Pastor Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church – Dyer, Indiana
19. December 2010
Fourth Sunday of Advent
“Who are you?”
+ IN NOMINE JESU +
Now on this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, we learn of the office of St. John the Baptist. John was a preacher. From his lips, came a testimony concerning another. This testimony got him in trouble. Despite being of the priestly bloodline of his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth, he had done a dangerous thing. He preached and baptized.
To us this is not odd. This congregation elected me to be your preacher and baptizer. God confirmed this as valid call when I was ordained and installed as your pastor.
For John’s world, he is bizarre. For one thing, John’s message of penitent preparation was new to those itching ears. He preached boldly preached repentance. He boldly called those who gathered around the Jordan to recognize their depravity and rejection of God’s holy law. He told them to turn their hearts toward the coming one, the Messiah. Not so odd to us, but crazy talk to the Jews.
And another thing, this baptizing thing. We commonly baptize our children in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe they attain faith and are saved through this cleansing flood.
Not so for John’s world. Ritual cleanings are common. Baptizing for the forgiveness of sins is new. We hear John and hear the same message from our preachers. We see John baptizing and think little of it since we too baptize our children.
Not so for the Jews. These are new things. Rabbi’s read and teach, not preach. Priests sacrifice not baptize. John does neither. His voice cuts to the heart like a knife, not at all like the gentle tales of the teachers. His baptism declares forgiveness without the blood of goats or calves.
John is new and he is different. This makes him antiestablishment. He’s no prophet. He’s plagiarizing Isaiah left and right. He’s no priest. No Levitical sacrifices, no blood, no temple, and no offering plate. He’s baptizing, drowning the sorrows of the people in the Jordan River.
So the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” The Jews are confused. Is he a prophet? Is he a priest? Perhaps he might even be the Messiah?
That’s a dangerous assertion, one that’s liable to either get you paraded into Jerusalem as a king, stoned as a blasphemer, or with your head on a Roman platter. John confessed, and did not deny, but confessed. This is no apology. John publicly declares: “I am not the Christ.” The Evangelist wants to make perfectly clear that John did not act like he was the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one. The Baptizer is not the Savior.
Still the Jews are not satisfied. They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” In other words, are you Elijah come to usher in the last days. Our Old Testament scriptures end with these words: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:5-6). Certainly not, says John. He is not Elijah, who can call down fire from heaven to consume sacrifices and idolators.
What then? If he’s not the Messiah, nor Elijah, perhaps a prophet? And he answered, “No.” John, oh, John, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
Talk about an identity crisis. I ask myself the same question every day. Others ask me too. I’m here preaching, baptizing, and officiating the Lord’s Supper. What am I? A parish administrator? No. Am I a prophet? No, I only proclaim the Word our Lord handed over to us. Am I the Messiah? No, there is one who has come who still saves us. Am I Elijah, ushering the terrible day of judgment? No, I come declaring the year of our Lord’s favor.
John is a lot like the men placed in the office of the Holy Ministry. He isn’t quite what the establishment wants nor is he what anyone really expects. The Jews expected fire-and-brimstone and John brings water. The Jews want Law and John brings forgiveness. The Jews hope for a king like David and John prepares the way for a Nazarene.
So also, what people want out of their church and what our Lord gives them can be two completely different things. People want life lessons and Jesus gives them anfechtung, trials and temptation. People want wealth and prosperity and Jesus gives them opportunity for generosity and poverty. People want power and glory and Jesus gives them humble servitude. People want a majestic church and Jesus gives them a church suffering and persecuted.
So, the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” isn’t quite what these Jews sent by the Pharisees wanted. They don’t want something new. They don’t want the preacher telling them to repent, to turn back away from their sins, and turn toward God. They don’t want baptism forgiving sins. They want Christ, the mighty victor. They want Elijah, the defeater of Baal. They want the Prophet, not some pale imitation.
