Joy of the Redeemed

Scriptures: Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

As we look at our passage in Matthew today, John the Baptizer is in a dark place. You might remember his message, one that said he was a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, who spoke of the Lord’s coming, with fire and the Holy Spirit, the one whose would be like the threshing floor, and the chaff would be blown away and the wheat would fall to the ground.

That message of “Repent, because the day of the Lord is coming” was one the resonated with many people. They wanted the Messiah to come. Not everyone appreciated it, though, because John was rather blunt. He was not politically correct. He was a man of God who spoke God’s truth. And he didn’t much concern himself with the consequences.

One of those things he did was when Herod Antipas, who was one of the sons of Herod the Great, had married his half-sister. This was against all Jewish law and custom. And Herod Antipas was supposedly a Jew. So John spoke out against it. And for his troubles he got thrown into prison. No trial. No Miranda rights.

Just hauled off and tossed in chains. There, to be held in a dark hole, waiting for the king’s pleasure, which apparently was going to be, after his daughter got him drunk, to cut off John’s head. It’s interesting that while he’s in prison, John sends his disciples to ask what he asks of Jesus.

“Are you the one? Or should we look for another?” Now, he’s speaking of the Messiah. He is speaking of the coming King. He’s saying, “Are you the one that has been prophesied, that I’ve been speaking about? Or was I wrong?”

Is it despair? He seems to have forgotten who Jesus is. And I’ve always wondered about that issue. Jesus’ mother Mary knew who Jesus was, yet seems to have forgotten, when in Mark she leads the family in asking Jesus to come home after his ministry starts.

John the Baptizer had said, “Behold the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world.” And he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus as a dove. Yet now he asks, “Is he the one?”

Peter, later on, rightly names Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and then immediately seems to forget it, as he tries to tell Jesus what he can and cannot do. And Jesus has to rebuke him. “Get thee behind me, Satan.”

The Spirit seems to have given glimpses of a reality, and then veiled it again. Perhaps because it wasn’t time yet. Or maybe because their own preconceptions and expectations blinded them to the truth. I wonder how often we are blinded to God’s action. Either because of our own preconceptions, or because it isn’t the right time for something to be revealed. How often are we the very cause of our blindness?

John sends his disciples to ask Jesus this question: “Are you the one?” Perhaps it was to seek comfort. Sometimes, no matter how strong our faith, we get tired. We get discouraged. We get into a dark place where we ask ourselves, “Is this the way? Is God really there? Is Jesus the one?” We can relate to John, I think, despite not having been thrown in prison and wondering whether you will live or die.

Jesus’ response comes directly from the passage in Isaiah read today. It is one that was spoken of in terms of judgment. In Isaiah 34, it talks about the judgment against the nations.

Isaiah 35 then goes on to talk about how Israel, in that time of judgment, will be redeemed and it says “your recompense from the Lord will come.” It bears some relationship and is similar to Isaiah 61:1-2, which Jesus read in Nazareth from the scroll, and said, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and then nearly got himself thrown off the cliff for his troubles. Because the people weren’t ready to hear the fullness of the message.

The recompense would come. Jesus came to heal, to forgive. Now he did preach about the judgment to come. He preached, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God – the rule of God – is here, is at hand.” He preached on hell a number of times, and what would happen to those who did not follow him.

But his actions were one of healing and compassion, extended not only to the Jews but to everyone. Lepers, who were declared unclean, had to go around with a sign around their neck, ringing a bell, so that everybody would know and scatter and get out of the way and not touch them.

Even Samaritans and Gentiles were healed. High officials – remember Jairus’ daughter – in the Jewish authority. Presumably he was a friend – it said that he had spent a lot of money helping build the synagogue. Presumably he was well-known to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Think what that did with his relationship. Jesus knew who Jairus was. He knew that he was with the “in” crowd, up there. Jairus was very desperate when he asked Jesus for help. And Jesus helped him.

All the way from the Syrophoenician woman who asked for crumbs from the table, basically, in terms of her healing, to the leadership in the civil government there. Jesus healed one and all. And he brought hope to the people. Even the dead were raised, with Lazarus. And the poor had good news brought to them.

All of these things testified to something more than simply a prophet. All of these things testified to something even more than a Messiah. Jesus was not only saying but showing that he did not fit into the box that the others of that time were trying to put him into.

The things that he spoke of doing: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised” – these were things that God did.

Not by your own power. Not even the prophets. These were things that God did. And so Jesus was declaring that he was God. And in that message to John, I believe he was saying, “Take comfort. Know joy. The time has come. Even if you don’t understand it all.”

