The Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 20, 2015
“Confessing Christ in Humility”
St. John 1:19-28
Now 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." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?" He said: "I am 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Make straight the way of the LORD," ' as the prophet Isaiah said." Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees. And they asked him, saying, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" John answered them, saying, "I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose." These things were done in Bethabara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing. John 1:19-28
John the Baptist confessed. He didn’t deny. He confessed. The Christian confession is the confession of Jesus Christ. It’s not the confession of one’s religious experiences, growth in piety, opinions, or speculations about God. The Christian confession is the confession of Christ. To confess Christ means first that you deny yourself.
They came to John to ask him who he was. He was a very popular preacher. Had he claimed to be the Christ he would probably have convinced many people. Likewise, he could have claimed to be Elijah or the prophet that Moses promised. But John had no desire for notoriety. He wanted only to do what God sent him to do. He was the voice spoken of by Isaiah the prophet. His voice would prepare the people to meet the Lord. Both the prophet Malachi and Jesus himself referred to John as Elijah whereas John denied that he was Elijah. John wasn’t contradicting Malachi and Jesus. They called John Elijah because he came in the spirit of Elijah – as an uncompromising preacher of God’s truth.
You may recall that Elijah never died. He was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. This opened up speculations among people that the same Elijah that ascended up to heaven would come back to earth. That’s what the priests and Levites from Jerusalem meant. But that’s not what Malachi or Jesus said. They referred to John as Elijah because of his courage. Elijah did not mince words. On Mt. Carmel, he boldly challenged the prophets of Baal. After they spent a morning praying to their idol to send fire from heaven and receiving nothing but silence, we read in 1 Kings 18:27,
Elijah directly challenged the false worship of his day. He mocked their false gods. John was the same type of preacher. We read in Matthew 3:7-9,
John said it the way it was. His confession of faith and his preaching of God’s Word were clear, to the point, and without compromise. But he was a humble man. He refused honors he didn’t deserve. When he spoke of his office as prophet he claimed nothing at all for his person and spoke solely of the task entrusted to him. When they pressed John to identify himself he said, "I am 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Make straight the way of the LORD," ' as the prophet Isaiah said.
He confessed. He preached. Confessing and preaching go together. The preachers preach. The Christians confess. The preachers preach what the Christians confess and the Christians confess what the preachers preach. To confess means to speak together the same thing. Confession of the faith is always a corporate thing. In other words, you always confess with the church. You are never confessing only as an individual. Individualism is utterly incompatible with the faithful Christian confession. That’s because we don’t confess what we think. We confess what God says. And what God says to each of us individually is the same thing he says to all of us corporately. Confession of the faith is, by definition, a corporate activity.
On the other hand, the task of confessing is an individual thing. You can talk or you can be quiet. You can take the opportunity to speak the truth that God has taught you or you can let it pass. It’s up to you. Speak or be silent. They went to John. John didn’t go knocking on doors. His confession of the faith was in response to questions he was asked. The best confession comes as a response to questions asked. St. Peter writes: But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear. 1 Peter 3:15-16 Who are you? John didn’t want to talk about himself. Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? Who are you? They ask us who we are. When you preach they examine you. When you confess they examine you. They might even judge you. Don’t worry about it. Jesus tells us to love them. That’s why we confess. We love them. That’s why we confess Christ, and not ourselves. Our preaching and confession do not arise from us because our faith doesn’t arise from us. It isn’t produced by us. It isn’t strengthened or sustained by us. We don’t make ourselves into Christians. The voice does. The voice is the voice of the Word. St. John says of this Word:
Grace and truth bring us to faith. This is the faith we confess. Apart from grace and truth, apart from the voice that reveals the Word made flesh, apart from the gospel and the sacraments of Christ, we have nothing worthwhile to confess. This is why we listen to the voice. He is just a voice. He must not be confused with him he proclaims. He’s not worthy to unloose his sandal. All he can do is administer what is given to him to administer. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. It was a sacrament. But he who sends the Holy Spirit baptizes you with a baptism that fills you with the Holy Spirit. You see and feel only water, but it is Christ’s baptism. Therefore, it joins you to Christ and gives you all that Christ has to give.
John teaches the preachers. And he teaches the confessors. He teaches us two things. First, we confess, not ourselves, but Christ our Savior. Second, we confess in humility. Can we claim to know the truth and make such a claim with humility? Only if the truth we claim to know is the truth about Christ. For when we confess Christ, we aren’t bragging about what good Christians we are. We aren’t making ourselves the center of the story, talking about all the sins we used to do but now don’t do. We confess Christ. We say who he is: our God and our brother. We say what he has done for us all. He has become one of us to do for us what we failed to do, could not do, but needed to do. His birth was not just to announce peace. It was to establish it. That’s what he did by his holy life and sacrificial death. By offering his obedience up to God to replace our disobedience and by bearing all our sin he opened the way to God for us. He is the way, the truth, and the life. To know God, enjoy fellowship with him, and receive from him forgiveness of sins and everlasting life is only through faith in Jesus. The way of the Lord is Jesus. The political slogan says: No justice, no peace. In a way that is true. Unless Jesus had fulfilled the demands of justice, we could have no peace with God. He has and we do. The way of the Lord is Jesus. The way to receive Jesus is in humility. We confess our sins to God. We don’t know them all. We know what we feel, what we remember, and how our sins bring us regret and the knowledge of guilt. But it is God’s law, not our feelings, that determines what sin is. The “Christian questions with their answers” that Martin Luther wrote to help Christians prepare to receive the Lord’s Supper begins:
We don’t confess Christ in pride of our achievements. We confess the faith after we have confessed our sins. For it is precisely where God forgives us our sins, for Christ’s sake, that our faith is born. Even as we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, our faith lives on that forgiveness.
So we confess in humility. Our humility doesn’t mean we are unsure of the truth of what we confess. When we confess what God’s word teaches we confess in confidence. But it isn’t self-confidence. It is faith in the gracious God who, seeing us in the filth of our sins, loved us and sent his Son into the world to take those sins away. The pride of life, the pride in our rightness, our flesh, our wisdom, our possessions – it is crushed under the weight of God’s holy demands. God prepares the way of the Lord. He delivers us from the law’s condemnation, forgives us for the sake of Christ’s suffering, and sets us at peace. When we are at peace with God we can confess to our neighbor him who is the Prince of Peace.
Rolf D. Preus