Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent 3 of Series A (Matthew 11:2-15)

“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: it was halfway through overtime in Orchard Park, New York, three seasons ago. The hapless Buffalo Bills were playing the perennial Super Bowl contenders from Pittsburgh, the Steelers. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo quarterback and Harvard graduate, took the snap around the fifty yard line, dropped back, and uncorked a high arching pass toward his endzone. It was a perfect pass, traveling through the air to the exact point where he wanted it- into the hands of his open receiver. Only one problem- the ball went right through the outstretched arms of wide receiver Steve Johnson and dropped harmlessly to the turf. But that wasn’t the end of this day’s drama. Steve Johnson ignited a firestorm when he blamed God, yes God, for his dropped pass. He posted on the internet: “I praise you 24/7 and this is how you do me!? How am I supposed to learn from this!?” Perhaps without even knowing it, Steve Johnson was asking one of the more popular questions in all of history- “If I follow you, Lord, why do bad things happen to me?”

That is what John the Baptist wanted to find out. He was the forerunner, the one prophesied by the Holy Scriptures. He had made the good confession of Jesus many times, he had pointed his own followers and countless others to the one whom he thought was the Messiah. And what does he earn for this work? A stay in prison. This isn’t how it is supposed to work! If John had a website, he probably would’ve written, “I praise you 24/7, and this is how you do me? How am I supposed to learn from this?” Instead, he sent messengers to Jesus to find out exactly what was going on. “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?’” In other words, if you are truly the Messiah, why am I in prison? Are you the one I was told to prepare for, or is there someone else coming? All he received was suffering when he expected glory and triumph. And that’s no surprise, because John is human, and our human nature expects glory. We want the victorious Christian life, we want to have things go well, to receive some sort of benefit for following Jesus. And what do we get? Suffering.

We suffer because of our Christian faith, but even more often we just suffer for seemingly no reason at all. We suffer the loss of loved ones, we suffer from illness and injury, we suffer from broken relationships. Sure, our lives do go pretty well most of the time, but there always seems to be another challenge up ahead of us, another opportunity to suffer in this broken world. And there are always the lingering challenges that follow us each and every day: the pain of a lost friendship or a family conflict, or the day to day struggle of making ends meet in an economy that can’t quite seem to get back on its feet. We cry out at the injustice of it all. If Jesus, the one whom we follow, the one we pray to, the one we gather here to worship, is truly the Messiah, is truly God Himself, then why do such things happen to me? Why do I suffer if I have the Lord of the universe on my side? If Jesus is for me, surely my life has to get better, right? And if my life doesn’t get better, then maybe He isn’t who He says He is. Like John and that Buffalo Bills wide receiver, the questions begin to swirl: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” “I praise you 24/7 and this is how you do me? How am I supposed to learn from this?”

Jesus says in our text that “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” but that is much easier said than done. We are offended by our own sufferings, offended that our God, our Lord and Messiah would let such things happen to us. If we expect glory and not suffering, then we may even begin to look for a God that can provide such glory, or at least a Christian congregation who proclaims only a glorious Christ. And there are plenty of congregations out there that proclaim the victorious Christian life, that proclaim only the glories of a Jesus who is so big and so awesome that He can take away all your problems. If you only believe hard enough, they will tell you, then your problems will fade away, and God will grant you success in all that you do. But if we take offense at our own sufferings, then we better stop reading Matthew at this point, for Jesus Christ Himself is headed for suffering. That poses an even more striking question, asked of Jesus Himself at the cross: If you are the Christ, why do you suffer? How can Jesus have an answer for suffering if He Himself suffers? John’s question could’ve been asked at the foot of the cross: “Are you the one who is to come?”

