In Nomine Iesu Pastor Thomas L. Rank
Text: Matthew 11:11-15
Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
THESE ARE YOUR WORDS, HEAVENLY FATHER; SANCTIFY US BY YOUR TRUTH, YOUR WORD IS TRUTH. AMEN.
Dear friends in Christ,
The Jews in Jesus’ lifetime understood that before they looked for the Messiah, the one who would save them, they needed to look for a second Elijah. They knew this because of the words of the last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi. There we find this word of the Lord: “Behold, I will send Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.”
The first Elijah had lived during the days of the wicked King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. These two had introduced a renunciation of the true worship of God unequaled in the history of Israel. Hundreds of false prophets of Baal had been given government approval to spread their false teaching throughout the land. Altars and high places were built; even the sacrifice of children in fire was allowed. Into this cesspool of idolatry God placed His prophet Elijah. Elijah’s first task was to proclaim a drought, a time of famine for the people because of their rejection of the true God. Elijah’s message was one of repentance. He was to turn the people away from their sin by a strong preaching of the Law, pointing out to king and queen, to all people, the way of the true God in clear distinction from the false way of the idols. For this Elijah was attacked, rejected, forced to flee for his life as especially the queen sought to destroy him. The violent used violence against Elijah to try and silence this unwelcome prophet.
John the Baptist is the second Elijah, as Jesus says: “he is Elijah who is to come.” John does not come into the blatantly idolatrous times as did Elijah. Yet there was a clear need for his ministry. God placed John at the right time and the right place in order to point to the Messiah, to the Christ, Jesus.
The understanding of the real work the Messiah was to do had become confused. For many of the Jews their Messiah was to be a political leader, someone who would come to free them from the oppression of the despised and hated Roman government. They did not realize that the ministry of the Messiah and His kingdom were not about the power and glory of this world. Therefore John needed to teach the people repentance. In other words, the work was the preaching of the Law, it was about pointing out sin, about condemning the rebellion against God and His laws. It was not about the programs and agendas of this world. John came to prepare the hearts and minds of the people for the true work of the Messiah, the coming of the kingdom of God in the person of the Savior, Jesus Christ.
For this work John would suffer. Like Elijah, the leaders of his day would be pricked by the prickly law he preached. Like Elijah, John would not hesitate to preach against the high and mighty of his day. Like Elijah, John would feel the violence of the violent opponents of the kingdom of God and His Messiah. John’s preaching would stir up hearts, some to repentance, but also many to hardness and rejection. John would be arrested, imprisoned, and killed, dying a violent death.
John did the work assigned to him by God. He preached the word boldly, without being afraid of the cost. His message was not an easy one. He could not massage the egos of the crowd by telling them that their chosen lifestyles were of no matter. He could not say “yes” to behavior about which God said “no.” To do that would have been a betrayal of his office as prophet. To do that would be to work against the Messiah, the coming Savior of the world, and John would not go that way. Instead, he would preach: “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance….even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Those were John’s words to the spiritual leaders of his day, the Pharisees and Sadducees. You can understand why they would not be to eager to protect him or support him.
John’s death was a warning to Jesus from the powers of this world. This world and its satanic agenda let Jesus know that the same fate awaited Him if He continued to preach and teach as He did. John prepared the way for Jesus not only by his preaching repentance. He prepared the way by dying first and pointing the people to the truth that the kingdom of God suffers violence, even the death of the King’s messenger. And as it went for the messenger, so it would go for the King Himself. John’s death is the prologue to the death of Jesus. As John was killed for preaching the Law and pointing to the need for the Messiah, so Jesus would die by doing the work of the Messiah, and thereby showing Himself to be the Savior, the Son of God come into this world.
As we prepare for Christmas during this Advent time, we are reminded that Christmas, the birth of Jesus, is not a time of cuteness or shallow and trivial displays of sentiment. There is a reason we sing strong hymns and hear strong words at this time of year. The birth of Jesus is about warfare, it is about battles lost and won, it is about suffering, death. It is about what Jesus says: “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.”
Therefore a right preparation for Christmas includes a sober understanding of what this means. It does not mean a lessening of our Christmas joy, but a heightening of our appreciation for such a gift. This gift of the Christ-child does not come to us without suffering, a suffering that we cannot imagine – suffering for all sins, for all betrayals, all deceit, all traitorous acts, all cowardice, all weakness. These sins in all their fullness, your sins and mine, are on Jesus as He comes to us through the Virgin Mary and begins His way to the violence of the cross of Golgotha.
The ministry of Elijah had to deal with this violence, it was part of the burden of prophet. The ministry of John had to deal with this violence, it was part of the burden of being the Forerunner of the Messiah. The ministry of Jesus had to deal with this violence to such a degree that it is beyond our comprehension; He came to die because of our sins. How can we forget that when we sing and rejoice at His birth? Doesn’t it cheapen our praise of God if our hymns and worship gloss over this truth? The ministry of the apostles and of pastors to this day has to deal with this violence, it is part of the burden of being placed in the Office of the Holy Ministry.
The second Elijah has come. He did his work by pointing to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He pointed to Jesus. And even with the word “lamb” we are given a clue about Jesus: lambs are killed for the Passover. Today you are again pointed to Jesus. Despite the violence directed against God’s kingdom it does not fall or fail. You who are brought into this kingdom by God’s work of salvation need not fear any violence. Not that it may not happen, but that no violence is able to overcome the Christ. No matter how strong the enemies of God are, our Christ is always the stronger man. He showed that by His resurrection from the dead. Even the violence of death could not keep Him down.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through
The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary! (ELH 145:2)
Neither will death in its violence keep you down. Jesus has done the work needed to save you from it all. Trust this strong Savior, and rejoice as we prepare to celebrate His wonderful birth once more. God grant this to you all in the name of Jesus. Amen.