There are two parts of the Holy Gospel upon which this sermon will focus today. First, the words of Christ, “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.” Second, also words of Christ: “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
So first Christ speaks about Saint John the Baptist, whom He calls the messenger who prepares the way of the Lord. Now, Christ does not literally mean prepare the way, that is, physically remove obstacles that might trip the Lord’s feet. Nor does He mean the kind of preparation that we might do for an important visitor, like arrange for transportation and reserve a hotel room. No, Christ is talking about people. We are the way that is to be prepared. This is the theme of Advent. We are to prepare the way for the Lord – in us.
How do we prepare for Him? The natural inclination is to say that we need to do more good works, and less bad works. That makes sense. By all means, we should be constantly engaged in trying to do better and trying to produce the kinds of works pleasing to God.
But that is not the primary kind of preparation God has in mind. In our context, what does the Lord say He was doing? He gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk, cleansed lepers, made the deaf hear, raised the dead, and preached good news to the poor. These things are what He was all about in the days of John. This was the plan already before He was born and laid in a manger. This is also what He has come to do today in His Divine Service for us.
Of course, the main mission of Christ was to die and rise for the sins of the world. But that is precisely the content of the good news that He preached and is preaching. That is the work He did so that the blind may see, the dead be raised, etc. Because He has redeemed the bodies of men, they will be raised to diseaseless, ageless perfection. The healings and resurrections Christ performed in His earthly mission were a preview of the work Christ was fulfilling on earth.
In our Divine Service, His forgiveness is the promise of the end of all corruption, the end of all disease, the end of death.
We could sum up Christ’s work as the work of the Great Physician. As the best Doctor of all, He comes to cure men of all that ails them and give them eternal life.
How then do we prepare for the Great Physician? If you think about it, how do you prepare for any doctor? That may seem like an odd question. You do not seem to prepare. You just go to the doctor when you need him. But why do you need a doctor? Because you are sick.
To prepare for the doctor, be sick. That is, admit and realize that you are sick.
What if a person is sick, but does not go to the doctor? If their disease is serious, then they will not get over it on their own. They will get sicker and sicker until they are dead.
We are sick. Our disease, called sin, is the worst of all. It is a spiritual leprosy, but worse than the earthly kind. It makes us blind to the things of God. It makes us unable to walk in the ways we should go. In fact, we were already dead when we were born; that is how serious this disease is.
But Christ raises the dead. His Gospel Word and His Holy Washing create life in us. They cleanse us and make us walk again. Christ gives the cure that is eternal, but not to rich people who can afford it. He gives it to us, the poor, the spiritually wretched, those helpless and humbled by our own sinful weakness. To us He gives everlasting healing.
So be sick. Realize your condition. You are not spiritually healthy in yourselves. You need the healing that Christ gives. Do not be that stubborn person who stays away from the Doctor, saying, “Oh, it’s just a little sniffle,” when it is really much more serious.
Realize and confess that you have the disease. Realize and confess that it is most serious and deadly. Realize and confess that you cannot come up with a home remedy to sin. Although you may seem to make little victories in your life, you are ultimately helpless to overcome sin and its consequences.
Instead of staying away from the Great Physician, come and receive from Him what you need. Although He has healed you, you continue to need the medicine. Although you possess eternal life, you still need cleansing. The Doctor still works hard to care for you. He does not simply give you the cure and then dump you on the street. He is in charge of your healing, from now and onward to eternity.
Be sick. Realize and confess that you are not spiritually healthy in yourself. Or in the words of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near.”
Now for the second part: None has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom is greater than John.
John had a unique place in history, as the forerunner and herald of the Messiah. No one else had that precise role and honor.
In what way are we greater than John? We are not exceptionally righteous people, as he was. We do not make extreme sacrifices, giving up earthly possessions and comforts to live in the wilderness and live off locusts and wild honey. We have not laid down our lives for beheading, as John did. We are not bold and courageous in witness as much as John was, who came in the power and spirit of Elijah.
What makes us great is not in us, but in what God has done for us. We have the fullness of the revelation of the coming of Christ in the flesh. We possess, laid out before our eyes, the totality of His work in dying as the atonement for all the sins of the world on the Cross. We know His resurrection on the third day, and have read the eyewitness accounts of His appearances. We have received the knowledge of His Ascension to the right hand of the Father, and the promise of His return on clouds of glory.
John did not know those things. He had partial knowledge from afar. He trusted the promise, yet did not receive the full and clear revelation of the redemption of mankind as an accomplished, historic fact. We have.
We also have other things better than John did. He had a preparatory Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But our Baptism, at the institution of Christ in Matthew 28, conveys us fully into the name of the Triune God. This holy Sacrament unites us with the death of Christ and gives the promise of resurrection as Christ was raised.
We also have the holy Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ that John never saw. We receive the most sacred food and drink of all. This so far exceeds the Passover that John knew that it is only a shadow of the glory of the meal that we receive often.
We have the entire writings of the Scripture – Old Testament and New – at our fingertips. God’s inspired and inerrant Word has been given through holy prophets and apostles to us. What privilege! What treasure!
We have received so much in this wonderful age when God has fulfilled all things through His Son. The only thing that has not been accomplished is the end of this old world and the coming of the new. Even that has been pictured and foretold for us.
Yet we sometimes moan and whine. “If only we had this . . . If only we had that . . .” We are still little ones, weak in ourselves, for all that we have received from the gracious hand of God. Even as we sit upon the pinnacle of history, we find a way to feel neglected and underprivileged.
May we see through faith how much Christ has purchased for us. May we appreciate how clearly God has proclaimed His revelation to us. May we receive eagerly, hungrily, His gifts that He pours out in this place, not disdaining the wonders He is pleased to bestow upon us, His little children.
In His Name, the only-gracious God. Amen.
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