Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Our Introit for this morning directs us to look to the Lord alone for all that we need. The words from Isaiah 45 invite us to look to the heavens for blessings, as we say: “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness” (Isaiah 45:8a).
The Latin name for this Fourth Sunday in Advent, then, comes from these words. Rorate Coeli means “Shower, O heavens”, as we are invited to look to the Lord alone for all that we need. This same theme is reflected in today’s Gospel reading from John 1:19-28 as we hear the testimony of John the Baptizer. As we consider this Gospel text further, we will see that John the Baptizer challenges us to consider ourselves and our lives as being defined by Christ alone. We will:
1.) Consider the text and see how this is the case, and
2.) Consider how this applies to our lives.
2. We begin by considering the text. John the Baptizer is out preaching in the wilderness somewhere along the Jordan River. Evidently he had been making such commotion and so many people had been going out to hear his message and to be baptized by him that a group of priests and Levites was sent from Jerusalem to inquire as to what was going on. So, the priests and Levites arrive and ask John: “Who are you?” (John 1:19).
Now, notice John’s answer. He doesn’t actually answer the question. The priests and Levites want to know who he is. John is more concerned about telling them who he is not: “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20).
The priests and Levites aren’t satisfied with John’s answer. That’s fine to know that he isn’t the Christ, but he still hasn’t answered the question of who he is. So, they respond: “What then? Are you Elijah?” (John 1:21).
John responds matter-of-factly: “I am not” (John 1:21).
Now, this might be a little bit confusing because of our Lord’s insistence in Matthew 11 that John is “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14). But, without going into too much detail here because it’s not our primary concern right now, the precise words of John’s answer in our text is meant to refute the assumption that he is literally the prophet Elijah who has returned to life. He is the one who came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), as the angel Gabriel foretold to John’s father Zechariah. John’s answer does not exclude this possibility, but it does exclude the possibility that he is Elijah raised to life. But back to our text, the priests and Levites still aren’t satisfied with John’s answer. So, they continue their questioning: “Are you the Prophet?” (John 1:21).
John’s answer is even shorter this time. He simply replies: “No” (John 1:21).
Now, this “prophet” to which the priests and Levites refer is the one foretold of by Moses in Deuteronomy 18, as we heard in our Old Testament Reading, when Moses said: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deuteronomy 18:15).
It’s not coincidental, then, that John will soon use this same language of “among you” to point out to these priests and Levites that “among you stands one you do not know” (John 1:26). In short, this “prophet” to which the priests and Levites refer is none other than the Christ, though they themselves don’t know it yet. So, no, John is not “the Prophet.” But he still hasn’t answered the question of who he is, which is not lost on the priests and Levites. So, they say, almost in exasperation: “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those you sent us. What do you say about yourself” (John 1:22).
Finally, John gives them a straight answer: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:23).
John finally gives a straight answer: he is the one who is preparing the way for the Christ to come. But after a brief comment from the Gospel writer that these men were from the Pharisees, the questioning continues. They want to know why John is behaving the way that he is. So, they ask: “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (John 1:25).
John answers: “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” (John 1:26-27).
Now, I would like to direct your attention to the way in which John responds to these men. It would be easy to get caught up in paying attention to the hostility of the priests and Levites’ questioning. But notice the way in which John responds to them. Each and every one of his responses is concerned with one thing: John wants the priests and Levites to know who he is in relation to the Christ. This is the one thing that defined John’s life. He lives for Christ. He lives to prepare the way so that others would come to know and believe in the Christ’s atoning work of salvation for them. John’s life is defined by his relationship to Christ.
3. So, my friends, who are you? How do you answer that question when it is asked of you? How do you define and describe yourself to those who inquire of you? Chances are that most of us define ourselves by the things that we do. I am an engineer or an accountant or a physician. I am a mother or a father. I am a student. These are the sorts of answers that we tend to give when we meet someone and are asked about ourselves. And that answer you give to the question, “Who are you?” is quite telling. It reveals what you spend your time thinking about. It reveals what you spend your energy on. It reveals what you care most about. John the Baptizer very clearly cared most about Christ. Though our Lord had not been fully revealed yet at the time of our text, John the Baptizer cared about nothing more than he cared about Christ. Can you say the same? Do you care about nothing more than you care about Christ? What would your checkbook, bank account, or credit card statement reveal about what you care most about? What about your calendar? Does it bear witness to Christ defining your life? Or is there something else which is more important? Is there something else you care more about and spend more of your time on? Sports? Activities? Social engagements? Food? Pleasure? Comfort? If we’re honest with ourselves, there can only be one answer to these questions.
4. In the verse immediately following this morning’s Gospel text, John sees Jesus coming toward him, and he says: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
My friends, this is our comfort—that despite our misplaced priorities, despite our failure to allow Christ to be the one thing that defines our lives, despite this sin, our comfort is that Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. No matter how spectacularly we fail to live for Christ alone, no matter how often we fail to define our lives by him alone, John the Baptizer and every other witness in the Scriptures calls us back to that which matters most—Christ forgives sinners. Christ came to earth at Christmas so that he could become that sacrificial lamb. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. And Christ comes among us today through Word and Sacrament to offer you forgiveness, life, and salvation.
5. So, how do we consider ourselves and our lives as being defined by Christ alone? Well, by definition, to “consider” something is a mental exercise. So, if we want to live in this way as best as we are able, we must prioritize that which will have the greatest positive mental impact. If we want to strive toward being defined by Christ alone, we need to prioritize that which draw us closer to him and we need to learn to love that which he desires us to love. As basic as it may sound, we need to make it a priority in our wallet and in our calendar to read God’s Word, to pray, to sing, to gather around Word and Sacrament with brothers and sisters in Christ. If we aren’t doing these things regularly, then we will never make progress. In today’s text, the message that John attributes to himself as his primary message is this: “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23).
To make straight the way of the Lord is nothing other than to ready the pathway so that we can receive him—to re-center our lives around Christ. He desires to offer us grace upon grace (John 1:16). How could we not shape our lives and ourselves so that we are completely defined by the reception of such grace which he so freely offers? May God make it so for each one of us.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.