Beloved. As we make our way through the Advent season and begin to approach Christmas, we are in today’s Gospel introduced to one of the major figures of Advent—St. John the Baptizer. So important a figure is St. John the Baptizer that he was already prophesied in the OT. In today’s Gospel, Jesus refers to one of those prophesies from the final prophet of the OT, St. Malachi: This is the one about whom it is written, “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” saying that it was fulfilled in St. John. Elsewhere the holy evangelists record about St. John and his work when he appeared on the scene to announce and prepare the people for Jesus’, the long awaited Savior’s, coming [mt. 3.3 ff.]: In those days John the Baptizer came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’” Remember also that John’s conception was a miraculous one—but just the opposite of Jesus. Jesus was conceived and born of a virgin; John was conceived and born of a mother well past child bearing years who had been unable to have children. The angel Gabriel came and announced John’s conception and birth and his work to John’s father, Zacharias the priest [Lk.1.16-17] that John would: will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Later, Zacharias would say of John [Lk. 1.76.77]: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins. St. John the Baptizer—the one prophesied in the OT and his birth and work announced by the angel.
But what do hear first thing in today’s Gospel? – While John was in prison. Certainly this is not what we would have expected. More than likely, we would expect of one prophesied by the OT prophets, whose coming was announced by an angel, and whose work it was to prepare the people for the coming Savior, would be popular and in demand, followed by throngs of people. But here he was in prison, with only a couple followers he was trying to direct/ turn toward Jesus. Certainly not a “success” by the estimation of most/ by the world’s standard. And it was precisely because of His preaching that St. John ended up in jail—he called the king to repentance for his sin of adultery. Certainly not “Mr. Good-judgment” by the world’s standards! Certainly they say that it would have been “more prudent” to “overlook” the sin to stay out of prison and so continue to preach and have greater influence on the people.
But here was St. John in prison and what was Jesus’ verdict on him? Today’s Gospel: Jesus began to talk to the crowds about John. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? No, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9So what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you! And he is much more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Jesus’ verdict is not the same as the world’s. Jesus has a different measure of what is “success” and what isn’t.
This is terribly vital for us to keep in mind in the church today and in our own lives. The world will have one standard but Jesus has another. In the Church, we have the duty and privilege to announce that Jesus is the Coming One, that He is the long awaited Savior from sin and death, who has opened heaven to us. We have that great duty and privilege to Go, report … what you hear and see, that is, what we have heard and experienced about Jesus to a world in such desperate need for that message of forgiveness, peace and life with God. We have the joy of raising our children in the Christian faith and sharing that faith with those around us; and they by their witness encouraging and strengthening us in the faith. We have the joy of living our lives in the Gospel—that is, living a life of love toward God and neighbor, of being strengthened and led by the Holy Spirit to fight against sin, and, when we do sin to confess that sin and be forgiven it.
So the long and short of it is: our lives are a “success” as we faithfully live out our lives as Christians where the Lord has called and placed us. He grants the growth to His Church as He works through His word that He entrusted us with that we now share. Again, how freeing and liberating this is! As we live our lives, faithful to our Lord and His word, He is working through us and on us; He is working through our word and witness on others. It’s His word and His work. He entrusted it to us and He grants growth and increase where He wills.
The flipside, though, is that according to the world’s standards we may not be “successful”—after all, St. John the Baptizer was in prison. Let that not concern us. We strive to hear Jesus’ verdict [Mt. 25.21]: Well done, good and faithful servant. In other words, the Lord doesn’t call us to be “successful” as the world defines the term, but to be faithful.
That’s the theme St. Paul picks up in today’s text: This is the way a person should think of us: as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. In this connection, moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. This truth—that faithfulness is the duty of the Christian—is very freeing. It doesn’t call us to all sorts of measuring up to impossible standards; it doesn’t call us to “keep up with the Joneses”; it doesn’t call us to keep chasing after the impossible so that we feel important and accepted. We are simply called to do what the Lord has called us to do—to live our lives as His dear Christian where and how He has called us to serve Him. For St. Paul and his co-workers, it was servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries in the fullest sense of the word. It was as an apostle preaching Christ, giving out His gifts. For us, it is different. It is even different for you compared with the person next to you, though there might be some overlap. But whatever it is, the Lord has called each of us to faithfulness—to Him, to His word, to live out our calling. And He has and He will equip us for faithfulness. Let us rely on Him.
