17 December 2018

Homily for Advent 3 - Gaudete (2018)

"Less Than a Failure" 
Matthew 11:2-11

Jesus says there’s no one greater in the human race than John the Baptist. Then He seems to contradict Himself. He also says, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John].” How can he be the greatest and then someone lesser than he becomes greater than he? Does that make John’s greatness a failure? Actually, John’s greatness is that he was a failure—by worldly standards, that is. And if you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven, you need to be less than John, less than a failure.

If you want to talk greatness and success, John the Baptist does not seem to qualify. In today’s reading, he’s in prison and about to lose his head, quite literally. But let’s push the rewind button on John’s life. He was miraculously born, yes, but he was an only child of older parents, and he did not have a family of his own. After his circumcision and naming ceremony, John “grew and became strong in spirit,” but he “was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Lk. 1:80). John probably grew up and learned God’s Word at Qumran, an isolated, monastic-like community in the desert. Nothing too great about that!

And consider when John did appear to Israel. He came looking rugged and ragged, wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt. He fasted from wine and strong drink, and he ate, of all things, locusts and wild honey. So much for greatness there! In addition to his wild look and his wilderness food, John no doubt came across as a wild-eyed preacher of repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). He told the crowds to “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mt. 3:8) and not rest on the laurels of their ancestry. He told tax collectors to be fair. He told soldiers not to shake people down, but be content with their wages. He told people with extra clothing to give it away to the poor. John even called on the governing official to repent of his sins. That’s what landed him in prison to await execution. By worldly standards, John was an abject failure.

Still Jesus says, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” You see, John had the great distinction of preparing the way for God’s promised Messiah. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was no reed shaken by the winds of cultural trends and faddish teaching for itching ears. No, John was a mighty oak planted by the rivers of God’s unchanging Truth. He did not come in the soft clothing of pampered royalty, but in the rough garments of a prophet proclaiming the coming of God in the flesh. That’s what makes John great—a failure in the eyes of the world, but great in God’s plan of restoring us to life with Him.

This really is an odd message for this Third Sunday in Advent. The Latin name for today is Gaudete!—“Rejoice!” Notice the rose colored candle on the Advent wreath is lit. For two weeks the Church has turned her attention to repenting, fasting, praying, giving to the poor, cleaning the house of the soul, and preparing for the Savior to come. Today, though, we get a little joy thrown in to lighten the mood of preparation. But it’s a restrained joy. It’s not yet time for the exuberant celebration. That will come, but for now, this little bit of joy sustains us in our preparing, our repenting, our praying, our fasting and our giving for a couple more weeks.

To the world such habits seem like failure. Once Thanksgiving is finished and the left-over turkey and cranberry sauce are tucked away in the fridge, the world thinks the unrestrained celebrating must begin. People must eagerly rush off to places of “worship” such as Best Buy or Walmart. They must give their offerings at those little altars with cash registers and scanners built into them. Songs of joy, of trees, of snow and mistletoe, and even of an overweight elf dressed in red are piped through omnipresent speakers. These are the things that make for a great Christmas. Who has time for prayer and repentance when there’s so much to do? How can you fast when there are so many delightful treats to be had? And giving to the poor? Perhaps those spare coins in the Salvation Army bucket will suffice.

Perhaps the greatness is yet to come, in all those favorite goodies with chocolate, powdered sugar, cinnamon, and peppermint. It just wouldn’t be a great Christmas without them. And don’t forget the gifts. Oh, the gifts! None of us wants a tacky, thoughtless little something under the tree. No, we want that brand new game, that awesome tool, that outfit that fits just right, or that shimmering bit of bling. These are a few of the season’s great things.

But what if none of these great things were to happen? What if you cannot get done everything you want to get done? What if the shopping does not get finished? What if the decorations do not all get up? Would Christmas be a failure?

Let’s learn to rejoice in being less than a failure. Let’s learn to be least in the kingdom of heaven. As Jesus says, “The one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John].” And who is “least in the kingdom of heaven”? You are. I am. And, yes, you and I are greater than John—not in our persons, but in the gifts that God gives us.

John may have said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29), but he never got to witness the fulfillment of that on the cross or in the Supper. John shooed his disciples away from himself so they could follow the Christ, the Giver of forgiveness and life. And John spoke those immortal words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). John did not get to receive the gifts of the promise, but you do!

You who are blind to God’s ways, get to see. God shows you your sin so that you can cry out to Him for mercy. And He gives you His mercy so that you can see how He loves you from eternity and for eternity. You who are lame in your sins—unable to walk through this world without giving in to the worldly notions of greatness—you get to walk. You get to walk in the forgiveness of the Son of God who shed His blood on the cross for you. You who are unclean and infected by the leprosy of self-serving—the disease of thinking that the world must focus on you and your desires—you are cleansed. In the waters of Baptism, Jesus joins you to Himself, to His perfect flesh and His life of giving and serving. In the Supper, Jesus puts His own flesh and blood into you, so that you will be cleansed from all self-serving, so that you will love and enjoy God and love and serve your neighbor. You who are deaf from the din of worldly greatness, you get to hear the sweet words of Absolution and the Gospel proclaimed. You have the joy of sins forgiven. You get to rejoice in being less than John, because you have the true greatness of life with God. And you who are dead in trespasses and sins get to be made alive in the Coming One whom John proclaimed.

These are the things that make for true joy—being least in the kingdom of heaven, repenting of our sins, and rejoicing in the life and forgiveness of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As we’re about to sing:
“See the Lamb, so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from heav’n.
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all, to be forgiv’n;

So, when next he comes in glory
And the world is wrapped in fear,
He will shield us with his mercy
And with words of love draw near” (LSB 345:3-4).

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