I preached this sermon at the Church of the Holy Trinity (REC) in Colwood, BC this Sunday, on the propers for the third Sunday in Advent:
When we open our gospel lesson, we find John in prison. This raises the question: How does the kingdom come? John, imprisoned by Herod, and perhaps rightly anticipating his impending execution, asks whether these grim facts are not evidence that the kingdom is not really coming as he had announced. He exhibits the same fundamental misunderstanding as Peter: “Lord, this” – arrest, imprisonment, beating, crucifixion – “shall never happen to you!” Peter thinks these thing are not how the kingdom comes. Jesus replies: “Get thee behind me, Satan!”
Jesus does not testify about Himself. He testifies about the Father, and He fulfills by His actions the prophecies about the coming of YHWH to Zion.
Jesus is clarifying the nature of His kingdom, and the nature of John’s role within that kingdom. He gives a series of quotations from Isaiah’s messianic prophecies: “the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
These events are being literally fulfilled, Jesus says. He is not here to make an elaborate or sophistical argument. He does not say, “You’re not looking at things the right way.” He simply lays in front of John’s disciples the plain evidence of their eyes: They know the Scriptures, and now they are being fulfilled in their sight and hearing.
But the crowds still need to have their understanding corrected. For them, John is in prison, and this means that he is doubtless a failure, and not the herald of any true Messianic age. So Jesus needs to correct this assumption.
Did you go out to see “A reed shaken with the wind” – the house of Herod, which is likened to that of Jeroboam in the denunciatory words of the prophet Ahijah in 1 Kings 14: “Moreover the LORD will raise up for Himself a king over Israel who shall cut off the house of Jeroboam; this is the day. What? Even now! For the LORD will strike Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water.” Jesus is asking, “Did you come out here because you wanted to see a violent regime change, a revolution, a coup d’etat?”
“A man clothed in soft raiment” – You were expecting the new king to be in the mold of the old king?” That is not what the kingdom of God is about: it is not the replacement of one exploitative and luxurious monarch with another.
No, John is not a one-man revolution, and he is not the replacement for Herod. Instead, he is a prophet. This means an Elijah-figure, a privy-councillor of YHWH who knows His decisions and proclaims His word with full authority. But he is more than that: he is the greatest of all prophets because the event he is declaring is the greatest event in Israel’s history: the coming of YHWH to Zion.
His message is the message of Malachi 4, that YHWH is indeed returning to Zion. But will He find Israel faithful, or will He “come and strike the land with a curse”?
John thus is to be evaluated, not by whether he is creating political effects, still less by whether he cuts an impressive figure with fine clothes, but by whether he is faithful to his commission as an agent of YHWH.
And that, says Paul in our epistle lesson, is also the criterion by which he and Apollos ought to be evaluated. He says that he and the other apostles are “διακονοι Χριστου”, which means that their purposes and actions are all utterly subordinated to Christ. (“Is Christ a διακονος of sin?” asks Paul in Galatians 2:17 — meaning, if Christ is not subordinate to the Torah, is He therefore fulfilling the purposes of sin? A διακονος is a “subaltern”, someone who serves the purposes of another.)
He is also a steward, an οικονομος, one who orders a household, and more specifically, one who orders a household that does not belong to him, but to the master or owner of the house. Here, we need to clarify something, for many Christians have taken the phrase “stewards of the mysteries of God” to mean that the apostles, and pastors and bishops after them, are guardians and dispensers of sacraments, especially the Lord’s supper. Indeed, Jerome’s Vulgate translation renders the Greek word μυστηριον by the Latin sacramentum, and does the same thing in Ephesians 5:32, when Paul says of marriage “this is a great mystery” – so that Rome to this day insists that marriage is a sacrament.
But this is a mistake. In the Bible, a “μυστηριον” is not a sacrament, nor a puzzle, nor something “mysterious” in the sense of the X-files, Agatha Christie, or Sherlock Holmes. Rather, a “mystery” is something that has been hidden, but is now revealed. The word comes from the Greek μύω, to shut the eyes. In Ancient Greek mystery religions, those being initiated were blindfolded while they were led into the sanctuary to behold secret things, but the whole point of being blindfolded was so that you could thereafter see the ear of corn, or the sacred marriage, or whatever secret was being revealed to the initiates.
In Paul’s usage, however, it refers to things that have been planned secretly by God, but have only now been brought to pass. And Paul explains what these things are, and what his own role as a steward of them is, in the most general letter he wrote, Ephesians:
“For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles— if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel, of which I became a minister (a διακονος, again!) according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power. To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, (Ephesians 3:1-11 NKJV)”
The plan of God to unite all things under Christ, both Jews and Gentiles in one fellowship, had not been made known in other ages, but has now been revealed. It is not a mystery in our English sense of the word: there’s nothing particularly puzzling or inscrutable about it. Nor is it itself a sacrament, though the sacraments are certainly the crucial means by which the plan is to be brought about, i.e. baptism and communion are the way in which Jews and Gentiles are put together into one body of Christ, and united with Him and with each other.
As an agent of this cosmic event, the most important thing that has ever happened in human history, Paul is answerable only to Christ and God who have commissioned him and the other apostles to do this work. And therefore, Paul’s actions, and the success of them, are not to be judged by anyone except by the One he represents. No one else has the proper authority to say whether he has carried out his mandate and charge – least of all any human court.
All this is foundational to what we are about to do as missionaries. We would not be going to the Philippines if we did not believe in God’s plan to unite all nations, tongues, and races in Christ. And like John the Baptist or Paul himself, we are answerable to God – though unlike them, we are also secondarily answerable to the churches that have sent us, especially the REC. But our success as missionaries is not to be evaluated by human metrics: by how many babies Sora catches or how many students I teach or how many churches get planted or how many converts made. No, all these things lie in the hands of God. What He requires of us is to be faithful – to discharge with true loyalty and diligence the job He has assigned us.
We do all this in expectation that the same Jesus who came once when John the Baptist heralded Him, and judged Israel, will come again to judge the world. May we all, carrying out our respective stewardships in God’s house, and looking to His revealed will to unite all things under Christ, so walk in His ways “that at His second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in His sight.” Amen.