In the midst of the deep darkness that surrounds you — and there is plenty of darkness round about, not only with the lack of sunshine in these short days of December, but with so much evil in this dying world, including daily reports of rape and murder, violence in the streets and abuses of power both here and abroad, and now the recent martyrdom of four young Christians in Iraq, all of them under fifteen years of age — yet, in the face of that deep darkness which threatens to swallow you up, the Voice of the Lord calls you to rejoice: To repent of your sins, and to rejoice!
No less dark than the world around you is the sin that dwells within you, in your heart and mind, in your language and your mischief. But now repent of all your sin, and rejoice in Christ Jesus.
Beloved of the Lord, rejoice in that true Light of Christ, who has come into this world of sin and death and shines on you in Peace. For He enlightens your heart and mind, your body and soul with His Holy Spirit, and He gives to you life everlasting with Himself and with His God and Father.
St. John the Baptist is not that true Light of the Lord. He is not the Christ, the Lord’s Anointed. Yet, he is a man both named and sent by God, by the grace and Spirit of the Lord, to make known that Light of Christ; so that you and all might receive and believe in that same Lord Jesus Christ through him — through St. John’s preaching and baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
This is the way God does His thing. This is the way Christ comes, not only then, but also here and now to you. He sends a messenger to testify, to confess and point to the One who comes, and to make ready His Way before Him. For not only His coming, but also your receiving and believing are accomplished by the Lord, by the voicing of His Word.
Apart from this Ministry of the Forerunner, you do not recognize or know the One who dwells among you in the flesh. Because you are lost in the wilderness of your sin, even when Christ the Lord is standing right in front of you, even then, you still don’t know Him. You’re still in the dark, unable to see or rejoice in His Light. You aren’t able to comprehend what He is saying, to receive Him or believe in Him, until you are brought to repentance, from unbelief to faith in the Gospel.
Therefore, although St. John the Baptist is not the same man as Elijah the Tishbite, he has in fact been called and sent in the spirit and office of the Prophet Elijah, as the Angel Gabriel foretold his priestly father, Zacharias, in order to make ready the Way of the Lord.
He does it by the preaching of the Law and the Gospel, and by his baptizing with water and the Word in the Name of the Lord, unto repentance, and for the forgiveness of sins. Thus, you are brought to recognize the Christ who stands with you in the water, to pass through those waters with Him, out of the wilderness of sin into the Kingdom of God, and to rejoice in His great salvation.
St. John’s entire life and ministry, his preaching and his baptism, and finally his beheading by King Herod, are all a witness to this Lord Jesus Christ. That is why you can hardly get St. John to say anything about himself, except what he is not. And when he is finally pressed to say who he is, he simply quotes the Scripture: He confesses the Word that God has spoken concerning him.
Always, always, always, St. John is pointing away from himself to the Lord Jesus Christ; because it is Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus who takes away the sin of the world and gives to you salvation.
This Office and Ministry of St. John the Forerunner continues in the pastoral office to this day, and even to the close of the age, unto all nations; so that, by the preaching and baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, you might receive and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved.
It is most certainly true — I confess and do not deny — that I am not the Christ, nor could I be. I am not the incarnate Son of God. I am not your Savior and Redeemer. But I also am a man sent by God to preach and teach His Word, and to baptize, absolve, and commune you with His Word. Not as though I am worthy of myself to do any of these things, but because the Lord has sent me to do so. This is the way He comes to you, and works for you, and shines His Light upon you.
So it’s not about me, but about Christ Jesus, whose servant I am for your sake. According to my office and vocation as your pastor, I point you and bring you to Him, who is alone your Kinsman Redeemer. Not with my own words or works, but with His Good Word and His Good Works.
