Good people have a hard time with John – and with Jesus

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Sermon for Rorate Coeli – Advent 4

John 1:19-28  +  Deuteronomy 18:15-19  +  Philippians 4:4-7

Before the season of Advent draws to a close, we have one more week to get ready for Christmas, one more week to take a hard look at ourselves and see in ourselves the sin for which the only solution was for God to send His Son down from His throne to be born as a Man.  We wait for Jesus in repentance, and no preacher or prophet in history preaches repentance like John the Baptist.  Like a faithful friend, like a good brother, John is always there for us during the Advent season.  He meets up with us in the Gospel twice every December to call us to repentance and to point the way to the coming Christ, just as he did for a short season for the people of Jerusalem and Judea in the days leading up to Jesus’ arrival.

But not everyone was so happy to meet John the Baptist.  Not everyone was so impressed with his preaching and baptizing.  We met him last week in Herod’s prison.  We meet him today in the Gospel as the Pharisees in Jerusalem, those Jewish leaders who were such good-looking people on the outside, such sticklers for the Law of Moses, sent priests and Levites – the most religious people in all Jerusalem – to carry out a sort of inquisition by the Jordan River, and they were both confused and bothered by what they heard from John the Baptist.  What was true then is just as true now: Good People Have a Hard Time with John – And with Jesus!

For some time John had been preaching to the Jewish people a message that centered around baptism – a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Everyone who made his or her way out to John – tax collectors, soldiers, the rich, the poor – found themselves strangely lumped together with everyone else, all exposed for what they were: damned sinners under the Law.

“You’re all sinners!  You all need to repent, because God’s kingdom is coming, and that means destruction for all who are outside of it.  But – it means salvation for all who are on the inside, so repent of your sins and be baptized for forgiveness.  Come into God’s kingdom now, so that when the Christ comes – and he’s right around the corner! – he may come for your salvation, not for your condemnation.”  That was John’s message, the message that, for as stern and condemning as it was, drew large crowds from all over the Jewish countryside, crowds of bad people, sinful people who were convicted by his preaching of the Law and encouraged and comforted by his preaching of the Gospel of forgiveness – that there could be forgiveness for people like them, that God should want to come to them in peace and in reconciliation.  They were overjoyed!  They were all wondering if maybe John himself was the Christ.

The “good” people of Jerusalem had a hard time with John.  They “knew” that you have to keep the Ten Commandments if you want to get to heaven.  They “knew” that the only “Christ” who may be coming was the one who would come only for good and righteous people like them, to raise up the Jewish nation to a position of power and glory in the world.

So, who does this “John” character think he is?, they wondered.

“Who are you?” the envoys from Jerusalem asked.  “I am not the Christ,” John replied emphatically.  If John had had even a smidgeon of political aspiration, he might have at least led them on for awhile, made them keep wondering if he might be the Christ. He could have fed the crowd’s expectations a little bit longer, too, at least to keep them around for awhile so that they could keep hearing his message.  But no. Not John.  He isn’t in this preaching business to gain glory for himself or even to keep people around.  He tells the truth no matter whom it might offend, no matter how many people stay or how many people leave because of it.

OK.  If you’re not the Christ, “What then?” asked the envoys.  “Are you Elijah?”  “No,” John says.  “Are you the Prophet?”  “No. Not the Prophet, either.”  They were asking about Elijah because, as you heard a few weeks ago, Malachi had prophesied that “Elijah” would come before the day of the Lord comes.  And it seems that they were asking about “the prophet” whom you heard Moses talk about in the Old Testament lesson today, the one whom God would raise up from among their brothers, the one they were supposed to listen to.  No, John says, you’re completely misinterpreting the Scriptures, and me.

OK, John, so, who are you?  “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”  Such humility!  Who are you?  “I am a voice in the wilderness.  That’s all.  Don’t look to me as your helper, as your Savior.  Don’t think of me as anyone special at all.  But you should listen to me, because God has made me a voice that he wants people to hear, a voice that was prophesied by the Prophet Isaiah, a voice that prepares people for the coming of the Lord, a voice that announces the arrival of the Christ!”

So even though he wasn’t claiming to be anyone special, John was making a big claim here with these words, and anyone who was longing for the arrival of Christ as his Savior would be amazed and overjoyed at John’s claim, because if the voice had arrived as promised, then it meant that the Lord himself had arrived to save his people from their sins!

