The historic Holy Gospel for the Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete) – preserved in Series A and echoed in Series C of the Three-Year Lectionary – features St. John the Baptist, no longer out in the wilderness preaching, but locked up in Herod’s prison awaiting the removal of his head. It is, in some respects, an odd story for the Sunday of rejoicing, except that St. John does request and receive a Word from Jesus, which is good news for the captive. In that Gospel we do rejoice!
I had the privilege of preaching for the installation of a new pastor on Sunday evening, and we chose to use that historic Holy Gospel (St. Matthew 11:2-15) for the occasion. It was a good fit, as we who are called and ordained to the Office of the Holy Ministry are given to follow in the footsteps of St. John the Baptist. Just as he came “proclaiming a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (St. Mark 1:4), so are we also called and sent to proclaim “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” in Jesus’ Name (St. Luke 24:47) – to baptize and catechize disciples with His Word (St. Matthew 28:16-20) – as we find St. Peter doing on Pentecost Day (Acts 2:38).
As servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are also called to bear the Cross and follow after Him through death and the grave into the Life everlasting. St. John the Baptist went before the face of the Lord to prepare His Way, not only by his preaching and ministry, but so also by his suffering and death. And that is true, as well, for those who follow in His train – especially those who are called, ordained, and sent to preach Christ the Crucified (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2) and to administer the fruits of His Cross in Holy Baptism (Rom. 6:3) and the Holy Communion (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
There is a greatness to this Office of the Gospel, albeit the greatness and glory of the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:14). St. John the Baptist, for example, is a prophet “and more than a prophet,” because he is the Forerunner of the Lord; and “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (St. Matthew 11:9-11). And we whom God has made “sufficient to be ministers of a New Covenant” are entrusted with the Ministry of the Spirit and of Righteousness, with a glory far exceeding the Ministry of the Law (2 Cor. 3:5-9).
For all that, “the one who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than” St. John the Baptist (St. Matthew 11:11). That is to say, as compared to “those born of women,” those who are born again “of water and the Spirit” are greater, by as much as the Kingdom of God is greater than all the kingdoms of man; for “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (St. John 3:5-6). To be sure, the greatness of the baptized is likewise the greatness of the Cross; but it is those who receive this ministry of the Cross, who are baptized in the Name of the Crucified Christ, who recline at His Table and are served by His servants (St. Luke 22:27), who are cared for as little children of the Father (St. Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16; St. Matt. 18:1-4) – they are the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.
Which is a humbling reminder to those who are called to preach and teach, to baptize, absolve, and commune in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ – a high and holy calling, indeed! As great as the baptizer is, the baptized are even greater. It is for their sake, and for their greatness and glory in Christ Jesus, that we are called, ordained, and sent to serve. Even so, take heart, dear brothers in Christ! You also are among the baptized! You also, with St. John and St. Peter and all the Apostles, share in the greatness and the glory of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, by virtue of your Baptism in His Name. That is and ever remains your foremost Vocation. And as often as you fail and fall short within your office and station, as often as you are plagued with doubts and fears, your Baptism stands fast, cleanses you of sin, and adorns you with Christ Jesus.