Jesus’ Greatest Miracle–Third Sunday of Advent 2014
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 11:2-10
December 14, 2014
“Jesus’ Greatest Miracle” (heavily influenced by Tilemann Heshusius’ sermon from his Postilla)
No one ever did as many miracles as Jesus. There are many religions in the world and many so-called prophets, but it’s hard to think of any with the reputation of working as many miracles as Jesus. The Gospels tell us that everywhere Jesus went He healed the sick, cast out demons, made the lame walk. Great crowds followed Him around looking for Him to heal their sick. That was what He was famous for in the time before His death.
Today we live in an age that claims not to believe in miracles. And Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing as many miracles as He did in the days when He walked on earth. But things are not what they seem. Jesus is still doing His greatest miracle among us all the time.
John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was in prison. He sent His disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the coming one, or should we look for someone else?” John seems to be doubting whether or not Jesus was the promised Messiah that God had been promising since He told Eve that her offspring would bruise the head of the serpent.
But in reality it was not John who was in doubt about Jesus. John had baptized Jesus, seen the Holy Spirit descend on Him, heard the Father’s voice from heaven bear witness to His beloved Son. It was John’s disciples who struggled to believe the witness of their teacher, who had pointed Jesus out with his finger and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” They looked at Jesus’ outward appearance and did not see the signs of nobility they thought the king of the Jews should have. Jesus was a pauper, with no place to lay his head. And instead of being surrounded by a retinue of soldiers and noble advisors, Jesus had as His companions a group of fishermen, large crowds of outcasts and sinners, swarms of sick and crippled, blind and deaf people.
So John sent his disciples to talk to Jesus, to seek from His own mouth confirmation of John’s testimony that Jesus was the promised king. They went to Jesus and asked, “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?” And Jesus sent them back to John with His works, His miracles and His mighty deeds, as His answer. “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
Jesus’ miracles prove who He is. He is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. He is the promised one who would crush the serpent’s head and bring blessing to replace the curse lying over all the nations on earth. That’s why His miracles are all miracles of healing and restoration. The blind see again. Those who are crippled are made to walk. The lepers, cast out from society as unclean, are made clean and whole again. The deaf, cut off from communication with other people, are restored to fellowship with their neighbors through the restoration of their hearing. Finally, the dead are raised up. The curse of sin—death—is being undone. All these works show who Jesus is—the one who comes to destroy the curse that has come upon men through sin.
And then in the last place Jesus lists as one of His miracles “good news is preached to the poor.” You would think that last in the list Jesus would list His greatest miracle. But preaching good news to the poor does not seem like a miracle to us. It seems like just words, whereas the other miracles display power.
But no. Preaching good news to the poor is Jesus’ greatest miracle. It is the miracle which shows most clearly of all who Jesus is. The prophets had foretold that there would be healing of bodily disease in the days of Christ, but they also prophesied repeatedly that the Messiah would preach good news to the poor. The Old Testament reading for today proclaims it: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned…
Isaiah 50 prophesies of the Messiah: The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary (v. 4). And Isaiah 61 speaks about the Messiah: The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord 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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Preaching good news to the poor was to be a mark by which people would know the Messiah. It is His greatest miracle.
The good news that He preaches is not just any good news, but the good news of the forgiveness of sins. It is good news that tells that God has put away all His wrath and now graciously counts sinners righteous and gives them His kingdom. Jesus does not come to preach “good news” that we will be rich and have happy lives. His good news is that our sins are forgiven and that we have eternal life out of sheer grace.
And it is not good news preached to the poor who have no money, but the poor in spirit who feel their sins and God’s wrath. He preaches good news to those who are poor like Adam was poor after he stole the fruit and heard God’s voice calling after him, “Adam, where are you?” Adam was the kind of poor man Jesus preaches to—one who is desperate because he knows he has brought down damnation on himself. Or like David when Nathan told him—“You are the man” who deserves death because he has sinned against God.
