‘The Good Confession of John’
Rorate Colei, Advent 4 | December 19th, 2010
Of all the names for death in the Bible, my favorite is seeing the face of Jesus (Revelation 22:4). How wonderful it will be, when we draw our last breath and close our eyes in the sleep of death, to open them to the smiling face of our dear Jesus, and to see Him speak the words that He accomplished, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Wonderful.
But there is something that the Bible makes clear, we will not be alone at the face of Jesus. We will be surrounded by all the Lord’s faithful people. And I’m looking forward to that as well. I have a little list of people running in my mind, people that I would like to talk with in the resurrection. I don’t think you call that a bucket list, that’s the list of things you want to do before you die. We Christians have the list of things we want to do after we die. Imagine that!
So to sit and talk with Peter and Paul, and the Virgin Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and Abraham and Noah and Adam and Eve. King David and Elijah, and the church fathers, Ireneaus and Martin Luther. But right up there at the top of my little list is John the Baptist. I don’t know how these conversations go in the resurrection, but think of that afternoon talking with John the Baptist about his preaching, how he learned that he was to be the last prophet, or what it was like when he realized that His cousin Jesus was the One.
What a man John was. From the glimpse the Scriptures give us into his ministry and personality, he truly was, as Jesus says of him, “The greatest ever born from women.” Here was a man who could speak clearly, who knew his place, his vocation, and who lived out his life according to the will of God.
And his was indeed a blessed vocation: the last of the prophets, the forerunner of the Messiah, the herald of the coming kingdom. John was a man with courage and conviction, who preached repentance and forgiveness of sins with uncompromising zeal. He delivered the Lord’s gift of baptism to countless Jewish families. He even baptized out Lord Jesus, anointing Him and placing Him into His offices of Prophet, Priest and King. But even with this fantastic calling, John was always marked with humility. John was a sinner and he knew it. And he knew who his Savior was, John knew that he was called to do nothing but point to Jesus.
When Jesus came to be baptized by John, John just about refused to do it; “I should be baptized by you,” he said. Jesus had to convince John that it was right and necessary for Jesus to be baptized.
John’s humility is seen in his preaching. His greatest sermon, (and if you don’t mind me inserting a personal opinion here, the greatest sermon ever preached in the history of the world), was simply pointing to Jesus and announcing, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
John was not interested in promoting himself; he was always extolling his Lord. “He must increase and I must decrease.” John knew his place, the lowliness of his high office. This is especially what our Gospel text today is about, the humble confession of John the Baptist, about who he is, and who he is not.
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)
This might seem like a strange text to have on the Sunday before Christmas. In the ancient church this Sunday is called “The Preparation,” and that follows from the text. The Church of the New Testament is, this week, preparing to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of our Lord, of His coming in our flesh to bear our sins and die in our place to give us life and salvation. And preparation is difficult work.
You know when a big event is coming, the last few hours of getting ready are the worst, filled with anxiety, fear, things going wrong, time crunched. Preparation is dirty business, and this Sunday has that. Repent. Cast of the works of darkness. The Savior of the world is in our midst, and that changes things. Remember the hours right before your wedding? The chaos and the anxiety. Or the hours right before that dinner party came to the house? The scrambling and picking up and cleaning and taking care of all the last minute details, its madness. You know what I’m talking about, right?
You know what I’m talking about, unless you are a child. Then you have no idea what I’m talking about. The way a child experiences the coming of a big event like this is totally different than the way an adult has it. The child just knows waiting, and anticipation, and the mounting excitement of the coming day. After the service this morning, find the child sitting closest to you and ask them how many days there are until Christmas. They might not be able to count, but they’ll tell you how many days are left until Christmas.
Now let’s take both of these ideas, this scrambling around and getting ready, and this mounting excitement, and mix them all together, and magnify them ten-fold, no, a hundred-fold, and you will have a little sense of the times in which John the Baptist preached. The people were expecting the Messiah to burst onto the scene at any moment. They were longing and hoping and praying and expecting and preparing. And when they saw John preaching and baptizing at the Jordan, they went to him, they listened to him, they were baptized by him. Many became his disciples and followers. And there was the rumor that he was the one, the Messiah, the one they had been waiting and longing and hoping for.
This is why some of the Levites (remember that John himself was a Levite, the son of the priest Zechariah) came to ask him who he was. We can understand the temptation that is being placed in front of John here. People expected him to be the Messiah, they wanted him to be the Messiah. If John would have claimed the title for himself he could have had anything that the world could offer, riches, fame, armies, palaces, soft clothing and fine food, followers and servants and all of this. But John did not succumb to this temptation. He knew that his vestment was camel’s hair and his fare locusts and honey, that he was the servant, even unworthy to untie the sandal strap of his Lord Jesus. He is simple the voice, even the voice of another one calling in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord; the Messiah is coming, Salvation is drawing near.”
John knew, perhaps more than any other man, the temptation to take upon himself the title of the Christ, the Savior, and he did not. But, dear saints, this temptation is not a stranger to us, and here is how this text is a blessing to us. None of us, I’m sure, are tempted to claim that we are Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah who is to come into the world. But here is where the temptation is for us: we want to be our own savior. We want to rescue ourselves from sin. We want our efforts and our goodness to count toward our salvation. Do you see it? As soon as we make ourselves, something about us, who we are or what we’ve done, part of the salvation equation, then you have claimed to be the Christ, the savior, maybe not the savior of the world, but the savior of yourself, and you have stolen the honor and glory from Jesus.
“Who are you?” John teaches us to answer this question aright, to confess and not deny but confess that we are not the Christ. We are not saviors. There is Another who does that, who dies for me, who suffers in my place, who bears all my sins and the wrath of God that I have deserved, there is Another who is devoured by the devil in my place, and who destroys the devil for me, Another who saves me and forgives me and has me as His own dear child and friend, and that One is Jesus.
Dear saints, God grant you His Holy Spirit, and create in you the humility and faith of John the Baptist, that we cling to our Savior Jesus Christ by faith, until He grants you to seen Him face to face. Amen.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller
Hope Lutheran Church | Aurora, CO