It seems unjust and so unfair. St. John the Baptist, a righteous and innocent man, is imprisoned because of his faithfulness, while Jesus welcomes tax collectors and other sinners to Himself and eats with them. Not only that, but St. John will remain in prison until he is finally beheaded, all the while Jesus is helping other people, healing the sick and even raising the dead.
But do not be offended. This seemingly upside-down and inside-out reversal of things is the foolish wisdom of God, giving birth to the children of God by His grace. It is the justice of God, whereby He justifies sinners and brings them from their sin into His Kingdom in peace.
So it is that Christ Jesus Himself will be arrested and imprisoned and put to death in due season. For wherever St. John the Forerunner goes, there Jesus follows after.
It is true that He does cure many people of diseases, afflictions, and evil spirits. He opens blind eyes and deaf ears. He cleanses lepers and raises the dead. But He does it all by taking all of this infirmity upon Himself, by removing the iniquity of sinners and bearing it in His own mortal flesh.
He acknowledges God’s justice against the sins of the whole world, and He affirms God’s purpose for Himself, for the forgiveness, life, and salvation of sinners, by going to His death on the Cross.
So now the question is, what sort of prison are you locked up in? What are the shackles and chains that bind you? And if not iron bars, what is it that has you trapped behind closed doors?
Is it your lust, or greed, or jealousy? Hurt feelings or unrequited love? Perhaps it is loneliness, disappointment, personal failure, or your own pride which imprisons you. Or maybe your sin and shame, your poor health, or depression. Or, do you rather find yourself locked up in a dungeon by your vices and bad habits, by addictions you can’t shake, or by impatience and a short temper?
It may be that, like St. John the Baptist, it is precisely your faithfulness within your office and station in life that has become your prison and your cross to bear. Perhaps your faithfulness in submitting to a husband who is not thoughtful, kind, and loving toward you. Or your faithfulness in serving a needy wife who nags and complains and never seems to be happy. Your faithfulness in taking care of children who demand all of your time and energy. Or your faithfulness in meeting the needs of aging, ailing parents, who no longer remember your name or face.
Whatever it is that imprisons you, no matter how suffocating it may be, the Lord your God declares to you: Do not be afraid, and do not be anxious over anything. For He Himself is with you in the dungeon. He is at hand to help you. Only call upon His Name, and pray to Him in every need.
Follow the good example of St. John the Baptist, and ask for a Word from the Lord, for a word of hope and promise — even a word that simply tells you again what you already know and believe.
Ask Him to send His preachers to preach, for He comes to you by the preaching of His Word. Ask Him for the Gospel. And as you hear that sweet Word, know that He keeps His promises forever.
Whatever your affliction and infirmity, Christ has borne it for you, and He now bears it with you.
Whatever the wilderness in which you live, Christ the Lord is with you there. He is at hand to feed and clothe, to guard and protect. He is your Pillar of Cloud by day and your Pillar of Fire by night, going before you as your King and following after as your Rearguard. For He is a victorious Warrior, who has set Himself not against you, but with you as a Champion against your enemies.
Listen to what He says. Take it to heart. Believe it to be true, and confess it to be so.
There is both a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to eat and a time to fast; a time to repent and a time to rejoice. For it is by death and resurrection that you enter the Kingdom of God.
Repent, therefore, and believe the Gospel. Turn away from your sins, and follow Jesus. Die to yourself, to your pride and ambition, and live instead by faith in the promise of His Resurrection. And as He comes to you by the way of the Cross, by and with the Cross that He also lays upon you and calls you to carry, acknowledge the justice of God, and do not reject but affirm His purpose.
When He sings a dirge, then weep. When He plays the flute for you, dance. Weep for your sin, but dance for joy in His forgiveness. Do not eat the bread and wine of mortal princes who perish with their food, but now feast at the Table of the Son of Man who gives real Food to the hungry.
Such is the wisdom and justice of God, which He accomplishes for you and gives to you in peace.
