[Matthew 11:7-10] As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses.9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’”
Lord’s Messenger, No Shaking Reed
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” John the Baptist was the Lord’s messenger – one who was not shaken by the blowing winds of those who opposed the Lord’s message, in the world or in the church.
What did the crowds see in the wilderness? John, who announced the Christ’s arrival, was faithful to the Word of Christ, veering neither to the left or to the right. John faced opposition to his preaching of the Word of God, yet John did not give in to the temptation of taking the easy way out. There were, in fact, two easy-way-outs John could’ve taken.
The message of God’s Word is two-fold – Law and Gospel – and, therefore, is opposed on two fronts. In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist is sitting in whose prison? King Herod’s prison for preaching God’s Law to King Herod about his adultery – King Herod’s brother’s wife got a divorce from her husband to marry King Herod instead. It was adultery for King Herod and this woman to do that. John the Baptist proclaimed the truth of God’s Law, the Sixth Commandment.
John the Baptist also came proclaiming God’s Law in his message of judgment – “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.” [Matthew 3:10]
John the Baptist could’ve avoided having many enemies, could’ve stayed out of prison and spared his own head, by refraining from speaking the truth of God’s Law and judgment. It would’ve been an easy way out to preach only God’s kindness and not God’s severity. But John the Baptist was not a shaking reed. He was a messenger of the Lord Jesus.
John preached God’s Law. Yet, John’s first enemies opposed him for preaching what? John the Baptist’s first enemies were the Pharisees, and they opposed John for preaching God’s forgiveness. John preached God’s Law and Judgement, but the core and the goal of John’s preaching was what? The forgiveness of sins. Pardon from God.
John the Baptist came preaching and…. baptizing! And, according to Scripture, his was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” [Mark 1:4]. A two-fold baptism and preaching – repentance and forgiveness.
The Pharisees refused to accept John and his Baptism because of who John was forgiving. He was giving God’s forgiveness to real sinners – the prostitutes and tax collectors and publicly known sinners. Against these unclean types of sinners, if John had preached only judgment, he would’ve made friends with the Pharisees and been well accepted. It would’ve been an easy way.
Instead of taking any easy way out, John lived with opposition on both sides – hated for his forgiveness and preaching God’s pardon – hated for preaching also a condemning Law which says we must repent. John preached with no friends on either side in this life – but he was certainly a friend of the Lord – and he was a valuable friend to those repentant sinners who received his preaching and his baptism.
Scripture says, “Friendship with the world is enmity with God” [James 4:4]; “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” [John 15:18]; “What is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” [Luke 16:15]
Brothers and sisters, there is an easy way to make friends with those to your left in this world – be a messenger of the Lord who only talks about God’s kindness and never about the need for repentance from sin and holiness of life.
And there is a way to make friends with those to your right. Condemn and judge. Don’t be one who offers forgiveness and understanding for those known and unclean sinners.
Both ways are ways of taking the easy way out. Being harsh and unyielding is an easy way out. You never actually have to do the hard work of helping the sinner. You just repel them. Yet, only being about kindness means they never have to deal with their sin – which is no good for them, just easier for you.
The hard way is the right way. Upholding fully God’s Gospel of forgiveness for the sinner. Also upholding fully God’s commandments and call for repentance from sins. Myself, and you individually, and altogether as the Church – we are tempted to blow back-and-forth like grass in the world’s winds – right and left – but that grass withers – the Word of the Lord stands forever.
“Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” [Isaiah 40:8]
How often we have failed. I have failed others and my Lord in this regard many times as a pastor. You have, in your ways, as brother, sister, father, mother, etc. Yet, the core and final outcome of God’s mission is the forgiveness of sin – also for you and me in regards to this failure.
Because He forgives sins, He does carry out His good for others even through the midst of the failures and frailty of our sin-serving natures. We each have full and serious reason for repentance. He forgives fully. He does His good work.
And, John the Baptist, who was no shaking reed in his preaching of God’s message, did shake personally. In prison, trapped, in that hard time, he doubted. He said of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” The Lord answered and sustained John in that hard time, as He will also do for you.
Let’s listen again to the full, two-fold message of John the Baptist, preaching fully and faithfully God’s Word. John said, “Repent, the kingdom of God is near”; “the axe is laid to the root of the trees”.
Yet, in Isaiah 40:1-8, today’s Old Testament reading, the Holy Spirit, speaking through Isaiah, foretells the chief goal of John’s message: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.” And, “the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” [Isaiah 40:1-2,4]
Pardon. Forgiveness. Your warfare is ended. Grace beyond grace – you’ll receive double God’s goodness compared to the evil you’ve done. Safe and even footing on what was rough ground.
John the Baptist was right – He saw Jesus and said, “Behold (Look!), the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” [John 1:29]. Jesus is God’s Lamb – God’s sacrifice that He has offered – for your sin and death.
When you shake, behold, look to God’s Lamb, Christ crucified for you. What He has completed for you on the Day of His Cross, He is coming soon to complete in you – and in many others – on the Day of His Return. Amen.