Have you heard the news? Our very own Governor Terry Branstad has been chosen to be the US Ambassador to China. I was listening to the radio as they were discussing this and they pulled up a soundbite from a former ambassador giving advice to our governor. She said, "One thing I learned is when the president calls, you say, 'Yes, Mr. President.'" She was hinting that you don't argue with the man in charge when you're an ambassador. I chuckled to myself when I heard that. Of course you say, "Yes, Mr. President." You're an ambassador. You see, an ambassador doesn't represent himself. He communicates the will of another. You're not an ambassador to give your own personal opinions.
In our Epistle lesson St. Paul says, "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." Paul is placing himself (and all ministers of the word) in the office of ambassador. He doesn't do his own will. He does what he is told to do, he manages the mysteries God has placed into his care. In his letter to the Ephesians St. Paul requests prayers that he would be given words to proclaim the mysteries of the gospel, for which he is, "an ambassador in chains." (Eph. 6:20) An ambassador, like a steward, is not concerned with his own opinion or feelings. An ambassador desires to communicate the message of the one who sent him. A steward desires to preserve and protect his master's property and assets.
And this is why our Lord Jesus speaks the way he does of John the Baptist. This greatest of those born of women was more than a prophet. He was the one prophesied to be Christ's forerunner, the messenger sent before him to prepare his way. John didn't go into the wilderness to collect a social following or initiate people into his own fan club. He went to proclaim the Word of God to whomever would listen.
"What did you go out into the wilderness to see?" Jesus asks. "A reed shaken by the wind?" That's laughable. Anyone who has heard John preach knows that he is no reed that bends wherever the wind blows him. He is not swayed by popular opinion or the pressure of the social elite. Not even to kings does his nose turn brown. John spoke God's pure word to prostitues and tax collectors as he did to Pharisees and scribes, even King Herod. He was not concerned about being judged by men. He was concerned about being judged by the God, who sent him.
This is why St. Paul writes, "But to me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. … It is the Lord who judges me." Paul is not concerned about the judgment of people, whose opinions rock like a boat upon rough waters. He with John the Baptist desires to be found faithful to God. Concerning this St. Paul writes to Pastor Timothy, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15)
An ambassador of God is found faithful when he rightly divides the word of truth. He rightly divides the word of truth by preaching the Law and the Gospel. The Law is the love God commands of us. The Law condemns to hell all who fail to love as it prescribes. The Gospel is the good news that Jesus bore the sins of the whole world, saving all those would-be-condemned souls through faith in his blood. John the Baptist preached the Law and the Gospel in perfect form regardless of the judgments of man, and for it he was condemned by men and exalted by God.
John preached the Law. He told tax collectors not to collect more than they were authorized. He told soldiers not to extort money and to be content with their wages. He told the crowds to share with those in need. He earned the ire of the Pharisees and Sadducees by preaching to them, "Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. … Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (Matthew 3:8, 10) And yet this preacher of fire and brimstone proclaimed the sweetest gospel, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!" (John 1:29) with his finger directing the crowd to Christ Jesus.
John did not change his message with his audience. Even to King Herod he preached against his adultery when he took his brother's wife. This of course you know landed him in prison and eventually cost him his head. But even such a condemnation was beneath John, because he could not be bothered with the judgments of men. He must be found faithful to God, who sent him.
John is the greatest example for every pastor. A pastor must be found faithful. To whom? To God. How? By preaching the Law and the Gospel. Why is it so important to preach the Law and the Gospel as John did? Because when the Law and Gospel are not preached correctly souls are lost and die. Yet when the Law and Gospel are preached rightly, souls are comforted and saved.
The Law and Gospel must be preached, but people don't like to hear the Law and the Gospel. Jesus says, "But what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.'" (Matt. 11:16-17) John preached the Law and called all to repentance. They did not mourn their sinful condition and turn to God for aid. Jesus played the sweet melody of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins and peace with God, yet they did not rejoice. And we will find that this generation lives on even today. People cannot stand hearing either the Law or the Gospel. It's not simply boring, it's loathsome.
