Luke 7:18-28 (29-35)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Our sermon text for this Third Sunday of Advent is the Gospel lesson recorded in the 7th chapter of St. Luke.
As we begin our time in this text today I would like to share with you a quote from a leadership book I once read, “I know of few afflictions more persistent than discouragement. It’s like a debilitating disease. Rare is the person who can resist or overcome it alone.”
The quote highlights two things that are explicit in our Gospel reading: First, discouragement is as awful as it is common. No one—and I mean no one—is exempt. Second, the way out of discouragement is not something you can do alone. Or perhaps more precisely—it is not something you can do it all. The only real way out of this common and steady stream of discouragement the world throws at a Christian is rescue—and not just any rescue but the gracious rescue of Jesus Christ himself.
Let’s examine this debilitating and persistent disease of discouragement. From the point of view of health and strength discouragement of course does not even seem like a possibility. We can even imagine situations that might produce discouragement and in the fashion of a soliloquy laugh the possibility away: “I could handle anything the world throws at me. Financial trouble: Piece of cake. Family Discord: Please, give me a challenge. Pain: No problem. Death: I laugh at death.”
From the point of view of weakness, however, discouragement quickly becomes not merely a possibility but the debilitating disease that it is. There is an old athlete’s proverb, “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” In sports it works like this: If you’re in good shape, if you are feeling strong than you’re not scared. You’re confident. But if you start to get a little tired. If you start to feel a little weak. You get banged up it becomes harder and harder to put your body on the line and make the play. And in that moment your fatigue has made you afraid. And afraid you recognize you are discouraged—nothing is going your way. And it seems improbable that things will get turned around.
That’s how fatigue makes cowards of us all in sports. In the Christian faith this fatigue that ushers in the debilitating disease of discouragement looks like this: John the Baptist had come preaching a strong and powerful sermon, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” John had introduced a baptism of repentance and forgiveness and people were listening. They were indeed preparing themselves for the arrival of the Messiah. John was fearless in his preaching. He preached not only to the common man but saved his harshest and most courageous criticism for the leadership of Israel: The Pharisees, the Sadducees and King Herod. Then Jesus himself, The Lamb of God who take away the sin of the world had been baptized by him. The time of the Messiah had arrived. Surely, John as the one who ushered in the arrival of the Messiah should only expect good things to follow—The Reign of God had begun! Of this John and the power of his preaching as the role of the forerunner Jesus says this in our text, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John.”
If ever there was a man who should be immune to this debilitating disease of discouragement it should be John. Again, Jesus said there is no one greater than he—And yet . . . And yet this is exactly the situation that we find John the Baptist in the midst of in our text.
John had been thrown into prison for his bold criticism of King Herod. And it would seem that the rigors of prison life, especially an unjust imprisonment had brought on the persistent and debilitating disease of discouragement. With the fatigue of prison life, fear and doubt began to set in. John was discouraged. Not even he was immune.
And, us lesser humans, can identify I think with what had to be his reasoning: If Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. . . If Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. . . If Jesus is the Savior ushering in the Kingdom of God’s grace. . . Why had he not been rescued from prison? Why was he being left alone to rot away and die? So John in discouraged desperation sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we look for another?” Ah fatigue, it indeed makes cowards of us all—even the greatest.
John is not alone in his discouragement. In fact, he shares his discouragement with some of the other great ones of Holy Scripture. King Solomon was so discouraged near the end of his reign he wrote in Ecclesiastes, “Meaningless, meaningless says the teacher. All is meaningless. I have seen everything that is done under the sun and behold, all is meaningless and a chasing after the wind.” Elijah, the very one whom John’s ministry was patterned after, was once so discouraged he only wanted to die. In that moment Scripture records the great intensity of this debilitating disease of discouragement, “It is enough; now O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” I think it is safe to say that when you desire for your life to be over that the debilitating disease of discouragement has nearly run its awful course.
Discouragement, the persistent, debilitating disease brought on by the fatigue of life. When you are discouraged you have probably discovered it is hard to get out of that particular funk. And no wonder.
If King Solomon and Elijah and John the Baptist (again whom Jesus counted as the greatest) found it impossible to get themselves out of the funk of discouragement . . . if they could not cure themselves of this debilitating disease then what hope for rescue is there for any of us?
The hope for rescue from the debilitating disease of discouragement begins and ends with the merciful Christ. John’s faith was being undermined by this debilitating disease of discouragement and so he asks in desperation, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” The answer of the merciful Christ is not a simple Yes. John’s faith was weak. It needed something more substantial to rescue it from this persistent discouragement. So Jesus tells John’s disciples, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
There is an old saying, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, must be a duck.” The merciful answer of Jesus Christ to a discouraged John is this, “I look like the Messiah, I talk like the Messiah, I do miracles like the Messiah, I must be the Messiah.”
I have perhaps misled you this morning a little bit in my quote of Jesus when he said, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” The reason it was perhaps misleading you is because Jesus goes on to say, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Who is the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven who is greater than even John? Only one person can be the answer. And that person is the one of whom the great one John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The one who is least in the kingdom is least for this reason spoken so profoundly in Philippians, “He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the form of the servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
And the reason this one who is the least in the kingdom is ultimately and finally greater than John is because of that death on the cross and so Philippians continues, “Therefore [because of that obedient death on the cross] God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. “
This one who was least in the kingdom of heaven and has become the greatest is Jesus Christ. And this Jesus Christ lives and reigns to all eternity and has promised from that position of power that he is with you always even to the end of the age. Therefore we should not look for another to defeat the debilitating disease of discouragement. Therefore we need not look for another to defeat the debilitating disease of discouragement. It is Jesus alone who rescues us from the darkest moments of the debilitating disease of discouragement.
As discouraged as John was in his imprisonment I believe there is another even darker discouraging moment recorded in the Gospels. It occurs three days after Jesus has been crucified. That morning two of Jesus’ disciples on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus shared with a stranger their discouraged defeat: “Our chief priests and rulers delivered [Jesus] up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Had hoped, but in the face of that awful death discouragement settled in and their faith was disappearing. But when they had dinner that night with this stranger and that stranger was revealed in the breaking of the bread to be the living Christ their hearts burned within them and in an instant the debilitating disease of discouragement was vanquished.
Thomas didn’t care what any of them said that day. He was so discouraged that he boldly said he would never believe unless he touched the nail marks in Jesus’ hands. And again, as he had been merciful to John and to the Emmaus disciples and countless others he was merciful to Thomas and gave Thomas the opportunity to touch and see. And in that instant the debilitating disease of discouragement was vanquished as Thomas confessed, “My Lord and my God.”
We began with this thought, “I know of few afflictions more persistent than discouragement. It’s like a debilitating disease. Rare is the person who can resist or overcome it alone.” It is true that you cannot overcome or resist this debilitating disease of discouragement alone—no matter who you are. But the good news is precisely this: you are not alone--The living Christ is with you. And this Christ is not only living He is full of mercy and compassion, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. And therefore in your darkest moments overwhelmed by the disease of discouragement you can say with St. Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” For in weakness the living Christ comes and He lifts you up with His word of life.
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear—and be encouraged.” In the name of Jesus, Amen.