Advent is almost over, and the time of overflowing joy is about to begin. And so John does us the service yet again this year of focusing all the joy of the Church entirely in Jesus. John’s words remind us that the joy of the coming days is not found in presents and memories and family gatherings and sentiments of good will and cheer – blessings though they are. It is certainly not found in gluttony and drunkenness – blessings they are not. In the next few days, God willing, we’ll be staring with Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds in wonder at the Child who is indeed among us, our Immanuel. We’ll be singing songs of greeting to Him and rejoicing that He came among us and most of all rejoicing in why He came among us. John teaches us that the joy of the Church, and the joy of each of our lives is found in the One who is among us, Immanuel, in Jesus Christ, our Lord, because only in Jesus is there forgiveness of sins. Only in Jesus is the remedy for those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Before we greet Him in the manger, one more time let us welcome Him as He comes to us at His Table, bearing the only Christmas gifts that any of us need, gifts that none of us can live without. To Him alone with His Father and All-holy and life giving Spirit be all glory and honor now and unto the ages of ages!
Most people like to talk about themselves, whether they admit it or not. I am reminded of two southern belles visiting, and the one was rather monopolizing the conversation. At last she took a breather and said: “Well, enough of me talking about myself, honey. Why don’t you talk about me for a little bit?”
Yet nothing could be further from the spirit of St. John the Baptist. Not only do his short, clipped answers come across like a typical New Englander, but what answers you can squeeze out of him seem to tell you mostly who he is not. He is not the Christ. He is not Elijah. He is not the prophet (that’s the one promised in our Old Testament reading today from Deuteronomy who would be like Moses, a mediator between God and the people). In sheer exasperation the Jerusalem delegation demands: “Give us something to report to those who sent us. Who are you? What do you say about yourself?”
“Me?” John seems to say. “I don’t have anything to say about myself, but Isaiah had a thing or two to say. He called me a voice out in the wilderness crying ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
A voice? Did he say he was just a voice? A wilderness voice? A voice calling for folks to get ready for the coming of the Lord? Yep. That’s what the man said alright. He was just a voice.
Well, then, they wanted to know, “Tell us. voice, who gave you the authority to baptize, to promise forgiveness of sins, if you are not the Christ and not Elijah and not the prophet? By whose authority?”
John’s answer at first doesn’t sound like an answer at all. He says: “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 untie.”
That’s John’s answer. The One among them, whom they do not recognize, is the One who has authorized John to preach and invite people to repentance. He is the One who has authorized John to summon all people to leave behind the old ways of sinful self-sufficiency and pride, and to embrace the new life that depends entirely on the mercy of God. This is the One who is so much greater than John, preferred before Him because He was before Him. You see, though our Lord was born six months after His kinsman, John, John knows that He is the One who was before all ages. He is the Word through whom John and you and I and all things were made. He is the Word become flesh and dwelling among us.
And look at what that One has come to do! He did not come among us to be served, not even to have sandals latched, but He came among us in order to serve us! For the water of Baptism flows at His authorization and what it grants is nothing less than washing clean of sins – freeing us both from sin’s guilt and from sin’s power over our lives. He stoops to serve us!
John was content to be nothing but a voice announcing the coming of that One who serves us all by being the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Being that voice defined John’s whole life. He didn’t want to talk about himself, because he was sent to talk about the Greater One who is among us and whose sandals we are not worthy to untie, but who comes to be our Savior. In that he points all pastors and all Christians to what they are always to be talking about.
In the Church, the talk is not about us. No, “enough of me talking about me, why don’t you talk about me for a while.” In the Church, the talk is always all about Another. It is about the One whose sandals we are not worthy to untie. It is about the One who is infinitely greater than we, because He was before us all, for we are surely, each one, the work of His hands even as we are also, each one, the creatures of His own redeeming. He came among us as one of us precisely so that could serve all of us. He shouldered our sins as He carried His cross, and He died our death, and shattered our hell, and by overcoming the sharpness of death He opened up the Kingdom of heaven to all believers. Truly, the Son of Man did not come among us to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as the ransom for the many, indeed, for all.