Fourth Sunday in Advent + John 1:19-28 + December 18, 2016

Order of Holy Communion - pg. 15
Hymn # 75 Ye Sons of Men, Oh, Hearken
Hymn # 272 When All The World Was Cursed
Hymn # 55 Come, Thou Precious Ransom, Come

Introit - Pg. 55

Rain down, you heavens, from above,
And let the skies pour down the Righteous One;
Let the earth open her womb,
And bring forth Salvation. (Isaiah 45:8) 

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Their line is gone out into all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens He has set a tabernacle for the sun,
Which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber.
Its rising is from one end of the heaven,
And its circuit to the other end. (Psalm 19:1, 4–6)

Readings
Isaiah 40:1-8
Philippians 4:4-7
John 1:19-28

Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

Stir up, O Lord, we beseech Thee, Thy power, and come and help us with Thy great might, that by Thy grace whatsoever is hindered by our sins may be speedily accomplished through Thy mercy and satisfaction; Who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Sermon
 

Grace and Peace be unto you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

1)         The Jews in Jerusalem send priests and Levites to the banks of the Jordan River at Bethabara where John was baptizing. These men don’t go to John as so many other did, to hear his preaching, to repent of their sins, and be baptized for the remission of their sins. Their mission is less pious. They go to John for reconnaissance. They are send to find out more information at this rogue Judean baptizing in the wilderness. If the Jews of Jerusalem had believed John’s message, or thought that he just might be the Christ, or Elijah, or the Prophet Moses foretold, they would have gone out to the Jordan River themselves. Unlike so many others, these men sent from Jerusalem do not come with open hears and hearts, but with questions. Their primary question is “Who are you?” John was not like the Old Testament prophets who prophesied in Jerusalem, in close proximity to the Temple. John was not like the Old Testament prophets because He not only preached repentance but baptism to remit the sins confessed. John’s appearance also might have perplexed these city folks. Matthew writes that “John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). He wore the leather belt as did the prophet Elijah. But the camel’s hair clothing and locust diet must have perplexed them. It would be interesting to see just what kind of answer they would get to their inquiries. Most other’s would have called him a prophet without thinking twice. But what would John say of himself?

2)         His answer is quite clear. “I am not the Christ.” The Jews hadn’t asked if he was the Christ. But John’s mind is so focused upon the Coming One, who was now present in the world, that He could not help but speak about the Christ. The Jews press on, “What then? Are you Elijah?” The Jews had been expecting Elijah ever since the final Old Testament prophet, Malachi, said, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6). For nearly four hundred and fifty years the Jews had expected the return of Elijah the Tishbite, the prince of the prophets. He could return, they imagined, because he had not died. Walking on the east side of the Jordan with Elisha, a “chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11). John tells these Jews that He is not Elijah. He denies it simple, “I am not.” And his words are true. The Jews expected Elijah the Tishbite, come back from the Lord’s presence. But this is not what the Lord intended. John’s father, Zacharias, inspired by the Holy Ghost, said that John “will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,' and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). Jesus said something similar when in Matthew 11:14, “If you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.” John comes as a true Elijah, not the same person as Elijah the Tishbite, but John comes in the same office as Elijah, a prophet ordained to preach the Law and Gospel to Israel so that they might prepare for the coming of the Lord.

3)         The Jews persist and ask finally, “Are you the prophet?” The prophet to whom they refer is the prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear.” John had to answer “No,” because while he was a prophet, and as Jesus said in Matthew 11, “more than a prophet,” John is not THE prophet prophesied by Moses. That title belongs to the Christ. The Messiah would be THE prophet who would faithfully and truly teach Israel the Word of the Lord. This is made plain at Christ’s Transfiguration when the Father echoes the final words of Deuteronomy 18:15 and says, “Hear Him.” John is none of these. He is not the Christ. He is not Elijah the Tishbite, though He comes in the office of Elijah. Nor is he THE prophet who is like Moses. John really hasn’t answered the Jew’s initial question, “Who are you?” You can only learn so much about a person by learning what they’re not, after all. So they press him all the more for a positive answer of who he is, that they may give report to the ones who sent them.

