The Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 23, 2018
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."
John the Baptist teaches us how to confess the Christian faith. Christians confess Christ. If you won’t confess Christ, Christ won’t confess you. Jesus says,
Confessing Christ is a public act. Those who refuse to baptize babies will argue that baptism is a public confession of the faith. They are wrong not to baptize babies, but they are right when they say that baptism is a public confession of the faith. It is. We baptize babies with the solemn promise to teach them everything Christ commanded that they be taught so that they will be able to confess him publicly before the world. Confessing Christ is always a public act.
We confess personally and individually. We confess what we believe. The Psalmist writes, “I believed, therefore I spoke.” (Psalm 116:10) Confessing and believing go together. St. Paul writes in Romans 10,
Faith is personal. Confessing the faith is personal. It is also corporate. We confess as a body. The word “confess” in the New Testament means to speak together the same thing. It is never a purely individual thing. It is always corporate. We don’t make up our own faith and confess it. We confess the faith of the church. We confess with the church. We gather together to confess our faith. Confession is public, personal, and corporate.
John the Baptist teaches us how to confess Christ. The priests and the Levites who came to John to ask him who he was represented the religious leaders of the Jews. As is often the case with religious leaders, they were politically motivated. The Jews lived under Roman rule, but not willingly. Many were looking for the Christ to come and to throw off Roman domination. John was a very popular preacher. Many thought he was the Christ. If John claimed to be the Christ, the people might follow him into revolt against Roman rule. The Romans would brutally crush any rebellion, and the people would suffer. So the priests and the Levites thought they were doing their religious and patriotic duty to find out what John’s intentions were.
“Who are you?” they ask. They don’t ask John if he is the Christ. John is the one who brings Christ into the conversation. He said he was not the Christ. He was not denying Christ. He was saying he was not Christ. You cannot confess Christ faithfully unless you distinguish between you and Christ and between your thoughts and his word. This is what John did.
John made this distinction. He knew the Bible. He had studied it all his life. He was not “the” prophet of which Moses spoke – “the” prophet was Christ himself – but John was a prophet. The prophets were all students of the Bible. John was familiar with these words of God written by Isaiah,
Don’t confuse the preacher with the preaching. Don’t confuse his opinions with God’s word. God doesn’t think like we think. God appointed John to be the forerunner of Christ. As such, he spoke God’s word, not his own. John was not the focus of John’s preaching. Christ was. John always extolled Christ. He said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) He said he was not worthy to loose Christ’s sandal strap. He wasn’t worthy to be his servant. Isaiah foretold the ministry of John several hundred years earlier. He referred to John as the voice. That’s what John called himself. Who John is personally is beside the point. It’s what he says that matters. Confessing Christ is confessing Christ. It is not confessing us. It is confessing him.
This is not to say that what we do has nothing to do with what we say. It does. If we take God’s name in vain, get drunk, engage in sexual immorality, lie about people, break our promises, and then confess Christ as our Savior from sin, our confession isn’t worth much. This may be why many Christians keep their mouths shut when given an opportunity to confess Christ. They’re afraid that they will be judged as poor Christians on account of their conduct.
On the other hand, talking about your personal relationship with Jesus is not necessarily talking about Jesus. To confess Christ is to confess the truth about him as it is taught in the Bible. It is not to describe how he makes you feel. Your feelings are fickle. God’s truth is unchanging.
John preached the law in all its severity and he preached the gospel in all its sweetness. He preached the law. He blasted the religious hypocrites who came to him to be baptized, calling them a brood of vipers. Faith that bears no fruit is no faith at all. John made it crystal clear. In teaching God’s law, he didn’t advocate separation from the world but living a holy life within this sinful world. Tax collectors should not collect more money than the law allows. Soldiers should not intimidate civilians, but be content with their wages. John didn’t tell tax collectors or soldiers to leave their jobs, but to do their jobs without ripping off their neighbors.
John preached the gospel in all its sweetness. It was John who spoke the words we sing every Sunday before eating and drinking the body and the blood of Jesus given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. He pointed to Christ and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” A more beautiful statement of the gospel of Christ has never been spoken! Behold! Look! Faith isn’t deciding, figuring out, submitting, struggling – you can have all of these things with or without faith – faith is looking. It is seeing Jesus the Lamb of God. He’s the Lamb of God because he is God become man to suffer and die. He’s the Lamb of God because he was appointed by the Father to suffer and die. He’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s what he did. This is the gospel! It doesn’t give you instructions on how to get God to take away your sins. It points you to Jesus who has taken away your sins.
John the Baptist was a gospel preacher. We cannot confess Christ without confessing his gospel. There is no gospel without the law. There is no forgiveness of sins when there are no sins to be forgiven. We cannot confess Christ if we ignore God’s law. John preached both law and gospel. He preached the law in all its severity. He preached the gospel in all its sweetness.
This is how we confess Christ. We don’t confess Christ to become popular. Confessing Jesus is not how to get respectability, influential friends, or a better job. Confessing Christ is to deny yourself, to pick up your cross, and to follow him.
Christ is the bridegroom and we, his church, are his bride. Confessing Christ today means to confess God’s holy institution of marriage as the life-long union of one man and one woman. It means to reject sexual intimacy outside of this sacred bond. John the Baptist was imprisoned and later beheaded because he preached against the sexual immorality of Herod the king and his wife, Herodias.
Confessing Christ today means to stand for the binding authority of the Ten Commandments. It is still a sin to blaspheme God. It is a sin to use God’s name to cover up falsehood. It is a sin to neglect God’s word and refuse to attend church. It is a sin to dishonor our parents. It is a sin to hate our neighbor. It is a sin to interpret what our neighbor does in such a way as to make him look bad, when we can interpret what he does in a kind way. Christians don’t despise God’s law of love. They live it.
Confessing Christ today means to stand for the truth of the gospel. The gospel is not a message of how you can make God favorable toward you. We sing the gospel in church every Sunday. We should confess outside the church what we confess inside the church. We sing the Gloria in Excelsis: “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” This isn’t a possibility. This is a reality. This is what Christmas means. God is glorified as he brings his peace and goodwill to us sinners. It is as he forgives undeserving sinners like you and me that God is known for who he really is.
Confess the gospel! Tell sinners trapped in destructive sins that Jesus is who John the Baptist said he is: The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Confess the gospel! Confess that Christ is your Savior from sin. You don’t need to tell anyone what your sins are. It’s none of their business, anyway. But you know. God knows. And you know that God has removed your sin from you as far as the east is from the west. He has called you by his gospel, enlightened you with his gifts, sanctified and kept you in the true faith. This you can confess.
Argue! They say you shouldn’t argue about religion. Is that so? Then what should we argue about? God has been arguing with hard-hearted and thick-headed sinners about religion for the past six thousand years! We should argue his argument! Don’t be dogmatic, they say. That’s because they love their own opinions more than God’s word. If we have God’s word, we should confess it clearly, dogmatically, and without compromise.
We learn this from John, who while not literally Elijah, came in the spirit of Elijah, fearlessly confessing Christ no matter what the cost. We confess Christ because he is our greatest treasure on earth. We confess Christ because he is the only Savior sinners have. He is the only hope for a world on its way to destruction. We are unworthy to serve him, but he deigns to serve us. He comes to us here in this place Sunday after Sunday, forgiving us all our sins, feeding us body and soul with his own body and blood, given and shed for the remission of sins. Jesus is not confined to this place, however. He is everywhere, as true God and true man. Therefore we will confess him – our God and our brother – everywhere.
Rolf D. Preus