Fourth Sunday in Advent – Rorate Coeli
Seminarian Paul Norris, Vicar
St. John 1.19-28
19 December 2021
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The truth shall set you free. We have all heard this Bible verse used by people who want to extol the virtues of truthfulness to us. Indeed, truthfulness is a virtue. “Just tell us the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” they say. Telling the truth is cathartic and liberating. But, it can also, as John the Baptist found out, liberate your head from your neck!!!
We know of many accounts from the history of the early church where steadfast Christians confessed the truth and paid for it with torture, and some even with their lives. In the second century St. Polycarp was arrested and tried as an enemy of Caesar because he would not recognize or even say the words, “Caesar is lord.” He was urged by his Roman captors, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.” But, Polycarp stood fast and boldly confessed Christ to the multitude that had gathered to watch him burn. “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” As a reward for his steadfast confession of Christ and his boldness to speak the truth, Polycarp was burned at the stake. When God caused the fire not to touch him or burn him, the Roman executioner stabbed Polycarp, and it is reported that so much blood flowed from his body that it extinguished the fire.
In the Gospel reading, we are told of the confession of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was greatly tempted to deny Christ, but “He confessed, and did not deny…” (John 1:20a) John was tempted to deny Christ, and so are we tempted to deny Christ in our lives. We must not deny Christ but confess him boldly. If we are to know how to confess Christ, we must also know how we deny Christ. Denial and confession are polar opposites. There is no common ground. One can’t remain neutral on God’s truth. For Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Matt 12:20). Today’s Gospel reading shows us that John the Baptist was a faithful witness and confessor of Christ.
John the Baptist was not the typical prophet. He lived alone and wandered in the wilderness. He wore clothing that was made of camel’s hair, and he ate locusts and wild honey. What a weirdo! But, it was through this boldness that John captivated the attention of an entire nation. He preached repentance, baptized, and announced the coming of the Kingdom of God in Jesus. As John preached God’s message of repentance, confusion about his identity started to grow. Was he Elijah, was he the great prophet, or was he the Christ? John has come to such great prominence that the highest authority in the Jewish land sent a delegation of priests and Levites to interrogate him.
The priest and the Levites asked him a simple question, “Who are you?” (John 1:19b). It seems pretty simple. He could have just answered, “I am John the Baptist.” But this is a temptation to deny Jesus Christ, and take the glory for himself. With this question, the priests and Levites do not offer him an opportunity for ordinary glory, but this is a temptation to take the highest glory of all. They are ready to accept him as the messiah. What a sweet temptation the devil laid before John. All he had to say was that he was the Christ, and they would have treated him like a king and even worshiped him! By simply saying “I am the Christ,” John would’ve had all the people behind him, and led a nation in a revolt that the Romans couldn’t have stopped. This is just what the priests, Levites, and the people wanted. But John perceives what is happening here. Aided by the Holy Spirit, John sees through their temptation and simply answers, “I am not the Christ.” (John 1:20b) John withstands the first temptation to deny Jesus as the Christ.
But Satan does not give up so easily. The interrogation continues. “What then? Are you Elijah?” John now emboldened by the Holy Spirit says “I am not”. Perhaps getting frustrated they continued their interrogation, “Are you the prophet?” John answers simply, “No.” This may seem confusing to us, for Jesus even said of John the Baptist, “All the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.” (Matthew 11:13-14) John is being extremely careful in his answers to the questions. It is one thing for our Lord Jesus Christ to say that John is the Elijah spoken of from the prophet Malachi, but it is quite another to claim that for oneself. John, in his humility, does not wish that any title be bestowed upon him as the priests, Levites, and all the people there would misunderstand this claim. By saying no to these claims of a prophet, his confession is making it impossible for anyone to draw false conclusions about him.
This delegation of detectives, the priests and the Levites, are now getting really frustrated with John. They demand an answer as to who exactly is John the Baptist. They are feeling pressure from the Pharisees who sent them. They must answer once and for all the question of who this crazy, camel hair-wearing, bug, and honey-eating weirdo is!