For this reason, many of the congregations that preach the victorious Christian life tend to avoid spending much time talking about Good Friday. And that is tragic, because it is only through His suffering that Jesus provides an answer for our suffering. Jesus has glory up ahead all right, the glory of the one seated at the right hand of the Father, but first He must suffer, first He must give His life. First He must take all of our sufferings, all of our diseases, and all of our corruption upon Himself and carry them to the cross. Every disease, every infirmity, every tragedy in your life has the same root cause- sin. It may be your sin, it may be the sin of others, or it may simply be because we live in a fallen and corrupted world, but every time you suffer, it is because of sin. Jesus also suffered because of sin, but not only because He too lived in a sinful world, He suffered to eliminate sin. He suffered to do away with the cause of all your sufferings. That is why He walked to the cross, to bring all of your burdens, each and every instance of suffering that you are experiencing in your life to the altar of salvation and do away with them there. We often think of Jesus carrying our sins to the cross, but that is only part of the story. He also bears our diseases, our broken relationships, our tragedies, our mourning, all that we suffer in this body and life. His suffering is the solution to your suffering, because He suffers for you.

In our text, we see that the elimination of suffering begins even before the cross. “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.” Jesus demonstrates to John’s disciples that the kingdom of God has truly broken into this world through His person and work. Diseases are being cured, infirmities are taken away, and even the dead are raised; what could be more glorious than that!? But there is something missing. All those whom Jesus has healed and even raised up will eventually die of something else. Death has been dealt a blow, but it will still claim each and every one of them. John is not miraculously released from prison, and in fact very soon his head will be delivered on a platter. The healings of Jesus then don’t seem to accomplish much, and they definitely don’t seem to apply to your life or mine. But it would be a mistake to ignore their importance. Even though they are temporary, even though death seems to still win in each and every case, Jesus is demonstrating through His healings that something new has come. He is pointing to the end of all suffering, to the reversal of all corruption, to the final solution for our sin. He is beginning to restore this fallen creation, proclaiming that He has come to conquer disease and death forever. He heals to declare that because of His suffering and death, your eternity will be filled with glory.

But suffering still comes first. Jesus’ suffering on our behalf provided a final solution for suffering, an eternal solution for suffering, but we still dwell in this veil of tears, where sin still causes suffering. Therefore, the Christian life is not some glory train, living victoriously and getting what we want. Instead the Christian life is the way of the cross, the way of suffering, but it is a path that we do not walk alone. Our Lord is with us each and every step of the way, proclaiming to us the Good News that He has conquered all suffering and death through His own suffering and death. Jesus said to John’s disciples that “the poor have good news preached to them.” That is last in the list because it is the most important. We are those poor who need the good news preached to us in the midst of our suffering. We need to hear of the victory of Jesus Christ over death when we face death in our lives. We need to hear of the glorious bodies we will have in the resurrection when our bodies seems to fail. We need to know that Jesus suffered for us, not just as some act of solidarity, but to actually pay for our sin and remove the cause of suffering. We need to know that Jesus is with us, not absent somewhere in heaven, but beside us in our suffering, speaking words of comfort. We need to know that we have a God who knows suffering, because He endured it Himself for us. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not just spiritual, it has a powerful physical dimension. Jesus will restore our bodies, He will raise them up on the Last Day, never to die again, never to be diseased again, in the new heavens and new earth where no relationship will ever be broken again, especially our relationship with God.
We wait for that day, we anticipate the time when the Lord will eliminate all suffering and bring us to the glory that awaits us. And make no mistake, glory is ahead for all of us, glory that is incomparable with anything we experience in this life. In our Epistle this morning, James exhorts us to wait for this glory in patience. “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord… As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast.” Just as the prophets of old cried out to God as they suffered, so God wants us to cry to Him in the midst of suffering, He wants us to turn to Him, and His answer to our cries is His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Christ’s sufferings mean that our sufferings will end when He renews all creation, bringing to completion what He begun by healing the sick and lame. We look toward that Day with great anticipation this Advent season, for our Lord is coming again, and He is coming to bring you and me deliverance from sin, from suffering, from death. Thanks be to God that He answers our cries with His Son, our coming Savior, Amen.

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