“The Problem of Perplexity and the Promise of Hope” (Luke 7:18-28)

Third Sunday in Advent
December 16, 2018

“The Problem of Perplexity and the Promise of Hope” (Luke 7:18-28)

What happens when something you’ve been hoping for, something you’ve been waiting for eagerly and expectantly, what happens when it finally arrives, and your life still doesn’t get any better? In fact, it may even get worse. What then? Well, it can be rather perplexing. You may ask yourself: “Is there any hope for me to hold on to? Has God forgotten about me? Why is he letting this happen?” If you’ve ever felt like that, then our message today is just for you. And so our theme: “The Problem of Perplexity and the Promise of Hope.”

The problem of perplexity. Our example today is the story of John the Baptist in prison and his perplexity at how things are not getting better. They’re not going as he expected. Being thrown in prison did not fit his expectation for what should happen when the Messiah comes.

To understand John’s perplexity, let’s go back to when he was preaching on the banks of the Jordan. And it was a fiery sermon he preached at that time. John blasted those who would not repent, and he warned of the wrath that would soon fall on them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? . . . 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 then John spoke of the Christ, who was about to arrive on the scene, and what this Messiah would then do: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” More fiery judgment, to be enacted when Messiah comes!

Well, that was then, but this is now. And between then and now, John continued to preach boldly and to rebuke sin. John was not afraid to speak truth to power. He rebuked Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee. This Herod had taken his brother’s wife, committing adultery, and John blasted him for it. This message did not go over well in Herod’s palace, to say the least. And so Herod had John thrown in prison.

Now here is the problem. John had preached that God’s wrath against wrongdoers was about to fall, when Messiah comes. And John was referring to Jesus when he spoke of the coming Christ. Well, Jesus had been about his ministry for a while now. But John is wondering: “Where is the wrath? Where is that judgment against the bad guys? I thought the axe was supposed to be chopping down the bad trees. I thought Messiah was supposed to be throwing the chaff into the fire. So how come Herod is flourishing? Why hasn’t his tree been cut down? And I certainly haven’t been gathered into God’s barn. Instead, here I am, stuck in Herod’s prison! What am I missing here? Jesus, why aren’t you doing the Messiah job I was expecting? Why aren’t you doing what I said you would do?”

And John had a point. I mean, this dealing with the bad guys was indeed part of the prophecies of what the Messiah would do when he comes. You heard it, for example, in the reading from Zephaniah. There the Lord says, “Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors.” This is saying that when Messiah comes, the enemies of God’s people will be dealt with.

But John didn’t see that happening. Thus his perplexity. He had preached God’s judgment on the oppressors. He had pointed people to Jesus as the Christ. But it didn’t look like Jesus was doing anything to overthrow the oppressors. And this didn’t make sense to John. Jesus wasn’t meeting his expectations. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Why were the oppressors and the evildoers getting away with it? Why was John languishing there in prison! He had done the Lord’s will. He had preached repentance. He had denounced the “brood of vipers.” He had even stood up to the powerful Herod Antipas and denounced him. Who had greater zeal and fortitude than John? No one. 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 John’s neck!

You can appreciate John’s perplexity. Maybe you’ve experienced it yourself. What’s going on here? You’re a Christian, you’re trying to do God’s will, and yet bad things keep happening in your life. It was a problem for John the Baptist. It’s a problem for us, too, the baptized. We also 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? Lord, are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?

These are tough questions. And there is no easy answer, not when you’re in the midst of the suffering. This is really an age-old question, whenever God’s people have suffered unjustly. The psalmist wondered: “Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? How long, O Lord, how long?” So you are not alone in feeling this way.

We face these questions in our life, don’t we? Why did someone I trusted do me wrong? Why does my child keep getting sick? Why is our family struggling financially? Can’t I catch a break? It seems like it’s one thing on top of another. We go to the doctor for one thing, it gets better, but then something else crops up. Where are you, God? Can’t you see me down here? I thought that when Jesus came, he was supposed to fix all of this. Isn’t that what a Messiah is supposed to do? That was John’s question, and it’s our question, too. It’s the problem of perplexity. But is there a promise of hope for us to hold on to?

There is, but it doesn’t happen just like we would expect, or like John expected. God will indeed right the wrongs. In fact, he’s already done the decisive act to fix the problems. It’s just the manner and the timing of how he does it that we don’t always understand.

And the answer is indeed connected to Jesus, the Messiah. But it doesn’t happen like we would have planned it. It happens though the cross. That’s how God has done all that’s necessary to right all the wrongs. Those wrongs, those ills, the problem of evil, the reality of suffering in this world–all of this brokenness is the result of sin. All our sin–your sin, my sin, not just the sin of the bad guys. All of it, the whole big mess, needed to be dealt with.

And that is what God has done, in Christ. There is no answer to our problems apart from Christ and his cross. The answer comes in the shape of a cross. For there the Son of God took on himself all our sins, and he suffered the wrath of God in our place. This is how God has dealt with our oppressors–the big ones, I mean, like Satan and death and hell. Those are our real enemies. But Jesus has delivered the decisive blow, rendering our foes powerless against us. They cannot triumph in the end, with Jesus on our side. Christ’s resurrection shows the outcome, the result. And it is life! It is glorious! And it will be unending! Yes, here is healing for all your ills. It begins with the forgiveness of sins. That forgiveness is yours by grace for Christ’s sake. And the result will be life, everlasting life, on the day when Christ returns and raises you up to live with him forever.

You know, Jesus’ miracles during his ministry were sort of a sneak preview of what’s in store for all of us. That’s why Jesus sends word back to John, saying: “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.” These things too were prophesied of the Messiah when he comes. Isaiah 35 says of the messianic age: “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 sing for joy.” So the message that Jesus is sending back to John is this: “Look, if I am doing all these blessed things prophesied of the Messiah–and I am–then the rest of the things, the judgment and so forth, they will follow in due time. All the wrongs will be righted in the end. I haven’t forgotten about you, John.”

And the Lord has not forgotten about you either, dear Christian! What Jesus did at his first coming–all those blessings–what Jesus did at his first coming assures you of what he will do at his second coming. They were signs of what is to come.

“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 you today are having the same good news preached to you! The good Lord will heal all your diseases. He will undo all your afflictions. And he will give you, in their place, blessing upon blessing. The Lord will wipe away every tear from your eyes. You have the Lord’s promise on this. The promise of hope! Yes, there is hope for you to hold on to today, even in the midst of your perplexities.

Did God love John the Baptist when he let him languish there in that jail cell? Yes, he did, even though 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, and the wicked prosper. That can be perplexing. 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 placed his name on you, claiming you as his own dear child. No, God has not forgotten you.

Dear Christian, when you are faced with the problem of perplexity, hold on to the promise of hope. Your hope and your help is in the name of the Lord. Take hold of Christ, who comes to you today in Word and Sacrament. Rejoice! The Lord is at hand. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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Published in: on December 15, 2018 at 1:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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