Third Sunday in Advent
December 14, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“I’ve got good news for you! You have stage 4 cancer,” said no doctor ever. That’s bad news. Everyone knows it. Good news is when you get a promotion at your job. Good news is when the stock market’s up. Good news is when the weather’s pleasant on your wedding day, when your offer on the house is accepted, when you ace a big math test. Good news is when everything’s going right.
But there’s seldom good news that’s not also quickly tempered by bad news. After your promotion you encounter some unexpected medical bills. The stock market reaches an all-time high just to come tumbling back down again. A pop-up thunderstorm interrupts your outdoor wedding pictures. After a near perfect math test, your grade still ends up being a C for the semester. Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, but a corollary could be: just when everything’s going right, something will inevitably go wrong.
And it’s not just that bad news is occasional. We’re surrounded by it, immersed in it. The world thrives on it. The evening news or the morning newspaper always leads with a fight or a controversy or violence or catastrophe. The positive stories are buried, often with the feeling that their forced to make some sort of feel-good quota. Truth is, bad news sells. It’s why people turn in to the news, it’s why they read the papers.
The tabloids are even worse. My goodness, take a look at the trash in the racks in the grocery store aisles. It’s one story after another of people’s misfortunes, embarrassments, and troubles. We take great delight in bad news. Luther made the great observation in the Large Catechism: For it is a common evil plague that everyone prefers hearing evil more than hearing good about his neighbor. We ourselves are so bad that we cannot allow anyone to say anything bad about us (LC I.264). One of the reason we take such pleasure in the bad news of others is because it makes our own bad news seem not so bad. And so the bad-news merry-go-round goes round again.
Today’s Gospel is prompted by a man who was living a life of bad news. But after hearing in prison the works of Christ, John sent and said to Him through his disciples, “Are you the Coming One, or shall we wait for a different one?” (vv 2-3). John was the fiery preacher in the wilderness of the Jordan. People flocked to hear his preaching. The pews were full. Even Pharisees and scribes wanted to hear what he had to say.
But all that was now changed. John is imprisoned. Bound. Gagged. Soon to be executed. It’s hard to imagine one whose clothes were coarse camel’s hair and whose diet consisted of locusts and wild honey getting hit with bad news. But there lie John in prison. “Are you the Coming One?” he asks through his disciples. Through the iron bars of his cell, it sure didn’t look like the Kingdom of God was coming.
When Jesus speaks to the crowd about John, He has some fiery words of His own to describe His cousin, “What did you go out into the desert to watch? A reed that is shaken by the wind? So what did you go out to behold? A man who is clothed in soft clothes? Behold, those who dress in soft clothes are in the houses of kings. So what did you go out to behold? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and an extraordinary prophet. This is the one about whom it has been written, ‘Behold I am sending My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your path before You.’ Amen, I say to you, there has not been raised up among those born of women one who is greater than John the Baptist; but the least in the reign of the heavens is greater than he” (vv 7-11).
There is a stark contrast. Here we have the man who is an unshaken pillar, a fierce preacher of repentance, an extraordinary prophet—the man who goes before the face of the Son of God to prepare His path before Him—and he’s not sure if this is good news at all.
John’s story is included for Christians who feel their foundation shaking, who question what they’ve always thought they knew to be right. John’s story is included for Christians who are overwhelmed by bad news, who feel the piercing darts of the devil in their flesh. It’s not that John loses faith in Jesus, but that he—the greatest man born of woman, the reed that cannot be shaken, the extraordinary prophet—needs the comfort of the Gospel. Here is John at the end of his race, soon to meet the executioner. He needs the comfort and encouragement of some Good News.
Even though John is suffering under a load of bad news, he still directs his faith to Jesus and no other. He doesn’t make an appeal to the power of King Herod, or to Pontius Pilate, or to the chief priests. He doesn’t search for comfort in the emotionalism of a contemporary Christian classic. He doesn’t try to rationalize his predicament. He wants Jesus to speak. His faith looks for comfort in the words of Jesus. And he is rewarded.
And answering, Jesus said to them, “When you have gone, report to John what you are hearing and seeing: the blind are looking up and the lame are walking, lepers are being cleansed and the deaf are hearing, and the dead are being raised and the poor are being evangelized, and blessed is whoever is not scandalized in Me” (vv 4-6).
The Good News is that the coming of the Kingdom of God is specifically for those who are fraught with bad news. God’s Kingdom is for the blind and lame, for the diseased and deaf. It turns the world’s kingdoms up on their heads. Amen, I say to you, there has not been raised up among those born of women one who is greater than John the Baptist; but the least in the reign of the heavens is greater than he, says Jesus.
The Kingdom of God does not come to kings’ houses. The Kingdom of God does not come to the rich, to the powerful, to the privileged. The Good News is for the poor. That’s what the word evangelize means. Good News. The poor are evangelized, Jesus says. They have the Good News preached to them. The rich He hath sent empty away.
In his Heidelberg Theses, Martin Luther wrote that a theologian of glory calls the good bad and the bad he calls good. But a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.
So often in this world, we confuse bad with good. That is to say, what often appears to be good news is not good at all, like a man who wins a lottery jackpot then finds himself in ruin a few years later because he’s spent all of his money. And at the same time, what often appears to be bad news is not bad at all; the way of the Kingdom of God is to bring good out of bad. So when your doctor comes into the room and says that you have stage 4 cancer, outwardly it’s bad news. But it’s Good News for the Christian, because one of the signs of the Kingdom of God is that the dead are raised.
Just before these disciples of John come to Jesus, Jesus teaches His own disciples. And the one who does not receive his cross and follow after Me, he is not worthy of Me. The one who finds his life will lose it, and the one who loses his life because of Me will find it (Mt 10:38-39).
The Good News is not that things will get marginally better in this life, but that this life here—this life corrupted and fallen and marred by sin—will be destroyed. The path of the Christian is the path of the cross. It looks like bad news on the outside, but it is the best News, because the path of the cross is Jesus’ own path. When you receive your crosses, your sufferings, Christ bears them with you. He brings life out of death, Good News out of bad news.
The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Comfort My people, comfort them” says your God. “Talk to the heart of Jerusalem, and announce to her that her time of hard service is over, her wrong is paid for, and she has received from the LORD double for all her sins…Get up on a high mountain, Zion, to tell the good news! Call with a loud voice, Jerusalem, to tell the good news! Raise your voice without fear, tell the cities of Judah: “Here is your God!” See the Lord GOD coming as a Mighty One to rule with His strong arm. See the reward He has with Him, and what He has won goes ahead of Him (Is 40:1-2, 9-10 AAT).
Here is your God. Under the cross. Making the blind see, the lame walk, cleansing lepers and giving the deaf their hearing. Here is your God, risen from the dead and raising the dead. Here is your God, preaching Good News to the poor.
The Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven Is that Christ Brings Good News Out of Bad
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard