The Voice of John, the Way of Christ

St. John 1:19-28 (12/20/15)

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

St. John 1:26-27  John answered them, saying, “I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know.  It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.”

Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord…  John the Baptist is just plain uncivilized.  Here is a man who, after his lunch, has to pick the locust legs out of his teeth.  He would never rank on Ms. Manners’ top ten list.  His hair remains untouched by scissors which is why he would never be hired by a Fortune 500 company.  And since his wardrobe consists only of camel’s hair, he would never make the cover of GQ.

John is uncivilized; he makes us uncomfortable.  He is the kind of person you think you would have to make apologies for.  “Oh, John?  Yeah, well, he’s just a little bit different, a bit eccentric, but you just have to look past a few things.”  And with apologies to the country music world, “Mamas don’t let their babies to grow up to be John the Baptists; let ‘em be doctors and lawyers and such.”

Why does John make us uncomfortable?  Besides his diet and clothing, he has no job and he lives in the wilderness.  And although he is the culmination of the Old Testament prophets, he deems himself unworthy even to touch the strap of Jesus’ sandals.  He is everything that we civilized sinners don’t want to be.

The priests and Levites in our text asked John, “Who are you?”  John answered emphatically, “I am not the Christ.”  “What, then, are you Elijah?  “I am not.”  “Are you the Prophet?”  “No.”  “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us?  What do you say about yourself?”  But that’s just it – John has nothing to say about himself, for Isaiah the prophet has already spoken for him, saying of him, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

John is the forerunner; he is the one who trots out ahead of the Messiah to announce His coming.  He is, as they say in the movie industry, a “coming attraction.”  He’s a precursor.  He is what a psychiatrist would call a monomaniac – someone with an excessive interest or irrational preoccupation with one subject.  But I am certain that John would wear that label proudly.  A monomaniac about Christ – yes, that fits John to a tee.

So, what is so important about the desert?  Why does John call us to go out to the wilderness?  Well, in doing so he beckons us away from the place where civilized sinners are too easily tricked into believing the lie.  Leave, John calls, that place where you are so easily tricked into believing that your job is your life, your family is your life, your possessions are your life.  Leave, John cries, that place where trivial pursuit is not just a game but a way of life.

Leave, John preaches, that place where death masquerades as life, where the person who is “living it up” has made pleasure into his god, where the person who is said to have lived a “full life” may never have to be baptized, where “real life” has nothing to do with Christ.  Leave, John demands, that place where people think they have “civilized” sin but where, in fact, sin has transformed them into savages at heart.

So there is a part of us that is uncomfortable with John.   No, that’s not quite it; there is a part of us that HATES John the Baptist. Our ugly Old Adam – our sinful nature – hates to be stripped naked and made to stand in front of the mirror of God’s Law.  That Old Adam despises John because John lays bare how comfortable we have become with our love of the things of this earthly life, and how excellent we have become in blaming others for our troubles, and how easy we are on ourselves.

John’s preached words are like harsh sandpaper; he is simply rough for our civilized hearts.  His preaching grates on our modern sensitivities like fingernails scraping across a chalkboard.  But you can be sure that John will not preach a Walt Disney version of God’s Law.  He is calling us to repentance in order that we might escape from the wrath to be revealed when Christ comes again in His glory.

So John beckons us out of civilization and into the wilderness of repentance.  For to live a life of repentance is to sit at John’s feet in the desert.  When we go to St. John in the desert, there our eyes see with clarity the desert of our own heart, a heart filled only with the wild monsters of our sins.  Sit in the dust of this wilderness; pick up a handful of dirt, watch it sift through your fingers, ponder the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

And there in the wilderness of repentance, we must confess what we see: “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto Thee that I am sinful and unclean.”

John calls us out into the wilderness, into the barren desert, where the only life is where there is water.

John the Baptist, we call him.  He’s the “water-man,” if you will.  John beckons us out of the civilization of sin and into the wilderness of repentance in order to lead us ultimately to the river of life.  And once he has us to the water, he has done his job.  For there standing in the font is our Savior, Jesus Christ.  John points to Him and says, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  “Behold the Lamb of God who gives you the life of absolution in the waters of Holy Baptism.”

And ever since the day John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, our Lord has been found in the water.  It is there that He locates Himself for you.  Flowing right through the desert of repentance is this water of life.  There our souls find the soothing coolness of sins forgiven.  There our hearts – dried up and cracked under the blazing heat of the law – find shade and refreshment in the shadow of the cross.   There our mouths, parched from the confession of our sins, are filled with the sweet drink of God’s compassion.  Our Lord is found in the river of Holy Absolution.  Come to Him.  Drink of Him.  Bathe, swim, soak in this fountain of immortality.

It is Jesus, your Lord and Savior, who was baptized in blood which was sprinkled on the Font of the holy cross by His own crucified veins.  Jesus, the only perfect man, willingly and lovingly suffered this cruel fate in your place and for all your sins.  You will remember that a soldier braced himself and then thrust his cruel spear upward into the side of Jesus – a spear-thrust which opened the body of our Lord and out from which flowed a river of blood and water – at once filling the chalice and the font.

And that is why when you desire forgiveness, you pray, even as we do in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses…”  You pray, “Heavenly Father, forgive me all my sins.”  And then you go to where the forgiveness of sins is given out: you go to the Font of Holy Baptism; you go to the word of Holy Absolution, you go to the Lord’s Supper.  You go to the holy blood and the holy water and the holy Word of God in Christ Jesus given, shed, spoken and delivered to you in His chosen means of bread, wine, water, and Word.

So when you desire forgiveness, you go to the blood, for without blood there is no forgiveness.  The life of God is in the blood of His Son and that life-blood is in the chalice, the font, and the Word.  Go there to receive forgiveness.  Go there to receive life.  Go there to receive God.

The only true and lasting life is in the water, the word, the bread and the wine to which Christ has tied Himself and attached His promises.  It is only in these things that the penitent sinner is truly able to “live it up,” and have “life to the full.”  Here in Christ is the only real life.  Here the shame and guilt and weight of sin is removed by the name of the One who forgives.

John points us to Christ in whom only is there real, true, and lasting life.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.