But the good people of Jerusalem were not impressed.  In fact, they were even more confused and upset with John.  “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”  And listen again to his response: “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.

See how John again humbles himself and points to the greatness of the one who is coming, the one who has now come and stands in their midst. Christ is the worthy one, Christ is the great one, Christ is everything!  He is holy.  He is God in the flesh.  And he’s here! All of John’s preaching, all of John’s warning and all of John’s baptizing – it’s all about him! It’s all pointing to Jesus, the Son of God who has taken on human flesh and is now ready to be revealed!

But John doesn’t reveal him, does he?, not to these “good people” from Jerusalem.  He doesn’t tell them Jesus’ name.  He doesn’t tell them where they can find Jesus.  He doesn’t tell them to go to Jesus.  Because these people aren’t looking for Jesus.  They’re already good people, in their own minds.  Why should they seek after God in the flesh?  God doesn’t come in the flesh, every good Jew knows that.  And why should he?  What need do righteous people like us have of someone else’s righteousness?

But the very next day, after these good people had gone, John did reveal Jesus to all of his disciples who were gathered there that day.  In the very next verse after our text ends, John sees Jesus coming and cries out, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Right then and there John’s teaching turned blood red.  Because a lamb was not a symbol of innocence or cuteness or meekness.  A lamb meant sacrifice.  A lamb meant blood – blood that would be available for any sinner in the world to take and paint on the doorframe of his house through faith, just like they did with the Passover Lamb, and so be saved from the wrath of God against sin.  And more than blood, Jesus would provide also the true goodness that counts before God, the goodness that covers all who trust in him.

John’s disciples believed John’s message and began to follow Jesus from then on.  But the good people – they had a hard time with John, and with Jesus.  They got stuck on John, because their deeds were evil, and more than that, their hearts were unwilling to admit that their deeds were evil.  It’s relatively easy for an outwardly wicked person to be convinced of his wickedness.  But the “good people” of the world…They were unwilling to submit to the righteousness that comes from God, because they insisted on working for the righteousness they wished to offer to God.

The “good people” of the world still have a hard time with John, and with Jesus.  You see it plain as day around Christmas time, and you see it both in those who want to get rid of Christmas, and in those who want to keep Christmas, but keep it without John’s message of sin and blood. They think they can celebrate Christmas with cookies and lights and songs and Santa’s and maybe even Nativity scenes with a tiny baby Jesus lying in a manger.  How sweet!  How tender and mild!

“Keep Christ in Christmas!” they say. I wonder how many of them will even be in church on Christmas morning to receive Christ in the Christ-Mass. “Don’t remove the crèche and the Christmas tree from the city square!” they cry.  You mean the Christ who condemns the vast majority of this city and whose wrath will not be in the least bit appeased by a big lighted tree that bears his name?  “Peace on earth!”, they croon.  Ah, yes, but it’s the peace on earth enacted by a crucifixion, it’s the peace on earth that brings division and sword and bloodshed.  “Holy infant so tender and mild,” the world is willing to sing.  But that holy infant will grow up to be the holy judge of all and the King who throws all who don’t believe in him into the fires of hell.

No, no, the “good people” of the world have a hard time with that message.  They don’t want it.  It ruins the “Christmas spirit.”  They won’t put up with it.

Will you?  Will you count yourself among the good people of this world and so have a hard time with John and with Jesus?  Don’t do it.  Jesus wasn’t born for good people.  Jesus was born for sinners.  Jesus is God, the Word, made flesh, not in order to hang out with the good people of this earth, not to show us how to live like good people on earth, but in order that God might shed his blood for the wicked people of the earth, like you and me.  Jesus is God, the Word, made flesh, so that the waters of Holy Baptism might cover you and me with the righteousness of the God-Man.  Jesus is God, the Word, made flesh, so that he might pour out his blood on the cross and into the cup of the New Testament in his blood for penitent sinners to drink and be saved.

Christmas is not for good people.  Good people will always miss the point of Christmas, just as the good people in Jerusalem missed the point of John the Baptist’s preaching and baptizing. And so as the season of Advent draws to a close and Christmas arrives, don’t be one of the good people who stay home on Christmas morning because they already have all the goodness they need.  Let John the Baptist convict you today as a sinner, and then let John point you to God’s solution for your sin, who once was laid in a manger.  If you are a sinner and you know it, then Christmas is exactly what you need.  Amen.

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