Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Life in the Wilderness

Wednesday of the First Week of Advent + December 1st, 2010
Text: Isaiah 40:1-5; John 1:19-28
Theme for midweek 1: Repentance and Forgiveness:
In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit + Amen.

    Who are you? I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.
Behold the finger of John the Baptizer who points us to the Lamb of God. But there's a problem. Of all the messenger "tricks up His sleeves," what does God use to announce the coming Messiah? No burning bushes; no dreams or visions; no angels…just a man; and an uncivilized man at that. There stands John with locust legs stuck between his teeth. Disheveled hair. And his wardrobe! No project runway awards for this camel-hair-clad, leather-belted, crusty desert preacher.
    John makes you uncomfortable, doesn't he? The kind of guy fathers hope their daughters never bring home. The kind of guy you make apologies for when he shows up in the Sunday readings: "Oh yes, John the Baptizer, well, he's a little eccentric and a bit uncouth, there's always one in every family."
Why does John make you uncomfortable? Let's be honest; it's not just the diet, or the hair or even the clothing. John the Baptizer is uncivilized – that's the problem. He doesn't live in a gated community with Orange County beige paint and 2.5 children. He doesn't shop at South Coast Plaza. He doesn't try to win friends and influence people. He lives the kind of life we find so unfortunate. He leaves the "real world" and runs to the Judean wilderness – the very place we would avoid - only to eat locust and wild honey and dress like Elijah. He's not his father's kind of priest either - the desert is his temple, the Jordan River is his altar and animal hides are his vestments. Malachi's messenger won't even accept honorable mention. Although our Lord calls him the greatest of men born of woman, unworthy John can't even bear to lay a single sinful finger on the strapping of the Messiah's feet. John is everything that civilized sinners don't want to be.
    Who are you, John? The oh-so-civilized Pharisees want to know. "I am not the Christ." What then, are you Elijah? "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" "No." "Who are you? What do you say about yourself?" But John has nothing to say about himself. So the prophet Isaiah speaks for him: "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord."
    John is a one-tracked record megaphone. Christ is the Word. John is the voice. The forerunner. The advent man, who prepares you for Christ. He will not rest. He incessantly, persistently proclaims that the Messiah is here. John is what most psychiatrists call a monomaniac – someone with an excessive interest and irrational obsession with one subject: yes, a monomaniac about Christ.
    And that's really the heart of our problem. The humility of John lays bare our false humility. John's preaching forces us to answer the same question the Pharisees asked of him: Who are you? You are not the Christ. And that only leaves one alternative: you are the sinner in need of repentance.
Again, relentlessly John the Baptizer beckons you to into the wilderness. To leave behind the devil's lies that you are a reformed sinner, that you're not that bad, that surely you won't die. Leave behind the savage, fallen place you call "the real world" – a world that calls evil good and good evil, that speaks: "peace, peace," where there is no peace. Leave behind your old sinful nature whose only obsession and excessive interest is yourself.
    Not only does John the Baptizer make us uncomfortable. There's a part of us deep down, that hates John. We'd rather have his head than listen to one more word of repentance. Our Old Adam hates to be stripped naked and made to stand ashamed in front of the mirror of the Law. John's repentance calls us outside of ourselves; because repentance calls down the winnowing fork of judgment. God's Law sandpapers our old Adam as John lays bare, how swiftly our tongues wage war on others, how comfortable we are with mammon, how professional we are at blaming others, how easy we are on ourselves. In the wilderness we're open to the elements. Exposed. Uncovered.
     Is there no other way, John? Again the voice: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord." Repentance is the only way through the wilderness. You can't go around it; can't go over it, can't go under it. You must go through it. Our Lord draws you, like John, into the wilderness. To live a life of repentance at John's feet. And there in the desert, where John has pulled out every leg your Old Adam has to stand on, you fall to the dust alone with your sin. You see, the desert is also a lonely place. A place where God's Law stares us straight in the face and reveals the arid wasteland of our sinful hearts. A place where we sit in the dust and ashes of our own mortality.
    And this – as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says – is why Advent is a disturbing penitential season for us. Before Jesus stands John the Baptist (whom we must not skip over)." Before Christmas stands Advent. And it is through Advent repentance that we come to the true fulfillment of Christmas joy.
    Repentance and forgiveness are not how we, or the world, see Advent or Christmas, but it is how Jesus sees it. John calls you out to the barren desert, where the only life is where there is water. John the Baptizer we call him. The water man. His sole purpose is to get you to the river. And once he's got you in the water, he's done his job. Because John's identity is all wrapped up in baptism and so is yours.
    For there in the oasis of the font stands Christ: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away your sin. Behold the Lamb of God who pours the water of life into the desert of your sinful flesh, drowning your sin-hardened flesh; there in the desert He prepares a highway to Himself. A road He Himself makes straight through John, through His Word. The preaching of John is really the work of Jesus. For only God can work this kind of repentance in you…only God can turn, change, and flip unrepentant sinners 180 degrees. We go where John goes: Wherever Jesus calls us. To the wilderness for Repentance. To the River of Life for forgiveness. And you, like John, now point to The Font. Altar and Absolution. Lectern and Pulpit and say: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away my sin.
    John's Advent sermon is fulfilled in Jesus the moment He steps into the Jordan. Jesus is right where He wants to be, in your dirty old bath-water. The sinless baptized into a sinner's baptism so that we sinners are baptized into Him. In those blessed waters His life and promises are yours and all your sin is His. There, your conscience which burns with the heat of guilt and sin finds the soothing coolness of sins forgiven. There, your sinful heart cracked under the blazing sun of the Law finds rest in the shadow of Christ Crucified. Behold the Lamb of God. He takes our false humility and suffers our humiliation. He takes our shame and wraps Himself in it. He takes our guilt, our sin, our death and makes them His own. Come down to the river and play. The water is fine. Drink. Swim. Bathe and soak in His fountain of immortality.
    There is life in the water as there is life in the blood. For there is a river of blood and water whose streams make glad the people of God. One fork fills the font where Jesus irrigates your desert of repentance with a flood of springing-sopping-wet- forgiveness. Liquid life. And the other fork fills the chalice, where His life is in the blood. Take, drink for the Forgiveness for your sin-parched lips. Take, eat - your manna in the wilderness.
    Who are you? You are the sinner in need of repentance. And yet in Christ, you are Baptized, you are forgiven and lack for nothing. You are the voice of one crying in the wilderness…Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. And there in Jesus, there is joy in the wilderness. Joy in Advent. Joy in Christmass.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit + Amen.

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