Scripture alone, Faith alone, Grace alone.

3rd Sunday Advent

Advent 3.17 “Testimony” John 1:6-8, 19-28

You never know when testimony (court-room style!) may be demanded of you. St. Peter tells us in his epistle that “you should always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.” John’s testimony was not volunteered. It was demanded of him by the Pharisees, elders, and chief priests of Israel. John had caused quite a stir among all Israel preaching and baptizing out in the wilderness, Bethany beyond the Jordan. So they ask: “Who are you?”…!

Now, this seems like a simple question to answer, but John’s answer shows us it is not so. John’s testimony shows why Jesus says that we should not premeditate our answer to those who demand a testimony from us, especially when it is church authorities, magistrates, or emperors. Don’t worry, Jesus says (in Luke 12:11-12) “for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” Still, it seems safe to say that Jesus is assuming we, like His apostles, have immersed ourselves in His Word and Worship and Sacraments regularly, so that IT all flows freely, and without anxiety or effort…

But the right answer turns out not to be the one we’d expect(!), as John’s testimony proves. Who was John the Baptist? Well, he was not your garden-variety Baptist, certainly not the sort of Baptist the name suggests today, at all. John’s baptism isn’t something you do for God, but something God does to you, which makes it so great. Jesus says that John is the promised Elijah who is to come and prepare the Way for the Christ.

Which makes it very puzzling, does it not? at first glance, that when John is asked directly “Are you Elijah?” he confesses: “I am not.” And when he’s asked if he is the prophet, he answers, “No.” Whaaat? “What do you mean ‘No!’, you’re not Elijah and ‘No!’, you’re not the prophet?! Jesus says you are both of those things, so how can you say “No”? How is this a true testimony, a pure confession?

John starts well by responding to what he knows is their first suspicion, that he might be the Christ. He confesses, does not deny, but confesses, “I am not the Christ.” This throws his interlocutors off a bit. Clearly, “Christ!” was their first guess. And it shows why they had such difficulty recognizing Jesus when He is revealed shortly to them. Because John is not Christ-like, really, at all. The Christ is the Savior who freely rescues from sin, death, and the power of the devil, and does this entirely by His gracious work for us which is received, no strings attached, by the non-rejection of His salvation offered by Word and Sacrament to the world. The Christ comes humble, meek, lowly, riding on a donkey, not shouting, not raising His voice in the streets: a dimly burning wick, He does not quench. He does not start right in with the criticism, rarely rebukes, and when He does, it is only to disarm us, empty our hands so that we might receive His Gifts. His yoke is easy. His burden is light. He comes to bring rest to the weary and help to the helpless…

John, on the other hand, is the forerunner. He comes to blaze a trail through the desert scrub, thorns, and cactus. The true Elijah bold, John’s a lawman out of an old western, a rough and tumble cowboy sort of guy. He mixes it up and starts right in with the criticism. He speaks truth to power and stares down the fat cats, the oligarchs and alpha males, till they are quaking in their boots. You can tell, just by looking at John, that—exactly like his template, Elijah—he can call down fire from heaven in a second, if he needs to—is, actually, just kind of itching to do so [“You have to ask yourself, punk, ‘do I feel lucky?’ Go ahead: make my day.”] yeah, John’s hoping you will give him an excuse to cry havoc, let loose the bears, call down fire to burn up your altars, scatter your praise bands, and slay you with a sword, you rotten, lousy, wussy heretic! John’s spring is wound kind of tight. He is not the low-key, affable, laid-back Cali-style surfer dude that Jesus clearly is. If he had not been a prophet, John would have a been the ideal bouncer in a bar. Like my old vicar, German. I like him…

The leaders of Judah feared more than loved him, which is fine. But; mistaking John for the Christ shows the mistake many still make today. Thinking that the Christ is all about law rather than gospel, displays of power and might rather than meekness and the humility of the cross—thinking He comes to make us behave instead of to make us His by faith—it’s the mistake Christendom still makes today, showing in the goofy worship and missional theology that has taken over most of the big churches in our country. Too much “what we do for Jesus” and not enough “what Jesus does for us…”!

So John is not the Christ, but you knew that. So why does John say: “No, I am not Elijah either…”?! Because Jesus says that he is! Is John lying? No! Here’s the trick to confessing Christ: you have to really hear your questioner, have to discern what’s behind their question, what’s the depth grammar (as my old teacher Paul Holmer liked to say). Simply put, John is not the Elijah they expect anymore than he is the Christ they expect. The Elijah they imagined and had created in their minds was a power player and moralist out to make everyone behave and fall in line with the Pharisaical status quo. The real Elijah didn’t care what you do, all that much, really. All he wanted was to be able to get pg. 15, from TLH, straight up, no praise band, no sermon series, no nonsense, in his home church. Pharisees, by contrast, insist on bringing their new, contemporary services everywhere…

John is not that Elijah! Nor is he literally Elijah the Tishbite returned from his little foray in heaven. He is one in the spirit and power of Elijah, Jesus says. He has what Elisha asked: a double portion of the Spirit that rested with Elijah. John is the Elijah who is the ultimate man of faith, who believes when everyone else falls away, who longs for the peaceable Kingdom and recognizes Christ and His Advent. Since that is not the Elijah they imagine, John is quite right to say “no, I’m not your Elijah.”

Neither is he their prophet. The Pharisees’ and priests’ “Prophet” was the same as the Christ—but not a Savior, not God’s Son, Incarnate; but merely a great teacher, a super example of great behavior, the ultimate law and order sort of guy who teaches by word and example a kind of hyper-Puritan moralism for which so many “conservative Christians” long today. John is not that, either at all, no

So who is he, anyway? Well simply put: he is the one who recognizes the Christ. And in that recognition is all of John’s joy and life. Finally, this joy is what John’s about. It’s amazing how few recognize the Christ come in our flesh. Abraham did, at his tent door, that warm afternoon when Jesus came visiting with two angels on their way to wreck Sodom and Gomorrah. Jacob recognized Him at the Jabbok and wouldn’t let go of Him until He blessed him. And that’s the key—hanging on for dear life to this One—Who, by His cross, destroys sin and by sharing His sufferings with us shares the glory, the life, the joy beyond imagination.

When you recognize Him too, hidden under Word and Sacrament here, you, like John, have arrived where Peace surpassing understanding guards heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.


Advent Vespers – Wednesdays, 7:00 p.m.

16 December 2018  3rd Sunday Advent

8:30 Matins

11:00 Divine Service with Communion

9:45 Sunday School – children ages 3 through high school

Adult Bible Class with Pastor Martin


Our Savior Lutheran Church is a confessional Lutheran church in Raleigh, North Carolina, belonging to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

We are located at: 1500 Glenwood Avenue, Raleigh, NC 27608.

For directions, use 742 Nash Street, Raleigh.