No matter how faithful we might want to be to Jesus Christ,
we’re all going to have occasional lapses in our faithfulness. We’re human
beings caught in the tension of simultaneously being saint and sinner. There will
be days when doubts will creep into our thinking. There will be moments
when our fears and concerns about the here and now will overshadow our trust in
God’s promises for eternity. It happens to me, and it happens to you. It even
happened to John the Baptist, as we heard read to us in this morning’s Gospel.
John knew, deep within his soul, exactly who Jesus was.
He had even testified publicly to this. It had been revealed to him that the
one on whom the Spirit came down to rest was the one who would baptize with the
Holy Spirit. John had confessed that Jesus was the Son of God, and John had
called Jesus the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.
Imprisoned, lonely, and understandably depressed,
though, John has the sort of crisis of faith that you and I experience from
time to time. We wonder whether Jesus really is who He says He is. We
question whether or not we’re on the right path, following the right Savior.
There’s a part of us that wants to hold back a little or a lot of ourselves; to
not fully commit ourselves to this Christian life, this work, this church, this
John has his doubts, and he expresses them to Jesus
through the messengers. You can almost sense the hopeful urgency in his words,
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John
doesn’t want to have to seek another. He wants the Messiah that has been
revealed to him.
Yet he isn’t sure that what he sees in this Savior and
this Savior’s kingdom is what he expected. Maybe he figured that the Messiah
would have reached out to him, and brought him out of the difficulties he was
facing in this life, like poverty and opposition and prison.
You and I experience our doubts, too. For the most
part, we do so in relative comfort and prosperity compared to John’s
situation. Yet, in spite of the ups and downs of our personal lives and our financial
fortunes and our relationships with others, I haven’t seen anyone show up for
worship at St. Paul in a camel’s hair shirt and leather belt. You haven’t been
reduced to eating insects and living in the desert, either.
You certainly haven’t found yourself thrown into prison
for preaching the Word of God and for calling out the authorities on their many
and various sins.
In response to John’s doubts and fears, though, Jesus
has an answer for John’s disciples to take back to him: Look at the signs. The
things you have seen and heard are those things that were prophesied about the
Messiah, the very things I am doing. Tell John that the blind are seeing, the
lame walking, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hearing—even the dead are being
brought back to life.
What’s more, the good news of the kingdom of God is being proclaimed. Don’t get discouraged, John. Don’t lose heart. Don’t
fall away because you’re not seeing and getting everything you thought you
should in a Savior, John. Instead, adjust your expectations to align with what
God says the Savior will do.
Once the messengers left to take Jesus’ words back to
John, the Lord has something else to say about expectations. This time He is
speaking to the crowd. He reminds them of what had attracted them to John—what
had made them make the journey from their cities and towns out into the
wilderness to hear John preach and to receive John’s baptism.
In part, John’s appeal was that he conformed to their
expectations about what a prophet should be. John had been focused first and
foremost with what God would have him proclaim and do. He wasn’t swayed by the
shifting winds of popular culture or worldly opinion. He was less concerned
with his physical appearance, his food, his clothing, or his living arrangements
than with the work he had been given for God’s kingdom. He had been so committed
to spreading God’s word that he even risked imprisonment rather than compromise
for earthly comfort.
Speaking as this Gospel lesson does of doubts and
boldness, expectations and commitment, it’s an appropriate Gospel lesson to have
come up on this Pledge Sunday. Today each of us is to submit our financial
commitments to this body of Christ for the coming year. I wish I could claim that
some sort of clever planning and coordination with this week’s Bible readings
was involved, but I can’t. This date was picked weeks ago, long before I had
looked at the scripture lessons.
For some of you, Pledge Sunday may be a very awkward
day. None of us really likes to be put on the spot, painted into a corner,
forced to step up and take a stand. To those, I pose this question: If you’re
uncomfortable being gently encouraged to make a commitment here—among those who
love you as a brother or sister in Christ’s family—about something as worldly
and fleeting as your money, what are you going to say when you’re pressed hard by
people out in a world that hates you about what you believe about heavenly,
For others, Pledge Sunday may be a fearful and anxious
day. We all have various worldly financial obligations and needs, and we all
have limited resources with which to meet them. You may have doubts and fears
about the economy and your own individual resources and incomes. This may
weaken your trust in the Lord to provide for you, and make you reluctant to be
bold in your commitment. To those, my questions would be: Have you ever had
to sacrifice so much for the work of His kingdom that you were left homeless or
hungry, naked or ill? Has God ever asked more of you than He has
given to you?
