True or False—A Christian must—above all else—emphasize works. What do you think?
The immediate, good, Lutheran-sounding answer is, of course, False! Right?
In a way, it’s good to answer “False,” because when we hear the word “works,” we think of our works.
And the church is quite good at teaching that even our good works are like polluted garments (cf. Isaiah 64:6).
We certainly don’t need to emphasize those, we know.
But in response to the question—to Jesus—asked by John the Baptist through his disciples, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3), Jesus emphasizes works.
He says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:the blind receive their sight…the lame walk, lepers are cleansed…the deaf hear…the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. Blessed is he who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:4-6).
Jesus emphasizes the works of the Christ. His works.
In John’s account of the Gospel, when Jesus is explaining how He and the Father are One, He says: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me—or else—believe on account of the works themselves” (John 14:11).
If you won’t admit that Jesus is God, you have to admit, the finger of God is at work. “Believe on account of the works themselves” (John 14:11), He says.
Believe on account of the work of the Christ—of God.
Notice the difference:
A Christian must—above all else—emphasize his own works. Obviously false.
Or, A Christian must—above all else—emphasize the works of Christ. Well, obviously.
It’s very telling that when we think of “works” we think of our own and not those of God for us.
Church is like that.
There are churches that talk about worship, what they do on Sunday morning, how well they did or how well it went. Whether they got something out of it or not.
And there are churches that receive from God, by His chosen means, forgiveness, life, and salvation.
When you think of church, don’t think of what you do.
When you think of Sunday morning, remember and rejoice in the works of God, who comes to save you.
The word “worship” derives from Old English. It meant “worthy,” and you would worship what was worth worshipping.
Lutherans called their services Gottestdienst, or God’s-Service-To-Us. In our hymnal, it’s called the Divine Service because here and now God serves the sinner. He comes to us, by His chosen means, delivering to us the forgiveness of sins, everlasting life, and salvation.
It is meet, right, and salutary to emphasize God’s work, God’s service to us.
We know better than to emphasize our polluted works.
The saying “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” may serve well, practically speaking.
But, theologically, it’s a lie from the pit of hell.
My favorite paragraph in the Small Catechism is in the explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed:
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith…”
By my works, I can’t believe in God—I can’t come to Jesus.
But by the work of God…
The Holy Spirit calls me by the Gospel, enlightens me, sanctifies me, and keeps me in the faith.
By the work of God, I am saved.
So if Jesus defines “works”, there’s no problem focusing on Him and what He does.
But if we define “works”, what possible good could come from such filthy things?
So—True or False: A Christian must—above all else—emphasize works.
The answer is True.
Above all else, we emphasize, believe, and hold fast to what our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has done.
When in trouble, it’s not how strong we are that gets us through anything.
When near death, it’s not our beating hearts to which we pray.
We emphasize, believe in, and hold fast to Jesus.
The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.
That’s who Jesus is. That’s what He does.
We know who we’re dealing with.
We know who’s dealing with us.
John knew. Those works identify Jesus. They also identify what the Kingdom and reign of God look like.
Eyes are made to see, ears to hear, and mouths to confess—Jesus as Lord and Christ.
Blessed is the one who’s not offended by Him.
When Jesus says that, when He says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Mt. 11:11), He says it for the sake of John, for all the disciples, and for us.
Jesus quotes Isaiah. Chapter thirty-five: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened…the ears of the deaf unstopped; then…the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).
And He quotes chapter sixty one: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1).
Jesus preaches great news.
John would’ve known these verses—He’s the one preparing the way of the Lord.
But John would also know the bit that Jesus leaves out.
According to the rest of the verse in chapter sixty-one, Jesus should also “proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isaiah 61:1).
That’s important, because John’s in prison.
He hears from behind bars about the deeds of the Christ and sends his disciples to inquire.
If you’re in prison, and you know that the Christ proclaims liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, those are the verses you want to hear Jesus quote.
But. Instead. Jesus says, “Blessed is he who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:11).
John the Baptist is no fool.
He knows what happened to the Old Testament prophets. He doesn’t expect to get out. He’s not offended by Jesus when Jesus doesn’t specifically mention setting him free.
But John’s disciples still need to learn.
And so do we.
Contrary to the antichrist, the Pope and his papacy, we believe that God does lead us into temptation but that most especially He delivers us from the evil one.
Jesus opened the eyes of the blind—but that’s not the way it always is. To know that God has and can but doesn’t—that is leading us into temptation.
Not that we would despair but that we would trust Him.
The ears of the deaf He unstopped. The deaf remain. The lame leapt like deer when Jesus sent them forth. We have heating pads, Icy Hot, and hot toddies—not always in that order.
The dead He raised up, calling them forth from sleep, while ours, young and old, stay in the ground or on our hearts.
To sit in prison while the one sent to proclaim liberty to the captives does everything but…
To endure the cross, fashioned from the unpretty bits of your life while the God who can do all things seems to do anything but…
These are our daily temptations.
But again—perspective helps.
In Isaiah chapter thirty-five—which Jesus quotes, speaking to John’s disciples—before the lame leap, before the deaf hear, before the blind see, immediately before the words that Jesus quotes, Jesus and John knew that the Lord, through Isaiah, said this:
“Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you’” (Isaiah 35:4).
That’s the work of Christ. He will come and save you.
That’s the work of Jesus—God’s work for you.
“Blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” (Mt. 11:11) Jesus says. Blessed is the one who’s not offended at being saved. Being helped. Being empty and filled by God—a beggar, served—a sinner, sanctified. Blessed are you.
Jesus preaches the good news to us poor, miserable, sinners, the Gospel, for those with an anxious heart.
Be strong. Fear not. Christ our Lord came with vengeance and the recompense of God.
When Jesus died, sin and satan and the fear of eternal death were destroyed.
The vengeance of God was exacted for your good.
When Jesus died, the debt humanity owed was swallowed up in the sacrifice of Jesus.
God justifies the ungodly, and his faith is counted to him as righteousness (cf. Romans 4:5).
The recompense of God. The work of the Christ.
The work of Jesus. God’s service to you.
Above all else, we must emphasize, believe in, and hold fast to the word and work of God, in Christ.
That’s most certainly true.
For in His work and by His Word, He comes to save us.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Advent 3 Sermon, 2019
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt