O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, His mercy endures forever (1 Chr 16:34). Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church - Winnipeg, MB
Based on John 1:6-8, 19-28
Preached on December 17, 2017
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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Who are you? That’s the question of the day. Everyone seems to be asking it nowadays – and there is a lot of confusion. Who are you? They asked John. The delegation from Jerusalem, the religious priests and Levites who were sent to investigate this strange wilderness man. Who are you? Or perhaps the question is more aptly put, “Who do you think you are? Calling people to repentance. To turn away from themselves. Baptizing all sorts of filthy sinners – prostitutes and tax agents and riff raff – as if they could take a bath and all would be forgiven. Who are you? Dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey. Calling us a ‘brood of vipers’ and daring to call good, respectable religious people to repentance. Who do you think you are, John?”
John’s answer: “A voice of one crying in the wilderness. Nothing more than a voice.”
John was a witness sent from God to testify, to point, to direct attention away from himself to a Coming One, One who was greater than John, One whose sandals John was not worthy to untie, One who was the Christ, the anointed One, the messiah of God. John was not the Christ. He was clear on that. Some thought he was. Some thought he would make good messiah material. But John knew who he was and who he was not. “I am not the Christ.”
Some thought he was Elijah, whom Malachi said would come to prepare the way of the Lord. Jesus Himself called John Elijah, as one who came in the spirit and power of Elijah and who even appeared in the same place where Elijah disappeared. But John would not apply that designation to himself. “I am not,” he said. He left it to Christ to give him his identity. Identity isn’t snatched – claimed for oneself. It is given by One greater. John knew any identity he claimed for himself would be worthless. Fig leaves. Grass that withers. No, John was content to simply be a voice in the wilderness.
Some thought he was the Prophet foretold by Moses. But again, John denied it. “I am not,” even though he stood at the end of a long prophetic line and he was a prophet in the truest sense of the word. The prophets before him pointed in the general direction of Christ, often vaguely, usually speaking in a kind of prophetic double-speak in which they spoke of the present situation and the coming Christ in the same breath and with the same words. But John had no future tense in mind. No one-day. His vision was firmly locked in the present moment. The kingdom of God was at hand. Now. The time had come. What was once far off had now drawn near. Get ready. Make straight the way of the Lord. It’s here.
I’d like to quote at length from a marvelous sermon by Dr. Martin Franzmann on John here - entitled “He Shall Be Great.” Franzmann says it so well it bears repeating and reading. Listen to this:
“…[the] greatness of John is a greatness of subordination. This is the greatest of all. ‘I am not Elijah, I am not the Prophet, I am not the Christ; I take no title, not even Elijah, unless my Lord wants to give it to me. I am but a Voice crying in the wilderness. I am exhausted in my function of crying: ‘Repent, be baptized, look to the Greater One.’ He must increase; I must decrease. This is my joy, and this my joy is full.’ John had no bigness to get in the way of his greatness, and therefore he had no jealousy to darken the bright joy of his subordinate greatness.
John the Baptist paid the price for his kind of greatness, for this greatness of independence, of confidence, of concentration, of absolute subordination. Men twiddled theological thumbs at him and did not make up their minds about him. They swathed him in the whipped cream of their indecision. Is his Baptism from heaven? We do not know. They treated him as one of a number of theological lights – stimulating, provocative, entertaining. They rejoiced for a season in this burning lamp. And ultimately their verdict was: ‘He’s demon possessed.’ Or in modern parlance: ‘He’s psychopathic. He’s compensating for something. He needs to be medicated. He’s narrow, one-sided, fanatical.’ No answer of John the Baptist to these critiques is recorded; but the whole record of his life cries out, ‘Who cares? Who cares?’”
Franzmann is right. John didn’t care what people thought of him, what his reputation was, whether people believed or respected him. He didn’t let the world or his own flesh tell him who he was. His identity came from the Lord and His Word, the prophetic preparing Word put on his lips. The Christ to come defined who John was. His whole view of himself was wrapped up in Jesus, so much so that John rejoiced to decrease that Christ might increase.