There’s another group that’s pretty comfortable
financially, but they don’t always appreciate how they got there. While they
might give it lip service, they really don’t accept the truth that all they
have came from the generous hand of God—including their blessings of the
knowledge, skills, talents, energies, and opportunities which allowed them to
accumulate the assets they have and to generate the income they produce.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being
financially comfortable, really—unless it makes you greedy, selfish, or
inattentive of the needs of others and the things of God. You might be asked:
Are you more interested in fine clothes and palaces and luxuries than in
preparing a way for the Lord? Do you understand the meaning of, ‘to those whom
much has been given, much will be expected’?
Still others among you are resentful about the
pledging process. I can almost hear the words in your mind, because I’ve certainly
heard them spoken aloud often enough: “I don’t want to make a pledge of my
contributions, and you can’t make me. What amount of my money I decide to give
to the church is between me and God, and it’s nobody’s business but mine.”
You’re absolutely right; nobody can make you but the Holy Spirit, and then only
if you let Him.
But count up the number of times that the words, “I,”
“me,” “my,” and “mine” come up in that thought. And don’t think that having a
personal faith in Jesus Christ means that it’s also a private faith.
What you believe and what you confess is intended by God to be lived out in a
Christian community, in which the burdens and obligations are shared, not just
the joys, benefits, and blessings. Our Savior is a giving Savior, and we are
to model ourselves after Him.
We even have a small contingent of the haughty out
there, too. There’s a certain risk and a great temptation in knowing that
you’re among those willing to make a financial pledge, or that you’re among the
significant givers or top volunteers in the congregation. You always need to
be on guard against that little Pharisee inside that wants to say, “Lord, I
thank you that I’m not like these paltry givers, or those who won’t pledge, or
those who never serve or volunteer, or those who don’t attend church as
regularly as I do.”
Instead, be thankful for the realization that the Lord
has given you an extra measure of faith and love, and humbly pray that others
will one day be granted the same motivation and the same joy.
I imagine by now, I’ve possibly upset and perhaps even
alienated just about everybody here. I didn’t do that because I don’t care
what you think, or that I think I’m in any way less sinful or selfish than
anyone else. And let me be clear: Motivated by the Holy Spirit, some of you
do pledge, and some of you do give generously—even sacrificially—to the work of
God through St. Paul. But really: If you aren’t the least bit uncomfortable,
you ought to be. I’m confident that from time to time, all of us fall into one
or more of those categories I mentioned. I know that I certainly do. You see,
no matter where we fall on the spectrum of our commitment to Christ, none of us
is going to be the perfect giver because—like even John the Baptist—none of us
has a perfect, unwavering faith.
If nothing else, pledging gives us a way to fight
Satan’s efforts to create doubt in our minds about God’s love for us in
Christ. Pledging helps us to put away the weekly temptation to worry if God
will provide for us. It puts real meaning into ‘give us this day our daily bread.’
It squelches a little of that feeling that what we have in this world is ours,
and that what we would do with it is better than what God can do with it.
But pledging only helps us, it’s not going to be a
magic way to having a perfect faith or being a perfect giver. Only Jesus
provides the full measure of obedience and love and sacrifice that perfectly meets
the Father’s expectations. And only our holy and loving God supplies
everything we need, holding nothing back.
What marvelous, unending gifts He brings to you, too:
His infallible Word and Holy Spirit, to convict us of our many sins and
shortcomings, to generate repentance in us again and again, and to assure us of
His love, His forgiveness, and all His promises. The cleansing font, where we
were once adopted as His own, and to which we return over and over in
remembrance and thanksgiving. The life-giving meal of His body and blood,
given and shed for you once on the cross as the payment for your sins, but given,
and given, and given again so that the blessings of His
sacrificial death might be applied and received.
All these, so that when this world and its passing
treasures melt away, you will have something beyond value: Everlasting life,
peace, and joy in the presence of your loving God. And all that is free to you
on account of your faith in Christ Jesus—no gold or silver demanded, no IRA or
401(k) to contribute to, no mortgage or line of credit to pay off.
It’s perfectly normal for our sin-corrupted nature to
be consumed by worldly concerns, and even to be tempted to have doubts and
fears about the eternal blessings God has promised to us on account of our
trust in the suffering and death of Jesus. These concerns and these fears can
hold us back from a willingness to be fully committed to God and to the work of
But you do have the Holy Spirit working within
you, each and every day, and even at this very moment. He will calm your
fears, restore your hopes, and increase your trust that all God’s promises are
completely reliable and fully yours, both now and forever. At the end, all
that you’ve done—and all that you’ve neglected to do—will be forgotten. All
that you’ve given—and all that you’ve withheld—will have passed away. Your
earthly fortunes will have collapsed, faded away, and turned to dust.
It is then that our Lord will fulfill His pledge to
you and all His people; the same pledge we once again heard this morning
through the prophet Zephaniah:
that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes,” says the Lord.
In the name of that Lord we now confess, Amen.