John again humbled by the Holy Spirit answers, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (v23) John is there not only to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God, but he is preparing hearts for the advent of the messiah by preaching repentance. This is not at all what the priests and the Levites want to hear. They are looking for a political messiah that will free them from Roman oppression. Not an invisible kingdom which they could only enter by repentance. What should have been a sign and wake-up call to the Priests of the coming of the Messiah in fulfillment of O.T. prophecy was ignored by the very ones who were supposed to be waiting for it.
Finally, and I imagine that the mood has changed from friendly to confrontational, the delegation of inquisitors asks John the Baptist, why is he baptizing if he is not Christ, Elijah, or the prophet? John seizes the opportunity to now speak the truth and testify about Jesus as the Christ and identifies himself as only the humble and unworthy servant of the true Messiah. “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.” (v. 26-27)
From this wonderful example of the true confession of John the Baptist, we can learn how we deny Christ. If John had answered any of the questions posed to him in the affirmative, he would have denied Christ. Today, this sin of denying Christ can take on a few forms. We have probably heard it said by people that Jesus was only a good moral teacher who gave us instructions on how to live this life. They deny that Jesus was not God and man, as the Scriptures tell us he is, they say, this is just religious nonsense.
Even Christians fall into the sin of the denial of Christ. Sometimes Old Adam falls into sin when he thinks that he knows better than God, and places himself above God. Sometimes we deny Christ in our inaction towards our neighbor. Jesus said, “…as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:40) Some self-titled Christians deny Christ as they lead openly sinful lives in cohabitation which publicly demonstrates that they don’t have a real confession of Christ. Perhaps we might deny Christ by remaining silent when we should speak God’s truth to others as we deal with the world.
LCMS Pastor and the first president of our Synod C.F.W. Walther wrote, “Whoever wishes to confess that Christ is the Son of God, but either from pride in his human reason or fear of the world denies that there is a devil, or that the entire Bible, Old, and New Testament, is God’s word, or that a person is reborn through Holy Baptism, or that the body and blood of Christ Jesus is truly present in the Holy Supper, and that all communicants receive it, … whoever denies one of these truths, and though it seems most insignificant, denies Christ Himself and His Word.” (C.F.W.W. GS, VI, pg. 33) And, God forbid, we might be tempted to outright deny that we even know Christ to save our skins as St. Peter did on the night of Jesus’ betrayal.
As my mother used to say, “A lie of omission is the same as a lie of commission”. Do we not owe it to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to confess Christ to one another? Even more, do we not owe it to our neighbor to confess the complete truth of Christ? Indeed, we do, as only the truth of Christ can set them free and save them. For Jesus said, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 10:32) We have everything to lose by not confessing Christ, and nothing to gain by denying him. When people ask us who we are, we can confess to them that we are children of God. They can question us and we point them to our Savior Jesus Christ. We can be a witness just like John.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, God knows that we are corrupt, weak, and unable to keep his commandments and boldly confess Christ as we would like to or should. Even though St. Peter denied ever knowing Christ, Jesus forgave Peter when he repented of his sin of denial. And so much did God love the whole world that he gave his only begotten son to earth to save us. And when we fall into the sin of the denial of Christ, Jesus Christ took that sin upon Himself Even when we do not confess Christ as we should, or deny him by staying silent, Christ the crucified one forgives that sin for the repentant believer. It is only because of the work of Christ that we can stand righteous before God.
God calls us to repentance during this season before the Advent of our Lord Jesus. This is the same message that John preached. And though John prepared the way and baptized with water, you were baptized with water and the word. In the holy water of baptism, God bestowed upon you the name of Christ and gave you the Holy Spirit. Daily our sins of failing to confess as strongly as we should, or staying silent when we ought to speak are drowned with Old Adam, and New Adam arises daily to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. And today you will receive the forgiveness of sin in the life-giving gifts of our Savior’s true body and blood from the altar which he gives us to strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting.
Therefore with the confidence of the truth of Christ let us boldly proclaim Christ to everyone, no matter the cost. Let us not fear to speak his truth as the Holy Spirit will guide our mouths as we make a right confession of Christ. May Christ Jesus, the author, and perfecter of our faith help us for the sake of making a good confession of Him.
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.