Third Sunday in Advent (December 17, 2006)
“Stones in Advent: A Scandalous Stone” (Luke 7:18-23)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The anticipation of Christmas morning fills our hearts with joy. The joy of being with family...the joy of giving and receiving...the joy of watching children unwrap their presents with unbridled enthusiasm...the anticipation of all those joy-filled moments builds and builds every day as Christmas Day approaches each year.
Today is the third Sunday in Advent, and the lighting of the pink candle today signals to us that Advent is once again coming to a close very soon. Our celebration of the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ is right around the corner. In the midst of our Advent repentance, we also have Advent joy.
Joy is all over the place in today's service. We began by singing “Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers.” The Introit and the Epistle reading both begin with St. Paul's encouragement to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” In the Old Testament reading, the prophet Zephaniah says, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” We sang the words from Zechariah in the Gradual, “Rejoice, greatly, O daughter of Zion.” And then we get to the Gospel reading, and joy momentarily comes to a screeching halt.
John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah, is in prison. That's him pictured on the cover of your bulletin this morning. John doesn't look very joyful, does he? He was put in prison by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great who was king when Jesus was born. John had publicly criticized Herod Antipas for committing both adultery and incest with his brother's wife. Rulers don't like it when you talk about them like that. There was no such thing as the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech in those days. If you made the ruler mad, he could put you in prison. And that's what Herod Antipas did to John.
So when our Gospel lesson today opens, John had been in prison for a number of months.1 Apparently, there were visiting hours in this prison, and some of his followers came and reported to him about what Jesus had been doing. In particular, they must have heard about Jesus bringing back to life the widow's son in the city of Nain, which Luke records right before our text and says, “This report about him spread throughout the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.”2
What was going on in John's mind? He couldn't have been jealous of Jesus for getting all the attention. Earlier in his ministry, he pointed to the Lord and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And when some of John's disciples left him to follow Jesus, John was satisfied about this, and said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”3 But prison is not a happy place, especially prisons in those days. Was John starting to get a little depressed? Was his faith in the Lamb of God wavering? Why did he send two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Was he wondering why there was such a delay in the Messiah's plans to bring about the Kingdom of God? Was he losing his joy as the King's messenger who had come to “prepare the way of the Lord”?
Some commentators say that John had no doubts. They say that he sent his disciples to question Jesus because John's disciples were still too loyal to him, and now they needed to give their allegiance to Jesus.4 Others say that John knew about Jesus' acts of grace and mercy, but wondered where his acts of judgment were, which John himself had preached about...all that business about the axe being laid to the root of the trees and all those fruitless trees being cut down and thrown in to the fire.5 This is all quite possible. But taking the text at face value, and considering the present condition of John...including that sinful nature that he shared with you and me...I can't help but think that John was starting to have some questions of his own.
As you and I anticipate Christmas, maybe you have some questions. “Why am I not as joyful as everybody expects me to be during the holidays...with all the pressure to shop, buy the right gift for everyone, decorate, and entertain? Do I have to go to a bunch of family parties and put on a happy face, even though there is so much unresolved, underlying tension between some of us?”
This is not just the case with anticipating our Lord's First Advent. It also goes for anticipating our Lord's Second Advent. We have questions about that, too. “Why does Jesus seem to be dragging his feet, as this world seems to spin out of control? When will his justice finally be delivered for all the wickedness and evil in the world? Is he really going to come back again, like he said, or is this all a made-up fairy tale?”
You see, you and I are not much different than John in our text. We are not in a prison cell. But we are in prisons of our own. We are all in bondage to sin. The sins of others and our own sins have wreaked havoc in our life. The chains of doubt, despair, discontent, bitterness, resentment, hatred, slander, and impatience hold us down and keep us from Advent and Christmas joy...along with other sins that handcuff us and keep our hearts as cold as stone.
Oh, yeah. That's right. We're supposed to be talking about “Stones in Advent.” That's been our theme for our Advent and Christmas sermons. But where's the stone in our Gospel reading today? Today's stone is the one who said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” The word for “offended” can be translated “scandalous” or as something which trips people up, like a stone in your path over which you stub your toe or trip and fall. Both St. Paul and St. Peter, that rocky apostle, wrote that for those who do not believe, Jesus is “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.”6
Why is Jesus so scandalous? Why do people trip up over him? Because he does things we don't expect. John expected Jesus to do more than what he was doing. John may have been expecting Jesus to dispense his judgment right then and there, instead of at his Second Advent as is God's plan. And so Jesus sends John's disciples back with some encouraging words. He reminds John that he is truly the promised Messiah who was doing what he was sent to do. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” Through his miracles, Jesus came show that he came to release people from their imprisonment to sin and its effects in the world.
But Jesus is an even more scandalous stone than that. During his First Advent, he didn't automatically heal everyone and raise all the dead. You would expect God to do this for people. But God does things we don't expect, including being born as a helpless baby. When he grew up, Christ's main purpose was not to be a miracle worker, but to become weak and to suffer and die for the sins of the world on the cross, to rise again from the dead, and to offer life and salvation and forgiveness as a free gift...no strings attached. People stumble over that Good News, because they think that there has to be a catch. They expect to be saved at least partially by their own good works rather than by faith alone in the Son of God who loved them and gave himself up for them.7
We don't like scandal...unless it comes out of Hollywood or Washington, D.C. We like our lives to be free of controversy. We don't want God dying on a cross. That's scandalous. That's offensive. Instead, give us a sweet little baby in a manger. But when you really think about it, that baby in the manger is just as scandalous, because the Bible tells us that he is “true God, begotten of his Father before all eternity, and true Man, born of the Virgin Mary.” How can a man be God? How can a Virgin give birth? Let the angel Gabriel tell you how this can be: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
Nor is it impossible for God, through that Baby, to release you from the prison that sin has created in your life...to forgive you...to renew you...to reconcile you to God and to others...to restore your Advent and Christmas joy...and to bless you, as Jesus said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Blessed are you, no longer stumbling over that stone named Jesus, but with faith firmly established on such a solid foundation as his life, death, and resurrection.
1Fahling, The Life of Christ, p. 285
4e.g. Fahling, p. 285
5e.g. Lenski, Luke, p. 404
6Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:8