Sermon for Rorate Coeli, the Fourth Sunday in Advent, AD 2021

John 1:19-28

In modern American Christianity, a testimony is often what one person tells another person, usually a friend or acquaintance, about what God has done for them. Sometimes it can be a long story about how they lived a riotous and dissolute life as a younger person and now have come to a moral life of faith in Jesus. Sometimes these can be self-serving and more about the person than about Jesus. If you look at a Biblical testimony, the testimony of John, you don’t see anything about a change in his life. Rather, John defines both who he is not and who he is. This is the mark of a good testimony – Jesus is the Christ, and you are not, but your life is now defined by Him.

John’s testimony comes not as part of casual conversation, but as part of an interrogation. After baptizing and teaching for a time, the leaders of the Jews sent out people to see who he was and what he was doing. They were not sent because they wanted to follow or believe him. During the last 400 years of silence from God, there had been many false prophets and false Christs. They were sent out basically as a matter of procedure to question him – ok, buddy, which prophesied person are you claiming to be? The Christ - the one promised to continue the kingship of David? Elijah – the great prophet who never died, but ascended to heaven? The Prophet – the one that Moses said would come who would be like him? John answers clearly – no, no, no. Then we know that the messengers do not have any particular interest in John, they say, listen, we need to give our superiors some answer, just tell us who you are.

To these men who come just to check off boxes and have no care for his message, John replies – “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” This is John’s testimony, the very essence of who John is, and those sent by the Pharisees miss it. They are so preoccupied in fitting John into a pre-determined category that they are oblivious to the power of his words.

I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. By this John refers to the prophecy from Isaiah 40. Those sent from the Jews should know Isaiah. If you know your Bible, this explains exactly who John is. This quote is from a passage of comfort to God’s people. The prophet is telling them that their warfare is ended, their sins are covered. For the Lord’s glory is going to be revealed. The voice crying in the wilderness is the one who comes before the Lord. John is saying, the Lord is coming! I am the one who was prophesied to come immediately before him. My words are the words of God.

If John’s words are the Word of God, then the people should heed them, but they do not. John is not just the voice, not just an important man, but one with a message – Make straight the way of the Lord. The Lord follows John, but there is action required on the part of those who hear the voice. All must make straight the way by repenting of their sins. This is what those messengers of the Pharisees do not do. They are not interested in their own repentance, nor worried about their own judgment. They are judging John here. They will ask the questions!

How typical this is – people prefer to make their own way. Unlike John, natural man does not define himself by who he is in Christ, but by his own self-definition. We see the extent this goes to in our culture where man can define himself as woman and woman as man. At this extreme level, even nature will not allow modern man to hinder his self-definition. Even so, much more commonplace and acceptable self-definitions run around in the church. “I am a successful person. I am a well-liked person. I am notable. I am the main character in my own story.” Even a self-definition like “I am a Lutheran” can lead astray if it is not grounded in the work of Christ. Such was the self-definition of the Jews – “I am a Jew. I am chosen by God and this John the Baptist is threating my status with his talk of repentance.”

Ignoring the importance of John’s words, they ask why he is baptizing if he is not the Christ, Elijah, or the prophet? What gives him the right to do this? Did he check with the proper authorities? This isn’t merely a pedantic and bureaucratic question. The Jews are living under Roman occupation. The leaders especially need to play nice with the Romans in order to keep the peace and keep any retribution off their backs. Some upstart preaching in the wilderness about a new kingdom and gathering a lot of followers could cause some big problems. This is a public policy issue, they think, John must understand he doesn’t have the right to cause trouble for the whole nation.

John has no concern for their worries, but 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.” He is saying, in essence, I am preparing the way, but that One I Am Preparing For is here among you. If you think I am a problem, He is really going to shake things up. John has testified who he is, that he is not the Christ, but is defined by the Christ, and now he identified who the Christ is – the incarnate one, both God and man.

This the connection to the last Sunday of Advent and the upcoming Christmas season. John now points us to this coming one, who is God in human flesh. This one who comes after John, is a man that they do not know. He wears sandals like a man, yet no one is worthy to untie them. For this one is also the one spoken of by the voice crying in the wilderness. He is the Lord, the God of Israel.

Jesus Christ is the one who has come to end the warfare between God and the world. The Son of God became man in order that, as a man, he could bear the world’s punishment on the cross. As man, he is your brother, and he pays for your sin. And your brother Jesus also rose from the dead, and therefore you will rise as well. In your baptism the Holy Spirit makes you new in Christ and defines you as one of his resurrected brothers and sisters.

There is where Jesus will be a big problem if John is a little problem. To recognize the truth of Christmas, what John points to, that God has become man, does not leave you to continue in your own self-definition. You must as John says, prepare the way of the Lord. Your sins have been forgiven and you have been made new in your baptism in Christ. You are defined as one of His now. You are a Christian. You are baptized. This means you realize that whatever self-made definition of yourself you have comes second to his plan. You define yourself by his word, living by his commandments, and when you fall, coming to him knowing that He will forgive.

Your testimony, your witness is just this – I am a Christian. You will be likely talking to many people you don’t see often in the coming weeks. You may be celebrating the Christmas season with them. What better time to speak of who Christ is, and how your life is defined by Him. Since it is about Christ, you don’t have to speak too much of yourself. Nor do you need to get into complex arguments. John didn’t argue, he just confessed who Christ was, and who he was in Christ. This was the confession of the old martyrs – we will talk about St. Stephen next week – but what the old martyrs said when they were called to recant their faith was “I am a Christian.”

May your Christmas celebration this week confess this, you baptized children of God. You are a Christian. That baby in a manger means that God became man to save you from your sins. Your identity as parent, child, citizen, teacher, employer, worker, friend, is centered in your baptism into Christ. So when people ask why you make weird decisions like taking valuable vacation time to go to Church, helping those in need, centering your celebration around God’s Word, you can point like John to Jesus, God become man, and say, “that is why. I am a Christian.” Amen.






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