The ministry of making straight the Lord’s way

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Sermon for Rorate Coeli – Advent 4

Philippians 4:4-7  +  John 1:19-28

It’s the Sunday before Christmas, the last Sunday in this penitential season of Advent. We’ve had to practice some discipline in holding off the Christmas decorating and celebrating, so that this season of Advent might fulfill its godly purpose of preparing us for Christ’s second coming. Today, the Apostle John fulfills that purpose in his Gospel by pointing us back to John the Baptist.

Who are you, John? Who are you?, the delegation from Jerusalem asked. We know part of the answer to that question from Luke’s Gospel, who tells us about how John came to be born of the priest Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth in their old age.

But that’s not what the delegation from Jerusalem was asking. They may have known who John’s parents were and where he came from. They knew what he was preaching and what he was doing there in Bethabara, beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing. But they were wondering what John was claiming about himself, if he was claiming to be someone important—someone who might threaten their position and their power in Israel. They knew he had a large following of people going out to hear him on a regular basis, many of whom were also baptized by him. They knew that there were rumors flying among the people, “Could this be the Christ? — The Savior promised throughout the Old Testament?”

John made the good confession. He made it firmly and openly so that no one—including John’s own followers—should make any mistake about John: I am not the Christ. So that means, no one should be looking to me as the Savior. I am not the fulfillment of the Old Testament. I am not the Righteous One, the promised Seed of Abraham, the one who will judge the earth, the one who will rule at God’s right hand over all creation, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The Christ is all those things, but that’s not who I am.

What then, John? You must still be claiming to be someone important. You wouldn’t take up this prophet’s mantle and be out here preaching in your own name. Are you Elijah? That seems like a strange question, asking John if he was the Old Testament prophet who lived hundreds of years earlier. But remember, Elijah never died; he was taken to heaven alive, in a whirlwind and a chariot of fire. And the prophet Malachi had promised that Elijah would come before the Christ would come.

No, John answered, I’m not Elijah. And he wasn’t. Elijah remained in heaven. But John was “the Elijah” Malachi had prophesied, as Jesus confirmed and as the angel Gabriel pronounced to Zacharias, the prophet who was sent in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Are you the Prophet?, they asked him. No. The Jews at that time were misreading a verse from the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses prophesied that God would send a prophet like him, from among their brethren. They thought this prophet was coming, in addition to the Christ. What they failed to understand was that “the Prophet” about whom Moses prophesied was the Christ, to be raised up from among their own brethren in Israel—a man, who, like Moses, would be sent from God to redeem them from slavery, to lead them and to reveal God’s will to them, and to whose word they must listen. John was certainly a prophet, and, as Jesus called him, more than a prophet. But he wasn’t THE Prophet. That was Jesus.

Who are you, then, John? We need an answer. What gives you the right to preach? What gives you the right to tell people they are sinning against God, to call them to repent, to announce the forgiveness of sins? To speak in God’s name at all? They had a point. You don’t just get to get up one day and decide to go out and tell people stuff in the name of the Lord. You don’t get to go out and act like a prophet and a herald of God to your countrymen, unless it’s your God-given vocation to do so.

But it actually was John’s God-given vocation to do so. Like few other men in history, John was directly called by God, as the angel Gabriel announced. He wasn’t preaching from his own desires or with his own thoughts or on his own authority, nor was he trying to get people to focus on him or to praise him or to cling to him. He said: “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the LORD,” ’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” The Jews were expecting the Christ to come, and Elijah, and the Prophet. But they didn’t seem to care about this voice of one crying in the wilderness, about whom Isaiah had prophesied. Even after John reminds them of this passage from Isaiah, they don’t care. Why?

Because the coming of those other men they thought of as glorious and spectacular. They were expecting God to come to Israel and tell them what a great job they were doing, compared to all those terrible foreigners and Gentiles, who were pagans and idolaters. They were expecting God to come and wipe out the Romans and make the nation of Israel the ruler over all the other nations. But this voice of whom Isaiah wrote—his message is not so sweet, and certainly not glorious or spectacular. Make straight the way. But that means, the way is not straight leading up to the Lord’s coming.

And of course, it wasn’t. The hearts of the Jews were, for the most part, stuck on external things, earthly things. They didn’t even notice how they were mistreating one another, becoming more and more self-centered and selfish, more and more concerned about their government, their possessions, their food and clothing, their tithing and their religious rituals that had lost their meaning. God’s commandments were being reinterpreted to allow them to get away with anything they wanted. And the people of Israel had become either haughty and merciless toward their neighbor on the one hand, or secure, open sinners on the other. In that condition, they would never be ready for the Advent of Christ. (And their condition then sounds all-too-familiar to us now, doesn’t it?)

So John preached. He preached against all of it: open sins and secret sins, arrogance and works-righteousness. The idolatry of possessions, the idolatry of their own bodies and pleasures, the idolatry of government, the idolatry of manmade “truth,” the idolatry of self. Make straight the way of the Lord! Hear His Word! Repent before it’s too late! The Lord is coming! Let Him find you humbled! Let Him find you penitent! Let Him find you troubled and sorrowing over your sins! Let Him find you acknowledging your guilt and seeking His mercy when He comes!

But the Pharisees and the priests didn’t want to humble themselves, and they didn’t want to be lectured by a nobody out in the desert. What they wanted was for John to admit that he was nobody, that he had no right, no authority to preach repentance to Israel. Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet? John’s answer was perfect: “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.” In other words, in the grand scheme of things, I am nobody. I’m not the one you should be worried about. The Christ is coming. In fact, He’s here already and you don’t Him. He is the One to whom you will answer. He is the One who has come to save you sinners from your sins. But take warning. If you refuse to repent and believe in Him, He will not be your Savior. He will be your Judge.

That’s how John made straight the way for the Lord’s first Advent. Is the way straight for His second Advent? John’s preaching, which is still echoed now by Christian preachers, will see to it that it is, because this is the Holy Spirit’s ministry. The Holy Spirit, through the ministry of the Word, is making the way straight for Christ’s coming every time repentance is preached, every time the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in Christ’s name, every time a sinner is baptized into Christ, every time the Lord’s body and blood are offered to penitent sinners. The world, as a whole, will not be straight, will not be ready, will not be right. But to all who heed God’s call to repent and believe in Christ, the way is straight, and you can expect His coming with joy, as Paul wrote in the Epistle: Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.

And if, in this way, you’re prepared for His second Advent, then you’re also properly prepared to celebrate His first Advent at Christmas. Amen.


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