4)         His answer seems to infuriate them all the more. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” Immediately the Pharisees among them ask John, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor The Prophet?” John finally gives them a positive description of himself, or rather, of his office, and they do not understand. “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, who sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.” John is not all that interested in talking about Himself. He is more interested in the One who is already among the crowds, who has not yet been revealed to the crowds, the one who is to be preferred to John. What he’s saying is that there is another one to come after Him, and his job is to prepare men’s hearts for the Coming One. That is why he baptizes. That is why he preaches the way he does. Everything John does he does because he is the “voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!” The Jews, the priests, Levites, and Pharisees, refuse to understand that He doesn’t have to be the Christ, Elijah returned, or The prophet in order for them to have to listen to him. They need listen to him only long enough for Him to point out the who stands among them whom they do not know. He is the forerunner to the Messiah. He is the herald of the Christ. Who John is isn’t important. His message is.

5)         John defines his entire ministry in those words of the Lord from Isaiah 40. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” John’s message is that the Christ is coming, and not in the far off future, as the other prophets spoke. Rather, the Christ is coming and is now so close that He stands among you. Because of His nearness, prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight a highway for our God. Not a literal path. Not an actual highway. John urges all who will listen to prepare their hearts for the Coming One. The rest of Isaiah 40 tells us precisely why and how we are to prepare our hearts for the Coming One. The “how” we see in the other gospel accounts. He says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! (Matthew 3:2). He bids all men repent regardless of their station and birth because the voice in the wilderness of Isaiah asks, “What shall I cry?” And the Lord answers, “All flesh is grass, And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it; Surely the people are grass” (Isaiah 40:6-7). John commands all to repent of their sins and sorrow over their sins because all mankind is like grass which flourishes today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire. Only the Word of the Lord endures forever. Man does not because of his sin. So repent. Lament them. Mourn them. And realize that you must be better people, but also realize that you cannot by your own powers become better people, holy people, new people.

6)         In that repentance of our sins, John then preaches the reason we should prepare our hearts in such way, the “why.” And that is not only because all flesh is grass before the breath of the Lord and that He threatens sinners with everlasting punishment. We are to prepare our hearts through repenting of our sins so that the Coming One can do away with our sins and remove them. The Christ comes to forgive sins to all who truly repent. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “’Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ Says your God. Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2). John bids us to repent of our sins, to mourn them and desire to be rid of them so that the Christ may speak not just comfort to sinners, but double comfort. We repent because we expect forgiveness. We make confession because we need to hear the absolution. We admit our deserved punishment so that we might then be comforted by gospel that tells us our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. John preached repentance. He also preached the forgiveness of sins through baptism. Then he pointed to Coming One, the one who stood among the people, the one who, coming after John, was to be preferred over John. In the verse immediately following the last verse of today’s appointed Gospel, John lifts up his finger, points to Jesus, and exclaims for all to hear, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

7)         John’s identity is his office of the Elijah who was to come, not Elijah himself, but one in the spirit of Elijah. John, like Elijah, preaches repentance because it is the only way to prepare one’s hearts for the advent of the Christ. It is the only way to truly prepare for the yearly celebration of His nativity in the flesh as well. For the celebration of His first coming, for His advent on the Last Day, and for every advent of Christ through His Word, we cannot prepare for His coming through prayers, fastings, pilgrimages, charitable giving, or self-mortification. We cannot prepare a highway in your heart by anything we do or any great striving of our souls. The only way to prepare the way of the Lord is to repent of our sins and then hear those sweet and blessed words by which John tells us exactly what God does with our sins that so trouble us, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Make straight the way of the Lord once again through repentance and faith in Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins. For He is near. Amen.

Now may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.

 

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