December 15, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church—Chicago, IL
In the name of + Jesus.
If you’ve been a Christian for a minute you can testify that life doesn’t necessarily improve once Jesus is a part of it. In fact, most conversion testimonies—the kind that tell the story of a person inviting Jesus into their lives to put away drugs or alcohol or some such thing—are usually premature. For most Christians, your biggest failure still lies ahead of you.
Take John for example. Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (v 11a). But here he is in prison. So he sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he’s truly the Messiah. Now there’s some debate among theologians as to whether John had actually lost faith, but I think that’s beside the point. The point is that it doesn’t look like the kingdom of heaven has broken into this world when its chief herald is sitting in jail, soon to be a head on a platter.
And it’s not just John. The world doesn’t offer you much upward mobility for following Jesus. When you go to your boss and ask for a raise, she’s not likely to investigate the state of your spiritual life and reward you for improving your piety.
In fact, the opposite is likely to be true. If you attempt to live in an authentically Christian way, people consider you to be strange, eccentric, even dangerous. We’ve not yet come to the point in our country where the most committed Christians are imprisoned, but that day may come. It’s a real and present threat for Christians in many corners of the world today.
Why was John in prison? Because he was a theologian of the cross, and a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. John’s sermon is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2). He called out the religious leadership as a “brood of vipers,” but what landed him in prison (and ultimately under the sword) is that he told king Herod that it was not right for him to take his brother’s wife. Kings don’t like to be told that, and king’s wives are sometimes worse than kings when you tell them what they can and cannot do.
John’s preaching is a necessary part of the message of the Gospel. There can be no good news if you don’t realize that you and the world around you is filled with bad news.
In dogmatic terms, we can identify two parts of repentance. The first is contrition, or sorrow for sins. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean weeping and wearing sackcloth and ashes. But it does mean recognizing sin and calling it what it is. It requires humility and honesty. It means taking the lowest place at the table. Repentance begins with downward mobility, accounting yourself as nothing.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.
The basis for repentance in the preaching of both John and Jesus (and Jacob) is that the kingdom of heaven is near. Not far. Near. And it’s no nearer than when you are at your lowest.
When John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (vv 2–6).
When the kingdom of heaven comes, it turns the world upside down. It’s not the rich and the famous and the powerful who get richer, more famous, and more powerful. The kingdom comes among the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf. It comes among the humble. It comes among the contrite. The kingdom of heaven is not found in king’s palaces, but in prison.
This inversion of the world’s kingdoms begins with the birth of the King. Although He was born into a royal family, it wasn’t the one in the palace in Jerusalem. His royal crib was trough, His attendants shepherds. No one could have expected this kingdom to come in such a way. It doesn’t look like royalty.
But the inversion continues. The blind become the seeing ones, the lame become the walking ones, the lepers become the cleansed ones, and the deaf become the hearing ones. And for John, the imprisoned becomes the free one. When he is beheaded, it appears that his story comes to a close. But another sign of the Messiah is that the dead are raised up.
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you’” (vv 7–10).
John prepares the way for Jesus by preaching repentance, but he also walks the way that Jesus walks. John’s martyrdom is a prelude to the death of Jesus. The cross is the endpoint of the humility of heaven’s King. But in heaven’s inverted kingdom, the dead are raised. Just days after becoming the least, Jesus is exalted in resurrection and ascension. The one who died a slave’s death now sits at God’s right hand.
The second part of repentance is faith, which is born of the absolution. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the contrite are forgiven. Faith rests in the inversion of Christ’s kingdom. Faith rests in this promise: 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 (v 11).
Repent. And believe the Gospel. Because
In Heaven’s Kingdom, You Are Great when You Are Least
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard
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