Third Sunday In Advent

S. Advent 3.23

So they said to him, “Who are you?… What do you say about yourself?”

And what John says about himself is… puzzling, actually! John (the Gospel writer) marks his namesake’s response to the question as a confession, literally in Greek: “same-saying”, that is, John the Baptist is saying the same as God would have him say about… everything! So, it isn’t just an honest answer; it is the only true answer to the question possible…

Which makes us think long and hard about truth and how different and strange God’s truth is from mere human varietals.

The priests and Levites ask John the Baptist (whose ministry we traditionally recall on the 3rd Sunday in Advent) “Who are you?” John says “I am not the Christ”. And that does not seem a strange answer at all to modern ears, because most of us think “Christ” is Jesus’ last name, and obviously John is not Jesus. John’s last name is “Baptist” as everyone knows, founder of that denomination, right? Uh… nevermind.

“Christ” isn’t Jesus’ surname: “Passenger Christ, Mr. Jesus Christ, please report to gate D9…” No. “Christ” is a title, means “anointed one”. It’s how the Hebrew “Messiah” goes into Greek. And the thing is, there are many, many “christs”, anointed ones, running around in the Old and New Testaments.

All the priests of Israel in the Old Testament were christs, “christened”, anointed with oil and the blood of the sacrificial ram. (The oil went on the head, and the ram’s blood on the right earlobe, right thumb, and right big toe. It marked them as set apart for their sacrificial office as priests).

Actually, all of Israel got christed, anointed with the blood of the lamb over their doorposts at every Passover feast, the blood marking them as those redeemed by the (capital “C”) Christ’s Sacrifice—promised to Abraham on Mt. Moriah, offered there, once for all by Jesus. Actually, most interesting of all, if you’re baptized, well, then! You are “christed” too, by Water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism and marked as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified.

All the kings of of Judah, starting with Saul, ending with Zedekiah, were christed with oil on the head to mark them as set apart as prince, leader, king of Israel. All the prophets of Israel were christed by God’s Word with the Holy Spirit to be angels, messengers of the Word to Israel. So 5 different but related “christenings”, right there, making christs of all Israel, old and new.

So, beyond argument, John was definitely anointed, “christed” in all those ways—first, as a prophet. He was anointed, filled by/with the Holy Spirit, while still in his mother’s womb, 3 months before birth, when Mary came with the Word to visit the unborn John and his mom Elizabeth. A powerful anointing, that caused Mary and Elizabeth to exult in prophecy and praise. The kid was working the prophet gig before he was even born, youngest prophet, ever

Second, John was christed by the blood of the Passover Lamb his first year as his (devout) parents would celebrate that feast, annually. And, third: John was surely anointed a priest of Israel because his father Zechariah was one of the high priests of Jerusalem, and traditionally, at age 20, John would have been christed with the oil and the ram’s blood to serve at the altar in the temple.

This, third, priestly “christing”, by the way, made John, at the time, something of an aristocrat. He’d have had a tony, privileged, Ivy-League type of education. I always thought this was why pink is the color for John’s Sunday—that sometimes, he’d wear a pink oxford-cloth shirt under his camel’s hair coat to ironically reference his preppy past. Vicars tell me this is not the case; that pink means “joy” or some such thing. But we don’t really know, do we?

Anyway, the point is: why does John, in answer to the other priests’ and Levites’ “Who are you?” question, answer: “I am not the Christ”, when he’s been christed many times for at least 2 holy offices—prophet and priest?

So, what’s up with that? Is John not telling the truth?!? Well, his next two answers shed light on the ever difficult “Truth” question that Pilate asked our LORD and never got a direct reply to…

When John confesses “I am not the Christ” they ask, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And John says “No”. But this is even more strange! Because John’s immediate prophet-predecessor, old Malachi says, last verses of the Old Testament: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes…” And Jesus tells the disciples (Matt. 11:11-14) that John is the greatest born of women and that John is the Elijah who is to come. (!)

So how can John say he’s not the Elijah Malachi promised when Jesus himself says that John is Elijah?! And when they ask if John is the prophet, how again, can he say is not the prophet, when Jesus says he is the greatest of the prophets?

How is John telling the truth, here?

Ah, well; as a wise man once said “The absence of error is not he same as the presence of the truth.” Truth is more than just according with the bare, outward “facts” of the case. Truth is matching the outward to the inward Reality…

To put it more simply: John’s interlocutors were not thinking of “Christ”, “Elijah”, or “Prophet” in the scriptural ways we’ve construed them, above. They have given their own, quite unscriptural interpretation of those 3 powerful concepts. They have something quite different in mind than the scriptures and John have in mind.

The 1st century priests, Levites, (along with the Pharisees and Sadducees of the time) did not think the concept “Christ” meant those anointed with God’s Word and Spirit to fulfill the vocations he gives us as his own children. They did not think of the Christ as the promised Anointed one who would fulfill all those prophetic, priestly, and kingly callings in himself perfectly, once and for all. They certainly didn’t see him dying as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world—which sacrifice makes us all truly… holy.

They thought the “Christ” would be a new David, a military leader who would kick out the Romans by violent conflict, Hamas-style terrorist activity, if need be. They thought the 8th century BC “Elijah” would herald the coming of the new David by coming down bodily from heaven where he’d ascended (without dying) to kick butt and take names and call down some fire on Israel’s enemies with extreme prejudice.

They thought the “Prophet” was a new Moses who would give a Law that was ironclad information, a blueprint for a do-it-yourself kingdom of holiness for the high achieving meritocrats.

In short, they thought the word of God is mere information for us to enact, by which we can, through our hard work, accomplish our own salvation, make our kingdom come to earth. But God’s goals are… higher! He comes in our flesh bestowing divine superpowers—forgiveness, life, salvation on us, making us over into his own image!

God’s more… ambitious than we are!

When people ask me: “Are you really a Christian?!?” (a question I get a lot 😉 I ask what they mean by that? And I find most think a “Christian” is just a milquetoast nice guy, bending to every whim or fancy of “democracy”. And, like John, I say: “Well… no. I’m not that…”

To same-say God—to confess what he says and means by Christ, Elijah, Prophet—is beyond human powers. It’s a gift, an anointing given gratuitously through Word and Sacrament to live the divine life of Christ as our own. Superpowers!

So, telling the truth often means saying “No” where the world just says “Yes”. It means same-saying Jesus the Christ who comes to make christs (anointed ones) of you and me, in his holy Name, Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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