The Fourth Sunday in Advent| December 20, 2009| Rev. Rolf Preus| 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
Years ago when visiting at the home of some parishioners, a particularly precocious young boy came up to me and said, “Say God, I have a question.” I explained to him that I was not God, but that I did know what God said about some things so I might be able to answer his question. He thought about that for a second or two and appeared to be satisfied with my answer because he responded, “Okay, here’s my question.”
As I recall he had one of those unanswerable questions that God hasn’t chosen to reveal to us. So I couldn’t answer him after all.
Don’t be too quick to dismiss the little boy’s initial question. Clearly, it was absurd to assume that I, a mere man, was God in the flesh. Only Jesus is God in the flesh. No one else is. But was it absurd for that little boy to think that a mere man could tell him the very words of God? Or was he wise beyond his years? I would like to suggest that that little five year old boy had greater theological insight than most theologians today.
A man speaks for God. What a radical idea!
They asked John, “Who are you?” He wasn’t the promised Christ. He didn’t claim to be. He made that crystal clear. He wasn’t the reincarnation of Elijah, though he clearly preached in the spirit of Elijah. He wasn’t the prophet that Moses foretold. That particular prophet would be none other than the Christ himself.
Who was he? He was the voice. He was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the LORD.’”
Preachers and hearers can learn from St. John the Baptist. He has much to teach the Church today, both pastors and laity. There is much confusion these days about what God teaches about the preaching office or pastoral office. Errors and misunderstanding abound.
There are two common errors about the ministry of the Word. While they appear to be opposites they are in fact twins. On the one side is the error that the minister has some special spiritual status before God that Joe and Jane Christian don’t have. On the other side is the error that the minister does not speak with the authority of God.
John refused any special status. He held an office. It was the office of preaching. His job was to preach what God told him to preach. He was to preach God’s Word, not his own. What John preached did not originate with John. It wasn’t as if John had some special insight into preparing the way for the Lord that nobody else had. In fact, John wasn’t particularly imaginative or creative. He preached plainly.
When John preached the law he didn’t put his own spin on it. He didn’t develop his own special brand of holy living. He told the people to share what they had with those who did not have. He told the tax collectors to collect no more than what was their due. He told the soldiers not to bully anyone and to be satisfied with their pay. He preached hellfire and damnation to everyone who refused to repent before God.
When John preached the gospel he pointed to Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He urged the people to follow Jesus, to trust in his blood, to put their confidence in him alone as the promised Savior of the world. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
John emphatically renounced any special status. He was a voice and only a voice. He baptized, but his baptism didn’t obligate the one being baptized to follow John; to the contrary, his baptism pointed to Christ.
John the Baptist laid claim to no more authority than to the Word of God. No preacher has any more authority than that. God’s Word and sacraments aren’t the private possession of a clerical class of haves with the laity consigned to a class of have nots. No, what the minister administers – the Word and sacraments of Christ – belongs to all Christians as their birthright. The minister doesn’t have any authority that doesn’t belong to the Church and to the whole Church.
The preacher has nothing to offer you that God has not already given you in Holy Baptism. John baptized. In baptism God forgives sins. God rescues sinners from the harm they do to themselves. God brings the dead to life. People are bound in captivity to their past guilt and future fears. God sets them free. Preachers preach. They are nothing more than a voice. They haven’t got anything to say that God hasn’t already revealed in Christ and recorded in the Holy Scriptures. The first of the twin errors popular among us today is that the preachers have authority that doesn’t belong to the entire Church and to every individual member of it.
The other error is closely related to the first. It is that the minister doesn’t speak with the authority of God.
While giving lip service to a pastor’s divine call to preach the gospel, many churches hire and fire preachers as if they are at will employees of the congregation. If the preacher preaches something that offends the sensibilities of certain members of the congregation or angers certain officials of the church body he is told that he mustn’t make waves if he wants to keep his job. If he won’t compromise, he’s sacked.
Such churches don’t believe in the divine call of pastors. They don’t believe that the preacher preaches with God’s authority. They don’t want God’s authority. They want their own. They want to pretend that what they think is true and they won’t suffer to be taught by another. They won’t humble themselves before God by submitting to the authoritative teaching of God’s minister.
St. Paul warns Timothy of such people. He writes:
Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers. (2 Timothy 4, 2-4)
Such people may appear to be Bible believing, conservative, traditional Christians. But they view the preacher as a hired man. They resent the authority of his office. But God established the pastoral office and God is the One who sends pastors to preach.
The authority of the pastoral office is not, as we have seen, for the aggrandizement of the pastor. It is for the benefit of those who listen to him. They need to know that when he preaches God’s word to them he speaks from God as God’s voice with the full authority of God.
You should never think that you may not approach your pastor and ask him to explain his preaching and teaching. If you ever hear anything from the pulpit that appears to you to disagree with what you have learned from the Bible and from the faithful summary of biblical teaching you have learned in the Catechism, don’t hesitate to call your pastor and talk to him about it. The man God put in the pulpit to preach with divine authority is the servant of every single soul in the congregation who seeks the true voice of God. Any pastor who won’t show you that his teaching is from the Holy Scriptures has no right to preach to you. But when the preacher preaches God’s word faithfully, you had better honor his preaching even as you honor God who sent him to preach to you.
God calls men to preach. He chooses to speak his law through the mouths of men who are guilty of breaking it. He chooses to proclaim his gospel through the voices of men who need the forgiveness of sins as much as their hearers do. A preacher preaches the gospel because God tells him to. If he doesn’t see the need to do so or if he begins to think that he’s got something a bit more relevant to preach he should consider his own sin and ask himself where he would be if God were to hold his sins against him. God, be merciful to me, a sinner! That’s the plea of every Christian preacher. Give me the confidence to believe that the gospel I preach to others is for me as well as for them. For I have sinned against the holy God and must repent of my many sins.
Prepare the way of the Lord. The Lord preaches this through the man he has chosen. John’s baptism was a sacrament in that it conveyed the forgiveness of sins. But it was not to last. Jesus would shortly replace John’s baptism with his own and that baptism endures until the end of time.
God appointed John to be his voice to prepare people to meet Jesus in his first coming. God appoints his ministers today to be his voice to proclaim the Christ who came and who is coming again.
And if they won’t preach with authority then they shouldn’t presume to preach at all. When the preacher preaches God’s law and it cuts your heart you should not think that that’s just a man’s opinion that you can dismiss. Today’s Old Testament Lesson includes the immortal words of Isaiah,
All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
The preacher must preach this. The people are grass. Everything we own, everything we treasure, all that occupies our time is worthless when compared with the Word of God. So we repent. We repent of the sin of placing our affections on the stuff that withers and fades while ignoring the Word of God that stands forever. We repent of the sin of skipping church, of ignoring God’s Word, and of setting aside what God says when he requires of us what we don’t want to do.
“Make straight the way of the Lord.” This is not achieved merely by confessing our sins. The gospel is proclaimed to those who confess their sins. But the power of the gospel doesn’t come from our confession. It comes from God. The Word of our God stands forever. The Word made flesh on Christmas Day is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. He takes away our sins. The preacher proclaims him. We who are joined to the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lamb of God in our baptism hear the preaching of the preacher and we say amen to it. This preaching doesn’t come from the preacher. It comes from God. The man who proclaims God’s forgiveness to us is saying what God put him there to say. God’s Word stands forever. Our absolution from all our sin is as sure and certain as God’s own Word. Preach that, preacher. And let all of Israel say: Amen. Amen.