Saturday, December 13, 2014

We Are Not the Christ (And That's a Good Thing!)

Sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-28
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 14, 2014 (The Third Sunday in Advent)

John confessed and did not deny.  Usually when we hear those words, we expect an affirmative statement of some sort.  Something without the word not in it.  To use the word not is what we would normally call a denial, not a confession.  We would expect the Gospel writer to say that John denied that he was the Christ.  But that’s not what the text says.  It says that John confessed and did not deny, saying, “I am not the Christ.”  A confession, not a denial, which nevertheless contains the word not in it.

In many ways, however, John’s confession is the fundamental confession of the Christian faith.  As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.  This confession, however, is set against the first and most basic temptation from the Garden of Eden: “You will be like God.”  The most basic idolatry, the most basic breaking of the First Commandment, is not a matter of worshiping carved images or other obviously false gods.  The most basic idolatry is thinking that we are our own gods.  The most basic idolatry is thinking that we can control our relationship both with God and with the rest of creation.  And so, when John says, “I am not the Christ,” he’s not so much denying that he’s the Coming One, as he is affirming that Someone Else who is coming is the Messiah who takes away the sin of the world.  He’s affirming that Jesus, not himself, is Lord.

Of course, under pressure from the Jewish religious leaders, he’s forced to expand on that confession.  After a couple of other fishing questions, he’s finally asked point blank, “What do you say about yourself?”  And even there he doesn’t simply identify himself, but refers to an Old Testament prophecy from St. Isaiah, in which John is identified simply as one who prepares the way and then simply gets out of the way.

We’re not put on this earth to promote ourselves, but to confess in word and deed our Lord Jesus Christ.  But how often, even when we think we are proclaiming Jesus, do we end up talking about ourselves, about “what Jesus has done in my life” rather than what Jesus has done for all of us on the Cross given us in 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.  There is another way of focusing entirely on ourselves.  Now, 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 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 are there to cover me up so that I end up looking like any 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 (not to mention getting their tang tungled up during the sermon), 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 (and for that matter a large church’s 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 we all as we confess back to Him, to one another, and to the world around us what we have heard.  He is the one who is really important.  We aren’t even worthy to loose the straps of His sandals.  But He gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation nonetheless.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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