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LSB Advent 4H Sermon – John 1:19-28

December 19, 2016

December 18, 2016 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“They asked [John], ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize you with water, but among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’”

“Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?” Those are the questions put to John, “when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’” When John is asked, “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” John’s testimony is that he is not the Messiah whom the LORD had promised. Neither does he claim that he is Elijah come down from heaven or the foretold Prophet who was to come. None of those is his identity. Instead, John claims only what had been spoken about his work: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

Why were these questions asked of John? The priests and Levites want to know why John is out in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That is seen most clearly in the pointed question that they ask after John tells them who he isn’t: “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” Either confusion or outright objection has overcome the priests and Levites as they consider John’s work in the wilderness. Why isn’t John following in his father’s footsteps, serving as a priest in Jerusalem’s Temple? What drives him to dress in camel’s hair and a leather belt, making the desert rocks his pulpit and the Jordan his font? Who has told him to do such radical things?

John’s reply begins to reveal his purpose: “I baptize you with water, but among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” True, John is not the Messiah. But he is the one who is preparing the people for the Messiah’s arrival. He is making them ready for Him to be present. That’s what his preaching of repentance and his baptism with water—a sign of penitence—are meant to accomplish. He is clearing the rocks from the road, cutting down the hillsides, filling in the ravines, just as Isaiah had foretold: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” 

John’s answer also exposes the issue with the priests and Levites, with the Pharisees who had sent them, and with anyone else who may be scoffing at his work. His preaching and baptizing brings people back from their wandering ways, pulls them down from pride and arrogance, and encourages acts of piety. It also serves as a test case for what will transpire. If they will not receive the message that announces the imminent arrival of the Messiah, will they welcome the Messiah when He does come?

That ultimately is the major issue underlying this episode. The LORD has sent John as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. But the LORD has another person coming. That was seen in the promise made through Moses, the greatest of the LORD’s spokesmen in the Old Testament: “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And whoever will not listen to My words that He shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him.”

This is “the Prophet” that the priests and Levites asked about. John points out that Jesus is “the Prophet.” The people are to listen to Him. But if they reject the one who has been sent with the LORD’s authority to get the way ready, will they receive the LORD Incarnate who comes to them? If they aren’t willing to listen to the lesser voice of John, will they listen to the greater voice of Jesus? Acceptance of John leads to acceptance of Jesus. Likewise, rejection of John leads to rejection of Jesus. For what John says about his identity is correct: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord….’ 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.” Jesus Himself will comment about His connection to John: “You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John.”

But the issue that the priests and Levites have with John doesn’t stay in “Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” The refusal to hear the LORD’s message given by John will go further. King Herod will hold similar objections, when John speaks against his adulterous relationship. And Jesus will point out the failure of the chief priests and the elders of the people to receive John when He asks them: “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”

Yet, the even colder, harsher truth of the matter is that the same issue is found in the present day. That happens when the LORD’s teaching spoken by men is not heeded. The same questions raised by the priests and Levites about John are put to those who dare to speak the LORD’s Word now: “Who are you to say such things? Who are you to proclaim repentance and the need to straighten the ways? Why do you baptize? Why do you teach?” The answer to those questions is really the same as what John said: “I am not the Christ…. I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” And the great confession is made about Jesus: “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.”

Even now, that message is proclaimed for you to be ready for the Messiah’s arrival: “Prepare for the Messiah to come. Remove the stumbling blocks to following in His way. Cut down any pride that deceives you into thinking you don’t need a Redeemer. Fill in the gaps where your life doesn’t line up with the LORD’s standard of righteousness.” This is the proclamation that comes every year until the Messiah does return. That’s what this Advent Season which draws to its close is all about.

But even that preparatory preaching points toward Jesus and listening to Him. How is one prepared for His return? It is done by hearing and believing what He has to say. Remember again what the LORD said about whom He would send: “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And whoever will not listen to My words that He shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him.” The LORD’s promise speaks about the importance of hearing Jesus.

Jesus refers to that in His teaching: “The Father who sent Me has Himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, His form you have never seen, and you do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe the One whom He has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life.” The stark importance of hearing and receiving Jesus is made clear. It is just as the LORD said when He spoke about sending “the Prophet” and that those who would not listen will have that failure required of them. But the same Jesus says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

So as Advent draws to its close and the Church’s mind is focused on the Messiah’s return, the prayer for this Sunday is quite appropriate: “Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come and help us by Your might, that the sins which weigh us down may be quickly lifted by Your grace and mercy.” We have no desire to have Jesus speak to us the way He did to the chief priests and elders of the people, pointing out that we have no life and no hope. So our call to the LORD is for assistance to remove the barriers that would keep us from listening to Jesus. We want divine help to pull off the burdens that make us slow to trust the promises that Jesus makes about His work and its application to us. We request the removal of whatever would prevent us from following Jesus’ teaching.

So we listen to John who prepares Jesus’ way. The Messiah is arriving; the One greater than John is coming. But we do know Him. The One whose sandals we are unworthy to untie made Himself a servant for us. He has died and risen, so that we might live. We can come to Him. It happens as we hear of those great deeds performed for us. We listen to Jesus who has spoken all that the LORD put in His mouth. We do hear Him. We do place our trust in Him.

But what else did we hear this morning? The LORD preserves that which we have heard and believed: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” That promise is given to us. So we can rejoice in the Lord always, because “He has caused His wondrous works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and merciful…. He has sent redemption to His people; He has commanded His covenant forever.” And the voices crying in the wilderness that we listen to have made that known.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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