Sermon for Rorate Coeli – Advent 4
Deuteronomy 18:15-19 + Philippians 4:4-7 + John 1:19-28
Since the world was supposed to end on Friday, according to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar, I suppose none of you were planning on actually making it to December 24th and 25th. You probably didn’t even bother preparing for Christmas. But here we are, two days past the end of the world, and our clocks are still ticking. It turns out Jesus was proved right yet again when He declared that “no one knows about that day or hour” of His return.
Of course, every time there’s a failed prophecy of His return, we are tempted to relax a bit too much, and to our great spiritual peril, fall back into a worldly kind of unpreparedness, as if “there’s no way Jesus would really come back anytime soon.” But He is coming. Maybe tomorrow. And Christmas Eve is surely coming tomorrow, if tomorrow comes. Are you ready?
Let me tell you, you are not ready. Your house may be decorated and your Nativity set in place. You may have all your groceries bought and your presents wrapped and your activities planned. But you are not ready for Christmas, you are not ready for Christ’s coming—until you hear and heed John the Baptist’s confession. The Baptist’s Confession is our final preparation for the Advent of Christ.
And what is the Baptist’s “confession”? Let’s turn to our Gospel. Last week we encountered John at the end of his ministry, waiting in Herod’s prison for the ax to drop on his head. In today’s Gospel we rewind a bit and meet him at the height of his ministry, after he had been preaching and baptizing for at least several months, after multitudes of people from Jerusalem and Judea and Galilee had gone out to hear him and be baptized by him, after he had baptized Jesus but before he had publicly pointed out to anyone who Jesus was—you remember that Jesus left for 40 days after His baptism to be tempted in the wilderness. Our Gospel takes place right before—apparently the day before Jesus comes back to begin His ministry. (How fitting, then, that we are considering this Gospel today, the day before Christmas Eve!)
Up till this time, John had spent his entire ministry confessing the truth—confessing and not denying, as St. John the Evangelist tells us. He spent a great deal of time telling the people of Judea and Galilee how—in what way—they were never going to be saved, how they would not be ready for the coming of the Christ. You’re not saved by living in willful sin. You’re not saved by living in adultery or by stealing or by mistreating your neighbor. You’re not saved by your rank or your position or your money. Your riches mean nothing. Your poverty means nothing. Neither are you saved by your prayers or by your piety or by what fine and decent people you think you are. You are damned both by your immorality and by your morality.
John’s confession slammed every door in their faces—every path to salvation, except for one. The Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God was coming with free salvation for those who wanted His salvation, and with fire and divine retribution for those who wanted salvation from somewhere else.
And so, as you can imagine, John’s confession was highly polarizing. People either loved him or they hated him, just like Jesus. Many of the sinners and the scoundrels from Judea who had given up on ever being saved were thrilled by John’s message. They came in repentance to be baptized by him for the forgiveness of sins in preparation for the coming of the Christ. In the meantime, all the “good” religious people of Jerusalem, those who trusted in their wealth, those who trusted in their positions and their power and their own goodness, didn’t go out to hear John.
That included the Pharisees and many of the priests in Jerusalem. They didn’t go out to hear him or be baptized by him, but they did go out, at least by proxy, to interrogate him a little bit, and maybe throw him a bone to lure him into their trap.
“Who are you?” they asked him. He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” John was well aware that he was unique. He knew his message was powerful because it was given by God. He knew the rumor was going around that he himself was the Christ. And here, if he had been seeking earthly glory and the praise of men and the friendship of the church leadership, if he was at all concerned about staying out of Herod’s prison, he might well have lied or he might have at least kept the Jewish leaders guessing for awhile with some sort of cryptic response. But instead he comes right out and confesses what he is not.
He confesses what he is not again when they give him the option of being Elijah. Maybe you remember from a few weeks ago when our Old Testament reading was from the last chapter of the prophet Malachi, who predicted that Elijah would come before the coming of the Lord, the Christ. It appears that the Jewish leaders thought that meant Elijah would come back in person, and John denies being Elijah. But as the angel Gabriel revealed to John’s father Zechariah, and as Jesus Himself revealed to His disciples, John was the Elijah who was to come, not Elijah the Tishbite who had been taken to heaven in a whirlwind, but the one sent by God in the spirit and power of Elijah to call His people to repentance ahead of the coming Christ.
