Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 12/18/2022. The bulletin is available as a PDF: Advent4 Bulletin
The texts for the sermon were the day’s gospel and Old Testament lessons. To read the Bible texts for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, click here.
There is not a simpler story than the one that God brings about on Christmas. Its brevity, its clarity, and its beauty barely need to be explained. Thus, when it came to preaching on Christmas, Pastor Luther pretty much just retold the story and let it be.
But Christmas is next week. And, being so many years removed, this event in John’s ministry can be tricky for us. It’ll require some work from me as a preacher and you as hearers, so let’s get to work.
Firstly, the priests and the Levites are not imbeciles, nor are they crazy. There’s a lot of reason to think that John is more than a man in strange clothing. Really, if you think John sounds powerful, influential, and charismatic, just from reading the Gospels, imagine seeing him live.
So, they don’t know precisely who John is, but they know he is extraordinary. That’s why when they come asking directly, “Who are you?” John understands that they have three figures on their mind. He could either be the Christ, Elijah, or “the Prophet.”
The first possibility, that he is the Christ, he deals with simply and clearly: declaring, “I am not the Christ.” More on that later.
But they also suspected he might be Elijah. After all, Elijah never died. He did not pass through the graveyard; he did not collect $200; he was taken directly into heaven on chariots of fire. 2 Kings 2
Furthermore, God’s prophet, Malachi, in the closing verses of the Old Testament, declared God would send a messenger like Elijah to prepare the way of the Messiah. And while we all appreciate the severe Elijah-like quality of John’s ministry, he has to break it to them that they don’t perfectly understand that prophecy. Elijah himself is not coming back. Now, if they could handle it, Jesus did say in Matthew 11 that John is Elijah who is to come; meaning that John came in the spirit of Elijah as Malachi foretold. But still, as John says, he’s not the Elijah – at least not in the way they are thinking.
Finally, they wonder if John might be “The Prophet.” “The Prophet” is shorthand for the one Moses describes in today’s Old Testament text, when he says:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen… verse 15
Again, the case of mistaken identity is understandable. First off, John comes the right family. His mom and dad come from the priestly family of Aaron. Secondly, John is teaching God’s people in the wilderness. He is preaching God’s Law, but also baptizing them in the Jordan. Leading them, as it were, through a type of Red Sea, like Moses.
Still, John has to disappoint them. He is not The Prophet either.
Without doing a whole other Bible Study right now, “The Prophet” of whom Moses spoke is Jesus. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses was prophesying that the Christ would be true Man, and would come from the Jews since salvation comes through them. John 4:22 Thus, in Acts 3, St. Peter explicitly proclaims Jesus to be The Prophet Moses prophesied.
So, as a brief recap, John is not the Christ, not Elijah, and not The Prophet. Okay. But then why listen to him?
Because that’s what you do when you hear The Voice. That’s who John is. He is The Voice, prophesied by Isaiah, to make straight the way of the Lord. That’s what John’s entire ministry is about. That’s what Advent is about: that the arrival of Jesus, in the manger and on the last day, would not surprise us. But rather, that Jesus would come and find a people prepared. John is telling them and us that he is preparing the way for Jesus, the Redeemer. This is what I meant when I said that it could be a bit tricky. There’s a major reference here that we can easily read right past; and it sort of requires a brief review of the book of Ruth.
If you were in Midweek Services last Advent, you know we covered Ruth in its entirety. I won’t do that now, but we’ll break it down this way: Ruth was the widowed bride of an Israelite. She returned to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, pretty much destitute. Boaz, a relative by marriage, wanted to “redeem” her, i.e., Boaz wanted to pay the cost to marry her, take responsibility for her, etc.
But someone else, another relative, had the right of first refusal. When he decided not to redeem Ruth, custom required him to take off his sandal and hand it to Boaz as a way of sealing the contract, and making Boaz the kinsman redeemer.
So, John is not merely saying that Jesus is so great and he is so feeble, that he isn’t fit to take Jesus’ shoes off. Jesus cannot offer John his sandal. And John can’t take it. John is saying that, contrary to himself, Jesus is the kinsman redeemer; the Bridegroom, and John is the Bridegroom’s friend.
Jesus was coming to redeem His Bride, the Church. He was coming to give her a future and a hope. He was coming to give her life and give it abundantly. This was something that Moses, Elijah, and John could not do.
The Baby in the manger next week has come as our Redeemer and as our Redemption. For He is both the Price with which we are purchased, and the One who pays it; that the sins which way us down would be lifted, and we would live gladly as His redeemed people.
Thus, we sing and pray in our closing hymn, “O Come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”