This is the significance of the Salutation in the Liturgy. When I address you in this way, “The Lord be with you,” it is to announce that He is indeed with you in the office and work that I carry out in His Name and stead: In the reading and proclamation of the Holy Gospel, in the consecration and distribution of the Holy Sacrament, and in the putting of His Holy Name on you in the Aaronic Benediction. When you respond, “And with your Spirit,” you acknowledge and affirm that the Spirit of the Lord is with me in these words and works of His, in this office and vocation of the Holy Ministry. Like a little “ordination,” it says that we rely, not on ourselves, but on Christ.
By this Ministry of the Gospel, you also have received and bear the Holy Spirit of Christ Jesus in your own proper office and station in life. Indeed, the Spirit of the Lord is upon you to do what God the Lord has given you to do for the glory of His Name and for the good of your neighbor, that all may see the Light of Christ in you and so believe in Him through your good works.
It may seem crazy and confusing, but this is how God does His thing. This is how Christ comes to your family and friends, to your colleagues and coworkers, to your teachers and students.
It is true that you are not the Christ. But it is no less true that you are a Christian. Which is to say that you are anointed by God the Father with the Spirit of Christ Jesus, His beloved and well-pleasing Son. For, although you are not St. John the Baptist, either, you are baptized into Christ. Which means that you are united with Him in His Cross and in the power of His indestructible life.
Therefore, the Lord is with you, not only in His coming to you by this Ministry of the Gospel, but also in whatever place and position He has put you, in order to accomplish His purposes through you. He is with you in your labors, in your duties and responsibilities, in your chores, and in your studies, to sustain you with His Word and Holy Spirit, and to serve your neighbor through you.
It is within that same context that you abstain from evil and pursue good in the ways that St. Paul has admonished you this morning. In the classroom, at the office, within your home and family, across the backyard fence, or out with friends; maybe volunteering to rock babies at the hospital, to serve meals at Hope Rescue Mission, or to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. In each case, do not repay evil for evil, but always seek to do whatever is good and right for one and all. Admonish the unruly; encourage the fainthearted; help the weak; and be patient with everyone.
It is not by your own personal ingenuity, cleverness, or strategy that you persist and persevere in such things, but by using and rehearsing the Word that God has spoken to you by His Son and by His servants in His Name. That Word of the Lord opens your lips to confess and call upon His Name. It is precisely in this way that you rejoice in the Lord: By praying at all times, in accord with His Word and promise, such as when you pray the Our Father or cry out to the Lord in the Kyrie. And by giving thanks to God the Father in every circumstance and situation through our Lord Jesus Christ, as in the Creed and in the Eucharist, confessing who He is and what He does.
Christ the Lord, the true Light of the world, has already done everything for you, which you could never have done for yourself. He has accomplished and established your salvation in His own Body of flesh and blood. And now, by the Ministry of His Word and Holy Spirit, by His free and full forgiveness of your sins, He daily and richly adorns you with His own Righteousness, and He clothes you in His garments of salvation. Thus does He bedeck you as a most beautiful Bride, made ready for Him who is your Bridegroom, who comes to bring you home rejoicing, to carry you across the threshold of death and grave into the Resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
So, then, you are given to rejoice in Him, to pray, praise, and give thanks in His Name, by the fact that He rejoices over you in love. Listen to what He says, for He is speaking peace and joy to you.
By this Voice of His Gospel, and by the same Word made Flesh in His Holy Sacrament, Christ the Lord sanctifies you in body, soul, and spirit; and so shall He preserve you, blameless and clean, without any spots or wrinkles or flaws of any kind. He is faithful, and He will surely do it, just as He has spoken. According to His promise, He will bring you to perfection at His coming in Glory.
He has already come in the flesh to redeem you by His Sacrifice upon the Cross. And now, having risen from the dead for your Justification, He comes with His Body and Blood to make Himself known to you here in this place by the proclamation of His forgiveness and His love for you.
You know Him and receive Him, you repent of all your sins and believe in Him who loves you, and so do you rejoice in the Light of His Salvation — all by this very Word that is spoken to you. In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.