Why is preaching good news to the poor Jesus’ greatest miracle? Because when a person is awake to the reality of his sin, it seems utterly impossible that God should receive him and show him grace. When we realize what our sins are, that we have broken God’s law and affronted Him, it seems impossible that God could deal with us graciously. Indeed, it is impossible according to the law. Because the law tells us that God is just and does not leave the guilty unpunished. When we are convicted of our sins, we know that we are the ones who have earned that just sentence of condemnation from God. Our reason and the feelings of our heart all rise up against us when we have such a bad conscience. Then it seems like as great a miracle for God to forgive our sins and receive us as if He were to create a new sun, moon, and stars, or if He were to hold the sun still in the sky for a day. And truly, to have your sins forgiven is a greater miracle than those things. Because there is no law that prevents God from holding the sun still in the sky. But there is a law that prevents Him from being lenient with sinners. It is the law of His own nature and being. He is just and cannot wink at sin or tolerate it. He must punish it.
That is why it is such a great miracle for Jesus to preach the Gospel to the poor. It means that somehow God will forgive our sins without being unjust.
That means that He will have to punish our sins without punishing us. And the only way this can happen is if the judge Himself takes the penalty for our sin. That is truly an unspeakable miracle, that God Himself would suffer for our sin.
But that is what Jesus has come to earth to do. And for that reason He goes around doing miracles of healing, setting people free from the bonds of disease, blindness, even temporal death. But He also goes about doing the still greater miracle of preaching the forgiveness of sins to poor condemned sinners who feel in their consciences their guilt and the wrath of God. He sets them free from the bonds of sin. He proclaims that they are released from their sins by the authority of Almighty God; yes, with the authority of the one who Himself would pay the price to forgive sinners.
Jesus is still doing this great miracle today. He preaches the forgiveness of sins through the ministers He sends. And it is He Himself who is speaking and proclaiming to poor, oppressed consciences:
Tell her that her sins I cover
That her warfare now is over.
And He does another unspeakably great miracle. He actually comforts hearts that are terrified and tormented by their sins, so that they believe that their sins are forgiven and covered for Jesus’ sake alone. How great a miracle this is only those who have experienced the torment of a guilty conscience can begin to tell you. When the sun is shining brightly and we are not afflicted with the sense of the greatness of our sins, believing in the forgiveness of sins seems like an easy thing, not too great a miracle. One of my catechumens who eventually ended up embracing Roman Catholicism said this to me once: The Lutheran idea of salvation seems too easy. But in terrors of conscience, when we see a little of what it means that we fall short of God’s commands, that we disobey him, then human nature finds that it cannot believe in the forgiveness of sins. It is impossible for our old nature, seeing sin for what it is, to believe that God forgives us.
Consider the thief on the cross. He was crucified as a criminal. While on the cross he realized that he was receiving the just punishment of his sins. Imagine the despair of recognizing while you are dying that you have deserved what you are suffering! And if he deserved punishment from human beings for his sin, how much more did he deserve damnation from God! Here he was in the midst of suffering for his crimes. It was too late to change his life and do better. Soon he would die and have to stand before the even stricter court of God’s justice. Can you imagine how difficult it would be in that situation to believe that God forgives you, counts you righteous?
But Jesus did His greatest miracle there, on the cross, where human reason sees nothing but death and despair. He preached the Gospel, just as He preaches the Gospel to afflicted consciences in the midst of their terrors and struggle with despair. “Today you will be with Me in paradise!” Even though the thief had no good works to brag about, nothing but gross sin that had brought him to be executed by the civil authority, nothing but the voice of Satan and his bad conscience ringing in his ears that he was damned, Jesus pronounced him there, in the midst of his shame, suffering, dying, to be an heir of everlasting life. Truly that was a miracle!
The Lord Jesus is still doing this greatest of His miracles among us. He comes in a lowly form and through the mouth of a lowly minister declares your sin forgiven and your iniquity covered. He declares it on the basis of the miracle of His atonement where He suffered the wrath of God for your sins on the cross. Now He pronounces you an heir of heaven even though you feel nothing but damnable sin and the wrath of God. The poor have the good news preached to them today. And blessed is the one who is not offended in the lowly appearance of the King who works this great miracle—the forgiveness of your sins.
Soli Deo Gloria