This truth—that the Lord calls us to faithfulness—is very humbling. St. Paul, that great apostle of our Lord called himself and his fellow workers: servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Why? Look at what he as an apostle was to do—faithfully preach Christ and give His gifts. As a servant or manager, what he was to give out wasn’t his own; it belongs to Jesus. In St. Paul’s day, a servant or manager was a slave who was in charge of the master’s household and property. It wasn’t his; it was something he was entrusted with. The servant/ manager would be in charge of distributing food to his fellow slaves and to see to it that each one got what he needed. In St. Paul’s case, he was to look over what belonged to Jesus—His dear Christians—and to give them of the Master’s, Christ Jesus’, goods; he was to see it that at the right time they heard Christ’s holy law, that they heard His precious Gospel of forgiveness, that the Sacraments were rightly and properly given. St. Paul was entrusted with the goods of Jesus and he faithfully passed them on. Later on he writes to the Corinthians [1 Co. 11.23]: For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you...
Dear Christian, we, too have been entrusted with the word of Christ; we too are His servants and stewards. That fact, in and of itself is humbling—the very God Himself came to us and gave us His holy word, His gifts and blessings. And He has called us to faithful use of it: it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. We dare not do what we want with the word and gifts of God—using His forgiveness as a license to sin—oh, God will forgive me that sin, too, so I don’t have to worry about it; or the other extreme—rejecting the precious Gospel of the forgiveness of sin: because my sin is too great, I can’t be forgiven. Being a faithful steward means handling the word of truth—both Law and Gospel rightly even in our own lives. It means seriously and thoughtfully examining heart and life in the mirror of God’s holy law to recognize our sin, its seriousness and that it is damning, to see our need for a Savior from sin and God’s wrath. That we do this is very humbling because it is not ours but God’s word/ Law/ standard. We dare not try to minimize sin, explain it away, drag in the world’s ever changing standards of right and wrong. At the same time, it means faithfully and humbly going to Jesus and receiving His gifts of forgiveness of sin and eternal life; it means running to the holy sacrament and receiving Jesus’ very body and blood—even though we don’t know how—for the forgiveness of sin and eternal life.
Notice, St. Paul says: and stewards of God’s mysteries. That too is very humbling. Something that is a mystery must be revealed; it’s not obvious. God’s plan of salvation to save us sinners by Jesus’ life, suffering and death is a mystery—it has to be revealed; all that we confess in the creed and learn in Scripture is a mystery—it has to be revealed; we don’t come upon them by our own thought. Jesus prays [Mt. 11.25]: I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. How humbling—these great saving mysteries, things we can’t come to by our own reason or strength—God, in grace and mercy, reveals to us. These are things of God—not our own; He has entrusted them to us; may we be faithful in our use of them—both for ourselves and sharing them with others. It is required of stewards that they be found faithful.
There is a great comfort here as well. As we live out our lives as Christians, faithful, where the Lord has placed and called us, yes, we will not always seemingly be successful as the world defines it; we will often see and feel our sin, our lack of perfect faithfulness. But it is a trivial matter to me if I am evaluated by you or by a day in a human court. Why, I do not even evaluate myself. I do not in fact know of anything against myself, but I am not justified by this; rather, the one who evaluates me is the Lord. The point is this—as St. Paul elsewhere confesses that he is a sinner and has all sorts of sinful desires in himself, he is still faithful to Jesus; that is, even though he is a sinner and not worthy of anything good from God he holds on to Jesus and is certain that for Jesus’ sake God is gracious to him. This is rightly using God’ holy word of Law and Gospel. This is being faithful to the Lord and His word. The same way with us—even though we are sinners, we, dear Christian, faithfully hold on to our Lord and His work; we cling to His promise to us in His word to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Precisely through that faith that holds on to our Lord and His word, we receive those gifts.
I do not in fact know of anything against myself, but I am not justified by this; rather, the one who evaluates me is the Lord. Even on the Last Day, we are certain of our righteousness before God; we are certain that we are justified /declared righteous by Him because it is not based on or located in qualities in us but in God’s judgments and thoughts to us in Jesus. That’s the mystery of God, the Gospel, God revealed to us in His word; and come what may—no matter what anyone else says, no matter what we ourselves may think or feel how great our sin, we have that glorious certainty of the forgiveness of sin and eternal life in heaven. Even when our faithfulness may waver, God’s faithfulness stands. INJ