And this is the witness of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" And he confessed, and did not deny, and he confessed, "I am not the Christ." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No." They said then to him, "Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,' as Isaiah the prophet said." Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.
And they asked him, and said to him, "Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" John answered them saying, "I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent 12/20/20
A Voice in the Wilderness
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Many times today people confuse the Church with what they see around them when they gather for worship. Sometimes this confusion is a harmless thing. Certainly, some of what they see and hear is the Church. Sometimes some of it is not. The Church is not the way we sing. Some Sundays our singing is full and sweet, and other times it is thin and a just a little wobbly. Some people confuse the pastor with the message. While a faithful pastor is the bearer of the message, he is not the message. You don't have to like his personality, or the way he chants, or the inflection of his voice while he preaches. The Word of God is the message, words which the Pastor proclaims, but which do not belong to him. The people around you, beloved or somewhat obnoxious, are not what we come here for, they are here, too, because they need the Word of God and all of His gifts to live from one day.
It is important that we do not confuse what we see with that which is greater. It is also important that we do not confuse ourselves for something or someone that we are not. Our text is a good illustration of that – both of those who confuse one thing with another, and an example of how not to permit that confusion to gain a foothold. Let us consider our Gospel lesson, this morning, under the title, a Voice in the Wilderness.
They came to John. Enemies. They were looking for some way to shut him up. They didn't like what he preached. He preached sin and repentance. No one likes to hear about sin. No one wants to be told that they heed to repent. Just who does he think he is?!! Obviously he had to be stopped. The priests and the Levites were confident that religion was what they said it was and church was what they said, so they had to shut him down.
The way they chose to do it was to challenge his authority. Are you the Christ? John had to answer, I am not the Christ. The first challenge to his authority was for them to ask him who died and made him God, so to speak? The Messiah had the authority to preach like this, but no one else. Of course we know that when the Messiah came and preached like this, they crucified Him.
Well, if you are not the Messiah, are you Elijah? There was this legend among them that before the Messiah would come, Elijah would return. If he isn't the Messiah, maybe he would be Elijah. He sounded a lot like they may have expected Elijah would have sounded. Elijah would have the authority to preach like that!! And John said, I am not.
Well, what then? Are you the Prophet? You see, they expected a prophet. Moses had promised that God would raise up a prophet just like him, one who spoke to God as a man speaks to a friend, face to face. He would be the greatest prophet of all times! And they believed that this prophet was to come just before the Messiah. Actually the Bible didn't say that last part. That was popular lore. Moses promised the prophet, and they just figured that He would come just before the Messiah. So, if John were the prophet, then he would have the authority to be kicking up a ruckus out in the wilderness, otherwise, just who does he think he is!? And John answered, "No."
Then who the heck are you? Where do you get off telling people how to be, or deciding what worship is, or preaching how people get to be the people of God? He said, "I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,' as Isaiah the prophet said."
John was the one person who was actually prophesied, but he was the one person – like Jesus – who they did not expect, they did not recognize, and they did not grant him the authority which the Word of God granted to him. So, they challenged his authority. Oh, he seemed to have some sort of excuse for all that preaching, so it wasn't politic, theologically speaking, to challenge that -- but the Bible didn't say anything about Baptizing, so that was the point at which they would challenge Him, And they asked him, and said to him, "Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?"
John's answer really didn't answer their question, but for some reason it satisfied them for the time. John answered them saying, "I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." John's answer was very much like saying, "Don't worry about me, guys. I just baptize with water. The One whose herald I am is the One you should be worried about. He will baptize with the Spirit of God or with judgment and destruction. I would focus on that One first."
John's answer was clever. It was inspired. It was the Word of God. John simply shifted the question of authority. He claimed no authority of his own. He pointed to Jesus, the Coming One, and said whatever I do, it is by His authority. If you want to take issue with my teachings, take issue with Jesus.
You know, nothing changes much in this world. Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, There is nothing new under the Sun. The disciples did not always agree with Jesus. Peter rebuked Him and cried out, Oh, God Forbid!, when Jesus taught about His crucifixion, death and resurrection. The Apostles had false teachers and enemies undermining them every step of the way. There was the Holy Ghosters with their tongues-movement. There was the circumcision party, claiming that you needed more to be a Christian than grace. There were those who denied that a physical resurrection would ever take place. And all of them called themselves true Christians -- and accused the Apostles themselves of being false and misleading, and having an evil and personal agenda.
