“Are you coming or not?” How often have you posed this question to your children, or to your parents, your family or friends, as you wait for them by the door, wondering what’s going on and taking so long? Some people are more patient than others (and some are slower than others), but waiting is not particularly easy for anyone. And the greater the urgency, the harder it is to wait. Is it going to be too late? Or barely in the nick of time?
You know what it’s like: Waiting for the phone to ring. Waiting for the news to come. Waiting for the other shoe to hit the floor. Waiting for the help you need. Waiting for everything your life depends upon. Whether for the good stuff or the bad stuff, the waiting often is the hardest part.
Now St. John is waiting — waiting for the Coming One to come and makes things right: to clean house, to restore Israel and Judah in holiness and righteousness, to establish the Kingdom of God.
He has preached, and pointed, and prepared for the Christ who was promised, and he has seen with his own eyes, and heard with his own ears, the testimony given by the Father and the Holy Spirit at the Baptism of Jesus: This is the One, the Lord’s Anointed, the Mightier-Man-than-John, who will redeem and save His people from their sins, from death, and from their enemies round about; who ransoms captive Israel from the bondage and burdens of foreign powers and wicked rulers.
But where is St. John, as he waits and he wonders? And what is to become of him? You know. He’s shackled and chained in Herod’s dungeon, imprisoned because of his faithful preaching of repentance; and, before long, he will be martyred for his righteousness, beheaded for his mouth.
Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have mixed emotions and conflicting thoughts in that situation; and do not imagine that St. John the Baptist was immune to the trials and tribulations that he faced. He, too, was a man of mortal flesh and blood, a sinful son of Adam. And being also a man of God, a son of Abraham by faith, there was a battle within him, between the old man and the new: the strange and dreadful strife of death and life, contending for his heart and mind, his body, soul, and spirit. That is the war that is waged in the flesh of each and every Christian in this life on earth: between faith and patience in the Lord, and fear and doubt in the face of death.
St. John lives by faith in the Word of God. He who is the Voice of the Lord in the wilderness, knows the importance of that sound for his own ears. As he must preach, so must he listen. The promises of God echo in his ears, in his mind and heart. So many promises, promises: The Lord will redeem His people, release them from captivity, and rescue them from every evil! And now, from his cell, St. John is hearing reports of the Lord’s mercy to a growing number of people, far and near. Most recently, the centurion’s servant has been healed of a life-threatening illness, solely by the power of Jesus’ Word; and the widow’s son at Nain has been raised up from the dead, by the touch of Jesus’ hand, and by His Word of Life. But where, oh, where, is the help for St. John?
You know how hard it is — even though you know better, and you want to do better — you know how hard it is to rejoice in the blessings and benefits of others, while you are still waiting for help, languishing in hurt that does not go away, and aching with an emptiness that still is not satisfied.
St. John does not despair, but he wrestles with the Word and promises of God, and so defends himself against the assaults and accusations of the devil. He lives by faith, and what that means, specifically, is that he perseveres in hope, and he resists the temptations of the devil and his flesh, by doing the two things that he can do, which the Lord has called him to do: He keeps preaching, even if only to Herod and his court (as we may discern from St. Mark); and he prays to the Lord.
That second thing is what St. John does today: He prays for a Word from his dear Lord Jesus. And such a Word is what he receives in response to his prayer, via those whom the Lord sends to him.
That Word is the key that opens St. John’s prison, even though he remains there for the rest of his life on earth. His circumstances don’t improve, but go from bad to worse: out of the frying pan, into the fire, or, rather, from shackles and chains to the chopping block. And yet, the Word of Jesus does set him free through faith in the promise of His coming, the promise of His Advent.
As to how the Lord Jesus comes, it is by the way of the Cross; which is the very thing that His Baptism (by St. John in the Jordan River) has signified and set into motion. He comes to suffer and to die, and thereby to enter into the Glory of His Kingdom.
Consequently, for St. John, as the Forerunner of the Lord, his predicament in prison is neither a coincidence nor a contradiction of his mission and his ministry, but it is precisely to the point. For he goes before the Lord to prepare His way, not only with his preaching of repentance, but also in his suffering and death; not only with his baptizing, but now also in what that baptizing indicates and points to, namely, the death of the old man, unto the rising of the new Man.
St. John experiences the Cross of repentance in himself, in his own body and life, in anticipation of the Cross of Christ Jesus, the Savior. It is for the Cross that the Lord comes in the flesh, and by His Cross that He fulfills His promises, each and every one of them, without fail. It is by the Cross that He redeems His people and saves them from their sins; by His Cross that He delivers them from evil, heals them of all sicknesses, raises them from death, and gives to them eternal life.
His Cross is the key that releases His people from bondage; and His Resurrection from the dead is the evidence, the guarantee, and the down payment on His Word and promises to you and to all.
For St. John the Baptist, both the Cross and the Resurrection were yet to come, and he did not live long enough on earth to witness them, himself, although he witnessed to them by his preaching and baptism of repentance. For you, they have already happened; but neither do you see the outcome with your eyes. You feel and experience the Cross, but you await the Resurrection of your body.
In mortal frailty you wait, as St. John waited, upon the coming of the Lord.
You also are imprisoned and stuck, in your own way. Granted, if you’ve never been a prisoner behind bars, then let us not suppose that you know what that is like, as though it were all the same. But, still, you are trapped in a prison of sorts, caged in by sin and death all around you, and within your fallen flesh. Boxed in by walls of accusation, of guilt and shame, of fear and doubt, of anger and despair; so that, no matter which way you turn, there seems to be no way out, and no escape. Or perhaps the bars on your doors and windows are those of illness and chronic pain, of economic hardship, or of seemingly endless demands that come at you from every which direction at once.
