[Isaiah 40:1-8 / 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 / Matthew 11:2-11]
He’s been lurking in the Preface since Advent began, but today St. John the Baptist stops lurking and steps on center stage, only to do what he always does: to send us to Jesus. “He must increase, while I must decrease,” John had said to his disciples once when they complained that Jesus was getting the bigger crowd for his Baptism. John told them: “I am the friend of the Bridegroom, but it is the Bridegroom who has the Bride.” It wasn’t about John. Never was, and John knew it. But his disciples were having trouble wrapping their minds around it. Now in prison, when John gets word of what Jesus is up to, of the works He is doing, he gets an idea.
He sends his disciples to Jesus to ask: “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?” Brilliant idea. That way the disciples of John are made witnesses to what Jesus is doing. His works testify that He is the One Isaiah foretold. Unmistakably so. So Jesus answers John’s question to the disciples of John with His deeds: “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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Isaiah was unfolding before their eyes. And they witnessed it; they saw the impossible coming to pass. A man of true flesh and blood, like unto their own, doing things in that flesh and blood that could only be done by the Creator Himself. And the last two pieces were the greatest: the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them. In the flesh and blood of the Man Jesus, they had encountered a human being (the ONLY human being) stronger than death and full of good news to give to poor sinners – the remission of all their sins. Jesus – as He always does – commissions them to be His witnesses, to bring back to John what John already knew. John didn’t need the words of comfort, but I’m sure he fed on them gladly nonetheless, but they sure did.
Jesus knew what was coming. The flash of steal, the grizzly sight of the head on the platter handed over to the wanton dancing girl and her conniving mother, the cowardly king looking on with regret, and these men before Him, brokenhearted as they carry the headless corpse of St. John out of the prison and give it a burial. Before they dealt with the death of their beloved John, he had made sure that they would be alright. They after all had seen with their eyes Him who is the Defeat of death and the Forgiver of all sins. They would know where to go when John decreased so much that he was no longer there for them. They would turn and go to Jesus.
So for us too. As the darkness presses, the Church teaches us to cry out to Jesus: “Lighten the darkness of our hearts by Your gracious visitation.” And John sends us to Jesus. Darkness. Holidays come and invariably the thought of those we have known and loved, with whom we sat at table and laughed and celebrated the day – and who are gone. Whose voices we hear no more. Whose smiling visage has vanished from the earth. And it weighs us down. Darkens our heart. The darkness of death. And the realization that what has happened to them, will happen to us, and to all that we love. We will all go into that darkness unless the Lord comes first. Just like St. John went into it. Just like his disciples would.
But what a difference it makes to go into that darkness with the light of Christ shining in the heart. To know as we face it that there is One who proved stronger than death and mightier than the sin of all the world. In the introit today we heard St. Paul’s exhortation: “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I will say rejoice.” The world can only think we’re crazy when they hear such a thing. But it’s not crazy at all when John has sent you to Jesus and you have found Him to be the fulfillment of all that Isaiah foretold, all that God promised. Those people we know and love who have died in faith in Him – they are not just grass that withers and fades and then is gone. Jesus has given them – as He has given us – the promise of a life that will not come to an end. We don’t go through the holidays as people who have no hope, but as people who have the greatest hope in the world! The fact that death dogs our steps cannot deprive us of that joy. Our own grief cannot deprive us of that joy. We may celebrate the joy with tears in our eyes, but we will celebrate indeed.
Jesus praises John to the crowds after the disciples of John have left. He tells them John was no reed shaken by the wind, no fancy, frilly dresser like you find in Herod’s palace. He was instead a prophet and more than a prophet. He was the one appointed by God: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.” I suspect when our Lord uttered those words, He had a most peculiar look on his face. For He was seeing John preparing the way before Him, going even to the dead and announcing there that the Defeat of Death, the Resurrection and the Life in human flesh, would soon follow him into death and come to free them. For if John is fore-runner, he must go the way His King would go – and that was the way that lead down to death itself, that it might be emptied and destroyed from within.
But then the Lord throws a real zinger. If John is the greatest of those born of women (understand in the natural way), yet the least in the Kingdom is greater than he. Not greater in their person, mind you, but greater in the gifts given. John dies before the cross, before the resurrection, ascension and Pentecost. John never knows the joy of Baptism into the Triune name, the priceless gift of the Savior’s body and blood giving into you the life that never ends. John never knows the word of absolution anchored in the blood of the cross. John was the last of those of whom the writer to the Hebrews said: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in the dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” (Heb. 12:37-40)
Do you see, then, that John sends YOU to Jesus to receive gifts greater than he himself received in his life-time? Gifts of the Bridegroom, for His Bride. Gifts that will lighten your darkness and give you a joy that cannot be taken from you. Gifts that will raise you from this age to the undying age to come, making you co-heirs with the Lord Jesus of all that is His. Gifts that will enable you to face your darkness with the light of divine love. Gifts that celebrate the glory of the unfathomable mercy of the most Blessed Trinity – to whom be honor and dominion, now and ever and to the ages of ages! Amen.