Luke 1:57-80; Acts 13:13-26; Isaiah 40:1-5
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
How difficult it is to comfort the comfortable. John the Baptist came preaching salvation. How odd that must have sounded in the ears of first century Jews and Gentiles who had grown comfortable in their benevolent slavery under their Roman occupiers. They had grown content and comfortable with their captivity, and they had grown content and comfortable in their sins and idolatries. How odd the Baptist’s preaching of salvation must have sounded to them. “Salvation from who?” they must have wondered. “Salvation from what?” they must have asked.
John was sent at a time when prophecies were thought to be dead. No one had heard from a prophet for several hundred years. Entire generations of Jews and Gentiles had been born, had lived, and had died neither hearing or believing in prophecy. Those few, but a remnant, who held the old faith, were surely thought to be out of touch, ignorant, unenlightened fools. While they prayed their prayers and made their sacrifices and tried the best they could to live according to God’s Word and will, their neighbors, even their brothers and sisters, at best, ignored them and considered them quaint and ignorant, and at worst, mocked and ridiculed and persecuted them. Additionally, the religious leadership of the Jews, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, interpreted God’s Word in a strict, legalistic manner that made it burdensome and oppressive, that served only to crush weak faith or to harden proud hearts. They did not teach repentance unto forgiveness, for they believed that a person could be right with the Lord by performing works according to the Law.
How would John’s preaching be received today? I believe that it would be, and that, in fact, it is, received in much the same way as it was in first century Israel. The message of salvation is largely rejected. How difficult it is to comfort the comfortable. The message of salvation is an objective message. In order for there to be sin and repentance, there must be an objective reality, truth, or law that is universal and absolute. Today, men reject both truth and absolutes – absolutely, I might add. And, in order for there to be absolution, there must be someone who has the holiness and the authority to decree, judge, and execute justice accordingly. Today, men reject holiness, righteousness, and universal authority, decree, judgment, and justice. For, today, as in John’s day, men reject God, but they supplant Him with a myriad of gods, goddesses, and idols, particularly, the god that is oneself.
How difficult it is to comfort the comfortable. You are to believe that you live in the most advanced culture and society ever to grace the face of the planet. Indeed, our technology is so advanced that families can be scattered all over the globe and still communicate in real time, even with video and audio. Of course, technology has also served to foster the scattering of families all over the globe. And, our medical science and technology is so advanced that people are living much longer and healthier lives. Of course, our medical science and technology is so advanced that 1.21 million babies are aborted each year in the United States (that’s 3,322 per day), and medical care has become so expensive, due to corruption and greed in the medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries, as well as in the government, that the families of elderly persons are increasingly forced to assign a monetary value to their loved one’s life in comparison to the cost of their care. And, what remarkable, astounding freedoms we enjoy in our country and throughout the world! You are free to do almost anything you want, so long as it does not directly impinge upon someone else’s freedom, that is, again, unless you happen to have not been born yet, or you are elderly or incapacitated in some way and someone else has reckoned your life less valuable than the cost of your care. But, beyond that, you can do anything, because nothing is immoral, except saying that someone’s behavior is immoral; nothing is wrong, except saying that someone’s actions are wrong; nothing is sinful, except naming a behavior to be sinful. Indeed, all things are to be tolerated, except perceived intolerance. And, because there is no God, all things and all people are gods. And, because all things and all people are gods, there is no god.
Now, if you are comfortable with all this, then you must surely think John the Baptist’s preaching, indeed, you must surely think my preaching, to be quaint, ignorant, and utter foolishness. Perhaps you even think it to be judgmental, bigoted, hate speech. How difficult it is to comfort the comfortable, indeed.
