St. John 1:19-28
December 23, 2018
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, X and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The news that should have brought joy and gladness to men’s hearts instead brought fear. The religious leaders who professed to be waiting with eager anticipation for the Lord’s Messiah bristled at John’s announcement that the Messiah was near. They aligned themselves against the herald sent to bring the earth-shattering news. And instead of joining with the one crying out in the wilderness, they set themselves against him and sought to discredit his identity.
The heart of stubborn and self-absorbed men is a desolate wilderness of death and fear. The mission of proclaiming peace and mercy to such a one is treacherous and full of difficulty. For peace only comes after violence, because it enters enemy territory. Light and darkness collide, and some men prefer the darkness. It was the difference between a desert and a garden. But God was determined. He had a plan and whatever the devil, the world, and sinful nature threw at Him, He was going to carry it out.
So He sent his loyal soldier named John out into the wilderness to draw men of barren and parched hearts to hear the announcement that God was about to make good on a promise given centuries before. He was not the Christ, to be sure. He was clear with this confession. He was not the reincarnated Elijah; he was not the Coming One that Moses wrote about. He was John, the miracle baby of elderly Zachariah and Elizabeth. He was dedicated for this singular purpose and raised as a Nazarite. His whole life was one of training for this moment. He was a dutiful servant of the Most High God going before the Christ.
So he took to his post out in the wilderness. He was simply a “voice.” They were not his words, he was the herald, the ambassador of God. They were God’s words, God’s commands. He was a voice saying, “make straight the way of the Lord.” That way is the way into men’s hearts. And it’s the heart to which God demands direct and straight access. The Lord will not take a crooked route; He will not climb the mountains of pride found in wild, unprepared hearts. He will not meander through the crooked roads of “complicated” life-situations and shades of moral and ethical gray. He does not come begging and pleading for men to accept Him. He is not satisfied with half way. He insists upon a straight, level path of repentance. He insists upon complete preparation. He insists upon broken and contrite hearts.
So he sends John. But the self-righteous hearts of men will not allow easy access. Called to love God above all, they are easily distracted with the love of earthly things. John was sent as a voice. But men refused to listen. They stopped their ears and charged at him. The Pharisees heard his preaching. They knew something new was happening. Those they sent to John heard his preaching and saw his acts. Yet their hearts rejected the voice and the invitation.
Accept a baptism of repentance? Never. But John knew better. He didn’t listen to what they said, he watched what they did, for loves are always acted out. They start in the heart, but they manifest themselves in the mouth, hands, and feet. The heart’s desire becomes obvious in words and actions. John saw what drove them. He saw what moved them and gave them delight in life. He saw what put spring in their step. And it wasn’t the love of God at all. It was the love and respect of men that they sought.
In some regards, we are like them. The strain between our faith in God and the distractions and desires of this world is intense. Sometimes it feels as if we are two people living in the same body. We recognize our temptations and according to the new man, we seek to resist. We know what God wants, and in a very real way, we want that too, but in weakness we give in and indulge our sinful inclinations. And just like a small child caught with his hand on the forbidden cookie, we feel remorse, we ask for forgiveness, and want to do better.
I say that we are like those men sent by the Pharisees in some regards. We are inflicted with the same sinful inclinations that they were, but with one glaring difference. They refused to repent and accept John at his Word. They would not be broken, turn from their sin, and ask for forgiveness. And therefore, they rejected God’s voice. They acted contrary to God’s will. John’s voice was for sinful men, but for the purpose of preparing their stubborn hearts for the coming of Christ. These men refused to be prepared. Don’t be like those men.
They may have said that God was their Rock, their Foundation, their Security, because they were supposed to be faithful Jews, but in looking at their lives and how they lived, John saw that they professed a different god. When John looked and saw what they sacrificed for, he could see that they were more devoted to their work, to their kids and grandkids, to their reputations, and to their favorite forms of entertainment than to God Himself. They were probably considered “good guys” by others, even just by the standards of men, but the stern preacher of repentance saw into their hearts and heard all the hate, the gossip, the egotism, and could see they weren’t godly at all, because they refused the Holy Spirit who sought them through John’s Word.
The sad reality is, this attitude of rejection is alive and well in people we know and love, whether friends or family. There are hardened unbelievers, despite an American universalism pervasive in Hollywood, DC, and Fort Wayne. The sad reality is that just because someone is a “good guy” or even your relative, does not mean that they will be saved. This all makes theological sense to us, because we know that one isn’t saved by being a good guy, or a good neighbor or any other outward works. One is saved by grace alone through faith. And that is only in Christ by the Word and Sacraments. So if someone is not in Christ, meaning not in the Christian Church, baptized, and forgiven, it doesn’t matter how nice they are or fun to be with. If they reject the preaching of John and the invitation of the Holy Spirit, they are not in Christ. John’s call is that serious. It’s black and white.
John was a voice trying to get men’s attention, not confessing himself, but Christ. We need preachers like John still today—voices calling sinful men to repent. We need voices for the crass unbelievers in our communities, our nice neighbors, and wayward relatives, and we need the voice for ourselves, calling us to repent of our sin. Our Lord wants direct and total access to your heart.
So how will God get direct access to men’s hearts? He would send His Son—yes, the same One John preached about, the One whose sandal straps John was not even worthy to untie. The One who is named Jesus and whose feet are the feet of God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. The One who demands complete and total access to man’s heart, and mind, and mouth, and actions. The one who is jealous and will not share the responsibility for salvation with anyone or anything else. The only true Redeemer and Justifier of mankind. (idea from Gerhard).
God’s Son came in the flesh, as promised of old by the Patriarchs and Prophets, and lately by John the Baptist. And just as promised, He came in glory. Of what does Christ’s glory consist? Of being true God and the Son of Man, our Redeemer, Mediator, and Savior, through whom we come to the Father. “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and man; namely, the Man Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for the redemption of all” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). For “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Our jealous God’s intention and will is that all men repent, be prepared, and come to saving faith in Him. That is why He sent John to preach, that is why He came as a Man, and that is why the Christian Church today still proclaims the Gospel to all nations. For just as John was a voice for the Almighty God, pastors and preachers today are voices for the Lord who speaks His saving peace through them, admonishing, and administering the holy Sacraments. And yet, “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7).
So why do pastors today baptize if they are not the Christ, or Elijah, or the prophet? It is because God Himself works in Baptism. There in Baptism He makes for Himself direct access to your heart, and gives you a new one, one full of love for God and neighbor, one that fights against your selfish flesh. And through Jesus, you now have direct access to God’s heart. John was not the Christ. But he pointed out the Christ. And that Man completed the His mission by dying and rising to impart new life and love to you—and love always acts. Having heard His Word for you, calling you to repentance again, your first act will be moving your feet forward to come to this altar to receive His very body and blood for your forgiveness; and your second act will be moving your feet to bear your crosses with confidence and gladness, and to serve your neighbor. May the God who comes to you strengthen you for the task.
In Jesus’ X Name. Amen.