Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Over the past few decades, it’s become standard practice for Hollywood and the news media to portray Christians and Christian leaders for the most part as bumbling buffoons, crazed zealots, crooked con artists, or pathetic wimps. While there’s been no shortage of bad examples within Christianity to feed these notions, I think it’s fair to say that believers are generally represented in rather negative ways. The largely self-appointed cultural elites seem to love to either catch us at our worst, or play up the aspects of our faith they find the most offensive to their sensibilities.
The truth of the matter is that we are often hypocrites of the worst sort, and it does hurt to have our mistakes hung out on the line for all the world to see. Yet outsiders love to make fun of our faith—and sometimes even of any faith—even when we are behaving in complete compliance with orthodox teachings.
We find ourselves living in a largely non-Christian culture, where even many of those who call themselves Christians demonstrate very limited knowledge or practice of the faith, it can be rather discouraging and all the more difficult to remain faithful.
It’s therefore good to regularly challenge ourselves about our faith, to undergo a spiritual “gut check” of sorts. Like an athlete preparing for a sporting event or a soldier training for combat, we need these exercises to emphasize the fundamentals, and to strengthen and sharpen our Christian knowledge and skills. Having a regular worship life, just like having a regular workout plan in the gym, is a key element of this exercise.
In that worship, we find ourselves confronted with a variety of faith-building activities that leave us spiritually toned and conditioned. In confession, we acknowledge our sins and engage in that ongoing life of repentance which Luther wrote is at the heart of the Christian existence.
In the liturgy and in the creeds, we repeat and ingrain the patterns of our praise and our beliefs that are as basic as sit-ups, pushups, and jumping jacks. In the weekly variety of Scripture readings, hymns, prayers, and sermons, we exercise our ears and sharpen our minds in our knowledge and understanding of God’s Word, like practicing specific plays or tactics. In the offering, we lay it all out there on the field—the mission field—committing ourselves to the goals our Savior has given us. We hold nothing back from Him, the source and the object of our faith.
And finally, in the reception of the Lord’s Supper, we are given the refreshment and nourishment we need to be cleansed and strengthened in preparation for confronting a hostile world and its demon prince, and for doing ongoing battle with them and with our own sinful nature.
We know that being here, week in and week out, isn’t always the joy it should be. But we also know that, just like a commitment to good physical health and fitness, it’s by regular participation in the exercise of our faith that God gives us the strength we need, the knowledge and skills necessary to ensure its survival and its growth. That’s His promise.
We also know that those outside the Church find this both laughable and offensive. Sadly, there are even many who claim to be within the family of the baptized who reject the regular exercise of their spiritual muscles, who want to “go it alone.” They think that they can remain fit and ready—in spite of never coming to practice their faith, or just showing up occasionally at convenient times. Others are offended by the repetition of what they consider the same old patterns, week in and week out.
But the fact remains: You don’t get any good at anything without practicing the basics, over and over again. If you get bored or offended and reject those basics, you’re not going to be spiritually fit and strong. Your faith will atrophy. Your soul will get flabby, and your heart for God will get clogged with the fat things of this world and painfully die. All the warning signs are there.
So, you can take offense at what God shows you and gives you, and ignore or reject these warning signs like much of the world does. If you do, you’ll be far more popular with others, more acceptable to the world, less uncomfortable…and you’ll die.
On the other hand, you can heed God’s warnings, hear His promises, and not take offense. You can get your spiritual exercise, remain strong in the Lord, let Him help you withstand the temptation to fall away or fall into laxness, and you will live.
It’s really the same pattern of faith and trust that’s existed since before the fall into sin, and throughout history: God reveals Himself to His creatures, and we either take offense and rebel at what we see and hear, or we humbly receive that revelation and repent of what we’ve become. Captured by God’s love and mercy, though, we live in constant tension between living under His grace and letting the devil pull us away toward disaster.
Jesus issues two such warnings in today’s Gospel lesson. The first is conveyed to John the Baptist’s disciples, when they come to our Lord at the prophet’s request to inquire about the true identity of Jesus. John was concerned whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ—the Promised One who would fulfill not only His own prophecies, but those of the ages.
Jesus’ reply to John lets the man draw His own conclusions from the evidence that’s been revealed: Miraculous cures and resurrections are taking place; the preaching of the Gospel of the kingdom of God is happening. All the signs are there; the signs John and the prophets of old had indicated would accompany the coming of the Christ. They are hard things to understand, but to those who accept them without offense, Jesus promises blessings. He challenges John and John’s disciples to not let the difficulties that the preaching of the kingdom might present tempt them to reject it.