People don't want to hear God's word preached. If the pastor tells them what they are doing is a sin, they get offended instead of repenting. But getting angry at the pastor is silly. He's not giving his opinion, but proclaiming God's Word. As with the Israelites who grumbled at Moses, they will find that their complaint is not against a man, but against God. No, Christians should pray for their pastors, that they would not be reeds shaken by every wind, but that they would stand firm and confess the pure word of God. This is important, because pastors are men. They're weak. Sometimes fear prevents them from preaching God's Law to it's full use. But pastors must repent of such cowardice and with John the Baptist proclaim God's Law to both kings and peasants.
Why is it so important to preach the Law? Doesn't it just get people into trouble and cause unnecessary grief? Can't we simply preach the love of Jesus without getting into that dirty sin stuff? Well, it's like this. What if I were to go up to you and say, "Listen, I'm going to put an IV in you that will inject poison into your veins. You'll lose your appetite and get weak. You'll feel nauseous all the time and when you do eat your food will taste like metal and all your hair will fall out. And after that, you'll be perfectly healthy!" Or if I were to say, "Here's what we're going to do. We're going to cut open your chest and remove this valve on your heart and replace it with a new synthetic valve and then sew you back up and after months of physical therapy you'll be good as new!" What would you say to me? Well, you'd tell me to get lost, wouldn't you?! But if I were your doctor and I told you that you have cancer and will certainly die a painful death unless you take the IV and after you suffer for a while your life will be saved, then you'd think differently, wouldn't you? And if I said, your heart has a faulty valve. Your going to die unless we do something! Well, then you'd look at open heart surgery in a different light!
So it is with the Law and Gospel. If I say, "Take heart! Your sins are forgiven. God isn't angry with you. You have peace with God!" That song of the flute won't make you dance unless you've first heard that your sin is a big problem. Moreover you won't repent if you don't believe you need to repent. The Church must preach against sexual immorality, chiefly, so that poor souls caught in such vices can turn from their wicked ways and be saved. Despisers of God's Word and Sacraments need to hear that God hates their false gods and he will condemn you with your idol if you do not repent. Slander and all forms of hatred, laziness, violence, all sins must be condemned. You must hear the dirge and mourn, before the Gospel will find a place in your ears and heart.
The chief purpose for preaching the Law is to make way for the Gospel. A sinner broken and sorrowful for what he has done against God and his neighbor wants to hear the Gospel. He wants to hear of God's mercy and love. God's chief objective in sending his ambassador is to proclaim the Gospel. To comfort the sorrowful and strengthen the weak.
This Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means rejoice in Latin. It comes from the first word from our Introit, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!" This is why we light a pink candle this week in our Advent wreath, while every other week is purple. While the purple symbolizes getting prepared, the pink symbolizes rejoicing. Yet in our Gospel lesson John languishes in prison. It seems like there is a mistake here until you realize that St. Paul calls for this rejoicing while he himself sits in prison.
The Gospel comforts those in distress! It causes rejoicing for those in anguish. It strengthens those who bend like a reed in the wind. John, the greatest born of woman, the antithesis of a shaky reed, who called King Herod to repentance has hit rock bottom. He's in prison. And he sends a message to the one he had just weeks earlier proclaimed, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the word! This is he of whom I said, he who comes after me is greater than me, because he is before me." And John asks, "Are you the one, or should we wait for another?"
John is weak! He has been brought low! What does he need? He needs the Gospel! Jesus says, "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." In other words, Jesus is saying the prophecies of Isaiah 61 and 35 are fulfilled, which say, "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted..." (61:1) And "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute man sing for joy." (35:5)
John is strengthened by the good news that God fulfills his promises! Just as Paul rejoices in prison, because he has freedom in Christ. So also God can comfort any languishing soul through the message of his ambassador.
This is why God sent John. This is why God gives you a pastor. Yes to preach the Law. To call you to repent of your sin. But this is always toward the goal of comforting you. Is your faith weak, the Gospel will strengthen you. Whatever sickness you have, God will heal it. Whatever sin you've committed, God forgives it for Christ's sake. Even as John was comforted and even rejoiced in his heart as he bowed his head before the sword, so God gives you comfort and reason to rejoice even in the face of death. This isn't the unreliable word of a man spouting off his own opinions. This is the message from God himself to you. "Comfort, Comfort, my people! I've covered your sins. I've pardoned your iniquities. I do not want to fight with you. I want to love you! So rejoice you, who are loved by the Lord!" Amen.