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"O Wisdom" (Sermon for Advent IV)

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ January 31st, 2009

Sermon on St. John 1:19-28

Advent IV

21 December 2008

 

+ In the Name of Jesus +

O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High,

pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things:

Come and teach us the way of prudence.

 

I was hesitant when the Lutheran Church introduced blue as an optional color for Advent. Aesthetic issues aside, Robin Egg Blue doesn’t really fit with the royalty of Advent I, “Your King comes to you.” Moreover, blue was introduced to help distinguish Advent from Lent, the other “purple” season of the church year. Was this change a subtle detour around repentance? I suspect it was. But Advent is a season of repentance, for it is the time that we cross over from the ignorance of our sin to the prudence of repentance and faith. And so today, adorned with purple paraments, we learn to pray from the depth of our sins to the Wisdom of the Most High.

The priests and Levites came out of the temple to John. They didn’t come to confess their sins or to be baptized. We might say they came to ‘church’ as critics, not as penitents. They asked John by whose authority he was baptizing and preaching: “Are you the Christ?” Was John was the Messiah, the long awaited Savior of Israel? John was at the Jordan, a place associated with key events in the life of Israel. He was of the house and lineage of Jacob. But John said plainly, “No, I am not the Christ.” They asked him, “Are you Elijah?” Recall that Elijah did not die, but was taken to heaven in a chariot at the same general area around the Jordan where John was baptizing. Again, the question may not be as ludicrous as it sounds to our ears. Elijah and John has a few things in common: the dress and diet of the OT prophet, the conflict with the leaders, and a promise from Malachi that a messenger would appear to call all men to repentance. And Jesus later said that John the Baptist was Elijah for those who believe in Him. But John simply answered, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” they asked, recalling God’s promise to Moses in Deuteronomy that God would send the prophet to His people. John was the greatest of the prophets, closest to Christ in His family tree and His honor of baptizing Jesus. But John simply said, “No.” If you’re keeping track, that’s three questions and three negative answers. And did you notice how the answers kept getting shorter? From “I am not the Christ” to “I am not” to a simple and curt “No.” John was but a finger and a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord and making straight in the desert a highway for our God

The designation of John as a voice connects this Gospel lesson to our “O” antiphon: “O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High.” Wisdom stands in contrast to foolishness. In Proverbs, part of the Wisdom Literature of the OT, we read, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7). Left to ourselves, we are the foolish ones who despise wisdom and instruction. Perhaps you’ve heard folks say from time to time that (pardon their bad grammar) they “don’t like to get preached at.” Indeed, one popular preacher in California once read in the newspaper that people in his county didn’t have a high regard for the Bible, so he stopped quoting it in his sermons! One is tempted, of course, to blame the disdain for the wisdom of preaching on ADD, short attention spans, and our obsession with electronic images to dazzle the eye. These may contribute to our foolishness, but at heart the disconnect between preaching and people is the sinful desire to be our own god, to lean on our own understanding, and to choose what’s best for ourselves. We call it autonomy (self-governance). The OT calls it foolishness, and it is the way to eternal death. Repent!

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Repentance is the first step in the way of wisdom or prudence. And where there is repentance, there is full and free forgiveness in Christ. See how this “O” antiphon addresses Jesus directly as Wisdom incarnate. It doesn’t say, for instance, that Jesus brings wisdom, or is a step along the way toward achieving wisdom. Rather, as all good theology does, it gets right to Christ Himself as the Wisdom from above: “O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High.” The same mouth that once called all things into being in Genesis 1–2 has come to dwell among us in the flesh and blood of Christ, to die our death, and to rise from the dead. Risen and ascended, He now speaks to us through His prophets and Apostles, through pastors and teachers, through Christian parents and friends, to say that Christ is our Wisdom, our righteousness, and our redemption. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Life itself proceeds from the mouth of the Most High, saving us from our own foolishness and giving us the wisdom from above.

Having answered the objections of the priests and Levites, John then received an inquisition from the Pharisees, the rulers of the synagogues. They had obviously conferred with the priest and Levites, for they picked up where they left off: “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” Baptism was something new with John. The Jews had ceremonial washings that you did to yourself. The jars of water, for instance, at the wedding in Cana (John 2) were probably meant for the bride’s bath the night before her wedding. And recall Pilate’s attempt to cleanse himself of guilt at Jesus’ trial by washing his own hands. But John came baptizing. God is the subject or doer, the preacher is the spokesman for God, the water is the visible element, and the baptizan is the passive recipient. This was new and even offensive to the unbelievers. So why do you baptize, John?

John’s answers points to Jesus. For John, it all points to Jesus. All questions are answered in the Word made flesh to dwell among us. “I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose strap I am not worthy to loose.” Jesus was after John in time, for John was six months older than cousin Jesus. But Jesus was before John, yes, greater than John in His person, for He was the Divine Word, the One who was in the beginning with God. “All things were made through Him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” So John’s answer, in effect, was this: “I am but a messenger, a finger pointing all men to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (1:29). Stick around and you’ll see Him step into the Jordan to be baptized and to stand under the wrath of God the Father. ‘And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God’ (1:34).”

Our “O” antiphon describes the Son of God as “pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things.” Just before our Gospel lesson, the Evangelist says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (Jn. 1:1-2). Yes, Jesus was there when God created the heavens and the earth. He was the Word spoken from the Most High, calling all creation into being and mightily ordering all things. And He still pervades and permeates all creation, for He is everywhere, caring for His creation and sustaining its life. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus told the Jews, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (8:51). In other words, before Father Abraham received the promise, I was with God in the beginning because I am God. See, Dearly Beloved, how His presence with creation is our light and our life! Left to ourselves, we only have darkness. On our own, we are forever lost in death and chaos. But the God who pervades all things chose to do the unthinkable: He permeated His creation in the flesh and blood of His own Son. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He entered our creation as God with us, God one of us. He lived a perfect life in our place. He died on the cross to restore creation to its original splendor. He rose from the dead to proclaim the light and life of the Gospel to you and me, to baptize us into His name, and to feed us His true body and blood. Creation is restored. Life reigns again. And God saw that it was very good.

St. John ends with a simple note: “These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” The original text actually says “Bethabara” or place of crossing. Recall that the Jordan River was the place of crossing for Israel as she finally entered the Promised Land. She crossed from slavery to freedom, from the barren wilderness to a prosperous homeland, yes, Israel crossed from death to life. And now, as John was preaching and baptizing, the repentant were crossing from the death of sin to new life in Christ. And so it is for us. Advent is a time to remember our place of crossing, the baptismal font, through daily repentance (purple paramonts!) and faith. Here we crossed from sure and certain death to eternal life with God. This font is our Jordan, where Jesus, who pervades and permeates all creation, came to teach us the wisdom of the Most High, and to keep us in His baptismal grace unto life everlasting. And so, at the threshold of Christmas, we pray, “Come and teach us the way of prudence.” INJ. Amen.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bayside, NY

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