December 18, 2016 A+D
St. John 1:19-28
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Malachi was the last of the prophets before John. God’s people waited 400 years for the man that Malachi had foretold. Twice God promised that Malachi wasn’t the last, just before the Messiah there would be another. In Malachi chapter 3 God said:
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.”
Then, a second time, in chapter 4, God calls this prophet, whom we know as John, Elijah. He said:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.”
The angel Gabriel also told Zechariah, John’s father, in the Temple that John would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God,” and he would “go before him,” that is, go before God, the Messiah, “in the spirit and power of Elijah.”
Jesus Himself calls John Elijah in Matthew chapter 11. While he was in prison, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus whether He was the Coming One or not. He told them: “Tell John what you hear and see, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them.” Then, as the disciples were leaving, Jesus began to praise John. He said that John was not a reed blown in the wind or a man arrayed in soft clothing. John was a prophet and more than a prophet for he was the last of the prophets. He is the greatest of those born of women because all the Law and the Prophets had prophesied until him. He ushered in the Messiah with a fiery call to repentance and an anointing in the Jordan. “And,” says Jesus, “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.”
Why then, when the priests and Levites asked him if he was Elijah, did he say “no?”
He said no because they did not know what they were asking. The prophet Elijah had not suffered physical death. He had been carried away to heaven by chariots of fire in Elisha’s sight. That simple exception made Elijah the subject of much speculation in popular Jewish thought and particularly in eschatological thought.
John was the messenger prophesied by Malachi, sent before the Lord to prepare the way for the Christ, in the spirit and power of Elijah. But he deflects the question and says he isn’t Elijah. He does this because he doesn’t want to confuse them or get bogged down in a stupid debate. He is not the Christ, and he wants, above all else, to point to the Christ, to confess the Christ who lays down His life as a ransom and atonement for the sins of the world.
There are at least two lessons for us here. First, we should be more careful in listening for the question behind the questions. When a teen-age driver casually walks into the kitchen and asks his mother if their car insurance covers stink bomb damage, the mother will want to know more before she answers the question. This is true in all sorts of arenas of thought, but it is particularly true with spiritual topics. That is because spiritual topics are always personal and are always important.
Which brings us to the second lesson from John today: He is the not the Christ and he is not interested in talking about much else – not even Baptism. Everything that really matters has a spiritual aspect and everything that has a spiritual aspect shows us that we need a Savior. Even a seemingly trivial thing, such as who a person roots for in the NFL, has a deeper meaning. People root for teams that they feel connected to. Their reasons for the connection, almost always reasons of community and origin, are important. The success or failure of the team is not really important, though it might feel like it is in the moment. What is important, what drives the team loyalty and the desire to see them succeed, is the fan’s identity. A person with roots in New England whose dad was died hard Patriots’ fan, will likely be a Patriots’ fan. When people ask who you root for they really want to tell you who they root for. They want you to know where they are from and who their people are. Those realities have spiritual import. So also, if a stink bomb has gone off in your minivan, there are some spiritual questions to ask, such as, “What is wrong with you? What were you thinking?” and “Why did you do this?”
Those are law questions, but they are questions that matter, questions of import. Teen-age rebellion and lack of self-control arises from original sin. It needs to be addressed by the law. Teen-agers, invariably, are looking for love, for attention – even though they don’t always realize it. Pretty much every stink bomb that has ever gone off has gone off has been a foolish attempt, often in a roundabout way, to impress a girl. So also, “Where are you from” and “Who are your people?” are law questions. “My dad was a patriots’ fan and so am I” means, at the very least, “I am not self-sufficient. I need people and I am hoping that we can have some connection.” That need to belong, to be from somewhere, to have people, and to find more people, arises, in part, from original sin. Being a Patriots fan is more socially acceptable than stink bombs, but it comes from the same need.
The teen-ager and the Patriots fan, the man in a mid-life-crisis and the child throwing a tantrum because he has to eat green beans, the priests and the Levites, they all need the same thing. They all need Christ, a Messiah, a Redeemer. Almost none of them ask the right questions. Almost none of them know what they really need. But John knows, because it is also what he needs and what he has been sent to proclaim and confess.
This is what drove John’s question from prison. “Are You the Coming One, or not? Can I be on your team? Do you remember me, love me, want me? Am I yours? Can I tell people that You are mine?”
Go tell John what you hear and see. Whether he is Elijah or not, whether the patriots win or lose, whether the minivan is ruined forever and insurance won’t cover it or not, a Savior has been born in Bethlehem, a man like us, from among us. He has been put to death in Jerusalem for sins He did not commit, and He has arisen from the dead with healing in His wings, to reconcile us to His Father, to bring us to Himself. Drop down, ye heavens, from above and let the skies pour down righteousness! Christ, our King, has banished our fear, removed our need. He is our God, our Messiah. The Holy Trinity and the Holy Angels and the saints of God from all time are our people. Even if the holidays are lonely or the world is cruel or our man didn’t obtain office and our country is being destroyed before our eyes, John is not the Christ. But there is a Christ, our Christ, and He is unashamed of us, eager to have us, in Him we have all we need.
In +Jesus’ Name.