The Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 22, 2013
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
When John baptized people he was laying claim to authority from God himself. There is a common misconception among Christians these days that John’s baptism was purely a symbolic washing that did not actually provide the forgiveness of sins. This is reading back into the biblical text a false doctrine advanced by the heretical Anabaptists of the 16th century that has become the official teaching of most Protestants in our day. This doctrine is false but tremendously popular. It teaches that the sacraments of Christ are mere representations of or reminders of God’s grace, but do not actually convey God’s grace.
If Holy Baptism is just a symbolic washing with no spiritual benefit and if the Lord’s Supper is just a symbolic meal that does not give us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, and if the Absolution is just the sincere wishes of a man and not the actual forgiveness of our sins by Jesus Christ himself, then we don’t really need Holy Baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, or the Absolution. But if these are in fact powerful and life-giving means of grace whereby God himself gives to us the salvation that Jesus won for us on the cross, then we do need them. In fact, they are precious treasures to us for they bring Jesus Christ himself to us that we may embrace him in faith and receive from him all of the spiritual blessings he has to give.
“Who do you claim to be?” When the religious leaders questioned John they questioned his authority to baptize. We learn from the Gospels that John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Where did he get that authority? Was he the Christ? John said no, he was not the Christ. Was he Elijah? John said no, he was not Elijah. Was he the prophet? John said no, he was not the prophet. In challenging John’s authority to baptize with a baptism for the forgiveness of sins they zeroed in on who John was. John backed away from being anything or anybody. He didn’t want to confuse the issue. John was nobody in his own estimation. How did he identify himself? He said:
Note three things here. First, he is but a voice. His own personal piety, power, status, prestige, lineage, or popularity are irrelevant to the question of what or who John is. He is nothing but a voice.
Second, he says what he says so that you may be prepared to meet the Lord Jesus when he comes. To make straight the way for the LORD – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – is to prepare the way for Jesus. He is the LORD God in the flesh.
Third, John speaks as the one God himself promised to send. He promised to do so through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah. In other words, John’s authority is grounded in the Bible.
John’s authority was in what he said. John’s authority was to prepare people for Christ, their Savior. John’s authority was grounded in the Bible.
If baptism is but a symbolical washing that does not bestow forgiveness of sins and eternal life, then the authority to baptize is no big deal. Nobody would have bothered questioning John were his baptism just a symbolic ritual that he made up. The religious authorities questioned John precisely because he was baptizing. They asked, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” When the gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered something is happening and that something is from God. The men who challenged John later challenged Jesus. It was a question of authority. John set the stage for the controversy that began then in the first century and continues until the end of time. He said to them:
He who came after John in fact came before John. John was not worthy to be his servant. He who preached after John was he by whom all things were made in the beginning. He to whom John pointed was the eternal wisdom by whom God made the world. The man whose way John prepared was the eternal God whom we confess as God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by who all things were made.
What do you think of Jesus? That’s always the real question. They come to John asking him, in effect, “Who do you think you are?” “Forget about me,” John says. “I’m but a voice. I just say what God says to say. I myself don’t matter a bit. But what I say matters because what I say is about him who is from everlasting to everlasting, the only God who exists, the God who has now joined the human race to become your Savior. I’m but a voice, but what you hear from me is the most important thing you could hear from anyone.”
Listen to this voice of God today. He says, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Let’s talk a bit about what this does not mean and about what it does mean. It does not mean that you draw the Lord Jesus to yourself by your own religious exercises. You are not able to bring him to you. He comes to you without any help from you. As Paul Gerhardt puts it in his beautiful Advent hymn:
The most common spiritual malady is grounded in the most common doctrinal error. This error is called synergism. Synergism means working together. Synergists believe that their deliverance from sin and death is a joint effort between them and God. God does his part and they do their part. Jesus comes toward us and then we meet him halfway. Jesus cannot help us until we do this or that, decided this or that, or pray this or that. Synergists are very offended when you tell them that they are powerless to do anything at all to bring Jesus into their hearts. They just might point to such commands as that of John to make straight the way of the Lord as evidence that we can indeed do something. We can make the way straight.
But that would be a total misreading of the text. To make straight the way for the Lord is to admit that we are helpless sinners who can do nothing at all but acknowledge our wretchedness, guilt, and helplessness. God is right and we are wrong. His law demands a perfect heart and our hearts are infected by malice, lust, greed, envy, pride, and every other form of sin. We are sinners who need a Savior who will take our sins away from us. Make straight the way for the Lord. Don’t lay claim to any of your own power. Admit your powerlessness.
How do you receive him who comes? If we are powerless, where is the power to receive him? If we are helpless, where is the help to hold on to him and to have him as our very own? The power, the help, the ability is in Christ’s gospel and sacraments. God joins himself to the talking of men. God joins himself to a washing with water. God joins the body and blood of Jesus to ordinary bread and wine. By joining heaven to earth he brings us to heaven.
Make straight the way of the Lord. Confess your sins. Don’t make excuses. Don’t point the finger at the one who did you wrong. Confess your sins and don’t tell God he hasn’t got the right to judge you. He does. He made you and he most certainly will judge you. But he also has the right to forgive you.
John says, “I baptize with water.” Some have argued that there is another kind of baptism, namely the baptism of the Spirit and this Spirit baptism is to be preferred above water baptism. They miss the point of what John is saying. Water baptism is Spirit baptism and Spirit baptism is water baptism. They are one and the same thing, as we confess in the Nicene Creed, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins,” and as St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:5, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” When John says, “I baptize with water,” he is pointing out that all he can do is administer what is given to him to administer. He can baptize. He can preach. But he’s only a voice. God is the one in charge and God is the one who raises us up out of our sins and doubts into the true faith and the assurance of eternal life.
The means of grace are the purely preached gospel and the rightly administered sacraments. They are largely despised in these days when everyone decides for himself what the truth is and nobody will be bound by any authority outside of his own feelings. The priests and the Levites may have had a bad attitude toward John and a judgmental spirit to boot, but at least they understood that there is authority behind baptism. It is more than an empty sign. There is power. The word has power. The Sacraments have power. This is not magic. This is the almighty God who chooses to speak to us through the word and the sacraments. If you want God you go to where he has promised to be.
He whose sandals John was not worthy to unloose was identified by John in the verse following our text as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That God would suffer for his own people is an amazing thing. He became the sacrifice for all sin to take away the sin of the whole world. There is nobody whose sin Jesus did not take away by bearing it on the cross. This is how we know that the means of grace – the gospel and the sacraments of Christ – are valid for everyone, no matter who he may be.
What sin have you committed? What commandment have you broken? Have you lied? Have you stolen? Have you dishonored those in authority over you? Have you hurt your neighbor? Have you procured an abortion? Have you gotten drunk? Have you committed adultery? Have you broken your marriage vows? Confess that sin as sin. Don’t excuse it. Confess it. Admit it. Come before God as a penitent who desires nothing but God’s grace. See him come to you and give to you forgiveness of all your sins. The forgiveness procured at Calvary is given wherever Christ’s gospel and sacraments are given. That makes this church the gateway to heaven.
Rolf D. Preus