Sermon for Rorate Coeli – Advent 4
John 1:19-28 + Deuteronomy 18:15-19 + Philippians 4:4-7
Rorate coeli! “Rain down, you heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down the Righteous One. Let the earth open her womb and bring forth salvation.” It’s almost time for the rains to come, almost time to welcome the day when the virgin’s womb brought forth the Righteous One and our salvation. This last Sunday in Advent is our last chance to prepare together to meet the child in the manger on Christmas Eve – that is, unless he comes back before then and the skies pour down again the Righteous One.
The one whom God sent to prepare Israel to meet his Son was that prophet named John, the same John whom we encountered last week, troubled by doubt in Herod’s prison. Today we see John at his finest – serving faithfully and humbly as God’s spokesman. He speaks to us too, through sacred Scripture, and we do well to listen to him. Listen! The voice of Advent cries out to you.
We honestly don’t know how long John the Baptist’s ministry lasted. When our text occurs, he had been out in the desert for quite awhile already, preaching and baptizing. He had already earned a reputation for himself as a powerful preacher of repentance who just told it like it was. He had already baptized Jesus, but then Jesus left to be tempted in the wilderness for 40 days, so no one, except for John, knew yet who Jesus was. Just before Jesus returned to begin his ministry, some of the officials in Jerusalem decided they’d better try to get a handle on this John character. They wanted to know who he was, or at least, who he claimed to be.
Could he be the Christ? Is that what he’s pretending to be? I say “pretending” because the religious leaders in Jerusalem knew that John couldn’t possibly be the Christ. After all, he was drawing crowds to himself and preaching without their authority! How dare he! So they figured he must be claiming some pretty big things for himself if he was willing to defy them. He must be claiming to be one of the VIP’s prophesied in the Old Testament.
But immediately, it says, He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” Hmmm. Not claiming to be the Christ. Let’s see…What other VIP was supposed to have an Advent?
OK, well, then, maybe, ah! “Are you Elijah?” Seems like a silly question. Elijah had been gone for some 800 years – but remember, Elijah was one of only two men in the Old Testament who is said not to have died. He was taken to heaven in a whirlwind, accompanied by a fiery chariot. The Jews thought he would return from heaven one day. They thought that partly because of how they interpreted Malachi 4, which we heard two weeks on ago on the second Sunday in Advent, ““See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”
So, the Jews had this prophecy of the coming of Elijah as one more prophet who would come after Malachi, the very last prophet before the coming of the Lord. And here was John, dressed just like Elijah used to dress, preaching as Elijah used to preach. And, in fact, the angel Gabriel had told John’s father, Zechariah, “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Just like Malachi had prophesied! And Jesus himself told the people later on that John was the Elijah who was to come – a figurative Elijah, a prophet like Elijah, but not literally the man Elijah who had been taken up into heaven 800 years before.
So when the people asked if John was Elijah, they were asking if John was that very prophet of old, and he had to tell them, “No, I’m not.”
Hmmm. Not the Christ, not Elijah. OK, what other important, authoritative person is prophesied to come? Ah! “Are you the Prophet?” It seems that they had in mind that very Prophet whom we heard about it our First Lesson today, the one whom Moses said would come one day, and to whom the people of Israel were compelled to listen. The New Testament tells us that Jesus is that Prophet Moses predicted, so again, John had to answer, “No, that’s not me.”
OK, then, John. How about you tell us who you are – or at least, who you claim to be?
And now we get to the heart of John’s answer. I am “a voice.” Don’t view me as some great prophet, and certainly not as someone who claims to be a great prophet or an important person in any way. I am simply a voice – the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’
The voice calling or “crying out.” How humble is that? The voice prophesied by Isaiah – “Yes,” John tells them, “I was mentioned in the Old Testament, but not as an important person like the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet. I’m just a voice crying out, but now understand what that means! If the voice is right here, right now crying out, as Isaiah prophesied, then the Lord’s Advent is at hand! He is here! The voice simply heralds his arrival. The voice is nothing. Christ is everything! So don’t focus on me, as if I were someone important. Do what the voice says! ‘Make straight the way for the Lord!’”
What does that mean? What is the Lord’s way and how do we make it straight for his Advent? Let me share with you a few words of Martin Luther from a sermon he preached on this text: “The way of the Lord is that he does all things within you, so that all our works are not ours but his, which comes by faith….A spiritual preparation is meant, consisting in a thoroughgoing knowledge and confession of your being unfit, a sinner, poor, damned, and miserable, with all the works you may perform. The more a heart is thus minded, the better it prepares the way of the Lord.”
And here’s how Luther describes the things that get in the way of the Lord: “The hindrance, however, which obstructs the Lord’s way, is formed not only in the coarse and palpable sin of adultery, wrath, haughtiness, avarice, etc., but rather in spiritual conceit and pharisaical pride, which thinks highly of its own life and good works, feels secure, does not condemn itself, and would remain uncondemned by another.”
Does that help explain why the Pharisees hated John so much, and Jesus even more? John was just a voice. But he was the voice that stripped away everyone’s appearance of goodness, the voice that accused all the people of sin and lumped everyone together under condemnation – but the good and decent religious people of Jerusalem took offense. In their pride, they didn’t condemn themselves and certainly wouldn’t allow John to condemn them. His voice was a voice they refused to hear.
But you must listen to the voice of Advent crying out to you, Make straight the way for the Lord! Know and confess that you are unfit for the kingdom of God – just as unfit as the most wicked person you can imagine. Know and confess that all of your works are nothing – they count for nothing in God’s kingdom. You will never be able to stand on that day when he comes if you’re found either clinging desperately to sin, or clinging desperately to your goodness. Despair of yourself!
But don’t despair of God. The voice of Advent cries out to you. Here is another! He’s right at the door! He doesn’t come to demand your obedience. He comes to provide his own. He doesn’t come looking for your good works. He comes to do your good works for you, and then in you – he – not you. He doesn’t come to make you pay for your shameful deeds. He comes to pay for them – his life for yours – a perfect sacrifice. In him there is forgiveness of all sins. Cling desperately to him in faith and you will be saved.
The voice of Advent cries out, “I baptize with water. But among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” I am nobody, John declares. It’s not me you have to worry about. It’s not me you should look to to save you. I’m only a voice. But Christ is coming! He’s right at the door! It’s not about me, it’s not about you – it’s all about him.
And you do know him, thanks to the voice of Advent! You’ve known him from the very beginning – from his birth in Bethlehem, from his manger-bed and even from eternity. You’ve been baptized into his name, and so in a way, it’s your birth that we’ll celebrate on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The voice of Advent cries out to you one last time today: Look away from yourself in despair. Look away from your works, from your sins, from your chores, from your hardships and from your life. And look up! Turn your thoughts toward Christ, in humble repentance, in joyful expectation. He’s coming with vengeance on the proud, so repent of your pride. He’s coming with eternal joy for those who trust in him, so trust in him. Emmanuel is coming! He’s coming! Very soon! Amen.