Beloved. I’m sure you can already sense that the wait is almost over, Christmas is in the air. The decorations are up; the cookies baked; the presents purchased and all the other outward trappings of Christmas have been, are being done or soon will be done. We know Christmas is almost here just by looking around us. The wait is almost over.
We find something similar in today’s Gospel reading where we are introduced once again to one of the great figures of Advent: St. John the Baptizer. Because he came on the scene, that means that the long awaited Savior/ Messiah has finally come. Jesus says of John in the Gospel: “This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” With God raising up and sending John the Baptizer, God was announcing that the long wait was over; God was announcing that He has kept His word and promise—He did sent the Savior who would save the world from sin, death, devil and hell.
But in today’s Gospel, we do not find St. John the Baptizer like we normally find him—standing by the Jordan River preaching, calling people to repentance and baptizing the repentant. Instead, we find St. John the Baptizer languishing away in prison. St. Matthew begins our text: While John was in prison, he heard about the things Christ was doing. In light of that, it seems like there is a bit of a disconnect between the beginning of our reading, while John was in prison, he heard about the things Christ was doing, and the end where Jesus gives this great testimony about precisely who St. John the Baptizer is: “This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” Jesus is saying that St. John is the fulfillment of the prophecy the Lord gave through the OT prophet, St. Malachi: Look, I [the Father] am sending my messenger [St. John the Baptizer] ahead of you [the Son, Christ Jesus], who will prepare your way before you. St. John had a very specific, a very important, a very unique role—he was the one sent by God to be the forerunner of the Savior; the one sent to prepare His way. St. John was the voice, the one St. Isaiah, the OT prophet, prophesied about [Is. 40.3-5]: A voice is calling out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord. Make level in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low.” At the announcement for his birth, the angel Gabriel told John’s father, St. Zacharias [Lk. 1.17]: He will also go before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. When St. John was 8 days old, St. Zacharias, was filled by the Holy Spirit and prophesied of his son, John [Lk. 1. 76, 77]: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the Face of the Lord to prepare His ways. While all the other prophets of the OT stood at a distance and only prophesied of Jesus centuries removed, St. John stood in the midst of the people and with his very finger could point to Jesus: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. So, yes, St. John the Baptizer had a very important and unique role; he was certainly one very much blessed by the Lord; yes, the Lord equipped him mightily for that role, as the angel Gabriel told Zacharias [Lk. 1.15]: He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. Again, such a great person, specially blessed and equipped by God, but he was in prison. And why? Because he was faithful to the Lord and His will and faithfully proclaimed the Lord’s word. St. Mark records [Mk. 6.17-18]: [King] Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. For John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife. Certainly John the Baptizer is the epitome of the faithful proclaimer/ preacher as St. Paul defines it in today’s epistle: This is the way a person should think of us: as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. In this connection, moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.
St. John the Baptizer does not just have significance for his own day calling people to repentance to prepare them for Jesus’ coming. But, as part of the communion of saints, he still has meaning/ significance for us today. Not only do we give God thanks for His faithful servant, St. John the Baptizer, but we also honor St. John by seeking to imitate him—first his faith and then his other virtues. Yes, St. John’s role was special and unique, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, may we strive in our life and calling to imitate St. John the Baptizer in his faithfulness and boldness—those very things for which Jesus praises him in our text: As these two were leaving, Jesus began to talk to the crowds about John. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? No, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. So what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you! And he is much more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’.
What’s the first thing Jesus says to the crowds? What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? And what is Jesus praising John for? He is praising St. John for being a firm pillar; for his firmness in proclaiming God’s word. Jesus uses the illustration here of a reed, a thin walled stalk of a marsh/ water grass that moves in whatever direction the wind is blowing it. The Baptizer, Jesus is saying here, did not only preach to the choir; he did not tailor his message to whatever crowd was there, trying to get a following/ popularity; he was not the popular caricature of the modern politician saying anything to anybody to get a vote. Instead, he preached God’s holy Law sternly when it needed to be preached sternly—even saying to the well-respected religious leaders of the Jews who came to check him out [Mt. 3.7,8]: Brood of vipers! Who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance; but he also preached forgiveness and God’s grace when it needed to be as he pointed to Jesus and said [Jn. 1.29]: Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Not only was St. John the Baptizer firmly proclaiming God’s word, he was proclaiming God’s word. Again, Jesus uses a beautiful illustration with the reed: What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A reed is a marshy grass that looks tall and strong—after all it’s not flopping on the ground. But what? It has no strength; it’s hollow and empty inside. Not only does it blow with the wind but it collapses with the slightest weight on it. The point? That’s the human doctrine, human teaching. And St. John was not preaching that! He was preaching the word of God—both His holy strict Law and His life giving Gospel; He was calling the people to recognize their sin and he was pointing the penitent to their Savior from sin. That’s not a reed. The word of God is solid; the most solid thing you can build your life on. St. John the Baptizer was a firm pillar because he taught only the word of God, which is certain and sure and not a human word.
