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Sermon for Advent IV

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ December 20th, 2010

Sermon on St. John 1:19-28

Advent IV (Rorate Coeli)

+ Jesu Juva +– 

The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord.”  — St. John 1:23

Who are you? It is a fundamental question of our identity. It should not surprise us, then, that the priests and Levites of nearby Jerusalem went out to the place where John was baptizing and put this question to him: Who are you? The Jewish leaders had heard of this Advent preacher by the Jordan. Word on the street was that he preached a baptism of repentance, even for the likes of Herod Antipus, who enjoyed wealth, fame, and many women. Apparently, this John had quite a following, and was causing a bit of a stir. So the question Who are you? Was probably a question of authority more than identity, although the two certainly stand together. And how did John respond? “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” Most of us would probably start our answer with “I am,” rather than “I am not.” Perhaps this caught the religious delegation off guard as well. But John put the most important thing first. He was not the Christ. The OT promised a Messiah who would wield the sword of Law and Gospel, calling men to repent of their sins and believe the Gospel. John certainly had the credentials: A pure Jewish blood line; a family heritage in the Temple; even a preaching station by the Jordan, the river most associated with redemptive events in the Bible. But John was not the Christ.

“What then? Are you Elijah?” Again, not a bad option. Recall the ministry of Elijah and consider how many things Elijah and John had in common. Both wore the primitive dress of OT prophets. Indeed, both of them were OT prophets! Both stood up to kings: Elijah to Ahaz and John to Herod. Both lived in the wilderness, reached out to the widow and the fatherless, and were guided by God’s hand through turbulent times. In addition to their common ground, there was a Jewish belief in John’s day that Elijah would return from the dead. Recall, for instance, the unbelievers railing at Jesus on the cross, saying that He was crying for Elijah (Matt. 27:47). To this day, some Jews actually leave an empty seat at festive meals for Elijah. But John knew who he was and who he was not. So he replied, “I am not [Elijah].”

“Are you the prophet?” In Deuteronomy 18, the Lord God promised Israel that He would one day raise up “a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen” (18:15). Spoken during the day of Moses, the Lord had promised one prophet greater than Moses. None of the other OT prophets claimed to fulfill this promise. So what about John the Baptist? He was greater than Moses, a close relative of Jesus, and really an OT prophet living in NT times. What say you, John? Are you the prophet? But John said, “No.” See how John’s answers got shorter and shorter during his heresy trial: “I am not the Christ.” “I am not.” “No.” John was the essence of humility, knowing – as all preachers must know – that ego only gets in the way of the Lord’s work of preaching and baptizing. John was but a voice to preach Christ, a finger pointing to His cross, and a hand to baptize penitent sinners into the coming death and resurrection of Jesus. But he was not the prophet promised in Deuteronomy.

“Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” John replied, “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’” This quote from today’s OT lesson is illuminated by the name of the place where John preached and baptized: Bethabara, beyond the Jordan. Bethabara means “place of crossing,” for this is the place where Israel once crossed from the wilderness into the Promised Land under Joshua. And now, in the NT, it is the place where penitent sinners cross over from death to life, from unbelief to faith. Here we see the “two ways” theme in the Christian faith. There are two ways or roads: the way of life and the way of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways. On one side of the Jordan of baptism is unbelief, death, and the rule of Satan. This is the way of death, the spiritual wilderness where unbelief and death rule our hearts and lives. On the other side of the font, however, is the Holy Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the way of life, the Promised Land where Christ rules His kingdom with scepter of righteousness and the proclamation of forgiveness. Who are you, John? He is the voice crying in the wilderness that we might repent of our sins and cross over from death to life.

So who is John in the context of our Advent journey? He is not the prophet promised in Deuteronomy, but he is a great prophet nonetheless. And his message of repentance has not expired with his death, but resonates in our midst today as the message of Advent: repent! Repent for fearing, loving, and trusting in yourselves above all things; for taking God’s name in vain, as you have been careless and irreverent with the Divine name; for despising God’s Sabbath, thinking the sacrament is not worth getting up early for on Sunday or maybe not worth bringing our children to and making a false god out of your own time schedule and convenience; for not treating your neighbor as if he is Christ among you, for speaking ill of your neighbor, and for coveting what does not belong to you. Yes, John the Baptist is a mighty prophet in our midst as his message of repentance prepares us to receive Christ this Christmas. As we pray in the Advent Communion liturgy, “whose way John the Baptist prepared . . . calling sinners to repentance, that [we] might escape the wrath to be revealed when [Christ] cometh again in glory.”

So who is John for us? He is our Elijah, overthrowing the idols of this world and replacing them with the one true God. There is an interesting connection between Elijah, John and Jesus. In Matthew 17[:1-13], just after the Transfiguration (including a cameo appearance from Elijah), Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone about the Transfiguration just yet. Then the disciples asked, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” The scribes thought Elijah would return from the dead, probably because Elijah never died, but rather went to heaven by a chariot of fire. And Jesus said, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him what they pleased.” Here Jesus was speaking of John the Baptist, acquainting him with Elijah. Both prophets preached the truth in the wilderness, but were not recognized as true prophets by the unbelievers. In this regard, John is our Elijah, a faithful prophet who loves the truth more than he loves his own life. And then Jesus said, “So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Yes, the Son of Man would not be recognized as the great Prophet of God. Therefore, He would suffer many things at the hands of the unbelieving leaders, climaxing in His death on the cross for our sins. So from Elijah to John to Jesus, the prophetic pattern is to preach the good news of Christ crucified, expecting to suffer the same fate as our Lord and His blessed death.

So who are you, John? Or, as John would probably rephrase this question, Whom do you preach? Jesus Christ and Him crucified. “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 sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.” John was before cousin Jesus in time, for he was six months older than Jesus. But Jesus was ahead of John in His person, for Jesus was the very Son of God. John says that he was not worthy to loose the sandal strap of Jesus, which was the lowest task assigned to the lowest position among slaves. Yes, Jesus was the great prophet promised by God. The true Elijah. The Lord of heaven and earth, come down to this earth in the flesh and blood of Christ. So we see here, on this last Sunday in Advent, the final connection between prophecy (John) and fulfillment (Christ). Everything John prepared us for by calling us to make straight the way of the Lord through repentance is fulfilled in the person and work of Christ. As we heard in today’s Introit, “Drop down, ye heavens, from above: and let the skies pour down righteousness.” In Christ, the heavens literally drop down to earth in His nativity. And in His blessed Sacrament, the skies pour down His righteousness into our very mouths.

“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come thee, O Israel.” INJ. Amen.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church

Bayside, NY

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