The preaching and the teaching of the Word of God always has its nay-sayers, even in the church. Those outside of the Church are no problem. It is those on the inside, niggling and politicking and seeking to sabotage the Word of God or the servant of the Word among us, that create such havoc and heartache. Luther had those who thought they understood the Lutheran Reformation better than the man who started it -- close friends like Carlstadt and Melancthon. Walther, first president of our Synod, had enemies and critics who were never at peace with Walther's insistence on pure doctrine, always wanting to remake the Synod of which Walther was the premiere theologian. There were many who quietly celebrated when Walther finally died. Today the theology of Walther's enemies has largely replaced Walther's faith in the Synod.
I hear from most faithful pastors that they face the same sorts of things. There are always who niggle and complain about the faithful Pastor. He preaches too much Law. He is too narrow-minded. He should be lighter, more cheery, more Gospel and sweetness than all of this gloom and sin and such. There truly is nothing new under the sun.
I preach the Law because it is the Word of God, and it is true and it is still applicable, and it is God's Will for us. I also preach it because anyone who is not aware of their sin, who has no sense of their sinfulness and does not face their corruption due to sin cannot truly appreciate the Gospel. If you do not face your sins, then forgiveness is a chimera, a mythical creature. If you do not confront your total corruption in sin, you cannot fathom or treasure your forgiveness. If you are not crushed by your guilt, you will not delight in your forgiveness. If you cannot bear to hear the Law, then you probably don't actually believe the gospel either. The Gospel is not merely about your "salvation" -- it is about your great sinfulness having met and been covered by the great grace of God in forgiveness because Jesus died for you. If you say to me, or whisper behind my back, don't tell me about my sin, then you might as well stand up in the congregation and shout, DON'T TELL ME ABOUT JESUS!!
I don't know how this strange idea gained a foothold among Lutherans, that you do not need or want to hear about how sinful you are, but it is dead wrong. You want to know your sins so that you may know the sweetness of forgiveness and the value and utter importance of your salvation. If you do not know the depth and size of your sin, you will never appreciate the greatness of God's love or His grace in forgiving you. Jesus said it once, He who is forgiven little, loves little.
Luther wrote about those who wanted to ignore their sinfulness and only hear the sweetness of the Gospel . He accused them of only wanting to "be painted" a sinner. The problem according to Luther was that such preaching made Christ a "painted Savior" -- not a real Savior for great sinners, but a pretend Savior for those who have few sins and little guilt or shame. I, however, need a real Savior from great and serious sins, because I know my guilt, and so I cannot pretend that you are "painted" sinner either, for I want to know and proclaim a real and powerful Savior from deepest sins who died to save sinners, among whom I, too, am chief.
For those who are troubled that I preach such stern stuff, I can give you no better answer than John gave those sent by the Pharisees. Don't worry about me. Look beyond me to Him who sent me, whose Herald I am and whose Word I preach. He will not simply speak. He will judge. He will measure each man and woman against the truth, and painted sinners will not stand in that day -- only true sinners, who have seen their sin and guilt and despaired of themselves, and now find their comfort in forgiveness and grace won for them on the cross of Calvary.
I do not mean to ever suggest that I am above criticism -- but if you want to argue with me, take me to the Word. Examine my preaching against the Scriptures. If I am not teaching what they teach, or if I am not telling you of Christ's death on the cross and of the forgiveness of sins, then take me to task. And do me the Christian courtesy of coming to me, and not to others without speaking to me. But let your critique be grounded on the Word of God. If your problem is that you simply don't like to hear God's Word clearly preached, then your argument is with Jesus, not with the preaching of Pastor Fish. Then my answer is very much like John's, "I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,'."
I don't mean to suggest by preaching this that there is a problem here. The only problem we might have here is our flesh, which is never comfortable with Christ or His Word. We must be ever vigilant, however. The temptation to find fault and excuse ourselves from the accusing of the Law of God will always be present. Thankfully, the Gospel of Jesus will always stand present for our comfort and strengthening as well. John said, Look past me. He is the one that counts. I would encourage you to do the same. Look past the messenger to the message, and past the servant to the Master who sends him. After all, I, too, am no more than a voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)