And really, isn’t that what faith is about? Ultimately faith comes down to a matter of trust. We trust in God, when we may not understand all the aspects of it. We choose to continue to follow Jesus. We choose to love our Lord. We choose and can choose joy. Believing that it will come, as they say, in the Scriptures, in the morning, after the dark night.

Jesus gives this personal message to John, finishing by saying, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” He’s encouraging John, “Hold on. Hold fast to what you know is true. You have had a glimpse of reality. You know the truth. Just be faithful.”

Then Jesus speaks to the crowd. Lest the people think that John is weak, because he has his doubts and his fears, Jesus then speaks to the crowd about John. And he challenges them in their faith, in their walk. “What did you go out into the desert to see?” (Meaning when they went to hear John.) “A reed swayed by the wind?” Somebody who was saying what people like to hear, who was going along with the politically correct way. No!

“Well, if not, what did you go out to see? Somebody who was slick? That’s a man dressed in fine clothes. Somebody who was a professional, somebody who was a great salesman?” Now sometimes I think some of these televangelists ought to be in used car sales. (No offense to any used car salesmen.)

“Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? We must remember that John, while he was a prophet, never did any miracles, unlike the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus then affirms John, saying, “Yes, I tell you, he was a prophet and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it was written, ‘I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” That comes from Malachi. Jesus gives John a place of honor.

John was who he was. Rude, in terms of being simple. Plain-speaking, truth-speaking, faithful witnessing to the one who was to come and who had come. Jesus says this is who John is. He’s a prophet and more than a prophet. It’s a fulfillment of Scriptures.

And then Jesus says something curious. “Among those born of women, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptizer, yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” So whoever it is that follows Jesus, whoever it is that has the kingdom of heaven, the rule of God in their heart, whoever it is that follows the Way, the Truth, and the life – he will be greater even than John the Baptizer. That person’s witness will be truer. That person’s example will be greater. That person’s faithfulness will be more renowned.

It’s quite a tall order. Think of how John’s witness went – the people that came out to see him, leaving the security of their towns and going out into the wilderness – which was a very dangerous thing – just to hear him preach.

Quite a promise. And yet, it has occurred. Those who believed in Jesus, after his resurrection, that formed the church, did many miracles and many great things, but the greatest thing that they did was they never shut up.

Now I know we like to tell our spouses sometimes to shut up, or our children to shut up. But the disciples never stopped preaching the gospel. They never stopped talking about Jesus. They were beaten, they were chastised, some of them were killed and martyred. But they never even, at the point of death, stopped witnessing to Christ.

There’s a reason why, from a core of twelve men, and a number of other men and women, but twelve particularly close disciples, the church the Christian church has exploded into being, and is the largest church today. And did you know that that faithful witness occurs even now? There are people who are currently choosing to die, rather than renounce Christ.

Now you may say, “Pastor, we’re supposed to be talking about joy today. This is the Christmas season. Why are we talking about martyrs?” I speak of them because the only reason that they are able to be martyred, the only reason that they are able to stay faithful, and witness to Christ even at that point of death, is because of the joy that they know is before them, when they come to see Christ face to face, and he says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

In the solidity of their faith in knowing who Christ is, as God, the Redeemer, the salvation of all of us, the one who gives us new life and makes us new creatures through his resurrection, the one who raised us from the dead, spiritually, will raise us physically someday, and the joy that we have been promised is before us, is what keeps them going.

Not everyone, I would venture to say most of us, will ever be called upon to make that radical a witness. But we are called to be that faithful. And when, as with John, we get into those dark places, when as with John we sometimes feel despair and discouragement – and this season, this Advent/Christmas season is well-known for being one of the most stressful every year – then we too must choose joy.

Joy, as has been said, is a choice, like love. We can choose, even in the most dark of our circumstances, to look at the hope that God has given us and choose the joy that is before us, and remain faithful in witnessing to Christ, holding on, holding fast to the Good News, and being secure in our future, to share with others the honest truth about the one who is the truth, the way, and the life.

Joy is the foundation for our faithful witness. And our Advent preparation should be one of celebration and joy. Because when Christ comes again, when the day of the Lord appears, then we’ve heard in Isaiah today what will happen.

We hold on to the joy that is before us, keeping our eyes fixed on Christ, that we too may experience the healing that Christ can bring. The blind may see. The deaf may hear. The lame may walk again. And those whose souls belong to God and have been given to Him in faith will be redeemed in their fulness. The dead shall rise. And we who were dead are alive in Christ. And that is always a reason to celebrate.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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