4th Sunday in Advent + John 1:19-28 + December 23, 2018
In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
This is the testimony of John. All men should repent of their sins and receive baptism for the remission of sins. John was something new. He was less like his father Zacharias, a Levite and priest, offering sacrifices, and more of a prophet, prophesying that the Messiah who was to come was near. That’s why “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him” (Matt. 3:5). Many went out to confess their sins and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. But not everyone. The Temple folk from Jerusalem sent a delegation of Levites to the wilderness, to Bethabara where John was baptizing, to figure out who John was. “Who are you?” they ask, to which John responds bluntly, “I am not the Christ.” Apparently some were of the mind that John himself was the Messiah. You can see why. He appears in the desert, preaching repentance and baptizing as if he were sent by directly by God Himself because He was.
“When then? Are you Elijah?” the Levities ask. The Lord promised in Malachi 4:5, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.” The Jews imagined that God would send Elijah himself. But John answers in the negative. Jesus says of John in Matthew 11:13-14 that “all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.” John isn’t Elijah in the flesh. He comes in the spirit and power of Elijah to bring Israel back to faith in the promises of God, the faith of their fathers. The delegation then asks, “Are you the Prophet?” thinking of the prophet whom Moses foretold in Deuteronomy whom God would raise up from among Israel. But John is not The prophet. Jesus is the prophet to whom all people are to listen. John is a prophet but he is more than a prophet, Christ says in Matthew 11. He is the forerunner of the Messiah, one foot planted firmly in the Old Testament, the other firmly planted in the New. All the other prophets gazed into the future and saw the Messiah from afar. John sees Him with His own eyes and points directly at Him with his own finger. At this the Jerusalem delegation grows irritated. “Who are you, that we may be an answer to those who sent us?” “We’re not here for the preaching. We’re not here to be baptized. We’re on a mission from those who sent us. Just tell us who you are.”
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” He is the voice in the wilderness that heralds the coming one. He is sent by God Himself to prepare the hearts of men for the coming of the Christ. How are they to prepare? Humility towards themselves. Contrition towards their sins. Baptism to wash away their sins. Trust in the One whose arrival John announces. These Levites from Jerusalem refuse to believe. Their hearts are hard and their ears are calloused. “If you’re not the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet, then why are you baptizing? “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.” Why does he preach so? Why does he baptize for the remission of sins? Because he has been commanded to do these things by the coming One. He comes after John but is before John. This is Christ the Lord, who was born in the flesh after John, so He comes after John. But He is God the Son, begotten of the Father from all eternity who has assumed human flesh, so He is preferred before John. This is why John is possessed of such humility, so much so that he doesn’t deem himself worthy of loosing Christ’s sandal strap. The coming one, the one who currently stands among them, is God Himself. He is the one who had commanded John to preach and baptize.
This is the testimony of John by which he prepared the hearts of many for the first coming of Christ. Many believed his testimony. Many did not. It is recorded in Luke 7:29-30, “When all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” And although John was rejected by the Pharisees, imprisoned by Herod, and beheaded on account of his preaching, his testimony goes on throughout the ages to us today. Long dead, though alive to God in paradise, John continues to prepare men for the advent of Christ. This close to Christmas we might think John is supposed to prepare us for the nativity, for the yearly celebration of the birth of the Son of God in the flesh. But that’s not the case. John prepared men to receive Christ’s ministry. His testimony, recorded in the pages of Holy Scripture and preached by Christ’s servants, prepares our hearts for His second advent on the Last Day. There is wrath to come John says. There is only one place to feel from that wrath: Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who takes away your sins. Our sins damn us. But Christ takes away those sins by dying to pay for them. Our transgressions earn us nothing but wrath and punishment. But Christ endures the full wrath and punishment that we deserve. He dies to take away our sins so that all who believe in Him, all that flee to Him for mercy and remain with Him will not perish but have eternal life.
Heed the testimony of John. Hear the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Straighten your heart’s crooked ways. Smooth down its rough places. How? Repent of your sins. Confess yourself to be a sinner. Don’t cover that fact. You can’t. Don’t ignore it or suppress it. Confess it and own it. “I am a poor, miserable sinner. I sin daily in thought, word, and deed by what I have done and by what I have left undone.” Prepare your heart in humility, awaiting Christ whose sandal strap you am not worthy to loose. If the forerunner, the Elijah to come, the one who is more than a prophet, is not worthy to do this, than we are most certainly not. Spiritual pride is the most dangerous of sins because it tells Christ, “No thank you, I am fine just as I am. I’ll do it myself.” But John teaches us humility of heart and repentance, so that we daily confess to God that we are sinners in need of mercy, and that we daily expect mercy from Christ.
John adds to humility and repentance “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Luke 3:3). Confession has two parts, first that we confess our sins and second that we receive absolution from God Himself. The penitent sinners who confessed their sins were then baptized by John and through that baptism God washed away their sins. He has done this for you in the waters of Holy Baptism as well. He has washed you and regenerated you in water combined with His Word, forgiving your sins making you His child. Your baptism covers you every day of your life and testifies to you that God wants to be gracious to you and forgive your sins. That baptismal grace covers you at all times so that you can, in every situation, rely upon it in faith, so that you say, “I am baptized. Christ’s righteousness clothes me.” “I am baptized. I have a gracious God.” “I am baptized. I will forsake my sins and fight against them because God had made me His dear child.” This is the testimony of John. Christ is near. Right now He stands among us as He has promised to be with us in His church and in His Sacrament. Live each day in repentance and faith, looking for the One who is to come, the one whose sandal strap you are not worthy to loose, but who in mercy has atoned for your sins on the cross and taken them away each day through faith.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.