So, the shopping of the season continues and the world goes on with its commerce and we join in too giving our economy the much needed boost at the end of the year. Yet, we slow down again as last week, take a pause from all the hubbub to hear from the Word of Life. We hear the Advent call as last week to slow down, to set aside the temporal concerns and think on the eternal.
I’m not a big shopper myself, but my favorite kind of shopping is window shopping. I like having no intention to buy anything, not feeling any compulsion to purchase one more thing I don’t need, just looking and browsing, relaxing, chatting with other customers who are willing. Window shoppers these days are likely an annoyance to retailers. They just take up space.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” asks our Lord this morning of the crowds. Were you just out window shopping? Were you browsing and perusing for the latest spiritual fad? Did you think John was a smooth talker, one who was bent every which way by every wind of opinion that blew across the desert plains? A reed shaken in the wind? Did you go out to see a fashion show? Did you expect a trend setter wearing the latest duds?
The people who went to John didn’t get any of these things. They heard a man who stayed on target, warning the world to repent for the kingdom of God was at hand. God’s winnowing fork was in His hand. God would separate the wheat from the chaff. They saw a man in camel hair (not a trend in his day), John was an edgy man, some would think he’s off his rocker, and he certainly was not refined and regal like a king. He had rough edges.
Let the Church take a warning from this. God’s preachers don’t always come in the most comfortable packages. The American Churches often care more about how the preacher looks on camera and whether the world likes what he says. Instead we should be concerned whether our preachers stay on message like John—“Behold, the lamb of God who takest away the sin of the world.”
If John was not a talking head spouting off popular opinions or a preacher promising comfort, a solid 401k, and good fashion sense, then what was he? A prophet, says Christ. Indeed, more than a prophet! John is the prophet that was prophesied about centuries before. John would prepare the way for the Lord’s Messiah. What the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and the like pointed to from afar, John saw for himself and raised his hand and told all, “There, look, it is He! The one who is to come, is here!” John proclaimed the advent of the hope of Israel that they had longed for since the days of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David. He was finally here!
Or was He? This passage has troubled many a Christian because John, the great prophet, doubts. He sends a message by way of his disciples to Jesus asking “Are you the One or can we expect another?” John was rotting away in prison. He suffered doubt. Jesus was not threshing the wheat from the chaff in the fashion John expected. Jesus was busy healing and performing signs. He was preaching grace and forgiveness to the poor. Not poor like Americans think of poor. This is not about money, but the poor in spirit. The poor are the spiritually destitute like rich Zacheus who repented of his sins. The poor are the spiritually bankrupt like the prostitute who washed the Lord’s feet with her tears. John heard these kinds of things and then saw that evil men like Herod were still walking about and wondered what Jesus was waiting for. Certainly he’s the Lamb of God, but the Almighty God is not milksop is He? When is He going to deal with evil?
We have a tendency of bristling against any moral failure of conscience or soul in great saints. Yet, John is far from the first to do this. Oh no! John joins a long list of saints who struggle when the promises of God seem so unclear, so contrary to reality and so far off. Abraham and Sarah laughed at God’s message they’d bear a son of promise in their old age. Moses, angry, frustrated, and doubting God’s plan struck the rock twice in a fury to appease thirsty Israel. Elijah fled from murderous Jezebel though God had promised to protect him. David lusted for Bathsheba and abused the office God had given him. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, cursed the day he was born as he suffered for preaching the Word of God. John is far from alone.
And that means you are not alone with the saints. Welcome to the club of the poor in spirit. What failure did you bring in heart and mind this day? Something like Moses’ anger or David’s adultery or Jeremiah’s despair or something else? If you did not think of one sin, did you not just confess your sins to God twenty minutes ago? Luther said if you can’t think of any particular sins to confess just put your hand under your coat and see if you’re heart is still beating. If so, than you’re a sinner. Don’t harm your conscience making up sins, but confess you’re a sinner nonetheless. What doubts are creeping up on you? Are there things in your life that seem so contrary to what you would expect of sainthood that it makes you wonder what God is up to? That’s John’s struggle too.
Yet, still here John becomes our teacher. He teaches us how to pray, because when he sends word to Christ he does not say, “Get me out of prison. What is wrong with you? Get with my program!” So often we pray to God and tell Him what He must do to prove Himself to us. John though prays in a sense, “Thy will be done.” Are you the one? Tell me and show me and I’ll will gladly submit to You even if it means You are quite different from what I expected. John does not want to find fulfillment and security in His present circumstances in prison, but in the message of Christ.
Jesus’ answer is the most beautiful news. It’s everything that really needs to be preached about Him all the time. Jesus promises healing and restoration. He promises resurrection of the dead. His list of healing is crowned with the promise of resurrection, but then comes this strange anticlimactic point that the poor have the good news preached to them. Yet, this is important and Jesus does this deliberately. None of the wonders and signs are more important than this message of good news. Yes, He is doing exactly what the prophet Isaiah said the Messiah would do. Healing and doing the miraculous. Yet, also He has come to preach the good news that will set the captives free. He is the promised Savior who will fulfill John’s own preaching: He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Did John know fully what that would mean? We cannot tell. Yet, we know with hindsight 20/20 vision that the good news is that the Savior would lay down His life on the cross and take it up again that we might be freed. Freed from sin. Freed from death. Freed from our doubts. By this good news we are assured that the saving promises of God from Adam forward have come to fruition in Jesus forever.
Jesus asked “What did you go out to the wilderness to see?” Perhaps we should ask ourselves the same question when we come here. What do we come here to see? Are we spiritual window shoppers just perusing, browsing and not really buying in? Are we coming with prayers demanding our will be done? No. Instead let us heed the Baptist’s cry, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is drawing near?” “Behold the Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world!” Amidst our failures and our doubts let’s trust Christ’s actions and Words, for He is the one who came into the world to preach good news to the poor and spiritually hungry like John and you and me. And so now He feeds us again, “Take eat, this is My Body, this is My Blood, broken and shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” Amen.