Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent 3 of Series B (John 1:6-8, 19-28)

“John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands One whom you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this third Sunday in Advent comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the opening chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: in our world today, finger-pointing is generally discouraged. Right now, Samantha enjoys pointing at anything that catches her attention. Her finger is extended toward puppies, other children, or a toy that is just out of reach. She loves to point, and at her age, it is one of her primary methods of communication. But there will come a time when we will have to teach her that pointing isn’t always appropriate. People don’t like being pointed at, and in our society today, it is consider quite rude, especially when you point at a complete stranger. Pointing is even used to intimidate and bully. Now, as she grows up, Samantha may find herself in situations where pointing is actually required. If she becomes an NFL quarterback, she will need to point out a blitz, to prepare her linemen and receivers for a quick throw. If she serves on a sailing ship, then she may be placed high on the mast, and it could be her job to point to the horizon and declare, ‘Land, ho!’ And as a Christian, she will need to do a lot of pointing, following the example of John the Baptist.

John was a pointer; you can imagine his kindergarten teacher saying just about every day, “For the last time, John, it isn’t polite to point!” But John didn’t listen very well; he loved to point. Not at himself, no, never at himself. He always pointed away from himself. When the Jews sent priests and Levites to ask him “Who are you,” John didn’t answer with who he was, but instead with who he wasn’t. “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” When it comes to talking about himself, John would much rather declare who he is not rather than who he is. He is not the Christ, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet, he is not the Light. John does nothing for his own exaltation or advancement. He is not in the desert baptizing because of his own status or to serve his own glory. In fact, all John does is lower himself; he declares that he is not even worthy to be the lowest servant of the One who is to come. “Among you stands one who you do not know, even He who comes after me, whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” His preaching, his teaching, his baptism has nothing to do with himself. He points away from himself to another.

It’s a little frustrating to interview someone who doesn’t want to talk about himself, and so the priests and Levites get a little impatient. “So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’” If they haven’t figured it out yet, John’s task isn’t to talk about himself, but about another. “He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said.” John is the voice. A voice has no worth in itself, but instead its only task is to speak. John’s mission is to speak of another, the coming One, the Lord whose way must be prepared. The Evangelist puts it best. “He came as a witness, to bear witness about the Light, that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but came to bear witness about the Light.” John has come as the first witness in the great court case that is beginning in our text. Jesus, this carpenter’s son from a no-name town, born under suspicious circumstances, is on trial. Throughout His life, Jesus will testify to His identity, that He is God come in the flesh to save. John is His first witness. He has come baptizing to declare that God has begun the work of salvation, and Jesus is the one who will accomplish it. He points only to Jesus.

Who do you point to? Do you point to Jesus, or to yourself? Christians are called upon to be finger-pointers, to draw attention to Jesus, but most often we draw attention to ourselves. Selfishness is rampart in our society, in fact it’s embedded into our mindset as Americans, and you and I are no different. If someone wrote a newspaper article about you, would Jesus even get mentioned? Our fingers are most often squarely pointed at ourselves, not at Christ. We do this by our sin; every time that we sin against our neighbor, we are taking the focus away from Christ and putting the spotlight on ourselves. We do this by our inaction; we are often too busy focusing on ourselves to confess Christ before the world. We do this by pointing to our own accomplishments, all that we have achieved, with no reference to the God who created and redeemed us; in selfish pride we exalt ourselves. John never exalted himself; instead, he spent most of his time lowering himself so that Christ would increase. Are you willing to decrease so that Christ may increase? John was willing to be nothing, to make himself lower than a servant, in order that Jesus may be exalted. This is risky, this is uncomfortable; those who lower themselves so that Christ will have all the glory pay a price, as John found out. Your pride will have to be sacrificed; all of your thoughts and deeds will have to serve Christ, not the other way around. Like John, you must decrease so that Christ may increase.

