Preached December 11, 2011
1 Corinthians 4:1–5
St. Matthew 11:2–10
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, commonly called Gaudete Sunday. It is a Sunday when the penitential mood of Advent lightens just a little bit, as reflected by a rose candle in the Advent wreath, and in many of our parishes, rose vestments will be in use today as well. The word Gaudete itself means Rejoice, and it is the first word of the Introit as we began this Mass earlier:
REJOICE in the Lord, O ye righteous; for it becometh well the just to be thankful. Praise the Lord with harp: sing praises unto him with the lute, and instrument of ten strings. Sing unto the Lord a new song: sing praises lustily with a good courage. For the word of the Lord is true, and all his works are faithful. He loveth righteousness and judgement: the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord. By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth.
Gaudete Sunday relieves the austerity of the dark penitential season, showing a light at the end of the tunnel to use a modern cliche’, while still keeping our focus on our preparations to meet our God.
In last Sunday’s propers, we had part of the instructions for how the Church is to prepare for Christ’s coming, particularly in the use of the Holy Bible. Last Sunday’s Collect reads this way:
Collect for Advent 2
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Notice how we are individually encouraged to study the Holy Bible, not simply read it through once and then lay it aside, but to study it in depth. The phrase hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them indicates that we are to truly ponder the Bible passages, seeking their full meaning, looking for the connections between different parts of the Bible narrative, and committing these Bible concepts to being our own foundational thinking. This is not the sort of thing that we can do once and be done with it, but rather this is a life long process of reading and study of God’s Holy Word, requiring patience on our part, but rewarding us with the assurance of our hope of everlasting life in our Savior Jesus Christ as given in His own words in the Bible. This is a source that we never exhaust, we never learn all that there is to know. The Bible always has more to teach us, so we never get to the point where we can say that we “know it all and are finished with Bible study for that reason.” That is complete nonsense!
When we turn to the Epistle lesson for today, we find St. Paul discussing the role of ministers in the Church. In the very earliest days of the Church, there was no written Word, other than the Old Testament, and Christ’s ministers were the only ones available to carry His message to the people. Now, in later times, we of course have the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, but there remains the need for properly trained ministers to bring the message of Jesus Christ to the world. This does not reflect a defect in the written Word, nor does it reflect badly on the people of the Church. The written Word is exceedingly difficult to really understand without some introduction, and only in most rare circumstances will anyone simply pick up a Bible and begin to read it entirely on their own, without any introduction to it from the Church. Such introduction is an important role of the Church’s ministers. On the other hand, there is also a need within in the Church to assure that the Bible interpretation for the whole congregation will remain in the hands of only a few people, chosen by the congregation for their wisdom and understanding, and properly trained to serve as ministers for the congregation. This is particularly important for assuring that tradition is properly respected in the interpretation of the Scriptures.
St. Paul begins with, 1 Corinthians 4:1 Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. His point is that Christ’s ministers work at the direction of Jesus Christ to serve His people; they do not work for the people to serve Jesus Christ. The sense of direction of the service here is critical; it is Christ who is serving His people, through His ministers. We can do nothing for Jesus, and we deceive ourselves if we think that we can. As such, the ministry is a very high calling, working directly for the King of Kings, but it also means being called to serve all of human society, from top to bottom. Christ’s true ministers are responsible to no one except Him; they do not answer to a Vestry or Clergy Committee. They are not the ministers of the congregation, but rather are ministers of Jesus Christ for Christ’s work. Your minister ought not to be thought of as overly special in himself, but to be respected as Christ’s minister to your parish, remembering that His Master’s authority is always behind him.
Continuing on with regard to stewardship, he says, 1 Corinthians 4:2 Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful. The ministers of Christ are called upon to faithfully dispense His treasure to His people. That treasure includes His Gospel message, the words of pardon that they pronounce, the Holy Eucharist that they distribute to His sheep, are all only effective through Jesus Christ’s power and authority; the ministers have absolutely no authority in and of themselves. Every action they take for the community is done through the power and authority of Christ; only their sins are their own. What difference does it make if someone disapproves of them as long as Christ approves their actions on His behalf? Or what good would it be if all approve except Jesus Christ? The one essential requirement for a steward is to be faithful. Further, 1 Corinthians 4:4 For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord. It is absolutely necessary that every minister must keep his own conscience clear as a part of being faithful. But as St. Paul says, that in itself is not enough to assure that he has done everything well; it is the judgement of Jesus Christ that will decide, not our own consciences. The work of the clergy is not only to prepare others for the coming of the Lord, but they must also pay heed to their own message in regard to their own lives as well.
When we look to the Gospel lesson for today, we see a prime example of a faithful minister, St. John Baptist, and we hear what our Lord Jesus Christ has to say about him. Matthew 11:2-3 2 Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, 3 And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? We are all familiar with the early ministry of St. John Baptist, preaching in the wilderness, attracting great crowds, even baptizing our Lord Jesus, but now John is in prison for criticizing an illicit relationship at the Roman court in Jerusalem. It looks like a low point for St. John Baptist, and he sends his disciples to Jesus with a question, a question that seems to suggest that John may be faltering a bit in his own faith.
Jesus’ answer tells us much about what a gentle master He is. Listen to His words sent back to give a boost to His servant John who is in prison: Matthew 11:4-6 4 Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: 5 The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6 And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. There are so many ways that Jesus could have answered John. He could have answered in righteous indignation, but that would not be Jesus. He could have simply given a direct answer, along the lines of “Yes, I’m the one all right,” but that would have left John with no real reassurance. Instead, He answers with simple evidence, He cites the miracles that are well known around the countryside, and then adds the gentle reproof, blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. This last part is a little bit difficult for us as modern men because we do not speak this way, but it means, blessed is that person who is satisfied with what he sees in my works. At this point, John’s disciples return to John in prison, and Jesus begins to address the crowd.
Matthew 11:7-10 7 And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? 8 But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. 10 For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
Jesus is here praising St. John Baptist as an unwavering prophet, being unlike a reed that shakes in the wind. He notes, indirectly, that John lived an ascetic life in the Judean desert, which He contrasts with men clothed in fine clothing of the sort to be found in the palaces. John has been an exemplary prophet, living in extreme self-denial and speaking the word of the Lord with unswerving certainty. Jesus would have all of his ministers serve with the same level of faithfulness as St. John Baptist. Oh! if only it could be so!
The Church of Jesus Christ is prepared for the coming of our Lord and Savior by diligent study of His Word in the Holy Bible and by the work of His ministers in His Church. Both are necessary to continue our proper preparation for His First and Second Coming. Let us avail ourselves of each, with the understand that both are provided to us by Christ Himself for our aid.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.