A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 18, 2016
The Epistle, Philippians 4:4-7 – The Gospel, St. John 1:19-28
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- The Gospel
Today’s gospel describes the mission of emissaries from Jerusalem who were sent to ask John the Baptist, “Who are you?” John had very popular ministry in the desert—people were flocking to him—and the authorities in the nation’s capital felt threatened. John made it clear, “I am not the Messiah.” The interrogators proposed two other options. First, “Are you Elijah?” This proposal stemmed from two sources. First, John dressed like Elijah, with a leather belt and a camel’s hair coat (cf. Matthew 3:4, 2 Kings 1:6). Second, the last prophesy of the Old Testament from Malachi said,
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers (4:5-6).
Elijah did not die, but was taken up into heaven in whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). The belief was the Elijah would return to introduce the Messiah. This is the reason Jewish people make a place for Elijah at the Passover. John said, “No, I am not Elijah.”
His response merits additional comment. In St. Luke’s Gospel, the angel Gabriel appeared to the father of John the Baptist and stated explicitly that John would fulfill the Malachi prophesy:
He (John) will also go before [the Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (1:17).
Jesus also said that John fulfilled the Elijah prophesy. “All the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matt. 11:13-14). Elijah made a personal appearance at the Transfiguration (Mathew 17:1-4), so we know that John was not literally Elijah, but John did fulfill the Malachi prophesy. He was “Elijah-like”
The interrogators proposed a second option. “Are you the prophet.” This is a reference to Deuteronomy 18. God’s appearance on Mt. Sinai to give the Torah had so terrified the Israelites that the people pleaded with Moses saying, “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die” (Deut. 18:16). God responded by saying,
What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him (Deut. 18:18-19).
God speaks through all his prophets, but God spoke definitively through Jesus, who is “the prophet” of Deuteronomy. As Hebrews says,
God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds (Heb. 1:1-2).
John said, “No, I am not the prophet either.”
John identified himself by quoting the prophesy of Isaiah 40, “I am the voice of one crying, ‘In the Wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.’” We can read the fuller text of Isaiah 40 for effect:
Comfort, yes, comfort My people! Says your God. Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. The voice of one crying “In the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Every valley shall be exalted. And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places smooth; The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Isa. 40:1-5).
John identified himself as the one who would prepare the way for Christ by removing every obstacle to his approach; that is what is means by filling in the valleys, leveling the mountains, and making the roads straight.
- Our Advent Preparation
The primary obstacle to God’s approach, the thing that gets in the way of Christ coming to us more fully, is our sin and our impenitent hearts. As Isaiah wrote,
The Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; And your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear (59:1-2).
Thus, John calls us to prepare to receive Christ by repentance.
Of course, to be a Christian to have already repented. We cannot have received Christ in the past unless we have already been sorry for our sins. But we are called to grow in our repentance. Our initial repentance consists of sorrow for outward sins—for anger, immorality, stealing, lying, covetousness and such. As we grow in our repentance the focus shifts from behavior to motive. We realize that we do things that look good outwardly, but we do them with selfish motives. As we grow in our repentance the question changes. We begin by asking, “How much can I get away with without it qualifying as sin?” Eventually we come to ask, “Does what I am doing fully reflect love for God and love for my neighbor?”
John said, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” You had to go out into the desert to hear John. We must get out of our normal routines to hear God’s voice and change. A good Advent confession is the result of solitude and prayer. We need sit in silent prayer and listen to what God is saying to us. As we detach ourselves from the distractions of the world, and focus our attention on Jesus, we see ourselves more clearly his glorious light. He reveals to us the areas of our life where our surrender to God is not yet complete—where Christ does not yet fully reside in us. He reveals to us the areas of weakness where we have not yet received Christ’s strength—where we have not fully embraced the cross, and, so, have not yet fully experienced the resurrection. We prepare for the coming if Jesus when this awareness of sin that God gives us leads us to confess our sins and change our behavior—when we remove an obstacle and open our lives to Jesus is some new way.
Are you ready for Christmas? Our typical answer focuses on whether our shopping is complete and we are ready for the social events on our calendar. But John asks us the only important question. Have you prepared your heart to receive Jesus in a new way at the Feast of the Incarnation? Have you heard what God is saying to you? Have you made a good confession? Have your removed the obstacles that stand in the way of a closer relationship with Christ? Jesus is coming. Are you ready?