In response to all of this, in mercy and love, the Lord Jesus sends the Word of His Gospel to you. He sends His messengers to preach, and by their mouth He preaches to you: He preaches Himself, the things that He has said and done, and the fact of His Cross and Resurrection from the dead.
Which may seem like a tease, if you will, and not of much practical help. That is the temptation that haunts you, isn’t it? To question all the promises, because they do not appear to be coming true; to grow weary of the Cross and suffering, because the Resurrection is nowhere to be found.
But what did you expect? And what did you come out to see and hear? What are you looking for?
Beloved, do not be anxious or despair, and do not take offense at Christ, the Crucified One; nor stumble at His Word of the Cross. Rather, hope in His mercy, and wait upon His coming patiently. Pray, praise, and give thanks. And for as long as the Lord enables you, keep on doing whatever He has called you to do, even if it feels like you’re spinning your wheels and not doing any good: Not as though to save yourself by your hard work, but in the confidence of His Resurrection.
This way of living is true Wisdom. It does seem foolish to the world, but it is vindicated in Christ.
Your King, the Lord Himself, is here with you in the flesh. He is in your midst, in the midst of sin and death; and even in the midst of horrific shootings and violent catastrophes, and whatever else, you name it. Because He still comes by and with the Cross, in order to bear the burden with you; in order to brake the bondage of the oppressor by the shedding of His holy, precious blood, and by His innocent suffering and death.
You know that He suffered and died, once for all, in order to end the tyranny of sin, death, and the devil. And as He has thus gone to the Cross for you, and has passed through death into life, so has He also opened up the way for you to follow after Him. As He was baptized with the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins — as He was baptized into death and the grave, unto the resurrection and the life everlasting — so are you raised up and rescued by your Baptism into Him.
Among those born of women, there is no one greater than St. John the Baptist. But that generation, from Adam & Eve to all their children, succumbs to death and returns to the dust, no matter how great it may be for but a little while. Which is why the real greatness of this generation is found, not in kings and princes with their fancy clothing and royal palaces, but in a rough and wild man like John, who preaches repentance, and points beyond himself to Christ, and finally dies in prison.
And then this greatness gives way altogether to the Mightier One, who follows after John, and who brings about the new birth. So that you, and all who are born again of God, of water, Word, and Spirit, are born into the Kingdom of heaven — never to die again, but to live forever with Christ.
So sure and certain is His salvation for you, that His Word of the Gospel actually opens your deaf ears to hear, and opens your blind eyes to see, and gives you life in the place of death, even now.
But as it is by the way of His Cross, it truly is beyond all human comprehension. That is to say, you cannot understand it or believe it, except by this Word that He preaches. What is more, you cannot accomplish or achieve it, but only receive it. The Lord does it for you: in a way that seems scandalous and makes no sense. For it is by the Cross that He opens up the Resurrection; it is by death that He enters into life. That very dying and rising of Christ is the new birth of repentance.
Which is why there is a time to weep and mourn, and there is a time to rejoice and celebrate. Not according to the measure of the world, with its fast-fleeting hopes and dreams, investments and strategies, but according to the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. Hence, there is a time to fast, and a time to feast; not according to the timing of the world, but according to the Word of the Lord, the Law and the Gospel. The fasting fosters a hunger for the feasting of faith upon His gifts. It is not simply a matter of balance or a careful diet, but of faith in what the Lord has spoken.
The Lord thus brings you to repentance, both by the preaching and by the suffering of the Cross, in order to strengthen your faith in Him, instead of in this fallen world. That you might trust, not in mortal princes, but in the Crucified and Risen Christ, who comes in peace to ransom you from sin, from death, and from every evil; who comes to set you free from your prisons of every kind.
Therefore, your suffering (within and without) is no indication of the Lord’s disfavor; no more than St. John’s imprisonment or the Lord’s own Crucifixion. To be sure, He disciplines you, and He corrects you, where your thoughts, words, and actions are wrong; but this He does in love for you, in mercy, in order to give you life instead of death. For in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead, the Lord rejoices over you in love, and with great joy.
Indeed, it is only in view of His Resurrection that real wisdom is discerned, in contrast to the futile striving of the world, which can only ever end in death. Because, in raising Jesus from the dead, in His glorified Body of flesh and blood, His own God and Father has also raised you up, and set you free, and provided for all your needs of body and soul.
He has replaced your shame with praise. For in vindicating Jesus, He has verified and established the Wisdom of the Cross; by which He now bears children out of death into life. As you are thus born into the Kingdom of God by your Baptism into His death, so does He come to eat and drink with you here, and to feed you with Himself, with the fruits of His Sacrifice, His Body given and His Blood poured out, in this great Feast of Rejoicing before Him. Here then is the Surety of His promise, which is for you. And the Peace of the Lord shall guard and keep your heart and mind, your body and soul, always in Christ Jesus, unto the Resurrection and the life everlasting. Amen.
A sword in the hat is better than a foot in your mouth. All the better if it is that double-bladed sword that slices and dices between bone and marrow. But I have always liked to sort things out by thinking out loud with friends and colleagues. And since my opportunities to do so are limited, I figure I can multiply my thinking and sorting here.
Married 31 years, my wife and I have had ten children born to us (six boys, four girls); we have another son and daughter by marriage (and will soon have another daughter by marriage), a son who went ahead of us to heaven from the womb, six grandchildren and counting. I was ordained in 1996, and have been the pastor of Emmaus since then. I have a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies from the University of Notre Dame (2003), and an S.T.M. from Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana