Sermon audio here.
Chapman University recently undertook a survey of the greatest fears of the Average American.[i] They identified close to 100 fears, a list which included clowns (which, to my surprise, were all the way at the bottom of the list), zombies (which, despite being fictional, actually ranked higher than clowns), and Obamacare, which ranked near the top of the list, even higher than illness, pandemic, and nuclear attack.
While dying ranked somewhere in the middle, below robots, reptiles, and public speaking, many of the greatest fears— terrorism, biological warfare, and nuclear meltdown—are certainly related to death.
While the fear of death is normal, for the Christian, greeting death would ideally be no more difficult than tying your shoes or brushing your teeth. After all, one of the main goals of the Christian faith is to prepare us for a blessed death. We might view today’s Holy Gospel a sort of how-to guide for dying as a Christian.
Here we find St. John the Baptist in prison, and this is the last time we meet him alive in St. Matthew’s Gospel. The next time we see John’s face it will be on Herod’s platter. Until then, he languishes behind bars. Gone are the days of foraging around the wilderness for locusts and wild honey.
Like so many prophets before him, John will suffer a martyr’s death for his faithful proclamation of the Gospel. All that’s left to do is to prepare to die. How he does this is instructive for us. John prepares for death by doing the same thing he did every day of his life: he listens to God’s Word.
John sends his disciples to Jesus with the question, “Are you the One to Come, or shall we look for another?” Our Lord responds by preaching a magnificent sermon from Isaiah:
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.[ii]
It’s interesting that our Lord doesn’t go and preach this sermon to John Himself. He preached it to John’s disciples, whom He then sent to preach to John. Jesus saw fit to preach to John in his final hours the same way He preaches to you and me, both in life and at the hour of death. He sends out men with the authority to proclaim His Word as if He’d done it Himself.
The fact that He sends out subcontractors, so to speak, shows us that it doesn’t matter so much who does the preaching as it is that the Word is being preached. God’s Word is God’s Word, and it does His work, whether He sends it via man, angel, or even donkey, as He did with the prophet Balaam.[iii]
And in this, we find the answer to our question: the way to prepare for a blessed death is to hear God’s Word.
But John’s in prison, which made hearing God’s Word more difficult. He had no Bible. Apart from preaching, the only access John had to God’s Word was by his memory. This has actually been true of most of God’s saints through human history. Printed bibles didn’t exist on a mass scale until about 550 years ago.
And while printed bibles are, on the whole, a good thing, they have often been used as a crutch, as if it were a reference book rather than the Living, Life-Giving Word of God—something to read rather than digest.
Before we could stick our bibles on a shelf, let them collect dust, and take false comfort in “owning a bible”, the only way you had access to God’s Word was by actually knowing it, and this knowing came mostly by hearing, both in sermons and in catechesis.
There were advantages to not having printed bibles. How often have people used the excuse, “I can read the Bible at home?” to avoid going to church? This is how clever Satan is, that he can use even the bible to prevent people from hearing God’s Word.
And even if these delinquent churchgoers actually do spend that time reading the bible—which almost never happens—you miss out on something essential when you don’t go to Church. In addition to severing yourself from the Body of Christ, you don’t hear the present-tense, for you application of Christ’s Word which Jesus audibly delivers in the sermon, nor do you get the feeding He gives to His people in the Sacrament.
Don’t get me wrong, reading the Bible is important. But our Lord didn’t train up and send scribes out into the world. When John was in distress, our Lord didn’t write him a note. He sent His living, audible Word. Just as Jesus gives us His Body and Blood in the Sacrament, so also His voice is heard in preaching.
Of the right administration of the Sacrament, Jesus says, “This is my body; this is my blood.” Of faithful preaching, He says, “whoever hears you, hears Me.” The voice of Christ is just as present in preaching as His Body and Blood are in the Sacrament.
John was the last and greatest of the prophets. And though he’d devoted himself to preaching God’s Word during his lifetime, it appears as though he wasn’t quite ready to meet death with ease. It’s possible that John had no doubts about who Christ was himself, that he sent his disciples to Jesus mostly for their benefit so that they might hear the Gospel and be ready to follow Jesus once he was gone. But given his difficult circumstances and sinful flesh, John, like the rest of us, also needed to hear the Gospel himself.
And what a wonderful sermon it was! We have many troubles in this life, but in this sermon, Jesus reassures us that He has overcome them all. If he can heal blindness, paralysis, and death, what could be too great for Him? Yes, John will die, but He belongs to Christ, and death is no match for Jesus.
Death has been captured, bound, and killed by the capture binding, and killing of Jesus. His blood, which is life-giving to you and me, is a toxic poison to Satan and the grave. Holy Scripture plainly saith that death is swallowed up by death, its sting is lost forever.[iv]
Repeated hearing and rehearsing. Recalling our Lord’s good and gracious promises. This, dear saints, in your comfort and your confidence, both in life and death. It should be every Christian’s goal to have such an intimate familiarity with Holy Scripture that you might well be considered a doctor in theology. The goal of the Christian isn’t merely to “read the whole Bible”, but to inwardly digest God’s Word. This is how you prepare for a blessed death.