John confesses what he is not one more time when they give him the option of being the Prophet. It may be that they were asking him if he was “a” prophet, which would still be a pretty big deal since there hadn’t been a prophet in Israel for some four hundred years, since Malachi. But they do use the word “the,” as in “the Prophet” that you heard Moses talk about in the Old Testament reading today, “the Prophet,” meaning the Christ, to whom everyone was to listen, or else God would take vengeance on them. In either, case, John confesses, no, that’s not me.
Then John goes on to confess what he is: I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said. The voice of one crying out. That’s both a small thing and big thing that he confessed about himself. A voice. That’s nothing. A voice. Not a sword or a superman. Not a warrior. Not a king or a prince or a priest or a politician. Not a famous athlete. Not a shining star. But a voice.
It’s a small thing John confesses about himself, because even as a voice he isn’t calling attention to himself or speaking about himself.
But it’s a big thing John confesses here, too. He admits to being the very voice that was prophesied, the very voice that the Holy Spirit enabled the Prophet Isaiah to hear centuries before John was born.
And biggest of all, John was the voice that proclaimed the Advent of the Lord. A voice that went out to everyone listening, “Make straight the way!”, because you are not prepared and you do not know His way. Your immorality will destroy you. Your morality will destroy you. The way of the Lord is the way of faith in the Messiah—the Messiah who is not “going to” come someday. I am the voice that is here to tell you, the Messiah stands in your midst! Make straight the way by putting aside both your immorality and your morality. Offer Him nothing but a heart that is broken and ugly and fearful and helpless and look to Him in faith for healing, for He will bring it.
But if you remain attached to your immorality or to your morality, then the message of the coming Christ will not be pleasant news to you, as the envoys displayed with John.
They turned the interrogation up a notch. Why are you baptizing if you’re not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?
I baptize with water, John says. 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. Gasp! “Stands among you.” Christ is here, John declares! What’s the connection between John baptizing with water and the Christ who was present among them? If salvation comes from the Christ, then why baptize with water? The water of baptism joins you to Christ. This water is what makes straight the way of the Lord. This water is what prepares a person for the Advent of Christ. Water! Not living a good and decent life. Not you atoning for your own sin or you coming up with your own righteousness. Water, included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word! Take that, human reason!
So, which is it? Does Christ save or does the water of baptism save? Yes! Not one without the other, but both and in different ways. Christ saves by coming once to bear the sins of mankind and making atonement for them with His blood shed on the cross. Baptism saves by being the divinely ordained conduit that connects the sinner to Christ. And so faith saves by laying hold of Christ who is held out to us in Baptism. Christ saves. Baptism saves. Faith saves. Not one without the other, but all together as part of God’s eternal plan of salvation.
All we need to know now is, who is the Christ? Who is this Savior? What’s His name? It’s the only thing lacking in John’s confession in our Gospel. And to the unbelieving world, he leaves it a mystery. But to his disciples who believed his confession, he reveals the mystery the very next day, in the very next verse. He points to the man Jesus, walking toward him, and says, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
So, through the Word of God, John’s confession reaches us today. The Holy Spirit takes hold of John’s finger and points us to Jesus and identifies Him as the Christ. He points us to Bethlehem’s manger and says, Look! There is the Son of God and the Lamb of God! There is your Savior! There is your righteousness! The Holy Spirit points you to the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and to the Sacrament of the Altar and says, Look! There is your connection to Christ! There is forgiveness of sins for you, and life and salvation!
So, are you prepared for the coming of Christ? Are you ready for Christmas? Well, do you believe John’s confession? Do you renounce both your immorality and your morality? Do you know that baby born in Bethlehem to be God’s Son? Do you want Him for a Savior? Have you been baptized in His name—or if not, do you want to be? If so, then you’re ready. You’re prepared. Christ could come at any moment, and Christmas can come tomorrow evening. And you can expect that He’ll bring to you just what He promises, even mercy and grace, forgiveness and salvation. Amen.