As Advent draws to its close, with all four Advent wreath candles lit, we are reminded that Christmas has almost come. The four burning candles aren’t a reminder to finish shopping or baking or packing, but a reminder to continue to do what we have been doing all along: repent, remember why you need a Savior, and rejoice that God sent His Son from heaven to be born as a Man to go to the cross for you. No one helps us do this, especially in Advent, quite like John the Baptizer. John is always there to call us to repentance and to point us to the Christ, just as he did for the people of Israel in the days of Jesus.
As much as we may like John the Baptizer and think of him fondly as an Advent fixture, like some sort of decoration in this season, he wasn’t fondly thought of in his life. Remember that last week, when we heard from him for the first time this season, he was in prison for calling Herod and his new wife to repentance over their incestuous, adulterous marriage, and he was about to be beheaded out of shame and a desire for revenge. As we encounter him today, he is being questioned by the Pharisees. They might have looked like good guys on the outside—concerned about being good people with a careful attention to God’s Law, just curious about the new preacher in town—but their inquisition by the Jordan River helps pull back the curtain. They are confused and bothered by what they hear from John. They don’t like his message of repentance, first because they didn’t see themselves as sinners who had anything to repent of, and secondly because they weren’t at all interested in the Messiah upsetting the self-serving balance they had struck with the Romans.
Everyone who heard John heard the same message: “Repent.” No matter what their station in life—rich, poor, male, female, tax collectors, soldiers, priests, Pharisees—everyone was confronted with the hard fact that they were a sinner and that God’s Kingdom was coming and that demands a change of heart and life. But that wasn’t his only message. Everyone who repented of their sin would find forgiveness. The Messiah would come to give salvation to everyone who repented. For as stern and condemning as his message could come across, John drew crowds from all over, and that crowd was filled with bad people, sinners convicted by his preaching of the Law and comforted by his preaching of the Gospel, the good news that there was forgiveness for people like them, that God cared about them and wanted to be reconciled to them.
The “good” people, those who considered themselves “good” anyways, had a hard time with John. They saw God’s favor as something you had to earn, something those tax collectors and sinners certainly couldn’t do. They thought the Messiah couldn’t care less about sins and forgiveness, and cared more about power and prestige. He was coming to raise up the people who were good enough on their own, to give them a position of power and glory when He restored the kingdom of Israel to its former glory.
With that attitude, it’s no wonder John is met with hesitancy at best and hatred at worst. It’s why the delegation is sent to the Jordan to find out who this guy thinks he is and what he thinks he’s up to. He is emphatic—he is not Elijah, he is not the Prophet, he is not the Christ. He is the voice, the forerunner, the preparer. Some thought Elijah would return bodily, just as he had been taken into heaven bodily. John may have come in the spirit of Elijah, but he isn’t him. Similarly, John may be a prophet, but he is not the prophet spoken of in today’s Old Testament Reading. The Prophet, the one spoken of by Moses, is Jesus—the One who speaks the Word of the Lord, the One whose Word cannot be ignored lest the ignorer perishes eternally, the One who is the Mediator between God and man. John is not him. He confessed three times that he was not the Christ. Rather, he was the one promised by Isaiah, the one who had finite, measurable work to do. “He must increase, I must decrease.” He was simply raised up by God to prepare, to tell the truth, to call to repentance no matter who it might offend or how many people might leave because of that hard message.
Even though he wasn’t claiming to be anyone special, John was making a big claim with these words. Anyone who was longing for the arrival of the Messiah would be amazed and overjoyed at what John said, because if the voice has arrived, as promised, then it meant that the Lord Himself had come to save His people from their sins. And the next day, John would confirm their hope. When Jesus came to be baptized by John, he pointed at Him with dripping finger and exclaimed: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” A lamb is not a symbol of innocence or a cute thing. A lamb meant sacrifice, blood shed to atone for sin. And through His Blood, Jesus will provide the true goodness that counts before God, the goodness that covers all who have faith in Him, all who are Baptized into His Name.
As good as that news is, we’re not always the biggest fans of John’s preaching. We say we are, but when the rubber meets the road, when the time comes to put his preaching into action, we hesitate. It’s hard work to repent, hard work to choose to take the escape from temptation rather than the temptation itself. Repentance tells us to stop living for ourselves, to stop trusting in ourselves and our good works, to stop making up our own definitions of right and wrong, to stop making God an afterthought in our lives. We’d rather play the Pharisee—appearing good while being inwardly dead. Life is more fun that way, and we can earn the admiration of lots of people. But God sees the heart. That’s where He demands change. He demands repentance, amended lives, and hearts that rely on Him to make that happen. Repent, because the Kingdom of God is at hand and everyone who is outside of it will spend eternity in anguish, wishing they had repented when that message still rang forth.
When you repent, God will forgive. He is merciful, and He brings to you comfort and mercy and peace. He comes with healing. Jesus Christ has come, paid the price for your sins, and has given you eternal life. And this is the best part of John’s preaching: Jesus didn’t come for “good” people. Jesus was born for sinners. God took on flesh, not to be found among the good people of the world, not to be our moral example, but to shed His Blood for outcasts, for the evil people, for sinners like you and me. Jesus lived a perfect life and shed His innocent Blood so that the waters of Holy Baptism would cover all who come to them with His righteousness. He poured out His Blood on the cross so that He might give it to you in the cup of the New Testament in His Blood for penitent sinners to drink and be saved.
As our Advent preparations come to their close and we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Redeemer, take comfort in the message of John. He has made ready the way for the Messiah, called us to repentance so we can rejoice in the One who has come to answer that repentance with forgiveness, life, and salvation. John’s preaching convicts you as a sinner, but follow his finger as he points you to Jesus Christ, to God’s solution for sin, once laid in a manger and now laid on the Altar for your forgiveness.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.