"What Did You Go Out to See?"
Now you may enjoy a little reprieve of rejoicing, but I’m not sure that I can rejoice too much. You see, this Friday I will observe my 26th anniversary of ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry. God has blessed me with 26 years of preparing the way of the Lord, of preaching His Gospel of mercy and grace in Christ, of shepherding a part of the flock that belongs to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But now I look at today’s Gospel reading. The preacher is about to get his head lopped off! Nope, I’m not so sure how much I can rejoice! Faithful preachers getting their heads lopped off?!
It would seem that John wasn’t sure how much he could rejoice either. After all, he was in prison. As he looked out from his prison cell, it would seem that he was wondering if Jesus really was the Coming One promised long ago, the Messiah for whom he had been preparing the way. You see, John preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and look where it got him! Some say John began doubting if Jesus really was the Messiah. Others say that John did not waver in his faith, but rather wanted to direct his own disciples to follow their true Lord and Master. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Perhaps we’ll never know until the Last Day.
So John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if He is the Coming One. Instead of giving a simple “yes” or “no” answer, Jesus says, “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.” Sounds like a pretty resounding “yes” to me! Giving sight to the blind, healing the lame, cleansing lepers, enabling the deaf to hear, and raising up the dead are all sure and certain signs of the Messiah. After all, Isaiah had promised that in the day of the Messiah “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped…” and “then shall the lame man leap like a deer” (Is. 35:5-6). Isaiah also said that the Lord’s Anointed would “bring good news to the poor…bind up the brokenhearted… and proclaim liberty to the captives” (Is. 61:1). Whoever can do these miraculous healings can only be sent from God. And preaching the Good News? Who better to do that than the Son of God who is Good News in the flesh!
Then Jesus gives us a little lesson about John. Three times our Lord asks, “What did you do out to see?” Did the people going out to see John go out to see a reed swayed by the wind of popular, public opinion? Did they go out to see a man in fancy, soft, luxurious clothing? Or did they go out to see a prophet sent from God? Well, let’s take Jesus’ question and apply it to ourselves. What do we go out to see when we leave our comfy homes for any Sunday Divine Service or any Evening Prayer Office? What do we go out to see when we venture to church during Advent or even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? What do we go out to see when we sit in the pews and open our hymnbooks and listen to a man ramble on from the pulpit and the altar?
Do you go out to church to see a reed shaken by the wind? One Bible commentator says that a reed shaken by the wind “is symbolic of a man who yields to popular opinion, veers with it, and has no solid convictions of his own” (Lenski, 430). Is your pastor supposed to gauge popular opinion and preach, teach, and minister accordingly, perhaps as the majority wants? Should he try appealing to the most people possible so that we can have fuller pews and more offering money? Should your pastor fret and worry about needed changes for fear that some people may get upset and leave? Is it your pastor’s task when he steps into the pulpit simply to tell you things that you want to hear, or like to hear, or things that simply make you feel good? When it comes to the liturgy and hymns we sing, is it your pastor’s job simply to choose the dearly loved favorites so as to please the most people possible? Should your pastor moisten his finger and stick it in the air to see which way the winds of popular opinion go for life in God’s Church? Would you really want a pastor who veers with public opinion and has no convictions of his own?
Do you go out to church to see a man dressed in soft clothing? The same Bible commentator says this about the soft clothing: “A man who yields to popular opinion, who bends to the will and the word of the influential and the mighty, will be rewarded by them, will be given a high place and the finest kind of garments” (Lenski, 432). I know one pastor who was tempted by the soft clothing of success. One well-to-do lady in his congregation really wanted this pastor to “succeed” in his preaching and teaching. One day this lady invited the pastor over to her home for coffee. After the pastor arrived, the lady talked about how she would really like to see him “succeed.” As the two sipped their coffee, the lady turned on a video tape of Dr. D. James Kennedy. He was preaching to a full auditorium of interested and happy people. “Pastor, I really want you to be like that, preaching to a whole auditorium full of people,” she said. “Perhaps you could even have your own show,” she added. Well, the pastor knew the unspoken message. You see, this lady did not like his preaching of repentance and forgiveness; she did not care much that he was teaching on every-Sunday Communion or on the practice of individual Confession & Absolution. But she did want her pastor to enjoy the “soft clothing” of her approval.
What do you go out to see? Do you go out to church to see a prophet? Again, our Bible commentator has an insight on seeing a prophet: “Jesus does not mean ‘merely to look at a prophet’ but ‘to see him so as to get into personal touch with him,’ [that is], to hear him and his proclamation with their own ears, to let him move them to repentance and to the baptism for the remission of sins” (Lenski, 433). Those who went out to see John saw more than a prophet alright; they saw the one man whom God sent as a messenger to prepare the way for His only-begotten Son. And isn’t that what any faithful pastor-prophet in our day is supposed to do? John came baptizing and preaching the message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Isn’t that what any faithful pastor-prophet in our day is supposed to do? John pointed people to Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). Isn’t that what any faithful pastor-prophet is supposed to do in the Church today? When the crowds asked John about this Jesus who seemed to be gaining more disciples than John did, John simply said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). Isn’t that what any faithful steward of God’s mysteries is supposed to do—draw people’s attention more to the Savior and less to himself?
Yes, our Lord Jesus sends His prophets and His pastors out ahead of Him. He gives them the task of proclaiming Him, preparing the way for Him to come with salvation and healing in His wings. Our Lord gives His preachers today the same task that He gave to Isaiah or John or St. Paul centuries ago. He gives them a certain message to proclaim—a message of comfort, a message that our warfare against sin and death is ended in Christ Jesus, a message that our iniquity is pardoned and that we receive double the forgiveness in Christ crucified and risen. It’s a message that takes our eyes off of ourselves and puts them on Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. And pay close attention to those words when you sing them today. After you sing them, you will come to the Lord’s Table to eat and drink the Lamb of God and have your sins taken away. That’s how your Savior must increase, but your pastor must decrease! And not only must your pastor be a faithful, trustworthy steward of “the mysteries of God,” as St. Paul says, but he must also echo St. Paul’s other words: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1Cor. 2:2).
What did you come out to see this morning? Hopefully not a preacher who sways like a reed with the ever-changing winds of popular opinion or human emotions! Hopefully not a preacher who strives for the soft clothing of so-called “success”! What did you come out to see? A prophet? Yes, and more than a prophet. I pray that you came out to see the Christ Himself. After all, the pastor-prophet is only good and useful if he draws your attention to the Savior who rescues you from death and sin. And that’s his job not just in the pulpit, but in everything else he does. Amen.