Luke 7:18-28 (Third Sunday in Advent—Series C)
“Greater Than John or Not?”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
December 13, 2015
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson from Luke 7:
21 In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” 24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. 26 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28 I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
This is a text that has always given me trouble. And my trouble comes in to play with Jesus’ words about John the Baptist. If John is the greatest among those born of women how can there be someone greater than he? It really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Either John is the greatest or he isn’t. You really can’t have two “greatests.” So what are we to do with this hard saying of Jesus about John?
Let’s begin by looking at why Jesus would have said what He said about John. Jesus calls John a prophet, yes, and more than a prophet. John was a prophet in that he came into the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins at God’s call and command. Before John’s birth, the angel Gabriel announced to his father Zechariah that his son to be born of Elizabeth in her old age would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.” That “turning” happens through the preaching of repentance, a change in mind and life, brought about by God’s work through John’s baptism for forgiveness. John would proclaim the word of the Lord “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” (Luke 1:16, 17b)
But John is not merely a prophet, says Jesus. He is more than a prophet. How so? John is also the messenger who will prepare the way before God who was coming to His people. As the angel had announced, John would “go before [the Lord their God] in the spirit and power of Elijah. . . to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:17a, c) At John’s birth, Zechariah prophesied, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His way.” (Luke 1:76) No other prophet throughout history had this wonderful distinction. John was a prophet, and more than a prophet, in that he was the forerunner of God’s promised Savior, the Messiah, the Christ. John was indeed the “Elijah to come,” (Matthew 11:14) as the Lord promised through Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of Yahweh comes.” (Mal. 4:5)
Because John is the prophetic precursor of God who came into the world in human flesh in the person of the Son, Jesus, John’s status is greater than any other human being. This status was given to him by God because God called him into the role of forerunner, preparing the way for the Lord through the preaching of repentance and a baptism of forgiveness.
Since this is the case, how can Jesus so quickly, in the same sentence say that the “least in the kingdom of God is greater than he?” It’s right back to the question, “If John is the greatest, how can there be a greater than the greatest?”
What we have here is not a comparison of apples to apples, but apples to eggplants. We are not comparing two similar things, but two different things. There is indeed, of those born of women, none greater than John the Baptism in terms of his prophetic role as the forerunner of the Messiah. But in terms of gracious privilege, those who are least significant in the kingdom are greater than John, not because of their role, or because of what they do for God (in this John was unsurpassed), but because of what God has done for them as their Savior.
As people, we tend to look at greatness in terms of doing. Why would some consider Gordon Ramsey of Hell’s Kitchen fame the greatest chef? Because of his cooking prowess. Why do some consider the New York Yankees the greatest baseball franchise? Because of the teams winning seasons and many world championships. Why are some students listed as the greatest as they are on the Honor Role? Because of their academic achievements. Even John’s greatness is because of what he was given to do as the prophet and herald of the Coming One, God-With-Us, Jesus Christ. But what distinguishes the least, the insignificant, the little ones in the kingdom is that they are greatest, not because they did anything, but because God did everything for them, for you.
The very Messiah, who’s way John prepared, is indeed the Coming One who brings salvation to the least of these, to the most insignificant, yes, to sinners. God in the person of His Incarnate Son works salvation from sin and its effects on behalf of us who are sinful and unclean, unholy and unworthy of God’s love and mercy. Look, the in-breaking of God’s gracious love and mercy in the work of Jesus the Son of God-made-flesh and dwelling among us: “In that hour He healed many from diseases and afflictions and evil spirits, and many blind people He gave generously to see.” In the sight of John’s two disciples, Jesus brought salvation to many as evidence that He is the Coming One: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear; the dead are raised, and the poor have the Good News proclaimed to them.
All this takes place in fulfillment of what Isaiah the prophet said the Coming One, the Holy One of God, would do in bringing salvation from sin and its effects: “The Spirit of the Lord Yahweh is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” (Is. 61:1) These are the very words that Jesus had read in the synagogue at Nazareth in Luke 4, saying, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk. 4:21)
In Jesus, this fulfilled salvation comes to the least, to the broken sinner, because in Jesus, through His person and work, all of creation is being freed from the bondage of its fallenness. Jesus the Messiah brings liberation from the bondage of sin, sickness, and Satan. He heals physically, casts out demons, rebukes the destructive forces of nature. He forgives sins. That to which John’s ministry pointed and for which it prepared the people had indeed broken into the world—Jesus the Messiah had come to bring salvation!
And the God for whose coming John prepared the way would give to us, the least in the kingdom, completely of Himself in order to grant us salvation from sin and death. Jesus would take our sins and its guilt and consequences. He would take them upon Himself as His own and suffer their punishment. He would die in the place of the sinners in order to save us all. And that is what makes you greater than John the Baptist, not in terms of role or doing, but in terms of gracious privilege. Even to be His herald and forerunner, as John was, is not such a great privilege of God’s grace as to be heirs of His kingdom which John, as the last of the prophets of old, foresaw and foretold.
God the Father then is pleased, because of the death of Jesus on the cross, to call you His child and heir of the kingdom. God is pleased to declare you not guilty of sin, forgiven by reason of the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, shed for you on the tree of the cross. This is what God has done in giving His Son for you in order to save you from sin, death, and hell. And it is His gift of grace, His gift of salvation in Christ, that makes you truly the greatest in His eyes. That’s what His love and mercy in Jesus tells you.
So, I guess we really do have two “greatests,” don’t we. John, of all those born of women, is the greatest in that God chose Him to be the prophetic forerunner of the Savior. From a different perspective, you and I and all the “least in the kingdom” are the greatest because God considered us so great, despite our sinfulness, that He would send His only Son to be our Savior, Jesus, whose way John prepared. Rejoice and give thanks, then, that your greatness in the eyes of God is because of His gracious gift to you of His Son, Jesus. In these final weeks of Advent preparation, praise the Lord for what He has done for you in giving you salvation from sin and death by sending Jesus the Messiah, to be conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, true God and true Man, to be your Lord and Savior. Amen.