Dec 11, 2016 – The Greatest of All
There have been many great promises made by our society to us. I remember clearly when I was promised that we would all one day travel supersonically, past the speed of sound, regularly – I even wrote a report in jr high about one aspect of it.
Of course, with the reality of the supersonic Concorde jet being taken permanently out of service I doubt that I’ll see that great promise fulfilled again in my lifetime. I had a relative who worked in the airline industry who has ridden on the Concorde and I’ve grilled him on the details of what it’s like. I yearn for that experience though I’ll never get to have it. It’s a promise – a great promise that just won’t happen for me and for most all of society.
God made great promises to His society, His chosen people in the Old Testament. He used great people called prophets to give His promises through. One of those great promises Jesus quotes from to day from the book of Malachi when He says, “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
The greatness of John the Baptist is not because of the odd way in which he lived his life. But according to Scripture, it’s because John made every effort to point his fellow Jews to Jesus as God’s long awaited fulfillment of His promises.
As we said before God gave great promises to His people, the Jews. Today we see that one of those promises, about the messenger who would prepare the way for the messiah, has come to pass in John the Baptist. But think for a moment about what that promise meant for them in their day.
It used to be when a king came to town it was rarely a surprise event. Someone always went ahead of the king to announce to his subjects that their master, lord and king was about to come to them. This announcement was a word of warning to those who had wronged the king. And it was a word of great joy for those who loved their king and served him gladly. The words of the messenger, the herald, were the same words for all to hear. What made the difference was your attitude toward the king.
Also remember that the messenger didn’t come on his own. He didn’t just get up out of bed one day and decide to walk to town and announce the coming of the king. No, the messenger is one who is sent. He’s sent – by the king. He comes with the authority of the king to advertise the king’s arrival to one and all. The messenger, the one who made the announcement was not acting on his own. He acted because it was his office, it was the job, he was given by the king to do.
So when God in the Old Testament promised that He would send a messenger to inform the people that the messiah was coming, He was giving His authority to that herald to make such a proclamation. And the message of the herald was about another promise that God had made in the Old Testament. That He would send a savior, a redeemer a ‘promised person’ to accomplish salvation for all people.
The Old Testament lesson today contains words about that promised person. By the way, the Hebrew understanding of that promised person is best translated with the word, Messiah. Messiah carries the understanding of that ‘promised one’ as anointed by God to come. So when you hear ‘messiah’, hear promised person. Listen again to what we heard regarding that person of promise, the Messiah. He will come and save you. 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.
Here in Isaiah today God promises that the promised person will save. He will satisfy the vengeance of God against sin. He will bring deliverance from God’s wrath. That is a huge promise!
And to give witness to the truth of that prophecy there will be things that this promised person does. He will heal the eyes of the blind. He will give hearing to those who have never had it before. All these promises will be identifiers, markers, and ways of knowing that the Messiah God promised has arrived. And the actions of Jesus, that Jesus told John’s followers in the gospel to report on, these are very signs or marks of the Messiah. This confirms for John and the world that the great promised person, the messiah of God had finally come.
Do you recognize this quote? ‘But be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ It’s from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” Have you ever met anyone considered a great person? I’m not referring to parents or relatives. I’m talking about people who are recognized by others as great people. It’s been estimated that there’ve probably been no more than 100,000 people in the entire history of the world that would be considered great.
Who might be on that list? Shakespeare himself certainly. And Charlemagne, Martin Luther, and Abraham Lincoln. What about Augustine and Columbus; Barishnikov, John Glenn and George Washington. There’d be terrible names too, like Mao Tse Tung, Hitler, and Genghis Kahn. What about Jackie Robinson, Madame Currie, George Washington Carver, Neil Armstrong, Marconi, Edison … and you. Before we close I’ll come back to that. But, you are great according to Jesus in today’s gospel lesson and so of course is John the Baptist.
Jesus points out that John the Baptist is the greatest of all people born in the normal natural way. That’s quite something to be at the top of a list that includes such bright lights we just listed. Jesus makes it clear that John the Baptist deserves that honor.
But isn’t Jesus Himself greater than John? We’d say yes, but that’s because Jesus didn’t come into this world in quite the same way as everyone else. He was born from the Virgin Mary, as we are preparing to celebrate as we talked about last week.
And by the way, that reminds me of the candle we lit today – the shepherds’ candle. While these guys generally wouldn’t make the list of anyone’s top ten of great people, they were certainly on God’s list. These humble men were given the great honor of hearing the good news of Jesus birth from the angels in heaven. They we’re placed above kings, priests and potentates by God’s grace. Though humble, as Mary was, they too were considered by God to be worthy of this great honor.
At any rate, this humble birth of Jesus is the beginning of what sets Him apart from us. He was born of a virgin, and that again is one of those great promises of God in the Old Testament. And that’s not like anyone else.
Jesus, who John the Baptist points to as God’s greatest promise, Jesus says that John the Baptist is the greatest of those born of women, meaning in the natural way. But Jesus also says that the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist.
Consider this carefully, if Jesus is greater than John the Baptist and Jesus says that the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist, then Jesus must also be the least in the kingdom of God. And so it is! Jesus becomes the least in kingdom of God and so He is the greatest of all, greater even than John the Baptist.
Though John the Baptist doesn’t live to see it, Jesus does become the least of all. Jesus who, when dying on the cross, is the least of all because on that cross He became sin for us. And He took the guilt and all the vengeance of God toward sin on Himself. Jesus in dying that death, was the least in the kingdom of heaven and therefore He is greater than John. Jesus is both least and greatest. And in doing that work of the Messiah, He completes and fulfills all the great promises God made to His people and to us! And because of Jesus on the cross, you are greater than everyone on the list we said a few moments ago.
You are greater than them not because of anything you did, will do or can do. To paraphrase Shakespeare, you are not born to greatness and you cannot achieve greatness, greatness is thrust upon you. It is thrust upon you by the words of Jesus from the cross, “it is finished”. This is whom John the Baptist was pointing to when he said elsewhere in scripture ‘behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. Remember John was the herald of messiah and we said that the words of the herald, were the same words for all to hear regardless of your attitude toward the king. John’s words, pointing all people to the Messiah of God having come into the world and now completed all of God’s promises was what made John the Baptist great. You are among the great persons of the world only because of the great promise of salvation from God having its completion in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Messiah.
His work is yours by grace through faith alone.
Let us rejoice, not that we can boast in any greatness in ourselves, as we have none. But rather our greatness comes from being given the gift of salvation of the Lamb of God that John the Baptist pointed to. Jesus is the promised person, the Messiah, the One who has come into the world at Bethlehem, to take away the sin of the world at Calvary. In the name of messiah, Jesus Christ, amen.
Sermon #859 Rev. Thomas A. Rhodes, Pastor – Zion Lutheran Church, Bolivar, MO
First Reading Isaiah 35:1-10
35 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
Second Reading James 5:7-11
7 Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. 8 You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. 9 Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
10 Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.
Holy Gospel Matthew 11:2-11
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.