Gaudete! Rejoice! Really!

Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 11:2-11) seems a strange choice for the Sunday historically known as Gaudete (Rejoice).  As the curtain opens on Matthew 11, the scene before us is John languishing in Herod’s dungeon.  Gaudete? Rejoice? Really?

Then the scene gets darker still! Out of John’s heart to the ears of his disciples springs a troubled question they were to carry to Jesus’ ears: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”(3). Gaudete? Rejoice? Really?

At first it may stun us to hear such words uttered by the forerunner (whom Jesus himself defends as the greatest born of women [11] and as more-than-a-prophet [9]).   This is the one whose hand poured the water at Jesus’ baptism.  This is the one whose eyes saw heaven open and the Spirit descend on Jesus as a dove!  This is the one whose voice rang so powerfully along Jordan’s banks as he pointed to Jesus: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).   But had his hand pointed erroneously?  Had his eyes deceived him?  Had his voice proclaimed what was not true?  Gaudete? Rejoice?  Really?

It’s not hard to explain how these doubts may have begun.  Consider John’s words that concluded last Sunday’s gospel.  “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).   Was that what John saw and heard as he pondered the works of Jesus his disciples told him about in prison?  Where was the Messiah’s winnowing fork clearing his threshing floor?  Scandalously impenitent Herod still sat on his throne. Where was the gathering of the wheat into the barn?  John sat in Herod’s dungeon.  Where was the burning of the chaff with unquenchable fire? The hot blade of the executioner’s sword was what was drawing near for John. 

However the thought process developed, John is struggling with a different expectation for how things would go for the true Messiah and for those who follow him.  The way of the cross on which John walked was pressing down very hard.  Even the greatest one born of women was still flesh born of flesh with a heart subject no less than anyone else to the temptation of doubt, discouragement and despair.  Gaudete? Rejoice? Really?

Surely we understand, don’t we?  Let the preacher cast the first stone whose expectations have never been disappointed of what it will mean to be a follower of Christ and leader in his kingdom. You and I have never been imprisoned in Herod’s dungeon, but surely we all know what it means to feel – at times very keenly – that this is not what we signed up for either as a child of God or as a pastor.   Lord, why do you allow what is wicked and scandalous to be paraded about in this world as if it is epitome of love and goodness?   Why do you allow your dear bride, the church, to struggle so often and so visibly with weakness and sin and imperfection while the world celebrates its own version of Gaudete Sunday (and Monday…and Tuesday…and) as they rejoice to call us hypocrites?  Why do you allow doubts and discouragement and despair to rise up in my own heart just as with John if you are the One? We each have our personal lists for why we are less than pleased with the Messiah we have.  ”Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Gaudete? Rejoice? Really?

Yes! Gaudete! Rejoice! Really!

Rejoice because John and you and I do not have a Messiah who snuffs us out when we are smoldering wicks, nor does he break our hearts in two when they are bowed and bruised and bent by the darkness of doubt.  Jesus did not send John away – nor does he send us away – with a thunderous rebuke about doubting prophets.  Instead, he patiently answers us!

And rejoice because of what he answers:  “Go back and report to John (and to Rich and to [please insert your own name]) 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” (4,5).  What John’s disciples heard the crowds talking about, and what they saw with their own eyes, spoke a powerful message to John and still speaks a powerful message to us.  Our Messiah at his first coming began ushering in his new heavens and new earth.  With all he had and would yet say and do, the hold of sin and its consequences was in the process of being broken.  We may not yet see it in its final fulfillment – including the final eternal judgment on all who oppose him – but in the astounding works and words of our Messiah’s ministry is a glimpse of what will be when that final day dawns.  On that day, sin and death themselves will be consumed together with all those who have chosen to live without the one, true Messiah.  On that day, he will most assuredly gather the wheat into his eternal barn where we will know forever without a doubt that we do not need to look for another. 

And rejoice because of the promise that closes his words to John and to us.  “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (6).  Yes!  Finally! Jesus confirms it! Gaudete!  Rejoice!  Really!  Happy are those who send their doubts to Jesus because what is consumed is their doubts and not them!  What the psalmists write so often will forever be true:  we will not be ashamed for having claimed him as our Messiah.  We don’t need to stumble in our following him, even though following comes with a cross now, even though that comes with many a dark day that wants to crush us and discourage us and God’s people with us.   In that path of the cross, his and ours, is precisely what he says: blessing! Gaudete! Rejoice!  Really!

To learn how to rejoice, whether in Herod’s dungeon, or the trouble this world brings on us, or the trouble our own hearts inflict on us, is precisely what we pray for this Sunday.  “Hear our prayers, Lord Jesus Christ, and come with the good news of your mighty deliverance.  Drive the darkness from our hearts and fill us with your light.”

So, we trust, Jesus drove the darkness from John’s heart even though John never left that dungeon until Herod’s sword severed John’s head from his body.  Such is Jesus’ promise to drive the darkness from your heart no matter what has come your way now or will come your way in the future.  Such is Jesus’ promise to those to whom you will preach this Gaudete Sunday no matter what they may be facing.  For we are blessed in the Messiah we have.  There is no need for another to come.  We do not need to stumble to the death of our faith under our crosses because this Messiah did not stumble at his cross until he would finish his work for us all. Gaudete! Rejoice! Really!