December 23, 2012
Emmanuel Lutheran Church—Dwight, IL
December 18, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church–New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
Who is John? Strange man, that one. The Pharisees want to know. Who is John? He’s the stuff of basic cable reality shows. A loner out in the wilderness, dressed funky, weird diet. Who is this guy? He’s a baptizer. Ritual washing. Send the priests and Levites, they’re experts on this stuff.
Baptizing wasn’t exactly new—ritual washings had been around in the Jewish temple practice since the Exodus at least. God prescribes several things that need washing with water in Leviticus. Later in Israel’s history, after they returned from the Babylonian captivity, ritual washing took on a whole new level of importance. In some of the Jewish sects, you had to immerse yourself in a ritual bath even if you made contact with another person of a lesser rank than you. Now John’s in the wilderness washing people in the Jordan and telling them it’s for repentance unto the forgiveness of sins.
Who is John? When the question is put to him, he confessed and did not deny; and he confessed, “I am not the Christ” (v 20). The Christ is the Anointed One—Messiah in Hebrew. Lots of people were anointed in the Old Testament—priests, prophets, kings. But there hadn’t been one of those for quite some time; hundreds of years, in fact. John confessed that he was not the Christ. Another One is coming, he says, who will be anointed with the Holy Spirit, and will baptize with the Spirit.
Who, then, is John? Is he Elijah? Elijah was one of two people in the Old Testament who never died. He and Enoch were blessed to be assumed into heaven. Elijah’s assumption was quite the show—a fiery chariot set him apart and a whirlwind took him into heaven. Because of his powerful prophetic ministry and miraculous departure, some of the Jewish sects believed that Elijah would make an appearance again at the end times. But John says, I am not (v 21).
Who is John? Third time’s a charm. Are you the Prophet? (v 21). The Prophet is the promise that God gave to Moses and His people Israel at the end of Moses’ life and ministry among them. Moses had been the intermediary between God and the people, the only one allowed into the presence of God. Moses delivered the Law, written by God’s own hand on the mountain. Not just the Ten Commandments, but all the rules and regulations to govern the civil and spiritual life of the Israelites. Moses is the beginning of all the rituals, anointings, and later prophesying. God promises to raise up another prophet like him, one who would speak with God and reveal His Word to His people. When they ask John if he is this Prophet, he has a simple answer. No.
We give up, then. Who are you, John? He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ just as the prophet Isaiah said” (v 23). John does not identify himself with any particular person. He is a voice. Who he is isn’t important. What he says is important.
John’s voice is not his own, but it is the same voice of Elijah, the voice of an anointed prophet. It’s the voice of the Holy Spirit. John doesn’t devise his own message, he doesn’t pontificate on his own observations make up his own rituals. He speaks what he is given to speak, his message is revealed to him. In a sense, John is all three of the things he denies—anointed prophet in the office of Elijah. But he cannot claim them for himself because he knows that THE Christ and THE Prophet, a greater Elijah is coming. John’s voice is only to make the way straight for Him. For it is the Lord Himself who is coming.
Why does the Lord need a voice to prepare His way? John stands in the wilderness as a sort of hinge of history. He is the major turning point in all things spiritual and theological. He is the transition from Old Testament to New, from Law to Gospel. Unfortunately, the vast majority of religiosity has missed John’s message.
There are hundreds of different categories for religions, but they can all be boiled down to one of two religions. It’s not Christians and pagan, nor is it Catholics and Protestants. It’s the religion of the Law and the religion of the Gospel. The religion of the Law is any belief, practice, ritual, or teaching that is an attempt to gain the favor of God by works. The laws differ, the rituals differ, but the teaching stays the same. Do this work, perform this ritual, and you will please God.
Every pagan religion, every mystery cult, practices this sort of religion. But they’re not the only ones. The Christian Church is full of the religion of the Law also. On one hand, there are some who maintain that the proper conduct of ceremonies and rituals merits God’s grace. On the other hand, many Christians believe that strict obedience to morality is what gets them in God’s good graces.
The religion of the Law is the natural religion of man—even if you claim that you’re not religious, you still practice this religion. The evidence is in how every person, including you, makes every effort to justify his or her own actions, to prove that you are righteous because of your works. But by works of the Law will no man be justified in God’s sight.
Every person is born into the religion of the Law, but John’s voice calls you out of that religion through repentance. Repentance is to stop justifying your actions, to acknowledge that even your best works are soiled with sin, and to look for your justification outside of yourself.
St. John—the Evangelist—mentions something right before today’s reading. The Law was given through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ.
Moses was the prophet of the Law, though the Law existed before him. But through him, the holy, perfect Law of God was given in crystal clear words, simple and concise. There are codes of Law from many ancient civilizations, but none as simple, yet all encompassing, as the Ten Commandments. Before Moses, the Law was written on all men’s hearts, and a prophet of God would speak God’s Law from time to time, but when Moses descended from the mountain with those two tablets, the Word and Law of God was preserved for all generations.
The Law of God is perfect, good, and wise. And it offers salvation and justification for all who keep its strict demands. Yet even the simple, plain words of the Ten Commandments prove to be a foil to any religionista of the Law. They are so simple you can’t possibly hope to keep them. They go to the heart of every man, woman, child, and infant to uncover the rot of sin that’s working its way to the surface.
As I said, John’s message is not to overthrow the Law, but that you would not try to justify yourself by the Law. The Old Testament was a testament of the Law, and it could only be kept by One not stained with sin. Christ is the One who accomplishes the Law not only in its complexity, but also in its simplicity. He keeps every jot and tittle, and also abides by the summary of the commandments by living a life of love for His neighbor, even to the point of death.
John’s call to repentance prepares you for the advent of a New Testament and leads you to grace and truth through Jesus Christ. His voice points you to a justification that is outside yourself and apart from the religion of the Law.
For Jesus is the Prophet who is like Moses. He is the Prophet who preaches grace and truth. Just as the Law existed before Moses, the Gospel also existed before Jesus. But in His Word, we have the Gospel set forth in crystal clarity, simple, plain, and concise. Volumes of books have been written expositing the Gospel, but it is really quite simple. Jesus Christ died for the sake of sinners and all are justified freely by His blood. The one who believes in Him will have eternal life.
The religion of the Gospel is not really a religion at all, at least not man’s religion. It is God’s grace, which He lavishes upon you freely for the sake of Christ. This is the truth as we begin another of the Church’s years of grace.
Christ’s Advent Is the ADvent of a New Testament of Promise that Covers the Old Testament of the Law
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard