After God freed the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, He did not give them a king like all the other nations had. Instead they had a prophet who ruled over them in God’s stead and served as messenger from God to the people and vice versa. The first of many was Moses. This system God designed was good. God ruled over the people and His prophets gave the people His Word for them. The final word was always God’s, and it was good. The handling of disputes between one another was the responsibility of the judges. In the beginning, the judges were good. But after the sons of Samuel the prophet became judges and were extremely dishonest in their affairs, the people of Israel demanded that someone keep them in check. They felt God wasn’t doing a good enough job, and Samuel was too old to be an effective liaison between them and God. It was time for Israel to have a king who would tell everyone just how things would be. Samuel went to God with this troubling news, and God’s reply was not good: “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Sam. 8:7). God knew this was yet another time Israel turned their back on Him. So through Samuel He warned them that a king, as good as it may seem, would eventually become evil and just as self-seeking as the judges had become. But the people didn’t care; they demanded their king and God gave them what they asked for.
The kings became increasingly evil. Without prophets, no one was there to be a go-between for God and the people. The first king, Saul, broke the Second Commandment when he went to a necromancer when God was silent. He asked the Witch of Endor to summon up Samuel to guide him. David not only had an affair, but then had his mistress’s husband killed in battle. Solomon, though initially faithful, took on more wives than there are days in the year. The evil continued to grow greater. From time to time God would raise up a prophet to attempt to call the people to repentance, but one after another was murdered by people who wanted nothing to do with repentance. They were angry at God, even though their sorry and evil state was a direct result of their own rejection of God.
Then God went silent. The last thing He promised was that, before He would come in judgment, one like Elijah would be raised up. He would work to turn people back to God, and those who did not listen, those who rejected the prophet and the One whose way he prepared would be stricken with a curse. Malachi wrote those words and God closed His mouth for over 400 years.
Suddenly there was activity in a place that had been silent. In the same place where Elijah had been taken up into heaven, the Elijah who is to come appears. He was baptizing and calling sinners to repentance. He was warning them that it was time to abandon their lives of sin because God was about to visit His people. The people were moved by his preaching. Multitudes of people flocked to him, received his baptism, and eagerly awaited the heavens to rain down, the skies to pour down righteousness, and the earth to open and bring forth a Savior.
And then we get to today’s Gospel Reading. The priests, Levites, and Pharisees found out that someone who certainly looked and sounded and acted prophetic had appeared at the Jordan. So they go to investigate. Though the questions may sound innocent enough, just these groups going on a curiosity-fueled fact-finding mission, they certainly know who he is. They even know why he is there. They knew the Christ was coming, and they didn’t like it, but were hoping that just maybe they would be wrong. During God’s silence and in the years after Israel was destroyed and the kings were no more, these groups had gained power and influence and had sold out enough to be a good go-between between the Romans and the Jews. They had no interest in a coming Messiah, a new King of the Jews, because they had worked themselves into powerful positions and knew they must give up their authority when God’s Messiah came to reign over His people. So when they heard John say “I am not the Christ,” they were probably a bit relieved. The next two questions—are you Elijah and are you the Prophet—may seem strange to us. Even though Jesus Himself identifies John as the Elijah to come, John denies being Elijah because he wasn’t Elijah. Many thought Elijah himself would reappear since he was taken to heaven without dying. And John denies being the Prophet, the One spoken of in today’s Old Testament Reading. Though he certainly was a prophet, he denies being the Prophet because that promise in Deuteronomy was a promise of the Messiah, and John knew he was not the Messiah.
So what does John do? He points to Jesus. Everything he said was meant to diminish himself and exalt the Messiah. When asked who he is, he responds with Isaiah’s prophecy and says he is nothing more than a voice. He isn’t a laborer, a paver, a gatherer. He’s a voice, something that passes away when the real thing has come. His whole purpose is to point people to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and then to vanish once He has come.
St. John ends his telling of this encounter between John the Baptist and the Pharisees by what seems like a simple side comment: “These things were done in Bethabara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” That is less of a throw away tidbit than we might think. Bethabara means “place of crossing.” This is the same place where Israel crossed over into the Promised Land, crossing from slavery to freedom, from the barren wilderness to a prosperous homeland. Now, as John preaches there, the repentant were crossing over from death in sin to new life in Christ.
We might be tempted to ask why this is the last Gospel we’ll hear before Christmas. We might expect the birth of John the Baptist or something more chronologically appropriate. But that’s not the way the Church works. We hear this Gospel just before Christmas because it points all our attention to the One who has come and who is to come. It allows us the chance to pause and remember that Jesus entered creation as God with us, God as one of us. He lived a perfect life in our place. He died on the cross to restore creation to its original splendor. He rose from the dead to proclaim the life the Gospel gives, to Baptize us into His Name, and to feed us His true Body and Blood. This Gospel places us at the place of crossing, reminding us that when Jesus is baptized there by John, the greatest crossing ever will take place—all our sin crosses time and space and is placed on the shoulders of our Redeemer, and all His righteousness and peace flow back to us and become ours. This Gospel places us at the fullness of time, when the world was the most ready to receive the Messiah. We stand in that same place today. But we aren’t looking for a Baby in Bethlehem, but the Judge coming on the clouds to bring our sin and death to an end and to lead us as we cross over from death to eternal life. This Gospel reminds us that Advent is about more than Christmas because it’s about the return of Christ to bring us home. Advent prepares us for Christ’s final advent, something we will anticipate even more as we celebrate His first in just a few days, seeing how He came in humility then and know that He will come next in glory to bring us out of our similarly awful conditions and into His wonderful light.
So as the Church and creation cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus” we hear about how He came: as the One whose way was prepared by John, confessed by the last and greatest of the prophets to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And now the Church waits—waits for tonight and tomorrow morning, to celebrate the birth of the one who saves His people from their sins; and waits for the end of the world, to celebrate Christ coming again to complete His work, to bring you to Himself. In this waiting we pray with Isaiah: “Rain down, you heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down Righteousness.”
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.