Becoming Good Children of God
“Verily I say unto you, among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” [Matthew 11:11]
Our Gospel Lesson for today is historically and theologically the most important and pivotal moment recorded in the Bible. It is the fulcrum whereby we move from the Old to the New Testament, and nothing will be the same.
In my third grade class this Wednesday we will be performing in the Winter Program. Now, the truth of the matter is that most teachers think I am a real Scrooge because I have successfully avoided performing in these programs for twelve years. But having students singing along with children singing on a CD blasted so loud that you cannot hear the real children sing, to my way of thinking, is NOT a performance. Unfortunately, this year they have caught me.
Additionally, the songs usually have to be secular, although at my school we have always pushed the limits on this requirement. I remember the year the Sixth Grade did “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Well, I am doing a French Christmas Carol in French, so the theological words are lost on most of the people. However, the sentiment of one of the verses is appropriate for our lesson today. In this verse, the lyricist, referencing of the birth of Christ, roughly translated, wrote:
“For more than four thousand years,
He was promised to us by the Prophets.
For more than four thousand years,
We expected this happy time.”
This verse struck me because I cannot recall a verse like this in any of our English Christmas Carols that specifically mention the Prophets predictions. Yet, this is what we have in our lessons for today.
We have Isaiah predicting the Coming of the Messiah. And we will know He is the Messiah because He will perform the following miracles:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing.
In our Gospel lesson, we have what to me seems a very odd event. John the Baptist is in prison, and he sends his followers to Christ to see if Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah:
Now when John [the Baptist] had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?”
This seems odd to me for several reasons. First, Jesus and John are cousins and know each other well. Second, when Christ asked Saint John to baptize Him, John’s statement was that he, John, was unworthy to do so. So, why would John send his followers to see if Jesus was the Christ?
According to the early Church Fathers, Saint John did this, not because he didn’t know that Jesus is the Messiah, but rather so his followers would learn and understand that Jesus is the Christ. In other words, Saint John understood his role, knew he needed to step aside, and needed his followers to stop following him and start following Jesus.
Christ’s response to Saint John’s question was to point specifically to Isaiah’s prophesy that we read today and indicate how it is being fulfilled:
Jesus answered and said unto them, “Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.”
Now, we have a very important aside. We know that there are false prophets. We know there are men who claim to be the messengers of God, but who are not. Both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah had them. And so do we. So, how can we be sure that someone is a true prophet? God Himself in Deuteronomy Chapter 18, verses 21 and 22 tells us how we can discern the true from the false:
And if thou say in thine heart, “How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?” When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.
Isaiah is a true prophet because his prophesies have come true. And Christ is part of Isaiah’s prophesies. Conversely, Jesus knows He must prove He is the Messiah by showing how He Himself fulfills Isaiah’s prophesy.
Isaiah prophesied that when the Messiah would come, the eyes of the blind would see, the ears of the deaf would hear, the lame would walk, and the mute would speak. And Jesus pointed all this out to John the Baptist’s followers so that they would know that Jesus is in fact the Christ.
But, additionally, here is the fulcrum of which I spoke. Saint John the Baptist is NOT a New Testament prophet. He is the LAST of the Old Testament prophets. From him on, we no longer come to God through the Law, through sacrifice, and through the sprinkling of blood. No, now we come to God through Christ!
As a result, Jesus makes another interesting statement:
“Verily I say unto you, among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
What did Christ mean by this? Well, it again hearkens back to the fact that John the Baptist belongs to the Old Testament and not the New.
What Eastern Orthodox scholars would say is that this passage points out that, in terms of the Old Testament Law, John the Baptist was the greatest prophet. However, the New Testament Covenant is of such incomparable value that those who share in the New Covenant are greater than John was without it.
This reminds me of the story that came out of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Kennedy was in San Antonio campaigning against Richard Nixon when he gave an incredible and mesmerizing speech to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Alamo. As you probably remember, the Alamo is where a handful of Texans held off a large Mexican army till their death.
When he was done, Kennedy wanted to make a quick exit. Turning to Maury Maverick, a local politician, he said, “Maury, let’s get out of here. Where’s the back door?” To which Maury replied, “Senator, if there had been a back door to the Alamo, there wouldn’t have been any heroes.”
With the Old Testament, like the Alamo, there was no back door. We had to live by the Law, and as Saint Paul points out, the Law only condemns; it does not save. Yet, with Christ comes our salvation – our back door, if you will. We now can be saved in a way that Saint John the Baptist and all the other Old Testament Prophets and Saints could not be saved until Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection.
So, what does this all mean to us? For us, it speaks on several levels. First, it confirms that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and proved He is the Christ. This reassures our faith.
Second, this passage points out again how fortunate we are to be born after Christ’s birth. We do NOT need to come to God through sacrifice and blood. Jesus did that for us. The curtain of the temple separating us from God has been torn in twain. We now come to God through faith in Christ. And when we accept Christ as our Saviour, we then become the adopted children of God by faith and through Christ. What a joyous event! As our Psalm for today puts it:
PRAISE the LORD, O my soul: while I live, will I praise the LORD; * yea, as long as I have any being, I will sing praises unto my God.
So, let us show our joy. Let us sing praises to our God. Let us celebrate our Lord’s birth. Let us celebrate the new Covenant, a Covenant written in the blood of Christ. And let us vow to be good children of God.