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Sermon for Rorate Coeli – Advent 4
Philippians 4:4-7 + John 1:19-28
Until the sun sets today, we’re still in the season of Advent, the time of earnest, penitent preparation for Christ’s second Advent. We’ve talked quite a bit about John the Baptist over the past several weeks. He is the traditional preacher of Advent. He helps us, by his divinely inspired testimony, to prepare for Christ’s second coming, even as he helped the people of Israel to prepare for His first.
Not for His birth, though—although John did leap for joy in his mother’s womb when the newly pregnant virgin Mary greeted John’s mother Elizabeth. No, John prepared the people of Israel for the Advent of Jesus as He was just about to step out onto the public scene and reveal Himself, by His preaching and by the miraculous signs He would do, as the promised Messiah, the Christ.
But many people mistook John for the Christ, or at least for one who was claiming to be the Christ, and that’s understandable, for several reasons.
It’s understandable, because, according to the prophecies of the Old Testament, and especially the prophecies of Daniel, it was time for the Christ to appear. World events had played out just as Daniel prophesied some 600 years earlier: the Babylonians were defeated by the Medes and Persians, the Medes and Persians by the Greeks, the Greeks by the Romans, who came in and took over the land of Israel. It was during the reign of that fourth kingdom that the reign of the Christ was to begin. Not only that, but Daniel’s prophecy of the “70 weeks,” or, as most have interpreted, 490 years from the decree to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, were just about up. If the Old Testament was reliable at all, then the Christ had to arrive soon.
It was also understandable that John was mistaken for someone claiming to be the Christ, because there had been other preachers who showed up and made that claim for themselves, although they never made much of an impact and quickly showed themselves to be imposters.
Finally, it was also understandable because no one—no man, no priesthood, no human council—had sent John to preach. That may not sound very significant to you; today there are lots of people whom no one has sent, no one has called, but they get up in pulpits or on stages or in stadiums and claim to have a message directly from God. But in John’s day, the people of Israel were well aware that it was a rare thing for a person to be sent immediately, directly by God. And yet, here was John, preaching and even performing this new ritual of Baptism—a ceremonial washing with water for the forgiveness of sins. No one has the right to preach, no one has the right to baptize in the name of God, unless God has sent him, either through the legitimate call of the Church, or directly. The fact that John was preaching and baptizing without a human call could only mean one thing: he was claiming to have been sent directly by God, and that would fit with the Christ.
So the Jewish religious leaders, wary as they were of someone attracting crowds and exposing them for the frauds they were, sent to John to interrogate him. Who are you? And without hesitation, John confessed. I am not the Christ. Very simple. That was the first part of his testimony.
Well, again, this presented a problem. If John is not claiming to be the Christ, then why is he preaching? Why is he baptizing? Are you Elijah? they asked. You remember, I hope, what the prophet Malachi had prophesied—the last words of the Old Testament—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. Actually, Jesus would later identify John the Baptist as the fulfillment of that prophecy, but not like the Jews thought, as if Elijah himself would come down out of heaven. So John denies being such an Elijah.
Are you the Prophet? they asked. They seem to be referring to the Prophet whom Moses said the Lord would one day send, but that was a reference to Christ Himself in His prophetic office. So, again, John said, No.
Who, then? That’s the second part of John’s testimony. I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the LORD,” ’ as the prophet Isaiah said. Why weren’t the Jews thinking about this prophecy of Isaiah? It turns out they missed a lot of what Isaiah said about the coming Christ, maybe because they took Isaiah’s prophecies to be only about the return of Israel from exile in Babylon, as if Isaiah had nothing to say about the Christ as the one who would expose the sins of Israel, as the one who would be rejected by Israel, as the suffering Servant who would be led like a lamb to the slaughter, who would bear the sins of sinful men, and then be raised to life again. All of that was in the book of Isaiah, but the Jews couldn’t accept a Christ who would do those things, and so they didn’t even have this “voice of one crying in the wilderness” on their radar as the prophet who would show up to announce the Advent of the Christ.
But John was that prophet, that voice, crying in the wilderness. And you know how he made straight the way of the LORD. He preached against the sin of those who were secure in their sins. And he preached the forgiveness of sins to those who were overwhelmed by the weight of their transgressions against God and men. That was the testimony of John the Baptist. All are sinners who must fear the coming judgment of the Christ, but God will also provide safety and forgiveness for all in the coming Christ—forgiveness that is received through Baptism and faith.
The final part of John’s testimony followed. 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. Not only is the Christ about to come. He is here! He stands among you, ready to be revealed. In fact, the very next day, John would see Jesus coming and declare, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
But I am not worthy to loose the sandal straps of His feet, says John. Because He is not like me—a mere man, a sinful man. No, the Christ is both David’s Son and David’s Lord. The Christ is both true God and true Man—another bit of blasphemy in the eyes of the Jews, a blasphemy for which they would one day crucify their Christ, because He claimed to be the Son of God, who holds the power over life and death, and who will give life to all who believe in His name.
Well, as Jesus would soon demonstrate, He is the Son of God, and He does hold the power over life and death, and tonight we’ll celebrate His birth, and tomorrow we’ll sit back in awe and contemplate the mystery of the Word made flesh. If you acknowledge your sinfulness, if you sorrow over your sins, if you know the grace of God in giving His Son for poor sinners, like you, the Son of God who was born to be sacrificed as the Lamb of God for the sins of all, if you rejoice in the Lord Christ, who came and is coming, then John’s testimony has borne its fruit again this year, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. And you are ready to receive the Christ, whenever He comes, and ready, once again, to celebrate the good tidings of His birth. Amen.