But Jesus has more to say this day, this time to the crowds which now follow Him, as they had once followed John. He issues another warning, after confronting them with another challenge. He wants them to explain—or at least to contemplate in response to His rhetorical questions—their prior behavior concerning John the Baptist. Why had they come to see John? He wants to know.
Had they spent the time and undertaken the hardships of their journeys from where they lived merely out of curiosity? Would they have come out into the wilderness to see and hear someone of no interest; someone with nothing to offer?
Or was it that what John was preaching and doing resonated with something deep within them—a deep void and hungry longing that begged to be filled and satisfied? They hadn’t come out because John was shy and embarrassed about the message he was preaching; clearly he was no quivering reed or blade of grass, shaking at the slightest breeze. He wasn’t a pretty-boy, either—attracting people with fancy clothes and the trappings and trophies of worldly success. Doing things according to John’s preaching wouldn’t make you wealthy, popular, comfortable, or healthy—and it wouldn’t fill huge arenas or buy helicopters and tailored suits and beachfront homes, either.
John’s message was a message of tough-but-tender love. He didn’t sugarcoat it. Nor did he try to suggest that our chief problem—our sinfulness and need for forgiveness—didn’t carry significant consequences or didn’t have any urgency to it. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” was John’s message. In other words: “Turn around from your current direction, because only death awaits you if you don’t!”
That’s never going to be a popular message. It will always give offense. People who hear it usually reject it, because it calls into question their priorities, their actions, their values, and their judgment. How often do we really like to hear that we are wrong—dead wrong? That’s why the world—hearing only that much—often rejects the rest of the message. They hear only the rejection of self, the turning away from that which defines them as people of the world. And we don’t like to give that up.
But repentance, a fleeing from evil, and denial of self wasn’t the entirety of John’s message. Nor was John the conduit of the Gospel in all its fullness, either. John was the preparer—not the server, not the fulfiller of the Gospel. Jesus says to the crowds that among those born of women, no one has arisen who is greater than John the Baptist. And that’s completely true—those who are merely children of the flesh, no matter their fame and wealth and power and accomplishments in this life, can never hope to measure up to that brash, rough-and-ready tough guy, John.
That’s because John’s greatness isn’t measured on account of his birth of a woman—even if it was a miraculous birth from the womb of aged Elizabeth. John’s greatness is only in the righteousness he received from Christ. It springs forth from his birth of water and the Spirit—the same origin from which your only true greatness comes. It is a greatness not your own because it is a righteousness not your own.
We are all born of women, it’s true. But that doesn’t make us great, nor do our worldly status or accomplishments. If anything, those things make us pathetic and all the more distant from God. It is in our other birth—our spiritual birth—and in our adoption as God’s sons and daughters that we are made heirs of the kingdom of heaven. That is our true greatness, our lasting legacy, because it has been promised, earned, given, and sustained by the Author and Perfecter of our faith—God Himself, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our sinful nature wants to rebel against an external, foreign righteousness and greatness, because we want the glory of greatness for ourselves. This is why the world finds the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone so offensive. It’s why Christians and Christianity suffer rejection, ridicule, and even violence.
Yet even when seemingly imprisoned by our culture, with the threat of imminent death looming over us, the Church must not quiver like a reed shaken by the wind. For we are not only the least in the kingdom of heaven, and the great ones born of the Spirit as well as of women—we have another task as well.
Upon us has fallen the mantle of John the Baptist to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. We follow the path of Moses and Malachi; Jeremiah and Joel, Ezekiel and Elijah. And we convey the message of repentance and the coming Messiah to a world that prefers the comfort of worldly palaces to the offense of the wilderness.
But our message carries even more news now than what John had to tell: The kingdom has already come. It dwells among us, in the flesh and blood of Him who is the firstborn of woman and Spirit, the eternal, only-begotten of the Father, the first crop of Calvary’s tree of salvation, and the first-fruits of all who will arise from the grave.
Let the offense of the message of repentance and salvation be your assurance that God’s way is not the world’s way. Grasp firmly to the promises of Christ with the strong, exercised muscles of faith that He offers to help you develop, and be blessed. Acknowledge John as the new Elijah who came to bear witness to the Messiah, and let Jesus keep you as a cleansed, healed, and hopeful child of our heavenly Father, now and forever.
Those who have ears to hear; let them hear the Good News and the blessed call of their Savior. In His holy (+) name, Amen.