Fourth Sunday in Advent
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
St. John 1.19-28
22 December 2019
+ In the Name of Jesus +
And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” (John 1.19–20)
The ministry of John the Baptist, son of Zechariah the priest of the tribe of Levi, attracted attention and generated excitement. From “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan…” (Matt. 3.5) crowds of people came to hear his preaching, and to be baptized. Even some Pharisees came to be baptized says Matthew – brood of vipers, John called them – who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? John is a figure of some renown and attracts a considerable following. He does not mince any words. People seem to like that fired up, no holds barred way of speaking.
So Jerusalem sends a delegation to investigate, consisting of “priests and Levites” – some of John’s own tribe!
The early Church father John Chrysostom says that the delegation is of that “brood of vipers” – they received earlier John’s baptism and heard his preaching, but only now do they come to inquire about his identity. John descended from an important family of priests, a son of one of the higher ranks of Jerusalem’s temple priests who served in the Most Holy Place of the temple. So the people from Jerusalem no doubt think of John and his family more highly than the illegitimate son of that Nazareth carpenter.
They also perhaps respect John for his way of life, his austerity out in the wilderness, baptizing and preaching at the place on the Jordan River where once a long time before the children of Israel had first crossed into the Promised Land on dry ground with the ark of the covenant and following Joshua, the first “Jesus” of the Old Testament.
So the priests and Levites from Jerusalem seek to flatter John with their questions. John could have played up to his fellow Levites from Jerusalem. He could have tried to get in good with them.
But no. John is no respecter of persons. “I am not the Christ,” says John. I am not the anointed one, not the Messiah. Kings of Israel were anointed. Aaron and all the High Priests were anointed. John is not these, he is not the expected redeemer of Israel.
Is he then Elijah? Some Jews of the time believed that the Messiah would come as a man from men and will himself be unaware of his identity as the Messiah, and only when Elijah comes and anoints him will his identity be made known to everyone. Now, the angel Gabriel had told his father Zechariah in the temple that his son to come would “go before [the Lord] in the Spirit and power of Elijah.” Thus the wilderness preaching, the animal skin and leather belt John wore, the locust and wild honey diet. He was definitely in the same Spirit and power of Elijah. But: “I am not” Elijah, says John.
Is he the prophet like Moses that God would raise up? There had not been a prophet in Israel for some four hundred years by this time, a sign of divine disfavor. A prophet coming around would be a sign of God’s renewed favor and of coming redemption for Israel and her religious elite. “No,” says John.
Then “who are you?” They’ve tried to elicit from John all the answers that make sense to them, answers that could bring glory upon John, upon themselves as religious elite in Jerusalem, upon the nation that would like to be redeemed from Rome and its authoritarian rule. Their frustration is palpable.
St. John the Baptist is a role model of humility. He points away from himself to another. With the right answers for Jerusalem, John could have been accepted as the Christ, as Elijah, as Moses or a great prophet. But he denies himself, takes up his cross, and follows the One whom Israel was trying to avoid following.
Jesus had come to His own, but His own knew and received Him not. Jesus had been anointed in the Jordan River already by John with water and the alighting of the Holy Spirit and with power, and had been given the Father’s voice of approval. He was there, even there, among them watching, whom John has already warned them was coming with the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, who has the winnowing fork in His hand to get rid of the chaff, who seeks the repentance and faith of His people.
This is what John does with the priests and Levites who come from Jerusalem. They ask him who he is. He dodges the question but finally throws it back on them. John, was not the Light, but was sent to witness to the Light, in order that all might believe through him (John 1.6-8). He is a voice crying in the desert: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” John is the voice that comes before the Word made flesh, crying out in the desert of this world to a lost and unhappy people the consolation of their Redeemer.
Making the way straight isn’t John’s job, it is theirs. He is crying out to them. He is telling them to comfort the repentant, to embrace the Messiah, to recognize Him in their midst who has come to save them and fulfills the Law and the prophets. The way of the Lord to the heart is made straight when His Word is received with humility.
John’s humble answers point us all to a humble Christ.
We began this Adventtide with the coming of a humble Savior and Redeemer on the colt, the foal of a donkey, riding humbly into Jerusalem, being cheered on by many who would later ask for Him to be crucified. We end Advent with Jerusalem and all Judea standing around John, the voice crying in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord who even then and there stands among them and they do not know Him, do not recognize Him, do not receive Him as Lord and Savior.
Yet He is so much the one to be exalted, He is the Light, He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life – John is not even worthy to untie the strap of His sandals, for Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit, He is the Son of God, and will be the Lamb of price who takes away the sin of the world, John will later confess.
In many ways, John is really the prophet for our times. Not “of” our times. For our times. John is needed. We need his preaching of the truth, unvarnished. We need his humility, his pointing only to the Lord Jesus Christ and not to himself. We are a distracted and proud people who believe that God winks at our sins, much like Santa Claus. We think that we can delay repentance, and neglect His word. Too many believe today that God understands that deep down we’re good people and that we don’t really mean anything by it when we sin against Him.
John disrupts our slumber and apathy about God, sin, and repentance. He is prone to noticing, for example, when people are living together outside of marriage. In fact, this is what Herod Antipas beheads him for. He is prone to noticing as well when men are pious outwardly but inwardly are the brood of Satan’s vipers.
If John were a prophet “of” our times, he would only have secretly disapproved of such sin, and would let it go quietly into the night. As we’ve heard today, with a little more pride and hubris, John could have also avoided his martyrdom by answering the questions from Jerusalem in such a way that he would have made himself quite the important man.
But that’s a make-believe John the Baptist. John is no kiss-up to our sinful nature. God is holy and righteous and will judge sinners and hold them accountable. He would rouse us from our sleepy indifference. He calls us to repent and look to Jesus and no one else for salvation and for our every blessing. That’s why John was questioning Jesus in last Sunday’s Gospel from a prison cell, and why he lost his head to this life.
Christmas has come again. Not just a family holiday where nice memories are made, or perhaps where imperfect families come together to be quite uncomfortable. Christmas is not defined by our failures or our imperfect families. It is God’s gift to us in His Son, sent in great humility to be our righteousness and redemption. The world is evil. Our flesh is weak. Our families are a mess.
But Jesus has joined us. He is with us as one of us. He has died and He is risen. He takes away the sins of the world. You who are mourning beneath sorrow’s load, whose children and other loved ones have not lived up to their promises, who are fearful or lonely or ridden with guilt, He comes for you with healing in His wings. He brings peace. He brings comfort. He brings joy. That’s a humble answer from John, the prophets and apostles, but it’s the most important answer we need to hear.
Jesus comes even now humbly and graciously to you, patiently seeking to claim you as His own. He does so through humble and patient preaching of His Word. He does so through humbly anointing you with His own Holy Spirit and His own cleansing blood in Holy Baptism, and by sprinkling His blood into your heart and soul through His Holy Supper.
There is a Christ, a Messiah, the Redeemer. He is Jesus, God’s Son and Mary’s Son. John the Baptizer humbly pointed His way, even to the cost of his own life. But after all, whoever loses his life for Jesus’ sake will actually save it. Thus John prepares our hearts and minds for the holy commemoration of God’s incarnation this Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning. Make sure you are here with John and all the saints and heavenly hosts on those holy days this week, blessing and praising God for the baby born in Bethlehem’s manger, whose body was given and blood shed on Calvary’s cross, a holy sacrifice that stands between you and hell itself, that paves the way for you to heaven and eternal life. To Him we belong, to Him we point for, and from Him, we expect our every good.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +