Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
John 1:19-28 19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” 24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
The writer of our gospel is praising the beautiful steadfastness of John in a great temptation. John was tempted to commit great apostasy from the truth when these men of high office asked him if he were the Christ, or Elijah or a prophet. It would have been all too easy to receive their praise and glory and taken for himself the title of Christ. For those who were asking him were not just common, ordinary people, but priests and Levites from the highest and noblest class, Pharisees and leaders of the people. That was a distinguished embassy, a high honor since the favor of princes and lords is highly esteemed in this world.
“But John did not deny, he confessed,” we are told. The confession of John had two parts: first, he tells them who he is not, and second, he tells them who he is. He confesses Christ when he says, “I am not the Christ…. nor am I Elijah or a prophet.” He was confessing Christ by not drawing the people to himself, but leading them to Christ. By telling them who he is not he was pointing his finger to another—to Christ.
The second part of his confession is to declare what he is. He says, “The Lord is coming this way, whose forerunner I am; he is treading on my heels. I am not prophesying as a prophet, but cry as a forerunner. I do not say, ‘See, he is coming,’ as the prophets did; but I say, ‘See, he is here.’ I do not speak words about him but point to him with my finger.” Just as Isaiah said about me long before, I am a voice crying to make room for the Lord. Today, John is crying to us as well, “Make room for the Lord.”
Now this is an answer which we cannot endure. John must literally be mad to tell us that. We, the learned and wise and holy, cannot endure to hear these worlds. The people of John’s time actually killed him, the forerunner of the Lord, and the Lord himself for daring to say such things to them. Why? John tells them, and us, to prepare the way of the Lord. That is to say, we do not have the Lord nor his way in us. That is an insult to us. What do we have, then? Where the Lord is not, nor his way, there must be man’s own way, the devil, and all that is evil. Is John so bold as to consign us and such holy people as the Pharisees over to the devil and label all our doings as false, claiming that they are not the Lord’s ways, and that we must, first of all, prepare the Lord’s ways?
Yes! This is John’s proper office and the preparation of Christ’s way. He is to humble all the world and proclaim that they are all sinners—lost, damned, poor, needy, miserable people; that there is no life, work or position that is not damnable unless Christ our Lord dwells there; unless Christ works, walks, lives, is, and does everything in us through faith. We all need Christ and should desire to share his grace.
Where it is preached that all people’s work and life is nothing, that is the true voice of John in the wilderness and the clear truth of Christian doctrine, as Paul says, “They are all sinners and lack the glory they should have toward God.” (Romans 3:23).
Now, there are two kinds of people: some believe what John said and confess that they are unworthy sinners. Other do not believe John and see themselves as holy, good people, pleasing in God’s eyes on account of their own goodness. The Lord comes to those who confess they are unworthy. In them his way is prepared and made ready, as Peter says that God, “gives grace to the humble.” (I Peter 5:5). The way of the Lord is that he does all things within us, so that all our works are not ours but his, which happens by faith.
The preparation does not consist in you making yourself worthy by praying, fasting, or by your own works. Rather, it is a spiritual preparation, consisting in a thoroughgoing knowledge and confession that you, along with all the works you do, are unfit. That you are a sinner, poor, damned, and miserable. The more you believe this, the better you prepare the way of the Lord.
But those who do not believe John hinder the way of the Lord not only by the coarse, bodily sins of unchastity, anger, and greed, but rather the spiritual opinion and pride which thinks highly of your own good life and works, and thus feels secure. To this heart most of all and most urgently it is said, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Therefore, John speaks with cutting words when he says, “You brood of vipers! Bear fruits of repentance that are genuine.” (Luke 3:7-8).
But to those who heed the words of John, preparing the way means to confess your unworthiness and sin, and then trust that on account of Christ you are considered righteous, holy, and sinless by God the Father. That Christ has reconciled you to the Father and has laid aside His wrath. Take comfort in that fact, and your heart is set free. The way of the Lord is prepared.
This preaching of John is true preaching. First, it is a voice of one calling. John is the first of all preachers of the Gospel. He writes nothing but calls out everything with his living voice.
And John’s voice is heard in all the world. The prophets were heard by the Jews. But John’s voice is heard in the wilderness, freely and openly, under the heavens, before all the world.
Third, it is a clear calling, a clear and loud voice, one that speaks confidently and fearlessly and fears no one, neither death, hell, life, world, devil, men, honor, disgrace, or any creature. Get up and go to a high mountain, preacher, lift up your voice with strength, preacher; lift it up, fear not.
Fourth, John’s clothes are of camel’s hair, and he has a leather belt (Mat 3:4). His voice is not embellished with soft clothes or fine linens; it does not flatter. It is a preaching of the cross—a hard, rough, sharp speech for the old man in us.
Next, here begins the dispute between true and false preachers. The world cannot endure John’s voice; they despise his teaching and Baptism and remain obstinate in their doings and teachings. Preachers today preach what the people want to hear, not what God says. They preach success, worldly pleasures and blessings. They are like coaches who motivate us to have a good life and work harder to please God and win the race. The true preachers today are insulted and ridiculed and called heartless and judgmental.
But he is a true preacher who preaches nothing but that which John proclaimed and insists upon. First, he must preach the law so that the people may learn what great things God demands of us, which we cannot do because of the powerlessness of our nature which has been corrupted by Adam’s fall. This preaching does not kindle love, but rather extinguishes it. For through the law man learns how difficult and impossible the law is, and how impossible to free oneself from sin and enter into the gates of God’s kingdom. By God’s law we become hostile to the law and our love for it cools. We hate the law from the bottom of our heart. This is then a grievous sin: to be hostile to God’s commands.
To prepare the way of the Lord means we must humble ourselves and confess that we are lost and that all our works are sins along with our entire life. Then John’s baptism has been accomplished. Then we see why John says, “Repent.” We understand that John is right and that everyone must mend his ways, or repent. But those who feel they are holy in their own works do not understand this. They think they do not need repentance, and therefore John’s words and baptism are foolishness in their eyes.
Second, when this teaching of the law is over and we are humbled by the knowledge of our sin, we must despair of ourselves and our powers. Then begins the second part of John’s preaching in which John points his finger at Jesus and away from himself. We are to follow that finger to Christ of whom John says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Believe that it is true and follow that finger to the Lamb who is carrying your sin and takes it away with him to the cross. Do not try to remove your sins yourselves. Let the Lamb take your sin and crucify it on the cross.
Believe John when he says, “I have by my teaching made you all sinners, condemned all your works, and told you to despair of yourselves. But in order that you may not also despair of God, I will show you how to get rid of your sins. You cannot take off your sins or make yourself holy through your works. Another man is needed for this. I cannot do it, but I can point him out. It is Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. He, and no one else, takes your sins on Himself. You could not pay for the very smallest of sins. He alone must take on himself not only your sins but also the sins of the world. All sins, great or small, many or few. This is the true preaching and hearing the pure gospel and recognizing the finger of John who points out to you Christ, the Lamb of God.
Now, if you believe that this voice of John is true, and if you can follow his finger and recognize the Lamb of God carrying your sin, then you have gained the victory, then you are a Christian, a master of sin, death, hell and all things. Then your conscience will rejoice and become fond of this Lamb of God. For what more comforting and delightful message can be heard than that our sins are not ours anymore, that they no more lie on us, but on the Lamb of God. Sin must be vanquished and blotted out by Him and likewise death and hell must be vanquished. See what God our Father has given us in Christ!
Now, may God our Father, according to his mercy, help us to come to this knowledge of Christ, and may he send into the world the voice of John with many, many evangelists! Amen.