“Are you coming or not?” How often have you posed that 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 why it’s taking so long? Some people are more patient than others, and some people are slower than others, but waiting is not especially 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 some news. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for the help you need. Waiting for everything your life depends upon. Whether anticipating the good or dreading the bad, the waiting often is the hardest part.
Now St. John is waiting — waiting for the Expected 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, prepared for, and pointed to 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 while he waits and 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 too long he will be martyred for his righteousness, beheaded for his mouth.
Don’t tell me that 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 was a man of mortal flesh and blood like yourself, a sinful son of Adam. And yet, 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, that strange and dreadful strife between life and death, 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. Being himself the Voice of the Lord in the wilderness, he 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 the speaking of His Word. But where, then, is any 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 left waiting for help, languishing in hurt that does not go away, and aching with an emptiness that still goes unfilled.
St. John does not despair, but he wrestles with the Word and promises of God, and thus 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 do not improve; they go from bad to worse. Out of the frying pan, into the fire, or, rather, from his shackles and chains to the chopping block. Even so, the Word of Jesus sets him free by way of 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 His Cross, which is of course the very thing that His Baptism by St. John in the Jordan River has signified and set into motion. He comes to suffer and die, and thereby to enter into the Glory of His Kingdom for us men and our salvation.
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. It is precisely to the point. He goes before the face of 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, and the rising of the New Man by faith.
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 it is 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 to see their fulfillment, although he testified of those events and pointed to them by his preaching and baptism of repentance. For you they have already happened, but you cannot see the outcome with your eyes. You feel and experience the Cross, but you wait for the Resurrection of your body.
In mortal frailty you wait, as St. John also waited, for the coming of the Lord.
You also are imprisoned and stuck, in your own way. To be sure, 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. Even so, 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 it seems that, no matter which way you turn, there is no way out, and no escape. Or maybe the bars on your doors and windows are those of illness and chronic pain, of economic hardship, or of seemingly endless demands upon your time, energy, and limited resources.
In response to all of this, the Lord Jesus sends His Word of the Gospel to you in mercy and love. He sends His messengers to preach, and by their mouth He speaks to you. He declares Himself, the things that He has said and done, and the fact of His Cross and Resurrection from the dead.
All of which may seem like a tease, and not very practical or helpful. 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?
Do not be anxious or despair, and do not take offense at Christ, the Crucified One; do not stumble and fall at His Word of the Cross. Rather, hope in His mercy, and wait patiently upon His coming. Pray, praise, and give thanks. And for as long as the Lord enables you, keep on doing whatever He has given 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 with His grace, mercy, and peace, even in the midst of sin and death and every evil round about you in this fallen and perishing world. He comes to you in, with, and under the Cross, by which He has borne your griefs and carried all your sorrows, and by which He has broken the bondage of your oppressor with the shedding of His holy and precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death.
You know that He suffered and died once for all, in order to end the tyranny of sin, death, the devil, and hell. And as He has gone to the Cross for you and 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, 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.
As it is by way of His Cross, however, 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 expectations 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 whims 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 all kinds.
Your suffering, therefore, within and without, is no indication of the Lord’s disfavor, no more so than St. John’s imprisonment or the Lord’s own Crucifixion. To be sure, He disciplines you and corrects you, wherever your thoughts, words, and actions go astray from His Word. But He does so in love for you, a Father for His children, 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 true wisdom is discerned, in contrast to the futile striving of the world, which can only ever end in death. The Truth is that, in raising Christ Jesus from death and the grave in His glorified Body of flesh and blood, God the Father has raised you up, as well, and set you free from sin and death, and provided for all your needs of body and soul.
In vindicating Jesus, the Father has verified and established the Wisdom of the Cross, by which He now bears children out of death into life and replaces their shame with praise. As you are thus born into the Kingdom of God by your Baptism into Christ, 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 is the Surety of His promise, which is indeed for you. And so shall the Peace of the Lord guard and keep your heart and mind, your body and soul, always in Christ Jesus, unto the Resurrection and the life everlasting.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.