Third Sunday in Advent
December 13, 2009
“When Your Life Is Not Magically Golden” (Luke 7:18-28)
I don’t know about you, but I try to keep an eye on what’s happening in our culture and society, including what’s happening politically. What are people thinking and saying? So the other day I was reading a political forum, one that comes from a very left-leaning perspective, and there was a discussion going on in which people were quite upset with the way things are going in our country. Some were even calling for a revolution! “A revolution! Yes, that’s what we need! A revolution to fix all the problems and inequities in our country!” It seems these very ardent leftists are extremely disappointed that things haven’t turned out better. Things have not gotten suddenly and markedly better since their party has come into power. They are disappointed in their party’s leaders, who, in their mind, have not gone far enough, fast enough. Their party currently controls everything, all across the board, and by sizeable margins. But for some reason, it isn’t working. Thus the calls for revolution. Of course, this is really just empty posturing. These people are not about to hit the streets and take up arms. They just like to whine and let off steam, as they sit comfortably at their keyboards.
But this sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment is what you get when what you have been hoping for and longing for finally arrives, but you find out things are not suddenly a whole lot better. One of the commenters on that forum had the insight to recognize this and said that this is what happens “when you’re a political junkie, your party has all the power, and yet your life is not magically golden.”
That’s what I want to talk about today–not in the context of politics, but more generally in the realm of life, and especially in connection with the Christian faith. What happens when the thing you have been hoping for and waiting for finally arrives, and yet your life circumstances do not instantly and dramatically improve–in, fact, they may get worse? Is there still hope to hold on to “When Your Life Is Not Magically Golden”?
Our example today is the story of John the Baptist in prison and his perplexity that things are not going better. This didn’t fit his paradigm for what should happen when the Messiah comes.
Let’s go back to last week’s lesson for a moment. Remember, John the Baptist was preaching and warning people about “the wrath to come,” as he put it. “The wrath to come”–God’s wrath, God’s judgment, about to fall on all evildoers and hypocrites, in end-time judgment. “You brood of vipers!” John said. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” That righteous wrath was what John was predicting and pronouncing in his preaching. He saw it as imminent, right at hand: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And this was in line with Old Testament prophecies about the messianic age. We heard it today in the reading from Zephaniah: “Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors.” When Messiah comes, the enemies and oppressors of God’s people will be dealt with, decisively.
OK, so why wasn’t John seeing that happen? Why were the oppressors and the evildoers getting away with it? I mean, here was John himself, the greatest preacher around, the chosen forerunner of the Lord, and John is languishing in prison! He had done the Lord’s will, he had preached repentance, he had denounced the hypocritical “brood of vipers,” he had even stood up to the immoral ruler Herod Antipas and denounced him publicly. Who had greater zeal and fortitude than John? No one. And yet it looked like the bad guys were winning. Life stinks, John is in prison, he’s about to get his head lopped off for doing the right thing. The axe is not being laid to the root of the tree. The axe is about to be laid across his neck.
What’s going on here, when the Messiah comes and your life is not magically golden? It was a problem for John the Baptist. It’s a problem for us, the baptized. We are perplexed when things don’t go our way, when it looks like the bad guys are winning. Is there something wrong with God? Is there something wrong with Jesus? Am I a sap for believing this Christianity business?
These are tough questions, and there is no easy answer, at least not one that does not involve suffering. This is an age-old question, going back to the first man who suffered unjustly at the hands of the evil, that is, when righteous Abel was murdered by his brother Cain. All along, God’s people have wondered, “Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? How long, O Lord, how long?” You are not alone in feeling this way.
We face these questions in our life: Why does my son have cancer? Why does my little girl keep getting sick? Why is our family struggling so, financially? It seems like it’s one thing on top of another. What will happen to these old bones? The years are piling up, and so are the things wrong with my body. Where are you, God? Can’t you see me down here? Hello!
But I thought Jesus came and was supposed to fix all that. Isn’t that what a Messiah is supposed to do? That was John’s question, and it’s our question, too. Is there hope to hold on to when your life is not “magically golden”?
There is, but it doesn’t happen like we would expect, or like John expected. God will right the wrongs–in fact, he already has done the decisive act to fix the problems. It’s the manner and the timing of how he does it that we don’t always get.
Yes, it is connected with Jesus, the solution is. But it doesn’t happen magically. It happens at great cost. It happens though the cross. That’s how God will do what is necessary to right all the wrongs. These wrongs, these ills, the problem of evil, the reality of suffering in this world–all this brokenness is the result of sin. All our sin–your sin and mine, not just the sin of the bad guys. All of it needs to be dealt with.
That is what God has done, in Christ. There is no answer to our problems apart from Christ and his cross. But there is where the solution lies. The ultimate answer takes the shape of a cross. There the Son of God come in the flesh took on himself all our sins and suffered the wrath of God in our place. This is how God would deal with our oppressors–the big ones, like Satan and death and hell. Jesus gives them the decisive blow, rendering them powerless against us. They cannot triumph in the end, with Jesus as our champion. Christ’s resurrection shows the outcome, and it is life, and it is glorious, and it will be unending. Yes, here is healing for all your ills. It begins with the forgiveness of sins, which is yours by God’s grace for Christ’s sake. And it will culminate on the Last Day, when Jesus comes again and raises you up to live with him forever.
You know, Jesus’ miracles during his ministry were a sneak preview of what is in store for all of us when he comes again. That is why Jesus sends word back to John: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” In other words, if these signs are happening in Jesus’ ministry, and they are, then everything else will surely follow. All the wrongs will be righted in the end.
Dear friends, you and I, poor miserable sinners that we are–you are having the good news preached to you. The good news is that your sins are forgiven. Christ your Savior gave himself for you and will come back to take you to himself. The heavenly Father loves you and cares for you–you are his own dear child. The Holy Spirit gives you the faith to believe this and keeps you strong in that faith and hope. This is the gospel. This is what it means to be baptized. This is the good news you are having preached to you today. Therefore, with that preaching of the gospel, all the other blessings will come as well, in due time. The blind will receive their sight, the lame will walk, all the other restorations of creation will take place–yes, the dead will be raised up, raised on the Last Day, when Christ comes again, at his Second Advent. What Jesus did at his first coming, winning for you the forgiveness of sins–what Jesus did at his first coming assures what he will do at his second coming.
Did God love and care for John the Baptist when he let him languish in that lonely jail cell? Yes, he did. And yet it looked like the bad guys were winning. John had it rough, while Herod got to sit in a king’s palace and wear splendid clothing and live in luxury. That’s how it is sometimes in this fallen world. The righteous suffer, the wicked prosper. But it’s not as though God has forgotten about you. How could he? Christ Jesus died for you. The Holy Spirit has been given to you, in your baptism. God has placed his name on you, claiming you as his own. No, God has not forgotten you, my friend.
Dear Christian, when your life is not “magically golden,” it’s not time to give up hope. Rather, it is time to renew that hope. And God is renewing your hope today. Your hope and your help is in the name of the Lord your God. Take hold of Christ, your Savior, who comes to you today in the preaching of this good news. Rejoice! The Lord is at hand. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.