But it’s not only that we don’t internalize Scripture well enough. Sometimes we learn that we had it wrong, and here Satan finds an opening. This may have been the case with John, if indeed his theology of the Messiah was less than perfect.[v]
John never set forth a complete account of his Christology, but his preaching—or, at least what’s recorded of it—is very fire-and-brimstone, replete with End-Times fervor. The Coming One’s arrival is cause for repentance. He will baptize with the Spirit and fire. The axe is already laid to the root of the trees and He will cast the wicked into the furnace. And most significantly, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
But Jesus may not have been meeting John’s expectations. He wasn’t casting people into the furnace and He hadn’t yet been sacrificed as the Passover Lamb. He was eating with tax collectors and sinners. He was even conversing with and reaching out to that brood of vipers known as the Pharisees.
In this, we see that we are all products of our times. Luther was formed by the abuses he suffered in the Roman Catholic Church. Preaching a funeral sermon about how your loved ones are suffering in purgatory and then turning around and selling tickets to heaven for the deceased at the door may be a great way to make money, but that’s the sort of lie that could start a Reformation.
John was formed by hypocrisy of the Pharisees, so his preaching put a heavy emphasis on repentance and the Last Day. When you’re dealing with secure sinners, preaching the Gospel is the worst thing you could do. Stony hearts need to be crushed before the Gospel can turn them into hearts of flesh.
Vocations are crosses. They leave scars and build muscles. That’s obvious to us when we consider combat vets. But it is also true of those who work for unions, who are married, or who are mothers. Your duties change you and form you.
Whether John’s theology was right or not, he needed what we all need, both in life and at the hour of death: the preaching of the Gospel.
The Lord is the Coming One whom John announced, but there is more to Jesus than fire and brimstone. His Word was given also for correction. And so our Lord reminds John of the Gospel, that He came not merely to cut down and burn and destroy, but to do these things for the purpose of rebuilding, healing, and raising up.
Whatever weaknesses John did or did not have, there should be any doubt that every one of us has theological blind spots and gaps. This has been true of every Christian, lay and ordained, who has ever lived.
And when we realize this, it can be disturbing. Most of the time, they’re pretty harmless. You may discover, for example, that the Bible doesn’t say anything about Mary riding a donkey into Bethlehem even though you always thought it did.
But sometimes they’re more significant, like spending your whole life thinking that worship is what you do for God and then discovering that God needs nothing; that the Divine Service is about what God does for us, where He visits us and forgives us.
Or maybe you’ve minimized the danger of sin, figuring that since salvation is by grace you can’t lose it, so you go on living however you please, denying Christ without giving it a second thought, lacking entirely in repentance. The life of faith is one of daily contrition and repentance. Where that’s lacking, so is faith.
Or maybe you’ve overlooked the importance of the resurrection of the Body, that while the dead rest in Christ, they, too, are awaiting the Day when Christ will return, raise up their bodies, and make all things new. The Christian hope isn’t an eternal existence somewhere up in the clouds or over the rainbow, but in the new creation. Jesus has promised to make a new heavens and a new earth.
Such revelations could make you feel like you’ve misunderstood the essence of the Gospel itself, that your unconscious assumptions, picked up mainly from the culture, were wrong and maybe even dangerous.
This can be a disturbing experience, but it is one that I hope all of you have had and that you will keep on having. To be lacking that experience is a sign that you haven’t let the Word of God have its way with you. If you’re only hearing God’s Word at a surface level so that it simply confirms what you already believe, you’re not listening carefully enough. The Word of God is meant for correction.
And know this: there’s a difference between falling prey to Satan’s lies and worshipping Satan. For the most part you just had the wrong emphasis on worship, you thought it was mainly your work, or you didn’t realize what the Absolution really was or how central the Supper was, or you had a flawed understanding of some passage.
Even if you really had a doctrine wrong, say you denied the Bodily Presence of Christ in the Sacrament or even the exclusive claims of Christianity—you are baptized. Your salvation isn’t based on your orthodoxy or your ability to articulate it. Your salvation is grounded in Christ’s faithfulness to you, not in yours to Him, and certainly not in the wavering and confused ideas and emotions of man.
Rather than feel bad that you were wrong about something, you should rejoice that you have been given a new insight, that the Lord has revealed Himself to you and recognize that this comes as grace, as a gift, as it did to John in prison.
There is no end to this. There is no full knowledge to obtain. The life of the Christian is the life of catechesis, of continual learning and growth. That isn’t a burden for us or some sort of impossible standard that we can never obtain, but a great joy. God keeps talking to us, continually revealing His grace, that His plans are even greater than you thought they were.
He doesn’t always act the way we expect, nor can we fully plumb the depths of God’s Word. But His intention never wavers. Whether John was doubting or not, whether his understanding of the Messiah was less than perfect or not, doesn’t matter. The Lord’s intent, either way, was to comfort and uphold John in his faith, faith that knew enough to seek comfort from Jesus and His Word.
That is where we need to be as well. The Lord comes to you today as He always does, in every season, as a Shepherd, gathering you into His arms, with healing in His wings. He comes to declare you righteous, to once again speak His cleansing, forgiving, and healing Word to you, both to comfort you now and to prepare you for a blessed death.
Soli Deo Gloria
[ii] St. Matthew 11:5
[iii] cf. Numbers 22.
[iv] Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands (LSB, 458; st. 4)
[v] From this paragraph to the end is adapted from David Petersen’s 2015 Gaudete sermon.