Monday, December 17, 2012

The Voice of One Crying in the Prison A Sermon by Vicar John Nieminen.


The Voice of One Crying in the Prison
Based on Matthew 11:2 – 11
Dear beloved children of God who suffer: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
John the Baptist is a hero of the faith. Before John was even born he rejoiced when Jesus was near. He leapt with joy in his mother’s womb when Jesus, also carried in His mother’s womb, came to visit [Lk. 1:39 – 45]. John’s ministry was foretold by Old Testament prophets [Is. 40:3 – 5, Lk. 3:4 – 6], and his birth was announced by an angel to his father [Lk. 1:11 – 20]. He had a miraculous birth, born to a couple too old to have children, and his mother being barren. John’s father was even given a sign by the angel concerning the prophecy of his birth – he was mute until John was born.
John, the forerunner who prepared the way for Jesus, was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. He baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus in the form of a dove, and heard the voice of God the Father announce from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased [Mt. 3:13 – 17].” John proclaimed the One to come, the One greater than him. He preached repentance, telling people to turn away from their sins in preparation for the coming of the mightier One.
Jesus asks, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” Certainly not. This hero of the faith was not like a reed swayed by public opinion and societal pressures. He preached God’s Word whether the hearers liked it or not. And his preaching of repentance was not exactly liked by everyone. Herod, the ruler of Galilee, had divorced his wife and taken Herodias, his brother’s wife [Lk. 3:18 – 20]. Others around Herod accepted his adulterous life, but John preached God’s Law to Herod as he did to everyone else, without fear of consequences. He was not a reed that bends to the fear of man, even a man as powerful as Herod.
John the Baptist was an unswerving preacher of God’s Word. A steadfast teacher of the truth. The crowds came to him to ask him, “What should we do [Lk. 3:10]?” Tax collectors and soldiers came to him and asked him, “What should we do [Lk. 3:12, 14]?” People came to John for answers, and John always had them. He would point them to God’s Word: this is the will of God; walk this path. He had many disciples that followed him, but he continually pointed them to Christ – saying He is the One. I am not worthy to untie His sandal.
This hero’s life work was pointing to Christ. And he gave up much in order to do it. “What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” John the Baptist gave up a life of comfort that he might have had as the son of the high priest Zechariah. He gave up soft, rich clothing, for garments of camel’s hair. He gave up luxurious foods for locusts and wild honey. He was resolute in what he believed and what he taught. There was no uncertainty. He pointed to Christ and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world [Jn. 1:29].”
But then, something happened which John did not anticipate. His preaching of repentance to Herod because of Herod’s adultery landed him in prison. His preparing the way of the Lord resulted in his loss of freedom. He was confined to a small, dark dungeon. He was left alone, without the crowds that followed him, without his disciples.
John was shocked. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He was waiting for the coming kingdom of God, the deliverance of God’s people, the Day of Judgment on those who opposed the Messiah’s kingdom. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees,” he had preached [Mt. 3:10]. Christ’s winnowing fork is in His hand to collect His wheat into the barn and cast the chaff into unquenchable fire [Lk. 3:17]. How is it possible that Herod can have John the Baptist cast into prison? How is it possible that the one who prepares the way for the Judge of the living and the dead is cast into prison by this this adulterous chaff?
Here in the jail cell, John sees no sign of the deliverance of God’s people, no sign even of his deliverance from prison. This is where doubt sets in. This is where the devil attacks, when John is at his weakest. He begins to question, is Jesus the One? Is He truly the deliverer, or is there someone else? If Jesus is the Messiah, why would I be suffering here in prison? If Jesus is the deliverer, why has He not come to deliver me? So he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
How does Jesus respond? In anger? “Did you not see the Spirit descend on me in the form of a dove? Did you not hear my Father’s voice from heaven? Did you not yourself point to me and say, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world?’” No, this was not Jesus’ response – He responds with words of comfort. And, in fact, Jesus starts to praise John, saying he is greater than a prophet, the greatest born of women. What a response considering the doubt evident in John’s question to Jesus.
But having faith, we still sometimes doubt. We often have many doubts. We sometimes doubt God’s guidance in our lives. We doubt if His will is really good for us. If God wants what is best for me, why am I suffering such a horrible illness? If God loves me, why did my spouse leave me? If God is real, why would He allow me to lose my job? This week, there are many parents in Connecticut asking why God would permit their children to be massacred. We sometimes doubt if God even hears our prayers. We feel alone as if we are the only ones who suffer doubt. Ashamed of our doubts, we start to question whether we believe at all, whether God is even real.
Doubt lives in us as long as we have this flesh, as long as we have our sinful nature. Faith is not absence of doubt, but it is trust in Christ even amidst doubt. Faith does not mean we never fear, but in spite of fear and doubt, faith clings to Christ’s promises.
This is why Jesus praises John in his doubt. John did not trust what he saw in the prison. He did not believe his feelings of doubt, but he sought to hear the Word of Christ. He sent his disciples to ask Jesus if He was the One who is to come. This was an act of faith. Faith wants to hear God’s Word; unbelief wants to be far from God’s Word. John sought assurance in the only place it can actually be found. He wanted Jesus to send His Word to him. He wanted to hear God’s Word to strengthen his faith in the midst of overwhelming doubt.
John’s question is a question we need to learn. When you are in trouble and suffering, look past your jail cell of grief. In your trouble, call on Jesus, flee to Him for refuge. Ask Him, “Are you the victor over my suffering?” Ask him, “Will you get me through this difficulty, will you be with me?” In temptation ask him, “Are you the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?”
In all these situations, Jesus wants to send His Word to you. He will respond. See Jesus’ response to John. Jesus gives John His Word, quoting two passages from Isaiah, “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped [Is. 35:5],” and “the poor have good news preached to them [Is. 61:1].” Jesus sent the best thing possible to John – He sent His Word. He sent His Word, which answers John’s anxious heart whether or not He is the one who is to come, by saying, “I am.” Isaiah writes that the very purpose of these words is to comfort the anxious heart, and this is exactly Jesus’ purpose in sending them to John. Jesus says, “I am who I am. I fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah. I preach the good news of salvation also to you.”
Very interestingly, Jesus does not carry on with the passage in Isaiah, which continues, “He has sent me… to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound [Is. 61:1].” Jesus does not speak these words that might lead John to hope for release from prison. Instead, Jesus adds a phrase that does not appear in these passages of Isaiah. He told John’s disciples to tell him that the dead are raised up. Jesus does not point John to hope that suffering and affliction will disappear in this life. Here Jesus says directly, “Death does not separate you from me. I am the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Whatever hardships you may face, even death, you will be raised up to the eternal bliss of heaven.” With Jesus’ response, with His promise, John could wait even for Herod’s soldiers to come and behead him, in his last moments, clinging to the promises of God, knowing that Jesus will never leave him or forsake him.
There is only One who has ever been forsaken by God in the midst of suffering. There is only One who received no answer to His words of groaning, and was not rescued despite His trouble. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was forsaken by His Father so that you will never be! He suffered to take away your suffering. His bitter sufferings and death were for your sake, so that God will be gracious and merciful to you.
And God says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you [Heb. 13:5].” He will not leave you to fend for yourself. His love, which forgives you all of your sins, gives you the assurance of a future rescue from all afflictions. Even amidst pain and suffering, God’s Word gives you life, and assures you of future joy with Him in eternity. These are Christ’s words that He sends to you, to which you can cling to comfort your anxious heart. Amen.
May the peace of God, which comforts our troubled hearts, keep us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Turn of the Church Year


