Advent 4 – December 21st and 22nd, 2019 – John 1:19-28
In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +
In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +
As I was getting ready to write this sermon, I came across an interesting article from one of my Pastor friends. It was a religious survey from the website Five-Thirty-Eight, which does fantastic political and social polling – and it was a survey looking at the Church attendence of Millenlials. And what they noted is that the tidal pattern of Church attendance seems to be disappearing. The old pattern was you went to church as a kid, you didn't so much in the early twenties, but as you became an established adult, had kids, you went back. And basically, with the folks aged 23-38, they found that more people left than the generations before, and that less were coming back. And there were a variety of reasons put forth – delayed onset of adulthood, marrying later, more marriages where both spouses aren't religious. But the one that really got me thinking was this. Even the parents with kids were less likely to head back – and the biggest reason given was that the Church was viewed as no longer necessary for moral instruction.
Now, at first glance you might expect me to rail against this and perhaps even make you all stand and recite the Ten Commandments – as we have done throughout our Advent Midweek services – or even recite a meaning or two, as I am sometimes want to do in a sermon. But no – because frankly, they are right. You can learn to be a nice little boy or girl from places other than the Church. The golden rule permeates society – and there are plenty of writers who are fantastic on civic virtue. Even Barney and Curious George can teach you basic morality. No – the sad part about the idea that the Church is no longer necessary for moral instruction is the premise itself – that the primary job, the main function of the Church is supposedly moral instruction. No! These people should have listened to John from our Gospel lesson today!
And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” So, John had been baptizing for repentance out by the Jordan river, causing a stir amongst all the people, so the big wigs from Jerusalem send folks to check him out. And they want to know who he is, what his credentials are. Hey bub, who do you think you are? And listen to this answer, and listen to how it is introduced. He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” It doesn't just say, “John said” - but you have this really strong and forceful introduction. Just saying “He confessed” would make it forceful enough, but we hear he confessed and did not deny, but confessed – do you get how strong, how important it is to hear and pay attention to what John says here? And what does he say? I am not the Christ. Do you see what John is doing here? You priests and Levites – you asked the wrong question. You didn't ask the real question, the important one. Who am I – not important. The important question is this – are you the Christ, the Messiah. That's the One we're supposed to be looking for. Am I Jesus, am I the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world – that's the important question – and the answer to that one is... no. I am not the Christ.
But that's not good enough for the priests and the Levites. They keep asking John who he is – are you Elijah – who was said to come before the Messiah. John says no (although Jesus points out later that he actually was... John just doesn't really care who he himself is, John is focused on the Messiah). Well, are you the prophet? No. I will admit – part of me, as a pastor, just loves how ornery and difficult John is here, especially as this time of year I get a bit more ornery or bah humbugy myself. But finally, these poor priests and levites beg John to give them something. Listen, we're not trying to bug you, but if we don't get some answer for our bosses back home, they are going to be all over our case. Can you just throw us a bone – what do you say about yourself? John finally says, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the LORD,' as the prophet Isaiah said.
Do you see, do you hear John's focus upon Jesus, upon the Christ, upon the Messiah? As much as they want to shift John to talking about John himself and who he is – John refuses. Even when John answers them, its Isaiah that is talking about him – and John still points it back to Jesus. No big head for John – I mean, imagine the pride you might have if you could point to prophecy in Scripture and say, “yeah, folks – that one there's talking about me.” Nope. Not the point – look at Jesus!
For a long time, the Church was the institution of society, the most important place. It was the social, moral hub. Not so much any more. School is taking up more and more of that space, so much so that I can't even count on kids having their Wednesday nights free for Confirmation. Other clubs or social groups are rising up – and often they do things on Sunday mornings or on other holidays. And while it might be sad that this is changing, that the church as a social place is declining – that's not the real tragedy. The tragedy is this. When as a society people look at the Church, ask the Church, “Who are you” as it were – the answer isn't “Jesus” - it isn't “This is the place where Christ the Crucified is proclaimed for the forgiveness of sins.” It's something else... and while those something elses are often fine and good – moral training is good, and so is social aid, and so is silly club fun and so are Star Wars movie nights set up by nerds (December 30th, 10 am) – but they aren't what makes the Church the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ – where the Holy Spirit gives the forgiveness won by Christ to His people. Now I will quote the catechism – In this Christian Church He [the Holy Spirit] daily and richly forgives my sins and the sins of all believers in Christ. That's the important thing – that's who we are. And so many don't even think to ask the question of where can I find salvation.
But back to our Gospel lesson. They asked [John], “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 unworthy to untie.” So then what's your point John – if you aren't the big deal, what's the point of all this ruckus? Well, glad you asked. The point is Jesus, the point is the Messiah – the point is the guy who is better than me and who will redeem me. It's not about how great I am – it's about how Great He is in winning us salvation. That's the point people. And while our text stops here, verse 29 says, “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John stays on point, and His point is Jesus.
So then, Trinity, if you aren't the main social hub of town anymore, and if you don't have the market cornered on moral teaching or social fun, why do you even exist? What's your point? That font. That lectern, this pulpit. This communion rail. These are the places that God Himself has established – not us, not our grandparents, but God Himself has set up this place to be the place where the Holy Spirit gives us Jesus. It's not about us – we're not worthy to untie Jesus' sandals – we aren't worthy enough to be the lowest scullery maid in the kingdom of God. But Jesus, God Himself, became Man and suffered and died to serve you, to cleanse you of your sin, to redeem you. And He has built this place to see that you hear this Gospel, this Good News – to see that you are brought to baptism, that you receive His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of all your sins.
Because you aren't going to get that anywhere but the Church. You aren't going to get the Gospel in the world. The World will take the things of God and twist them and strip them of Jesus. Oh, the true meaning of Christmas is giving and family... wait, you are defining CHRIST-mas without mentioning... Jesus Christ? The meaning of Christmas is God becomes man so that in Christ Jesus we are forgiven and by Baptism we are made once again part of the family of God. Oh, but Christmas time is the beautiful time of lights and Santa and reindeer (or flamingos). Well, close – but those lights – they are there because Jesus is the light of the world. You'll hear that Gospel lesson on Christmas day here in the Church, but you aren't going to hear it out in the world. And “Santa” is just the Dutch word for “Saint” - and you are made saints, made God's holy children here in the Church – not out there in the world. Oh, and we'll confess the creed that Saint Nicholas helped to write on Christmas day when we confess the Nicene Creed. But that's an in here, in the Church thing. That's a focus on Jesus, God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made sort of thing.
John the Baptist was adamant that the focus must be upon Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And likewise, this is where our focus is to be and to remain – otherwise the unbelievers are right and there's no point to this place – we become just another place clamoring for your time and money. We become nothing but a clanging gong (or ringing bell) if we do not proclaim the love of Christ Jesus for us and for our salvation. The most important thing is that Jesus comes to be your Savior – and just as He came a bit over 2000 years ago, He comes to you in His Word, in His Supper, to forgive you again today, richly and wondrously. God grant us ever more to see Jesus for us. In the Name of Christ Jesus our Advent King +