Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent 3, Series B

Sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-28
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 11, 2011 (The Third Sunday of Advent, Series B)

There is something striking about the way John’s testimony is described in this Gospel lesson.  He is asked who he is, and the evangelist tells us that he confessed and did not deny.  What did he confess?  That he is not the Christ!  John’s answer to those who asked him who he is, was to tell them who he is not.  His purpose is not to testify of himself, his purpose is not to give a personal testimony of the great things God had done for him, but to testify of the One who is preferred before him, whose sandal strap he is not even worthy to loose.  That one, of course, is Jesus Christ, the coming Messiah.

John was the last, and the greatest, Old Testament prophet.  Jesus himself pointed out that among those born of women none is greater than John the Baptist.  He was greater than Isaiah, Jeremiah, David, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and all of them.  This could have been a bragging point.  And yet, he does not brag.  He does not focus on himself.  He focuses on the One coming after him who is preferred before him.  How tempting it must have been for John to toot his own horn when the Pharisees came to ask him about himself.  And it wasn’t just the one question, either.  Even after he denied that he was the Christ, they kept after him to find out who he was.  Are you Elijah?  Are you the Prophet?  Who are you?  And John does not answer other than to say, “No.”  Finally he does answer, but even there his answer doesn’t point to himself, but to the One coming after Him.  He quotes from Isaiah 40:3, which prophesies John the Baptist as one who comes before the Christ, preparing His way.  John’s identity is not his own.  He’s just a voice sent to prepare the way for the Son of God.  Who he is in himself, is not important.

John’s example is of course, one that we do well to follow.  We are not put on this earth to promote ourselves, but to confess in word and deed our Lord Jesus Christ.  And yet we are so often tempted to let our own pride get in the way of that confession.  Even when we think we are proclaiming Jesus, so often we allow ourselves to get in the way, especially when we end up talking primarily about “what Jesus has done in my life” rather than what Jesus has done for all of us on the Cross and through Word and Sacrament.  It may sound at first like we’re giving all the glory to God, but the more we talk about things that are unique to us as individuals, things that relate to blessings we may have received in this life or ways that our own lifestyles have become better, rather than the salvation that has been worked for all mankind in eternity by Christ on the cross, the more we end up sounding like the Pharisee who prayed in the Temple, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.”

Of course, there is the opposite error, too.  Satan loves to use this one against us.  The other way of focusing entirely on ourselves is the one which focuses entirely on our sinfulness and the many small and great ways that corruption of our natures has shown itself in our lives.  It is good to examine oneself and know that one is a sinner in need of forgiveness.  But where self-examination becomes morbid self-condemnation, then again you set yourself up against Jesus Christ and try to promote yourself over against Him in a perverse way.  The idea that your sins are too big to be forgiven.  This, too, is a sinful and wrong focus on self.  Jesus has died for your sin, it’s forgiven and forgotten and done away with.  As far as God is concerned it never happened.  That’s what the words “I forgive you” mean.  To continue focusing on our sin after we have heard Christ’s own messenger, sent to prepare His way, say, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” is also to promote yourself at the expense of Christ who has taken your sin and given you His righteousness in its place.

You see, that is the point.  We are nothing, Christ is everything.  Both as sinners and as saints, our focus is not on ourselves.  Who we are doesn’t matter.  Christ and His word of Law, crushing overconfident, self-righteous hearts, and of Gospel, rebuilding those who know their sins and their wretchedness so that they become the saints God created them to be, these things are what matter.  It’s all about God.  It’s all about Christ and His Word.  Even in the Divine Service, we don’t express ourselves, we confess what God has first said to us concerning those great things He has done for all of us.  That’s why, by the way, I wear these robes.  I’m not here as Tim Schellenbach to tell you about Tim Schellenbach.  Tim Schellenbach is nobody.  These robes, and the uniform I wear underneath these robes, the black shirt and white clerical collar, is there to cover me up so that I end up looking like just another pastor.  I’m just a voice, like John the Baptist, calling in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

And that is what all of us are as we confess back to God, to each other, and to those around us who do not know Christ yet, the great things God has done for us.  We do not promote ourselves or even our congregation.  Yes, we’re a lot smaller than we once were, and yes, that’s worrisome.  But if someone is brought to faith through our confession of faith to them and they end up hearing God’s Word and receiving His body and blood on a regular basis at Grace or Pentecost or Faith or Messiah or somewhere else, so what?  We’ve done our job.  Whether or not they come to this place to continue to feed on God’s Word is really beside the point, so long as they continue to feed on God’s Word.  We’re not here to promote ourselves but to prepare hearts for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

After all, it’s His coming among us that church is all about.  And thank goodness.  If we came so that we could do something for Him first and foremost, we’d always fall woefully short.  Even the largest churches in our Synod have their share of mistakes and mishaps during the service.  Their organists also play one too many or too few verses sometimes, their pastors also occasionally say things that don’t quite come out right despite the best of intentions, their secretaries also commit typos in the service folder.  And so we shouldn’t be surprised that our little congregation is no different.  We try our best, but our best could never compare to the angels and archangels in heaven if you look and listen with earthly eyes and ears.  But it is the one who comes among us in His body and blood, whose way His messenger stands in the pulpit right now to prepare, who is the real star of this show.  And He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  What He brings to you is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  He came, He was born, grew up, lived a perfect life in your place, died for your sins, and rose again for your salvation.  He gives you that perfect life, innocent death, and glorious resurrection to eternal life here and now.  And He will come again in glory to take you to that place where you will experience the fullness of these joys, these blessings, these gifts from His hand.  That’s what this service is all about.  God does it all.  I am merely the voice preparing His way, as are you all as you confess back to Him and to one another what you have heard.  He is the one who is really important.  We aren’t even worthy to loose the straps of His sandals.  And yet, of His mercy, He gives us Himself, for our salvation.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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