We Confess Christ, Only and Always.
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 1:19-28
In Christ Jesus, who freely gives us everything we need for this life and for the life to come, dear fellow redeemed:
The internet gives anyone the ability to connect with a worldwide audience. There are many stories about people who went from total unknowns to walking the red carpet, because they found something to do that others wanted to follow. Imagine if that happened to you. Let’s say you shared something online, maybe a joke or a creative idea or good advice. You thought your friends would appreciate it, but you didn’t expect it to go any further than that. Then others you had never met started reacting to it and sharing it. Before long it had been shared 100 times, then 1,000 times, then 10,000.
How would that make you feel? After getting past the shock, you might start to think about how you could produce more of the same. Receiving such praise would be quite an emotional high, quite an encouragement. It’s nice to be liked. It’s nice to have others validate that there is something special about you, and that you have got a lot to offer. But there are pitfalls here, pitfalls like pride and arrogance. You know what it’s like when an acquaintance or friend gets a little taste of success and then acts like you don’t exist anymore. But when they come back down to earth, then they want to talk to you again.
It’s hard to know how we would react to sudden fame. We hope that we would come away looking like John the Baptizer does in today’s text. John’s star had risen quickly. Once he started preaching his bold message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mat. 3:2), the people started gathering. The crowd got bigger and bigger until the evangelist Matthew could report that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mat. 3:5-6).
How many baptisms did John do? Do you suppose he kept count? His ministry in the wilderness was so popular that even the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, came to the Jordan River to be baptized (v. 7). That would be enough to go to anyone’s head. John could look around the crowd and see people hanging on his every word. There were the religious leaders deep in thought. There were the armor-clad soldiers with their heads bowed, listening intently. There were the rich and famous nodding approvingly. There were the young ladies batting their eyelashes and flashing warm smiles.
“Oh, what a great preacher I am! Everyone wants to be connected to me!” Is that what John thought? We cannot say what John was thinking. He was a sinner, so it’s hard to imagine that no pride entered his heart. But what he said was all humility. Today’s text shows us the exchange between John and a group of priests and Levites from Jerusalem. These religious leaders came with a simple enough question for John: “Who are you?” But behind the question was the suggestion that he might be the Christ. Probably many in the crowd were wondering the same thing.
Just think what an opportunity this could have been for John. If he let the people imagine he was the Christ, he could have asked anything from them: money, privileges, power. He could have had them eating out of his hand. Instead he confessed: “I am not the Christ.” Well then, was he Elijah come from heaven, that great Old Testament prophet? “I am not,” he said. Was he the Prophet whose coming was foretold by Moses? “No,” he answered.
Claiming any of those titles would have increased his popularity among the people. But John resisted this temptation. “I am nothing,” he said. “I am nothing but a voice.” “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” When Jesus was revealed as the Messiah and some of John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus, John was not jealous. He knew his purpose was to prepare the way for the Savior. It was not to be in the spotlight. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:30), said John.
To leave no room for misunderstanding, the Gospel writer emphatically underscores John’s faithful testimony about Jesus. He wrote that John “confessed, and did not deny, but confessed.” Now often we think of confession in terms of “going to confession,” or admitting our sins. But the word in the Greek language is more general. It means “to speak the same word” or “to speak in agreement.” When we confess our sins, we speak in agreement with what God’s law says about our sinful condition and our wrongs. When we confess the truth, we speak in agreement with what God has promised and fulfilled.
John confessed the truth about himself and about the Savior. “I am not the Christ,” he said. “[B]ut among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” “If you think I’m special,” said John, “wait till you see the coming One! I’m not even worthy to touch His feet and loosen the strap on His sandal!”
John could not properly confess Christ without also confessing something about himself. He could not point out Christ’s holiness without admitting his own unworthiness. He could not shine the light on Jesus without stepping back in the shadows. To make himself out to be more would have been to steal glory from the incarnate Son of God.
But what John did does not come naturally to us. It does not come naturally to deflect praise away from ourselves. We like the spotlight on us, especially when we have accomplished something impressive. We like to be recognized for our good deeds and honored for our success. We like to hear people say, “We could never get along without you!” “You make everything better!” “Nobody could do as well as you have!” “We need more people like you!”
Now it certainly isn’t wrong to be recognized for doing good things. It is important for parents and teachers and employers to build up and congratulate those under their authority. And if you are on the receiving end of praise, it is appropriate to receive it graciously and be grateful for it. But the devil is waiting in the wings. When you are praised, he wants you to think that you are just getting what you deserve. You earned it. You are so very talented. You really are better than others. “Soak it up!” he says. “Command the stage! This is your moment! Pat yourself on your back and give yourself a round of applause!”
That’s the temptation: to take the glory for yourself that belongs to God alone. After all, who is it that gave you your body and soul, eyes, ears and all your members, your reason and all your senses, and still preserves them (Third Article)? Every good thing you possess and every good thing you are able to do can be traced back to God’s work for you, in you, and through you. That’s why John said he was only a “voice.” Even the words that he spoke were God’s words and not his own.
This is why we must “confess, and not deny, but confess,” that we are nothing on our own. Apart from God, we can produce nothing that matters, nothing that will last. Even those who think they have “made it” in this life eventually realize that their fame or power or riches are only temporary. Soon they are going to die, and then they will be forgotten.
Jesus came to save you from all that emptiness and hopelessness. He came to free you from the pressure of having to prove that you are valuable, that your life has a purpose. He came to free you from the burden of a million missed opportunities, a life of regret for not making it big. He came to free you from the temptation of trampling others to try to get to the top.
Everything that you have failed to be, Jesus is for you. He is your goodness. He is your success. He is your life of perfect decisions and no regrets. You are not worthy to loosen His sandal strap, and yet He came down to earth to serve you. He came to atone for your sins of arrogance and pride, for your failure to give Him the glory and the praise for all the good you have and do.
His love for you brought Him down to earth. Sometimes like John, He drew big crowds, but that isn’t why He came. He did not care about earthly popularity. He cared about your soul and the soul of every sinner. He came to offer Himself in your place. He came to endure God’s wrath for your sin and suffer the torments of hell, so you wouldn’t have to. He came to win your forgiveness and eternal life.
Jesus’ greatness was in His sacrifice. His glory was in His humility. We honor Him by living our life in the same way. We sacrifice our own goals and ambitions for the good of those around us, and we humbly serve with no expectation of reward. We need no reward beyond what we already have by faith in Him.
Like John, we at all times keep our focus on Jesus. We live for Him. We hope in Him. If we are praised, we give Him the glory. As John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:30). It isn’t about what we might make of ourselves, but what Jesus has done for us. We Confess Him, Only and Always. And He promises this: “[E]veryone who acknowledges [or confesses] me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God” (Luk. 12:8).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
(picture from “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)