Your sense of justice may cause you to retreat and run away from Him in sorrow and shame over your sin and failure. And your sense of justice may cause you to hold yourself aloof and far away from your neighbor, because of your neighbor’s sin. But God’s justice is perfected in mercy. His justice is what moves Him to come, to draw near to you in love, to draw you to Himself in peace.
He has taken away His judgments against you by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus.
And He has cleared away all of your enemies by the same Cross and Resurrection of your Lord.
He is with you now in quietness and gentleness. And yet, within that peaceful calm, He also exults and rejoices over you with shouts of joy and gladness. So here is an amazing thing. This Sunday calls you to rejoice in God your Savior, but here His Word declares that He rejoices over you!
He rejoices over you in peace, in spite of your many sins, because He has made atonement for your sins and does not hold them against you. Repent of your sins, but do not be afraid. The Lord shall not permit them to harm you. For He rejoices over you. That is true, no matter what you suffer.
He is a friend of tax collectors and sinners, of gluttonous men and drunkards, and of the demon-possessed who neither weep nor dance. He has made Himself the friend of all who are poor and afflicted and oppressed, whatever their personal demons and prisons may be, of wealth or want.
Child of God, He is your friend: in joy and sadness, in misery or merriness; for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. He pledges you His faithfulness even against death.
And He delights in your faithfulness, too, even if you do find yourself imprisoned by it and for it. To serve faithfully in the place where He has called you to be, whether in a palace or a prison, and to suffer patiently whatever He may give you to suffer for His Name’s sake, that is a worthwhile calling and purpose in life. It is not meaningless or pointless, but a testimony to His faithfulness. It is where you are given to rejoice and be glad in Him, as He rejoices over you in gracious love.
It does not matter if your neighbor fairs differently, nor if the Lord shows favor to those who are less faithful. Do not be offended by Jesus, and do not take offense at the company He keeps.
As Jesus draws near, you will find yourself surrounded by tax collectors and other sinners, by crazy men and lepers, the hurting and despised, the wounded and forgotten, and by Pharisees and lawyers, too. He does not despise the children of men, but He calls them to be children of God.
Do not evaluate the crowds on the basis of their pedigree and social stature. Do not ask about how much or how little, how big or how small. Do not count or compile those stats, neither in yourself nor in your neighbor. This mortal life on earth is temporary; it is fleeting and always fluctuating.
One day you or your neighbor are a prince or a princess, the next you are a pauper or in prison. Or it may be that you pass away in your royal dignity, and that you are buried in your fine apparel and soft clothing — and then you return to the same dust as all your friends and foes alike.
By contrast, everyone who is born again of the water, Word, and Spirit of God — everyone who is crucified, dead, and buried with Christ Jesus through Holy Baptism — he or she is raised up with the same Lord Jesus Christ, born again to a new life in the Kingdom of His God and Father.
That is the greatness that you share with Jesus, and with all who eat and drink with Him in faith.
With a gentle spirit, therefore, be at peace. Be at peace in your own heart and mind before God, and, in so far as it depends upon you, be at peace with all people. Love your brothers and sisters in Christ especially, no matter what the prison house that either you or they may be living in.
For the wisdom of God is vindicated by all of His children. The One who raised Christ Jesus from the dead has justified you, a sinner, by your Baptism into Him, into His Cross and Resurrection. As He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns eternally, so are you vindicated and righteous.
Whether He sets you free from your afflictions and infirmities while you are still making your way through this wilderness, or even if He permits you to remain in your personal prison until you die, He will surely release you at the last from all the burdens and the bondage of your mortal flesh.
Whether in frailty and weakness, or in faithfulness and strength, the Lord who has drawn near to you in the Cross of Christ, now draws you to Himself forever in His Resurrection from the dead. For He has reconciled you to Himself. And that Peace of God, which is yours in Christ Jesus, guards and keeps your heart and mind, your body, soul, and spirit, unto the day of His appearing.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.