Preached December 19, 2010
St. John 1:19–28
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We have come to the fourth Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday of the season of preparation. We have been talking about various forms of preparation to receive Christ, both for His first coming at Christmass and again for His second coming at the end of time. We moved from the preparation of the Word and the Church now to the preparation of Jesus Christ Himself in our lives. We must have the inward spiritual presence of Christ in our hearts if we are to be prepared for His outward, visible coming. Thus today, strange though it may sound, we may speak of preparing for Christ by putting on Christ.
Our Epistle lesson for the day begins with the repeated command, Philippians 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. The key words are in the middle, the phrase in the Lord, because it is only in Christ that we can truly find cause for joy in this broken world with so much that is evil wherever we look. But if we remain fixed on Jesus Christ, we will always have cause to rejoice; we can look past the wickedness of the world to the joy of Christ in the unbroken love of God.
St. Paul goes on Philippians 4:5 Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. The word that is translated here as “moderation” does not refer to such things as simply not over indulging in food and drink. It is speaking more to general temperament, to a willingness to overlook small offenses, to avoid taking offense at the actions of others, to not walk around with a chip on our shoulder looking for someone to knock it off. When we know that a special guest of great honor is soon to arrive, it is not the time to be picking fights with our neighbors, not the time to be sticking up for every tiny detail of “our rights,” or to be looking for trouble. Who wants to be found on the ground, in the middle of a fist fight when the guest arrives, only to discover that his clean clothes are now dirty, he is bleeding, and he is unfit to greet the guest? Even if we are not likely to be physically involved in a fist fight on the ground, there are many other things we are inclined to do in our lives that make us equally unfit to meet the Guest. The Guest that is coming is Jesus Christ, the Lord of Heaven and earth, so this is no time for petty quarrels. This is what moderation is about.
This is not to say that nothing matters, that we should not hold onto anything at all. We must at all times hold tight to the Gospel, to the Truth, and to the moral life. When Christ Jesus returns, He will show all to have been mistaken in greater or lesser degree, so we must be prepared to drop all of our old ideas and hold only to Him. The more we are ready drop what is ours, the more we will be able to grasp that which is Christ’s; ready to drop the things of earth in order to hold onto Heaven.
Just as Jesus Christ is cause for us to moderate our behavior, He is also at hand to hear our prayers, as St. Paul writes Philippians 4:6 Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. With Jesus Himself listening to our prayers, it is really a sin for us to be anxious about our lives; it bespeaks a lack of trust in Him.
Verse 6 just read gives us direct instructions about what we are to do when it says, let your requests be made known unto God. It is a universal, across the board, prescription, covering everything, without exception. Nothing is too big, nor is anything too insignificant to take to God. We present our needs and our requests to God in prayer and supplication. The word supplication is particularly associated with deprecating evils that are feared. But notice that these are always to be accompanied by thanksgiving for mercies received from the Lord. We are constantly in debt to the Lord; we live daily by His hand. We must never presume to come before Him to ask for something more without giving thanks for the blessings already received. God will give little to those who think they have already received little.
Note also that we are enjoined to make our request to God, not to other men. We are to turn privately to God, not to put our trust in men, whether they be strong men, men of wealth or influence, or even princes. We have been warned many times in the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms, not to trust in men, but only to trust in God. The same warning applies here.
The benefits of prayer are described in Philippian 4:7 And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. This is a peace that dwells in the human heart, fortifying it against the evils of the world, and able to withstand against all comers because it has Christ Jesus as its source. It is a peace that calms the mind, soothes the heart, and brings tranquility to the anxious spirit. It comes through Christ and Christ alone.
The source of all these benefits is the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ directly in our lives. Our joy is “in the Lord,” our moderation is because “the Lord is at hand,” and our peace is “through Christ Jesus.”
We see the same theme of the centrality of Christ in a sort of inverted form in our Gospel lesson for today where St. John Baptist continually points out his own inferiority to that of the Christ, and in so doing directs his hearers to Jesus Christ.
The humility of John is evident in the negative response he gave to the questions put to him by the priests and Levites. John 1:20 And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. He makes it emphatically clear that he is not the Messiah — there is no way that he could say that any more plainly. John the Baptist never for one moment pretended to be anything more than what he was, the herald Forerunner announcing the coming of the Messiah.
John 1:21 And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No. We can speculate about whether John knew that he was the fulfillment of the role of Elijah or not, but Christ Himself says that in fact John is Elijah (Matthew 11:10). There is no doubt at all that John knew what his functional role was, and whether it was that of Elijah or not was not important; John was there to be the herald prophet announcing the arrival of the Messiah. He saw that clearly, and he was intent on carrying out his task and nothing else at all.
John does not consider his message as THE MESSAGE from God, but rather simply as a wake up call, a signal to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. He does not see himself as a powerful orator with a message that all must hear in order to be saved, not at all. When asked who he is, John 1:23 He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. It is a simple answer to the question, it is just a wake up call, but it is urgent and it is clear.
When asked about his water baptism, John explains that it is simply a preparation for a more perfect cleansing that is yet to come. He says that the one who will offer that more complete and perfect cleansing is already among them, although He is unrecognized by them. John explains that this One who comes after him is so much greater than he is that John is unworthy to untie His sandals, he is unworthy to be a slave to the coming Master. His work has been only that of preparation, announcing the coming of the Messiah. That work is just about completed. Very shortly he will give his final message, — Behold the Lamb of God.
Christ is standing among us — this is the last great message to the Church before the great day of His coming. Only through His unseen Presence can we prepare to celebrate His First Coming and also prepare to welcome Him at His Second Coming. All personal effort, all use of the means of grace offered by the Church, are ineffectual unless we have Jesus Christ at the very center.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.