Rorate Coeli, the 4th Sunday in Advent + John 1:19-28 + December 24, 2017

Rorate Coeli, the 4th Sunday in Advent
John 1:19-28
December 24, 2017

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

John is in the business of preparing hearts for the coming Christ. Not much else matters to him, not even the glamour of being approached by an envoy from the Jews in Jerusalem. These men come to interrogate John. The Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, want to know just who John thinks he is. Countless others had gone into the wilderness to see a prophet, indeed, more than a prophet, the messenger who would go before and herald the Christ. But these priests and Levites aren’t interested in the message. They don’t come to hear and repent. They don’t come to be baptized by John. They come to ask, “Who are you?” There must’ve been buzz that John was the Christ because that is what first comes out of his mouth, “I am not the Christ.” Are you Elijah? They were asking this because Lord said in Malachi 4:5, “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.” The Jews expected Elijah to return in the flesh since the prophet had not died but was taken alive into heaven by the chariots of fire. Again, John answers in the negative, “I am not.”  John was not Elijah but he came in the office of Elijah. John was not Elijah himself. But John did come in the spirit of Elijah, in the office which Elijah had originally been sent: to call Israel to repentance and back to trust in the true God. The Jews ask a third question, “Are you the prophet?” Moses had said in Deuteronomy 18:15, 18, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear. I will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him.” To this great expectation John answers a simple, “no.” Their expectation about Elijah was wrongheaded. So was their expectation about The Prophet. The Prophet whom Moses foretold was the Christ. He is the one whom God the Father says, “Hear Him!” at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5). Exasperated with his answers they ask him, “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us?

Since they are not interested in his message, his heralding, his repentance, or his baptism, but despise these thing, John answers them in such a way so that they have to deal with his preaching. “I am the ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said.” He is the forerunner to the Messiah. He is the herald who goes on ahead to announce the coming king. His message is one of repentance. Straighten you hearts by repenting of your sins. Humble your exalted view of yourselves. Straighten your crooked desires and smooth out your rough tongues. Prepare the way of the Lord by sorrowing over your sins and admitting that you deserve God’s just punishment and wrath for your transgressions. Make straight the Lord’s path into your heart by clearing away the debris of your sinful expectations about how God works. John tells another crowd in Luke 3:8-9, “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Do not rely on your ancestry. Do not rely on your bloodline. Do not rely on your own history. None of that matters to the One who comes after John. He is looking only for repentance from sin. If you put your trust in yourself, your own merits and goodness, or anything about yourself, you will be unworthy to receive such a Lord. This is why so many refused to hear John. His message didn’t sit well with sinners who want God to favor them based on their own works, their own goodness, their own ancestry, and imagined self-importance.

King Herod was one such hearer. Herod had taken his brother Philip’s wife, which is just one of the many wicked things he had done. John rebuked the king concerning his brother’s wife and told him to repent. Herod chose retaliation over repentance and added to his sins that of shutting John the Baptist up in prison and eventually executing him. In a similar, but less violent way, these Pharisees sent from Jerusalem stop up their ears to His message. He has answered their question. He is “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord.” But they don’t care for this answer. They came seeking John’s credentials and went those credentials don’t meet their expectations, they launch a thinly-veiled accusation. “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “You can do what you’re doing and you can’t say what you’re saying if you’re not the Christ, Elijah, or The Prophet.” If they can delegitimize John then they don’t have to listen to him. They wouldn’t have to repent and bear the fruits of repentance. They wouldn’t have to be baptized in the Jordan by a camel hair wearing, locust and wild honey eating desert dweller. If they submit to John’s preaching and baptism they admit to everyone that they are sinners in need of repentance. If they submit to John’s authority then they admit they have none of their own, so they ask, “Why then do you baptize?

I baptize, he says, because “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.” He baptizes because the Christ is near. He’s so near that He’s standing out there right now in your midst. John knows Him because He had baptized Him and saw the Spirit descend and remain on Him. John baptizes because baptism is the answer to repentance. John did not want people to merely confess their sins, admit their guilt, and then try to deal with their sins on their own. John wasn’t simply a fire and brimstone preacher who wanted to scare his hearers into living better, holier lives. John preached the full force of the Law, that all men are sinners who stand under God’s wrath and that the only way to flee that wrath is to repent and then be baptized, for baptism is how John was sent to deal with the sins that were confessed. St. Luke writes in his third chapter (v.3) that John came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” Sins confessed to God are forgiven by God. And God forgives sins in baptismal waters. The Lord prophesied in Ezekiel 36:25, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.” The Lord says in Zechariah 13:1, In that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness.” God opens up the foundation for washing away sin and uncleanness in the Jordan River. It is there in the Jordan that sins are confessed and water applied to sinners to cleanse them from the filth of their sins and the idolatry of their hearts. This is why John baptizes, because the Christ is near. And since the Christ is near, each soul must prepare to meet Him. And each soul prepares to meet Him by humbly repenting of his sins and having them washed away in water that is combined with God’s word of promise.

John is the preacher of Advent. We know that Christ has come once in the flesh. We will celebrate His nativity tonight and then for the next twelve days. We know that the One who came in the flesh will come again in glory on the Last Day, to just the living and dead and we know that that day will come like a thief in the night. It will be like stepping into s snare. No one will see it coming. John was the preacher preparing the way for Christ’s first advent in the flesh. John is our preacher during this time before Christ’s return as well. Like the Jews of John’s day, we know that Christ is coming but we know not when. How do we prepare for such a coming? What does the voice crying in the wilderness say? “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Repent of your sins daily. If you can’t think of any sins, then consult the Ten Commandments and let Moses show you your sins of thought, word, and deed. Repent of your anxieties which lead you away from trusting God with all your heart. Repent that your heart is cold and sluggish to pray and let your requests be made known to God. Repent for treasuring the things of this life more than your greatest treasure: God’s Word and His Sacraments. Repent of the angry thought, the lustful fantasy, the covetous desire for possessions and situations your Lord has given to someone else and not you, repent of speaking ill of others and failing to defend their reputation as if it were your own. John holds out the commandments and says, “Repent. Confess your sins and bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” meaning, fight against those sins and work to suppress them.

And then flee to baptism and have those sins washed away. Flee to the fount where God promises to wash away every one of your sins, for that water is “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). There is no need to be baptized again and again each time sin. We’d never dry off. Since baptism is the Lord’s word and work it endures forever, so that even when you sin, and even if you sin most grievously, after baptism, it is still there, waiting for you to return to it and trust in the promises God made to you when He baptized you. Just as John’s hearers could say, “I have confessed my sins and I am baptized,” so you, having been baptized in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, should say, “I will confess my sins to God because God has promise in baptism to be my God and forgive all my sins whenever I repent and turn to Christ.” Luther called baptism one of our most precious treasures because of this. Our baptism stands firm every day, so that no matter what the devil, the world, or our sinful flesh lead us into, we can rely upon God’s promise to always forgive us and restore us. For this reason we can daily remember our baptism and all the gifts God gives us in that water combined with God’s Word. Our baptism is a fortress of defense for us in the hour of temptation. It is a comfort and consolation for us when we fall into sin, for we know we have a gracious God who desires to forgive our sins and save us from them and all the devil’s works.

This is how John bids us prepare our hearts. Do not, like the priests and Levitites, despise His preaching. Gladly hear and learn it each day, for it is the simple Christian gospel of repentance and faith in Christ. John teaches us to daily repent and then flee to the Baptism with which Christ washed us and cleanses us from every sin. Living in repentance and faith in Christ to take away our sins, then and only then are we truly prepared for the One who comes after John. Amen.

May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. 

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