite the raging world around us. “Again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4b). What a great mystery and blessing it is that we are able to regularly experience our Lord’s presence in so profound a manner through such humble means. Thanks be to God that he has given us such a reason to rejoice!
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.