Notice Jesus’ question and apply that to us—you, me, the Church—today: What did you go out into the wilderness to see? The world today needs to hear something solid and substantive. The people in St. John’s day were going out into the wilderness. There they found something real/ something substantive—the word of God. Here’s where we can imitate St. John and we ourselves become like him—a firm pillar. That means that in the Church here, we proclaim God’s word alone. It means that we do not go along with all the latest trends and fads; it means that we do not change or water down our preaching of God’s word in an effort to try to be “relevant.” To do otherwise would be being a reed and not a St. John, a firm pillar. The human need and condition remain the same—we are sinners in need of a Savior; the proclamation of the church is to be always the same: God’s holy word of Law—calling sin, sin even when unpopular—and His holy Gospel, the word of forgiveness/ absolution in Jesus, which promises and gives what Jesus obtained for us by His life, suffering and death.
And for us individually to imitate St. John the Baptizer and for us to be firm pillars means for us not to be afraid of speaking the truth of God in love. This does not mean we are to sit in judgment and condemn others. But it does mean that we not be afraid to speak of our faith—especially at times we can point people to Jesus; it means that we actually listen and talk with people, sharing with them not worldly wisdom but the word and divine wisdom. It means living our lives with integrity so people know who we are and what we stand for. It means living a life that reflects our confession of faith.
To be a firm pillar means having great sturdiness. It means to have great strength. St. John the Baptizer did not have great strength in himself. His strength was from the Lord, from the Holy Spirit whom he had already in his mother’s womb. Dear Christian, although we are certainly no John the Baptizer, we still have the same Holy Spirit he had. We are not lacking anything. Let us daily ask the Lord to grant us an extra measure of His Holy Spirit and to guide and lead us in all that we say and do. We can be strengthened in our walk, life and witness as we go to the Blessed Sacrament and there receive Jesus—His body and blood—in us. As we, strengthened by the Lord, live out our Christian faith in our various callings, not being ashamed of our Lord and His word, we are imitating St. John the Baptizer.
What did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? No, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. So what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you! And he is much more than a prophet. The very fact that St. John was in prison shows his faithful proclamation—even though it was unpopular with the powers that be. St. John held to the higher authority, God Himself, and was unashamed of Him and was not afraid to suffer the consequences. John obviously had a following, but he did not use his influence for his own interest; he didn’t soft pedal the truth or was diplomatically silent. Far from being in the king’s house surrounded by luxury, John was languishing in the big house awaiting death. Again, remember, St. John had the Holy Spirit—we too have Him—and having the Holy Spirit/ having faith that changes a person. Our priorities become different. We look to the Lord and love Him above all else. We don’t look for a life of worldly ease; in fact, we reject it if it draws us away from the things of God. That’s why John the Baptizer could do what he did and suffer what he did. He was changed. That was the work of the Holy Spirit who created and kept him in the faith.
Dear Christian, as we imitate St. John, as we strive to live according to our confession of faith and be a witness to Jesus to those around us, we can only do so because the Holy Spirit has worked on us. Our desire to love the Lord and to do His will, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our faithfulness, that too, is the work and gift of the Holy Spirit. May we then keep ourselves always close to our Lord’s holy word and sacrament through which He works to keep us ever loving our Lord, His will and His ways. As we today live out our Christian lives, let us imitate St. John the Baptizer in faith and in faithfulness and point others to Jesus. What a marvelous Advent and Christmas message—one of substance—we can proclaim to the world: the Lord keeps His word, the wait is over, our Savior, Jesus, has come. INJ