So it is for us, this fourth Sunday in Advent. Who do you want? Do you want a liturgy service, majestic in glory? Do you want obliterator of your enemies? Do you want the bold eloquence of the prophet? I am none of these things. I do not come with these things. I am like John who says, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”
I’m here humbly making straight the way of the Lord. I have no authority but the authority Christ has endowed to my office. John took on nothing but what his office required. Preach repentance and deliver the Gospel goods. So it is for me, I am here in your stead asking nothing but that you make straight the way of the Lord.
Some might balk at John’s prophetically instituted office. He can’t make any paths straight, they say. That’s God’s work. Divine monergism, they cry out. You can’t tell me that the preacher can prepare the way for the Lord. The way of salvation is only God’s work. Salvation start to finish is only the act of God without and indeed in utter opposition to man’s will.
This is absolutely correct! John doesn’t make the way straight, the Lord does. What? How can this be? The Scriptures say that John is to make the paths straight, to proclaim repentance and baptism. Ah, but this work is not John’s alone. No, he occupies the office of the Baptizer. His office has been prophetically instituted and now carried out by John.
Just like the Barack is in the office of the president, executing the duties of the office, so John is in the office of Baptizer, executing the role long-foretold by Isaiah. It may not be quite what people expected or the establishment wanted, but he was faithful in his duties. Christ? No. Elijah? Nah. Prophet? Not really. Baptizer. Preacher. Yes. And all for the Lord and indeed the Lord’s work.
John’s office is carried forward into the office of the ministry. Christian preachers officiate the Lord’s work in our midst. They call sinners to repentance. They admonish the wayward. They reject the errant. They encourage prayer and supplication. They boldly call upon our Lord for the sake of the community of believers. Sin is uncovered and surgically removed. Doubt is vanquished by the light of the truth. The lies of Satan are revealed by the Word of God.
Christian preachers, like John, baptize for forgiveness of sins. They bring faith to the party, causing trust in our Lord’s promises to spring forth in once infertile hearts. New people come out of water, fertile and made straight for the Lord. Properly speaking, this is not their work but our Lord’s work. Pastors are merely Christ’s servants making the way ready for him and through him.
The office of the ministry is bigger than John. John said, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” “I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy.” I am no John nor am I Elijah or the Prophet. I am your pastor bearing Christ and his gifts for you. I’m not worthy to even untie his sandal. I’m here with Jesus only because God chose me, calling and ordaining me to be his pastor in this place.
This office of the ministry not only makes the way ready for Christ, it is Christ delivering the goods. It brings the holy one whose sandals are too sacred to touch.The office of the Holy Ministry not only bears repentance and forgiveness. It bears Christ, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The office of within the church is endowed with Jesus.
Jesus comes to you with the call of repentance. Repent and turn to Christ for forgiveness. Jesus comes to you with baptism empowered with the divine gift of forgiveness of sins. Jesus comes to you declaring the once-and-for-all atonement through his shed blood. He even now pours out for you his blood as you drink it from the chalice. He even now puts in your mouth his crucified flesh for your salvation. Jesus comes with forgiveness and life-sustaining food.
Jesus doesn’t end there. He gives special gifts to his ministry to declare forgiveness personally to those troubled by private or besetting sin. He sends his Holy Spirit to call us into the Christian congregation, to gather us to the body of Christ in love and communion with each other. In this Christian congregation, he enlightens us with his gifts and keeps us in the faith. Through the preaching of the Word and the blessings of the sacraments, the Holy Spirit sanctifies, that is, makes us holy and ready. We are prepared by our Lord for his coming again on the last day.
This is our Lord’s work all the way. Divine monergism to the max. The Lord worked through John. The Father sent the Son. The Father and the Son sends the Spirit. The Spirit calls the churches to repentance, forgiveness, and salvation through unworthy servants called pastors.
Is it what the people expect or the authorities want? Nope but its exactly what Jesus came to do. Born in a manager, preaches, teaches, heals, dies, resurrects, ascends, carried to the ends of the earth by the spirit through the angels in the churches, and will come again the judge the quick and the dead. Make your hearts ready, our Lord comes … or better yet, he has made you ready and rejoice. Christ our savior is born, the lamb who went uncomplaining forth, Christ the Lord who is risen today. Alleluia. Amen
+ SOLI DEO GLORIA +