Rejoicing in Suffering

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent based on Luke 7:18-28

Dear rejoicing daughter of Zion: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The first week in Advent we heard of our King who is coming. The second week in Advent we heard John the Baptist’s call to prepare the way of the Coming One through repentance. This third week in Advent is about rejoicing. This third Sunday in Advent is traditionally called Gaudete, which means “rejoice.” It anticipates the joy coming into the world at the Nativity.

Our Introit says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice!” Our Gradual says, “Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion”! Our Old Testament lesson says, “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion… Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” And our Epistle lesson contains the line already quoted from the Introit. Rejoice! Even our Advent candle for the day is rose coloured to signify the joy of this day.

But we have a slight problem. Our Advent hero is in prison. The messenger sent before the face of the Coming King to prepare His way has been thrown into jail for doing what God had sent him to do. John the Baptist preached repentance, telling people to turn from their sins and receive forgiveness. The tetrarch Herod didn’t want to hear God’s Word. He was living in adultery and he had no desire to stop his sin. Instead of repenting, Herod threw John into prison.

John was shocked. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Coming One was supposed to deliver God’s people, not allow them to be cast into a small, dark dungeon. The Coming One was supposed to usher in a new kingdom of freedom, not of chains and bars. John had been sent to preach of that kingdom and the Day of Judgment. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees,” we heard him preach last Sunday. Christ’s winnowing fork is in His hand to collect His wheat into the barn and cast the chaff into unquenchable fire (Lk. 3:17).  How is it possible that Herod can have Christ’s forerunner cast into prison? How is it possible that the one who prepares the way for the Judge of the living and the dead is cast into prison by this this adulterous chaff?

Here in the jail cell, John sees no sign of the deliverance of God’s people. No sign even of his deliverance from prison. This is where doubt sets in. This is where the devil attacks, when John is at his weakest. He begins to question, is Jesus the Coming One? Is He truly the deliverer, or is there someone else? If Jesus is the Messiah, why would I be suffering here in prison? If Jesus is the deliverer, why has He not come to deliver me? So he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Doesn’t sound much like today is a day for rejoicing or for having a rose-coloured candle.

We can certainly relate to John. Things in our lives don’t always go how we had envisioned them. We often have doubts about whether God actually knows what He’s doing. Is Jesus truly the deliverer, or is there someone else? If Jesus is the Messiah, why am I suffering with this serious illness? If Jesus is the deliverer, why has He not come to deliver me? Why did He not deliver my loved one so that now I have to be all alone? We see no sign of the deliverance of God’s people. It still doesn’t sound much like today is a day for rejoicing or for having a rose-coloured candle.

But John knew where to go in his doubt. He sought out the Word of Jesus. And Jesus sent His Word to John. Jesus quotes promises concerning Himself as prophesied by Isaiah some seven to eight hundred years earlier, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear” (Is. 35:5-6), and “the poor have good news preached to them.” (Is. 61:1) This wasn’t Jesus just telling John that He has the power to do all these things. Jesus tells John’s disciples to go back to the prison and tell John what they see. Tell John that you see the prophecies of Isaiah being fulfilled. Tell John that the very things that are promised concerning the Coming One are being fulfilled. Thus I am the Coming One, and I have come.

Very interestingly, Jesus does not carry on with that second passage in Isaiah, which continues, “He has sent me… to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound [Is. 61:1].” Jesus does not speak these words that might lead John to hope for release from prison rather than understanding them to refer to being released from the prison of sin and the chains of Satan. Instead, Jesus adds a phrase that does not appear in these passages of Isaiah. He told John’s disciples to tell him that the dead are raised up.  Jesus does not point John to hope that suffering and affliction will disappear in this life. Instead, Jesus sends John two clear messages. The poor have good news preached to them, and the dead are raised up.

The word used by Jesus for good news is “Gospel.” That’s what Gospel means – good news. The Gospel is the good news that Jesus is the Coming One; that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The Gospel is the good news that Jesus has taken on Himself the punishment of your sins so that you are forgiven. The Gospel is the good news that when you die from this life, you will be raised from the dead to eternal life. Thus Jesus sends John His Word that the dead are raised up.

With Jesus’ response – with His promise – John could wait even for Herod’s soldiers to come and behead him, in his last moments clinging to this promise of good news and resurrection.

This promise of good news and resurrection is also for you. When you have doubts about what God is allowing in your life; when you have doubts if Jesus is truly the deliverer; when you feel trapped in a jail cell of grief with no hope for release – then seek God’s Word like John did. Seek the promises of Jesus. Hear the good news that Jesus’ death is your death. Hear the good news that the dead are raised up.

Don’t expect suffering and affliction to disappear in this life, but rather know that Jesus is preparing a place for you in eternity with Him, away from this world of sin, suffering, and misery. Jesus is the deliverer, and He has delivered you from eternal punishment. Jesus has released you from the prison of sin and the chains of Satan. Jesus will deliver you from all illness, grief, and sorrow.

With this good news from Jesus to you, you also can cling to His promises in the dark moments of your life, even in your last moments of life, even if soldiers are coming to behead you in your jail cell for standing up for the truth of God’s Word.

So rejoice! You can rejoice even in the midst of pain and suffering. You can rejoice even in the midst of grief. Regardless of what you see, feel, and experience, the promises of God will never fail. Your sins are forgiven. You will be raised to eternal life. God will bring you from this valley of tears to your eternal home where there are no tears. God will save you from your jail cell of grief and doubt and bring you to the joys of Paradise.

So “Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion”! “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion… Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice!” Amen.

The peace of God which comforts troubled hearts will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

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