But that is not the end of the story. John spent all of his time lowering himself, bowing low in humility before the coming One. Jesus did exactly the opposite; He spent all of His time exalting John. In the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Christ declares, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Jesus exalts John to the first place among the apostles and prophets, all those who pointed to the coming Messiah. John isn’t optional to the story of Jesus, he is essential, because he revealed Jesus to Israel as the coming One, the One who would fulfill all of the promises God had given through the prophets of old. When John tried to prevent Jesus from being baptized, our Lord declared, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” John was essential to the plan of salvation, he was needed to fulfill all righteousness, for John baptized Jesus into the baptism of sinners, revealing Him as the sin-bearer, the beloved Son of the Father who would take the sin of the world away. Jesus exalts John not because John was so accomplished, or so talented, or had so much wealth. Jesus exalts John because of his humble witness. Jesus exalts John because John didn’t exalt himself.

That is the great irony of the Gospel. We don’t have to waste our time exalting ourselves; that’s Jesus’ job! And it’s a task that He loves to do. Jesus exalts the humble. That is what He has come to do. The Law humbles you, showing you where you have rebelled against your loving Creator. Today, the Law has shone a light on your life and pointed out your selfishness, your exaltation of yourself instead of Jesus. You have been brought low by the Law, but take heart. Christ exalts the humble, those who have nothing to give Him but their sin. He came to raise up sinners, to surrender everything for them. He began this task when John baptized Him with the waters of repentance. Jesus stood in the Jordan and submitted to the baptism of John as the sinless One in the place of sinners. Jesus came to humble Himself, to give up everything, even His own life, for the sake of sinners. But in His humiliation He was exalted. He was lifted up, exalted upon the bloody throne of the cross. Good Friday was the enthronement of our King. He wore not a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns. He did not establish His kingdom on terror or power, but on humility and service. John didn’t consider himself worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal; Jesus made Himself lower than any man in history upon the cross. There He showed His love for lowly sinners, for you and me. Jesus suffered all, even hell itself, for those whom He loved. Jesus humbled Himself so that you would be exalted.

God accepted His sacrifice on your behalf, raising Him from the dead and then placing Jesus at His right hand. Think about it: the same flesh and blood that you and I bear is now enthroned at the right hand of the living God. This is a pledge, a guarantee, that you will one day be enthroned there as well. He lifts up sinners, exalting them to the throne of God. Because Jesus died, your sin is forgiven. Because Jesus lives, you too will live. Because Jesus is enthroned at the right hand of His Father, so you will be too. No one in this world can exalt you beyond what Jesus has done. There is no need for you to exalt yourself, no need to seek honor and glory from others, for Christ Himself has raised you to the place of eternal glory. Your exaltation is found solely and only in Christ, the one who died for you, rose again for you, and is enthroned in glory for you.

Jesus, like John, is a pointer. He points to you and me and says, “These are my beloved people.” When the Law brings you low, rightfully pointing out your sinful pride so that you tremble before God’s wrath, Jesus points to you this morning and said, “You are forgiven; I will exalt you only because of my shed blood on your behalf.” He points to you when the fear of death confronts you, declaring, “You will live forever because I live. Death has no power over you.” When you suffer disease and infirmity, Jesus points to you and says, “You will one day have a body that will never fail again.” Whenever Satan accuses you, Jesus points to you and says to the evil one, “This is my child, claimed by the waters of Holy Baptism, fed by my Body and Blood. I will not abandon my child.” The Gospel is all about finger-pointing. We point to Jesus and He points to us, declaring who we are and what has been given to us by His shed blood. It may still be rude to finger-point in elementary school, but in the Church it is the way of the Gospel. The Church continues to point sinners to Jesus, as it has since the days of John the Baptist; Christ isn’t generic with His gifts, but He applies them directly to each and every one of you, this day and every day. In the Name of the Light, the One greater than John who humbled Himself for the salvation of all people, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

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