Who are you? Identity is not supposed to be about power – but Sin abuses it to that end. Sinful old Adam has reached out and snatched us false identities. He has hijacked “identity” for selfish power. And so we are obsessed with holding up this false identity for others to worship. Something we’ve created. A name we’ve made for ourselves. Our kingdom. Our power. Like a sick virus that seeks out more and more false identities, so we can create more and more of ourselves. More and more and more power. Who you are better be powerful – it better be recognized, respected, worshipped – bow down – to me. This is the very opposite of John.
The Christ is coming, but not to snatch identities – to give one. His. He comes to die for our false identities, and bestow a new one upon us – His own. One we don’t deserve – that doesn’t fit naturally – how can a sinner ever be a saint? How can a child of Adam ever be a child of God? Christ. Only Christ – the saint become sinner – the Son of God become Son of Man. Christ gives you your identity by His grace, purely out of mercy, as a gift. No snatching necessary. No fighting to carve it out. No conflict or pressure or proving anything to anyone – Christ did all that for you on the cross. It is finished. And He freely gives it to you in baptism. Splash. There. Now you’re someone. Now you’re the one God wants you to be – His child – grow up in that – study God’s Word everyday and learn what that means – Don’t waste your time with identities you make up for yourself – they’re old, dying, gone in a breath – No – hear what the heavenly Father declares you to be – His own dear beloved child – eternally His – eternally pure – eternally free from the need to create some false thing in yourself.
This calls for compassion. Deep honest compassion for every single soul that struggles with these identity issues. For sin drives us the same way it drives them – have compassion – but not the false compassion of activists, who force them to more and more exercise of the snatching old Adam – making things worse – no – have compassion and offer them Christ and the true identity He pours out on those who trust Him – not the old dying humanity – but Jesus the new humanity – the living known One identified not by the self, but the Father who speaks on us in Christ.
That’s you. If you haven’t caught it - You’re John. You’ve inherited his mouth, his finger, his voice. And John didn’t fit in. He couldn’t be boxed in, catalogued and neatly gift wrapped. John wasn’t true to himself, he was true to the Word and to the Christ whose way he was preparing. And in that sense, John serves as a pattern for the church in these gray, last days. We too call out in the wilderness as a voice, with no identity other than a baptismal mark with water, with no message except the Word of reconciliation with God and forgiveness of sins.
The church offers no solutions to the world’s problems, no cures for Ebola or HIV or cancer or heart disease, no answers to the perplexing questions of the ages. The church may feed the hungry, but it cannot solve world hunger. It may pray for peace, but it cannot bring an end to war. It may care for the widowed and orphaned but it cannot fix the breakdown of family and society. The church may find herself involved in social issues, but her true home is in the wilderness, and her true song is to be a lone Advent voice calling out to anyone who would hear: “Repent, be baptized, get ready. The kingdom of God is at hand.”
This is the spirit of Advent. Not get ready because Christmas is near, but get ready for the Lord is near. Repent and return to Baptism. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away your sin.
Kids, this is that part in the sermon where I need your help. Stand up for me – right where you are. Now, John the Baptist pointed at Christ. His life was about directing people to Him. This is what He has made you to do too. We can’t see Jesus standing here in our midst – but He is here for us. Point. Stretch out your arm and point with me to those means He has given us to meet us by grace. Point to the font – where Jesus names us and calls us His own. Point to the pulpit – where Jesus speaks to us and reminds us who we are. Point to the altar – where Jesus calls us to feed on Him and stay one with Him. Thanks kids.
Beloved, He is there for you in water, Word, bread and wine. Receive Him anew and point the way for those around you. Be that voice in the wilderness that God has made you in your Baptism. Dare to be different, to stand alone, to be called weird, out of step, offbeat, strange, crazy, fanatical. Let the world mock the camel’s hair and leather belt of Christ’s robe of righteousness that you wear. Who cares? Let the world snicker at your wilderness diet of the Body and Blood of Christ hidden under the most insignificant of bread and wine. Who cares?
What matters, all that matters, is that Jesus cares, and that He cared enough to descend from His royal throne to step into our world, our life, our sin and death to free us. Your heavenly Father cared enough to send His very best, His only-begotten Son. The Holy Spirit has put you in Him by Baptism. And found in Him, you have all the identity that you need.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Cameron Schnarr