Nevertheless, John the Baptist was sent to comfort God’s people by preaching repentance unto the forgiveness of sins. John proclaimed that man’s warfare with God was ended, and that all man’s iniquities and sins were pardoned and forgiven by our God and LORD in the one who was to come, the one whose sandals John was not worthy to untie, God’s Son, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. John came preaching in the wilderness of this world to people who had convinced themselves that this life and world, with its sin, suffering, and death, poverty, crime, corruption, and war, is paradise and the fulfillment of what it means to be human and alive. John came to proclaim the truth to a people who no longer believed in truth, but had come to believe the lies of the great liar and deceiver, Satan. Though they considered him mad and a fool, his wisdom and his authority were not in his person, his birthright, or in his material worth, but his wisdom and his authority were in his proclamation of God’s Word before priests and kings, before the poor and the widowed, before Jews and Gentiles, before prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, and all the unclean. To all the world John proclaimed a baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins – the greatest comfort imaginable, the greatest comfort there is.
The world was, and the world is still, perplexed by John and his message. He was prophesied to proclaim comfort, but his message was one of convicting Law unto repentance. Because men have believed the lies of the Liar, they do not know the comfort that comes from repentance and absolution. But, there is comfort in looking outside of yourself. For, the world’s peace and comfort is no peace and comfort at all; it is always fleeting and never satisfying or sufficient to clear your conscience of the stain of guilt. John proclaims true comfort and true peace proceeding from a conscience that has been washed clean of the stain of guilt and sin with the innocent shed blood of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ blood comes from outside of you, but it is for you, and for the forgiveness of your sins.
Your LORD knew that you were too enmeshed in the lies of the Liar to receive and believe in the gift of His Son, so he sent John to go before Him to prepare the way for His coming. John did this by preaching repentance and by baptizing, symbolizing a rebirth and turning away from the ways of the flesh and the world to the ways of the LORD. John was sent “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” that they might receive “the sunrise from on high,” Jesus, who was soon to “visit [them] from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide their feet into the way of peace.”
In fact, John’s appearance was the result of a long series of strange interventions by God, as the Swedish Lutheran theologian Bo Giertz has observed, “Against all odds, Zechariah and Elizabeth have a son. Against every custom, Elizabeth wanted to name him John. To everyone’s surprise, the mute Zechariah writes the same name on a tablet they give him. Contrary to what is normal, the preacher’s son goes out into the dessert, and when they least expect it, he emerges with the message for Israel that the great day is at hand. God has taken care of His people and now He’s sending the Messiah. The kingdom of God is at hand.” And, all this has happened “because of the tender mercy of our God. All of the abundant wealth and beauty we see in nature and life at its best is nothing, and at last would be just a temporary ray of sunshine over those who ‘sit in darkness and in the shadow of death’, if God hadn’t in His mercy let ‘the sunrise … visit us from on high’ and given us knowledge of redemption so our sins can be forgiven.”
How difficult it is to comfort the comfortable. Thanks be to God, in His tender mercy, He has sought to make you uncomfortable. He has sought to make you uncomfortable with your sin and idolatry. He has sought to make you uncomfortable with injustice and immorality in your community, nation, and world. He has sought to make you uncomfortable with the notion that this life is all that there is – birth, life, and death – and that you are own god, and that pleasing your self is the only good. Your God and LORD so loves you that He will not allow you to remain in darkness and the shadow of death. And so, He has shown the pure, bright, and holy light of His Son upon you so that no one should perish, but that all may repent, receive, and believe, and, believing, have life in His Name.
Jesus said that “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” That one is Jesus Himself, “who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name that is above every name, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
John understood his role as the forerunner, sent to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. He confessed Jesus’ holiness and divinity by, initially, refusing to baptize Him, but he relented upon Jesus’ insistence that it was fitting for them to “fulfill all righteousness.” John also confessed Jesus to be the Messiah of God by saying “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.” And, lastly, John humbled himself before his disciples saying, “He must increase; I must decrease.” And so, we celebrate God’s sending of the forerunner of Jesus to prepare His way, St. John the Baptist, on this festival day and every Lord’s Day singing “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” For, He is present amongst you with His Word of Holy Absolution, true comfort and peace, and with His holy body and precious blood to commune with you that you have life in Him and give life to others to the glory of His Holy Name.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.