We are at the end of another church year and the beginning of a new one.  The end of the church year as well as the beginning of Advent is a time in which we meditate upon the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus.  We sing hymns like “The Day is Surely Drawing Near,” or “Wake Awake, for Night is Flying.”  It is a constant reminder to live our lives in daily repentance. 
Jesus is certainly coming.  He is coming to judge the living and the dead.  He will come as a thief in the night.  He isn’t going to secretly snatch away all the true believers while everyone else gets left behind.  No, He is going to raise up all the dead, and He is going to open the Book of Life and read from it who the righteous ones are.  He is going to separate the goats from the sheep, casting those who are unrighteous away from His sight while taking those who love His appearing with Him to live with Him forever.  This is expressed so beautifully in the last stanza of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn, “Oh Lord, How Shall I Meet You:”
He comes to judge the nations,
A terror to His foes,
A light of consolations
And bless├ęd hope to those
Who love the Lord’s appearing.
O glorious Sun, now come,
Send forth Your beams so cheering,
And guide us safely home.
Jesus is certainly coming.  His Kingdom is coming.  And Paul says that it is the lovers of Jesus’ appearing who will receive the crown of righteousness when Jesus comes again (2nd Tim 4:8).  But how are we lovers of His appearing?  We can only be lovers of His appearing if His kingdom comes to us, and it is already here for those who believe in His Name and trust Him alone for their forgiveness, life, and salvation.  This is what we learn in the Catechism (Lord’s Prayer, 2nd Petition):
            How does God’s kingdom come?  God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father give us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.
We enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven right here when we hear His holy Word through which the Holy Spirit sustains us in our faith in Jesus.  So when we pray to our Father in Heaven, we aren’t praying to some remote place with clouds and cupid angels.  Jesus doesn’t live on some planet far away.  No, heaven is close to us who believe.  Why?  Because heaven is where God is, and those who trust in Jesus alone and in His merits, His suffering and dying in your place, His forgiveness – those who trust the God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is counted as righteousness, and their God is not far from them.  Heaven is high above us, because it is above our understanding, as God says through the mouth of Isaiah:
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9)”
But if God has revealed His mercy to us in the suffering and dying of His Son, and if God sends the Word of Christ into our ears and into our hearts, then despite our small understanding we can know for certain that our heaven is actually very close to us. 
And Heaven is close to us for our benefit.  God’s presence among us is not known in any other way than through His Life-giving Word of Truth.  We experience God not by getting warm fuzzies or when things are going our way at work or in our lives.  No, we experience God when His Kingdom comes through the Word of peace and forgiveness of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus.  We know Jesus because He continues to come to us in His Word.  So when we keep dwelling in His Word, we get to know Him better.  It is through faith in Him alone that we are lovers of His appearing.