December 22, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church—Chicago, IL
In the name of + Jesus.
This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (vv 19–23).
Stop right there.
We have a decision to make and that decision could prove to be disastrous. We stand on a road on which John has set us, the road that is made straight by repentance. Every mountain and hill has been brought low, every valley has been lifted up. The crooked places are straightened and the rough places, plain.
But we are not yet delivered from all danger. John’s message is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” not, “Relax, for the kingdom of heaven is here.” John’s preaching is the beginning of the Gospel, as St. Mark the evangelist records it. We have not yet reached the end.
John does clear the way for us, though. He gives us a vision of the destination, what the goal is. He is the baptizer, and His baptism is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3). Furthermore, he defines what this forgiveness looks like.
(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “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.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing (vv 24–28).
There is another one who will do more than baptize with water. In fact, He is the one whose ministry begins with a baptism in water. The day after his conversation with the folks sent by the Pharisees, John identifies Him as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29). Thus, he defines the way of Jesus, a way the begins with baptism in water and ends with baptism in blood. The lamb who takes away sin is a lamb who must be slain.
But this does not yet rescue us from the danger. John has prepared the way, he has set us in the right direction, he has pointed us to the end, but the decision still lies before us. And the wrong decision can ruin it all. Choosing poorly can make that baptism empty, that sacrifice for nothing. Our position is still quite precarious.
So the way lies before you, but what are the decisions? The first decision is demonstrated by the priests, Levites, and the Pharisees in today’s Gospel. Theirs is the decision that millions upon millions of religious people make. And that is the decision to approach God. They go out into the wilderness to find God. Their question is, “Who is John?” but it’s not John they are questioning. Just as the questioners are relaying the questions of the ones who sent them, they are investigating the one who sent John (the one greater than he).
This is what happens when we approach God. It’s a move that expects God to conform to our expectations, to act on our terms. It’s the echo of the upward fall of our first parents, who strove to be like God, to be gods.
But in two days, we will discover anew that it is not we who must cross the divide upon this straight path. It is our Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s easy to miss it if you read it too quickly, or if you’ve gotten comfortable hearing the same story again and again. This morning, let us listen with new ears again to the nature of the way that John prepares: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” It’s subtle, but it’s right there. This is not the way to the Lord, but the way of the Lord. The way is His. He must be the one to travel it.
And right there you have the Christmas story. It is not we who must ascend Mount Sinai; it is not we who must climb Jacob’s ladder; it is not we who must be taken up into the third heaven to associate with God. God comes to us. That is His name. Immanuel. God with us. His is the initiative; His is the movement; His is the path. John straightens it by preaching repentance, but Jesus is the one who walks it. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him, and no one travels through him except that He first comes to us.
In 1962, Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea of a paradigm shift to explain the nature of scientific discoveries. Scientific investigations go on for a time working within a specific box, with a certain set of assumptions and methods, and those assumptions and methods limit the way the investigations take place. Science reaches a limit within its own frame. But then someone questions the basic assumptions and frame of reference to provide a new paradigm, or a new way of looking at the world. Aristotle’s view of the universe was replaced by Ptolemy, which was replaced by Copernicus. Newton’s physics gave way to Einstein’s. These were not just new discoveries, but a new way of looking at things people have always looked at.
This is what the birth of Christ does. It provides a new religious paradigm. We do not initiate the upward move to God. Instead, He initiates a downward descent—in order to lift us back up again. This is why His path leads through suffering and death and the grave. Nails, spear shall pierce Him through / The cross He bore for me, for you. Jesus comes to our deepest depths to raise us to His highest heights.
This movement happens again today in the liturgy. Liturgy means a service on behalf of the public. This means that the primary way of worship is God coming to us, not we offering our gifts to God. So the worship and divine service of the Gospel is to receive gifts from God. (Ap V 189). Only then, after receiving those gifts, does God lift up our hearts to have them with the Lord, to sing a doxology, to offer prayer, praise and thanksgiving.
The Way Is Prepared, the Path Is Straight; Get Ready to Receive Christ
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard
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