Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Rorate Coeli
Text: John 1:19–28
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
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 does not waste words. He doesn’t sugar coat his preaching of repentance. He doesn’t hem and haw when asked who he is. He confesses and does not deny. Yet he confesses by denying himself. I am not the Christ. Are you Elijah? I am not. Are you the Prophet? I am not. John could have made himself the center of attention; instead, he knows that he must decrease and Christ must increase. John is nothing but the embodiment of a voice crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” John is the voice who prepares the way for the Word made flesh.
And so, John counts himself as nothing but God’s instrument. He baptizes and preaches repentance, not because he is the Christ, or Elijah, or the Prophet, but because the Christ is standing in the midst of those gathered around him. John is sending back these messengers from Jerusalem with an important message. John does not apologize for baptizing and preaching in the wilderness when he is not the Christ, but he invites the Pharisees and priests and Levites to come out and meet One who has come to do greater things than this voice crying in the wilderness.
“Go and tell those who sent you, I am nothing. But tell them to hurry here, because the Christ they seek is present.” John wasn’t afraid of anyone. He called out the Pharisees for not bearing fruit in keeping with repentance. He instructed soldiers and tax-collectors on how to do their jobs and not abuse those over whom they had authority. He is later thrown into prison for rebuking Herod and Herodias and their unlawful marriage. That takes some nerve. But even John doesn’t have the nerve to stoop down and untie the shoes of the Christ.
In John we see this wonderful combination of confidence and humility. Throughout the gospel,s we see the exact opposite attitude in the priests and Pharisees. They are always second guessing themselves, worried about having their positions of prestige and influence taken from them. Yet they are full of self-righteousness. They are smug, yet wary.
So what is going on in John’s ministry? Scripture makes it clear that John’s baptism isn’t exactly the same as Christ’s baptism. John himself differentiates between his baptism and the baptism of Christ. Where John baptizes with water, the Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. In the book of Acts, we read that Apollos first preached the Gospel in Ephesus, but he knew only the baptism of John. Therefore, when Paul came to Ephesus, he baptized the congregation in the name of the Lord Jesus. Yet, we are told clearly in Scripture that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins. It wasn’t nothing, but John’s Baptism was not everything. For us, that is sufficient on the distinction between John’s Baptism and the Baptism of Christ, for Scripture says little more. So in John’s ministry forgiveness is given, but there is more to come.
Christ follows John. Everything John does, Jesus does, yet He does to a greater degree. This is literally the poetry of God’s Word. In Hebrew, poetry is not marked by rhyme and meter as it commonly is in English. The most common and prominent feature of poetry in Hebrew is repetition, but repetition that builds upon itself.
No place is this more obvious than when the Proverbs tells us things like:
“Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand. . . .”
What we need to understand in regard to our gospel lesson today is that not only is this repetition with increase part of the way God has inspired His holy Word to be recorded for us, but it is inherent in the very way in which God acts. What John does, Jesus follows and does, but Jesus is greater. Jesus’ preaching is greater; Jesus ‘baptism is greater; Jesus’ death is greater. The voice crying in the wilderness is great, but it is only a prelude to the Word made flesh.
Today we stand with John the Baptist and confess: I am not the Christ; I am not Elijah; I am not the promised Prophet who would lead God’s people out of slavery like Moses. We will not receive the Lord rightly if we do not deny ourselves and confess that we are not the greatest. We are not God, we are not, in ourselves, righteous, or holy, or even good. Let us have that humility in common with John. But let us also have his confidence in the God who has placed us here at this point in time. And let us have confidence in the one who follows John. We too are unworthy to untie His sandals, yet He has come to stand in our midst. The Christ has come to be identified with sinners in order that through His confident humility we might be redeemed. The Christ is humble unto death, yet confident that God will vindicate Him. So we too are now humble unto death. We have nothing to give God. We are nobody to our neighbor, apart from the gifts that Christ has given us by which we care for our neighbor. We do no good from ourselves, yet we trust with the utmost confidence that Christ who has saved us brings good out of us.
So we have gathered [again] around the font, at the banks of the Jordan, so to speak. And confessing Christ, we have renounced ourselves. We have turned our back on our sinful nature as we have renounced the devil and all his works and all his ways. We have gathered here and confessed that we are sinful and unclean, yet we look to Christ who takes away our sin.
We who have been baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit have received the everything that John’s baptism offered. Yet Scripture promises us we have also received here, eternal life, an inheritance in the Father’s house. Everything that is Christ’s is given to us.
[Jessica and Elizabeth,] From this day forth you have every reason to be perfectly confident and perfectly humble. Heaven and earth belong to you, because you belong to Jesus. There is nothing from which He has not delivered you. The destruction of the flood, death, hell, these have been overcome for you in this water joined to the eternal Word. Rising from this font is the prelude to the greater resurrection, which is already Yours because Christ has risen from the dead. Nothing can harm you, yet you are called like John to deny yourself and follow Jesus. You have brought nothing to the font but sin and death. Jesus has taken that, and you leave the font with life and salvation.
Thus with joyful hearts we pray to Christ our Savior:
Love caused Your incarnation;
Love brought You down to me.
Your thirst for my salvation
Procured my liberty.
Oh, love beyond all telling,
That led You to embrace
In love, all love excelling,
Our lost and fallen race.
In all boldness and in all humility, let us praise His Name and confess Him before the all the world.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria