December 17, 2017
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A reed shaken by the wind is a preacher, who tells people what they want to hear. As the wind blows a reed to and fro, so popular opinion sways people pleasing preachers. Of course, the people are grass and as the wind blows the grass in the field and the blades bend without resistance, so do the people move from one conviction to another, shifting what they want to believe according to the path of least resistance. John the Baptist is not a reed shaken by the wind. He preached the Word of God faithfully and like a rock the Word of God does not move, even as tempests rage. And so, John preached against the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and against King Herod for his sexual immorality. No gale sent by important people could sway his preaching.
A man dressed in soft clothing, perhaps? Of course, you wouldn't go out into the wilderness to see a man dressed in soft clothing. You go to the palace, where King Herod dwells. And if you want to see John the Baptist, you go to Herod's dungeon. John's steadfast preaching landed him in jail. But he was not sent to impress men, but to preach God's Word. Men wearing soft clothing are self-important. People like listening to self-important people, because they get fooled into thinking they are actually important and that they can somehow make them important.
But John did not come to promote himself. Rather, he came to decrease, so that Jesus would increase. John came to promote Jesus. That is why he sent his disciples to follow John even before he went to prison by crying, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the World." This is why he publicly proclaimed that Jesus was greater than he. And this is why he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Coming One, so that he would lose disciples, and Jesus would gain them.
John was a prophet, yes, and more than a prophet. He made straight the way of God, Jesus Christ. That was his purpose. He didn't seek to please people or to impress them. He came to do God's will, so that people would believe in Jesus.
So, what have you gone out to see? Have you come to see a reed shaking in the wind? St. Paul prophesied this would happen. "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions." (2 Timothy 4:3) Paul's prophecy came true, didn't it? People go to church, or listen to political and social icons, because they tell them what they want to hear. And even in churches, or should I say, especially in churches, preachers will follow the wind and the direction of the grass to preach things that will pass away. It's not a coincidence that so many mainline protestant churches "discovered" that God actually doesn't oppose homosexuality after all, after it became socially unacceptable to condemn homosexuality as a sin. Neither is it a coincidence that churches have grown soft on other issues such as fornication and cohabitation, divorce, abortion, evolution, and many others after the tides of popular opinion changed. And people will continue to find churches based on what they want to hear. And they'll find preachers that will preach according to how the wind is blowing.
Have you gone out to see someone dressed in soft clothing, that is, a self-important man? Celebrity preachers! Can you believe there's such a thing? On the radio, the television, and the devil's favorite knew instrument, the internet. They dress cool. They have large followings. Their books are in bookstores that you actually go to! But the question is, do they point to Christ? Or, do they point to themselves? John the Baptist pointed to Christ, even if it meant he would be left alone.
You don't want a reed shaking in the wind. You don't want a self-promoter. You want John the Baptist. He points to Christ, not to himself. Because you don't even really want John the Baptist, except that he points to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
People hated John. Sometimes he spoke harshly. People didn't like Isaiah. He wouldn't tell them what they wanted to hear. People really hated Paul. He wrote many of his letters in prison and eventually was killed for what he preached. But these are the men God wants you to listen to. Because, they did not preach of their own accord, but according to what God told them.
Now people often don't want to listen to what God preaches. They don't like to hear that they are grass that will fade away. They don't want to learn to repent of their sins. They don't want to deny themselves and follow Jesus. The Word of God can sound harsh and stubborn to them. But there is something you need to remember about the Word of God and every messenger God sent to proclaim it. The goal of every prophet sent by God was to bring comfort to God's people.
Isaiah spent the lion's share of his prophetic ministry pronouncing judgment on, well, everyone. He pronounced judgment on Babylon, Assyria, Moab, Syria, Egypt, and especially on Israel, Judah, Jerusalem and their kings. And for this reason, the people and kings hated Isaiah. They listened to false prophets, simply because their message was more cheerful. But because they ignored Isaiah, the also ignored the most wonderful messages of comfort, which Isaiah preached.
"Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall become like wool." Isaiah 1:18
"Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Isaiah 7:14
"But he was wounded for our transgressions;
He was crushed for our iniquities;
Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
And with his stripes we are healed." Isaiah 53:5
And of course, as we just heard this morning:
"Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
And cry to her
That her warfare is ended,
That her iniquity is pardoned,
That she has received from the LORD's hand
Double for all her sins." Isaiah 40:1-2
Yes, Isaiah preached judgment. And God did punish the nations for their sins. Yet, God disciplines those, whom he loves. His desire is always for sinners to repent and be forgiven, as God tells us through the prophet Ezekiel, "As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ez. 33:11) God did not send Isaiah or any of his prophets, because he hated his people. He sent them, because he loves them. He wants them to repent and believe in his love. The goal of Isaiah's entire ministry was to point to Christ, God-With-Us, who would be born of the Virgin and would bear all our iniquities.
There was no one to whom John preached repentance that he did not desire to look to Christ for healing from sin. He prepared the way of the Lord by preparing the hearts of sinners to receive free forgiveness. The purpose of John's ministry, as it was proclaimed by Isaiah and the prophet Malachi, was to make way for Christ. Christ has come to save us from our sins.
Now there are certainly those, who will not listen to the man of God, because they are too proud to repent of their sins. Yet, there are also those, who will not listen, because they are too ashamed. Their sins burden their hearts so much that they cannot bear to lift their eyes up to Jesus. They think, if God knows my sins, he certainly doesn't want to have anything to do with me. Have you ever had that thought? Have you ever thought, truly God hates me? Has something you've done or said or thought darken the back of your mind, so that you think that you are unworthy to be a Christian? "I'm just not one of those church-folk. I've offended my God too many times."
Well, if such words describe you, please consider this. God promised the coming Savior and his comfort through Isaiah before the people repented, while they were still in their sins. "Repent, so that I may heal you!" Is God's constant invitation. When John pointed to Christ and said, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!", he declared why Jesus came into this world. Jesus came to take sins away. Which sins? Of the world. The whole world? Yes, the whole world, including your sins. God knew what your worst sins would be before you ever did them. And he still sent Jesus to die for them. Why would God send the remedy if he does not intend for you to be cured? Why would God send Christ to die on the cross and bear the punishment of all sins if he didn't desire to forgive even your worst sins? Stop delaying! Stop cowering in fear. Stop hiding from God! Jesus comes to heal you; to erase your worst offenses. Jesus comes to comfort you.
It is God's Word that comforts. So, it is clear that we must seek to hear God's Word and not pay attention to the passing winds of those, who die. But how do you know if you are hearing God's Word. How do you know if I am sent by God or if I'm a self-promoting reed? The prophets and apostles were sent by God. Was I? An angel didn't appear to my father and tell him that I would prepare the way of the Lord, as the angel Gabriel did for John the Baptist's father. I have not received visions from the Lord as Isaiah did nor has the risen Lord appeared to me as he did for St. Paul. So, how do you know that what I preach to you is God's Word?
St. Peter writes, "And we have the prophetic word more firmly confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place... knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." (2 Peter 1:19a, 20-21) And St. Paul writes by inspiration of that same Holy Spirit, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Scripture warns us, "Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 4:1) You test the spirits and determine whether a preacher is true of false based on whether he preaches according to God's Word, the Holy Scriptures. All people are like grass and will fade away along with their teachings, but the Word of the Lord will stand forever. Do not believe new or shifting teachings. Ground your faith in the Word of God and judge every preacher based on that Word.
You can be certain that your pastor is sent by God when he does not establish himself, but is called by the church and confirmed by the representation of other pastors, as St. Paul writes to Pastor Timothy, "Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you." (1 Timothy 4:14) And you can be certain that what your pastor preaches to you is true when he grounds his preaching in holy Scripture, which does not change.
Yes, biblical preaching can be hard to listen to at times. And it's not fun fighting the wind of popular opinion. But founding your faith on God's Word is remarkably comforting. While the preaching of the people pleasers and self-promoters fades away with the wind, the Word of our God stands forever! This means that the comfort God preaches to you will stand forever. Where will these false preachers be on the Last Day, when you must stand before your judge? Will they give a solid defense to God for why you should be saved? No, they and their teachings will be removed from God's presence. But the comfort that is founded on God's Word will still stand, and so will our risen Lord Jesus to whom God's Word points. Christ will stand and give your defense. He will show God his wounds, which have healed you from your sins. He will declare you God's child forever. And just as God's Word stands forever, so will you stand forever in the comforting presence of your loving God. Amen.