Well today a long journey comes to an end, as this morning we celebrate the final Sunday of the Church Calendar. Next week the church year will begin anew with the first Sunday of Advent. So on this so aptly named “Sunday Next Before Advent,” we are presented with two noteworthy passages, the first from the prophet Jeremiah, and the second from the gospel according to St. John.
So when we take a look at Jeremiah 23, we have to remember the horrific event of the Babylonian exile, where the city of Jerusalem was laid to waste and God’s people were dispersed, and taken off captive by the Babylonians. God used Babylon as an instrument of judgment against his people for breaking the covenant, committing sins of idolatry, rebellion, and injustice against Him. I’m going to put this very articulately: this was really, really bad. Jerusalem, the city where God dwelt, was destroyed, and the Babylonians were infamous for their brutality. Jeremiah had gone to great lengths to warn his people about this impending doom, but unfortunately, in Jeremiah’s own day, with his own eyes, he saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile come to pass.
In spite of the perhaps complex idea, that is, God’s use of a foreign, pagan nation as a means of judgment on his people, what’s important to see is that this move of God is not the final move of the narrative. God says that he will indeed “attend to them, for their evil deeds,” he will judge, but he will remain faithful to his covenant and bring restoration. God says, in Jeremiah, “I will gather a remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, Judah will be saved, because I will raise up a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely in the land.” “The people will no longer say, ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the Lord lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them, and they shall dwell in their own land.’” What’s being said here is that the Israelites will no longer see their salvation as merely their deliverance out of Egyptian slavery into the Promised Land, but now also their salvation will be seen as a bringing back, out of exile, in another journey of deliverance, back into the Promised Land again.
You see, for Israel, the primary motif of their salvation was the great Old Testament story of the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, where God raised up Moses, who led the people out of slavery, through the sea, and into the promised land. And God made a covenant with his people at Mt. Sinai, where we see God’s intention for his people, the intention of the covenant: God’s people, living in God’s place in freedom, experiencing God’s blessing. But there were stipulations for this, and Israel demonstrated time and time again her infidelity to God and to his covenant, and thus their reality was not always what God intended it to be: God’s people, in God’s place in freedom, experiencing his blessing. Their infidelity is what caused the horrors that Jeremiah describes.
So then we fast forward, into the first century, and we find the Jewish people in an interesting state. The Babylonian exile was over, well kind of. Yes they had returned to the land, but that’s about where it stops. Because this land and God’s people were still under foreign, pagan rule, Persians, Greeks, Romans. And they had still experienced much persecution at the hands of these foreign rulers. Read the intertestamental literature, and you’ll get a good taste of the sufferings and persecutions that the Jewish people had to endure.
So there they were, in the first century, still waiting, still waiting for Jeremiah and other prophets and prophecies to be fulfilled, still waiting for the king who will reign and deal wisely, and execute justice and righteousness in the land. There they were still waiting, for their deliverance, still waiting for the new king, still waiting for the new prophet, the one like Moses, who Moses himself speaks of in Deuteronomy 18 where he says that God “will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, it is to him you shall listen…” They were still waiting, for God to move again, still waiting for the New Exodus, the recapitulation of the great Old Testament act of salvation in their midst.
So if you’re a Jewish person, occupying this religious space in the first century, and you hear this story about the feeding of the five thousand, I’m pretty sure you’re going to get the imagery that John and the other gospel writers are so intent on conveying: you have a man named Jesus, who is healing the sick, who goes up on a mountain, teaches the people, miraculously feeds them with bread, and then, after this walks on water: the mountain-Mt Sinai, teaching-the giving of the law, feeding the people like the Manna, and walking on water-Red Sea imagery.
John tells us clearly that the people indeed picked up on this imagery. In response to this sign, the feeding of the five thousand they say, “this is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” and they tried to take him by force and make him king. They were picking up on the hints. They saw in John 6 the salvific story of the Exodus, where God led his people, through the leadership of Moses, out of Egyptian slavery, through the waters of the Red Sea. God instructed his people, fed them with the supernatural bread-come-down-from-heaven, the manna, and sustained them on their road of deliverance to the promised land.
What the gospels do is demonstrate the connection between Jesus and Moses. Both are presented as great figures of deliverance. Both give the law: Moses with the Old Covenant Law and then Jesus with the New Covenant Law. And both miraculously provide bread for the people.
But as so often occurs, the people, who understand that Jesus was the prophet who was to come into the world and the king, didn’t have any idea of what this meant. Yes, there would be a prophet like Moses, a Davidic king, but he wouldn’t just be like Moses and David, he would be exceedingly greater. You see, the people didn’t understand that Jesus would do what Moses did, but on a cosmic level. It wasn’t about politics and foreign rulers, it wasn’t about defeating the Romans, it was far deeper. Jesus would lead the people out of a slavery, far greater, and much more dangerous than Egyptian slavery, Babylonian Captivity, or Roman rule. This is the prophet who would lead his people out of the slavery of evil, the malevolence, the sin which resides in the deepest part of your being, if you only had the honesty and courage to look. This prophet would not just rescue the two of the original twelve tribes that remained at the time, but would restore Israel, symbolized in the 12 baskets of leftovers, in which all people, from every ethnicity would be, in Christ, brought into the fullness of what it means to be God’s people. This prophet will give food, yes, but not the type of food, like the manna, which you eat and then you get hungry again, no, this prophet will give food and drink that when you partake of it, you will never be hungry or thirsty again. This prophet, won’t merely part the Sea, like Moses did, he doesn’t need to part it, because he will walk on it.
Because at the end of the day, Jesus is not merely one prophet amongst others. He is not a leader who merely communicates somebody else’s law, somebody else’s message, somebody else’s word. Jesus is the very Word of God, the one who was present with the Father in the beginning, the logos through whom all things were made. And the great message that John is presenting to us, as seen in the first chapter of his gospel, is that this very same Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Because of this it behooves us, then, in our following after God, to scrupulously study and imitate what Jesus did, that is the goal or the telos of God’s work in our lives, to make us like his Son. So let’s not miss the obvious, what do we see in Jesus’ ministry and signs such as these? These miracles are not about Jesus putting on magic shows, no, they are about remarkable displays of mercy and compassion. This is what the God of the universe does, he meets people’s needs, in this case, he extends an unprecedented and lavish hospitality to five thousand plus people who were starving and wanted some food. He compassionately feeds them until they are completely satisfied.
My prayer for us is that we would be mindful of and find our place in this great story, wherein the God of the universe, in his Son, is rescuing the world from slavery and leading them to the Promised Land. It’s fitting that we reflect on these things, and that our readings point us to this on the final Sunday of the Church year, the great culmination and in-gathering of all things in Christ. May we bear this good news, this story, in our being and in our lives, and extend what we have received out into the world, being reminded today, in Jesus’ actions, of the simple, yet overwhelming power of compassion and hospitality.
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?