No, no, no. That’s what John answers to the messengers of the Pharisees. “I’m not the Christ.” Well, we knew that already. “I’m not Elijah.” Wait, but doesn’t Jesus tell us that John is Elijah? (Matthew 11:13 and 17:11-13) Indeed, he does. So, John must mean that he is not literally Elijah and Jesus simply means that John comes in the spirit of Elijah, as the angel Gabriel explains (Luke 1:17). “I’m not the prophet.” But hold on again. Doesn’t Jesus say that John is more than a prophet? Why does John deny being a prophet? Perhaps because John’s inquisitors are asking if John is the Prophet as prophesied in Deuteronomy 18, which God will raise up from among the Jews. John is not the Prophet, because that Prophet is the Messiah Himself. Whichever way we explain John’s negative answers, there is one positive answer John does give about himself. He says, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
It’s evident that John doesn’t want to talk about himself! He’s a voice; that’s it! John doesn’t want to talk about himself. He wants to talk about Jesus, just as he did in last week’s Gospel lesson, pointing his disciples to Jesus. Yet, if John doesn’t want to be focused on, why did the ancients appoint two Sundays in a row focusing on John the Baptist? And why did the Holy Spirit cause all four evangelists to give us extensive information about John’s ministry? Because John is the voice to which we should all pay attention.
Christ Jesus is our Savior. He has done everything necessary to save us, because we poor sinners are incapable of saving ourselves. And this salvation from Jesus is delivered to us as a gift through words, as St. Paul says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” So, in order to hear the word of Christ, there must be a voice. We must learn about John the Baptist, so that we learn to listen to the voice God sends us, which proclaims salvation. There is no other way to receive saving faith and be saved than to listen to the voice God sends.
I have a bad habit, if you don’t mind me sharing. My mind often goes astray while I’m reading. Without me realizing it, my mind will wander so that I will sometimes have to go back and reread a couple pages, because my eyes were glancing over the words, but my mind was distracted by something else. And a similar thing plagued me back when I was a student listening to lectures for hours a day. And one thing I’ve learned in life, is that I’m not special. If I’ve got a problem, chances are lots of other people have had that same problem.
Scripture emphasizes the importance of the voice. John is the voice who prepares the way of the Lord for us. Jesus tells His apostles that whoever hears them hear Him (Luke 10:16). And so, Christians go to church to hear sermons preached to them. Yet, people increasingly go to church less frequently and hear fewer and fewer sermons. And when they do go, how much do they get out of the sermon? Do they recognize the theme or is the sermon to them just a jungle of unrelated sentences? Can they distinguish between the law and the Gospel? Do they even listen to the whole sermon, or does their mind wander in and out until the pastor says, “Amen”?
Listening to a sermon is in fact a learned skill. This is why I give my catechism students service reports, where they have to identify the theme, law, and Gospel in each sermon. So, on this Sunday in which the Holy Spirit reminds us to take heed of the voice sent by God, let us review how to listen to a sermon. Every good sermon should do three things. It should preach the law, the Gospel, and teach you something.
First, what is the law and what does it do? The law is the Word of God, which commands us to love. The law commands us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We summarize the law in the Ten Commandments. So, the law in this sermon is obviously the Third Commandment, which commands us to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. Next, what does the Law do? The law does three things. First, it curbs, that is, it threatens punishment to those who transgress God’s commandments, so that they do not break the commandments. So, when you hear that those who refuse to hear God’s preaching anger God, you fearfully go to church. That is the law acting as a curb.
Second, the law convicts you of sin, that is it accuses you of sin and threatens punishment. The law behaves like a mirror, showing you clearly what you have done wrong. This is why St. Paul says that no human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law, because through the law comes knowledge of sin. So, when you hear the preacher describe those who frequently miss church and do not listen to God’s preaching, or who come to church, but their mind wanders so that they do not listen or pay attention to what God is actually saying your conscience is convicted. So, you repent of your sin of despising God’s Word and you ask God for forgiveness. This is why the chief function of the law is to convict us of our sin, so that we may be saved through faith.
Finally, the law guides you. Christians, who have repented of their sins and believe in Christ’s forgiveness have been reborn of the Holy Spirit. This means that they desire to do what pleases God. Yet, Christians are still weak and the sinful flesh persuasive. So, Christians having been freed from the burden of the law’s convictions now use the law as a guide. They gladly learn God’s law, so that they can live God-pleasing lives and to keep their sinful flesh in check.
Every good sermon should preach the Gospel. The Gospel is the Word of God, which proclaims our Savior. The main purpose of the law is to prepare a sinner for the Gospel. The Gospel saves sinners. If you aren’t a sinner, then you don’t need the Gospel. And if you don’t believe you are a sinner, then you’ll despise the Gospel. This is why a good sermon does not preach only the Gospel without the law. Yet, it is imperative that you distinguish between the law and the Gospel. The law demands your works. The Gospel does not demand any works. Rather, the Gospel is the good news that Jesus has done all the work needed to save you. The law demands work from you and it is never accomplished. The Gospel tells you of the work already accomplished for you. The law cannot save you. Only the Gospel can save you.
When we speak of the Gospel, we must speak of how salvation is gained, given, and received. Salvation is gained by Christ Jesus alone, who by His death made satisfaction for our sins. Yet, that salvation Jesus won for you can do you no good unless you receive it. So, this salvation must be given to you. Salvation is given through the Word alone. This is why Jesus commanded that the Gospel be preached to the whole creation, so that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:15-16). Jesus also joins His Word to physical elements, such as water in Baptism and bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. So, salvation is also given through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, because Jesus has joined His promise of forgiveness and salvation to them.
Finally, salvation is received through faith alone. When you believe and trust in the Gospel declared to you, then you receive the salvation Jesus gained for you on the cross freely as a gift. So, faith does not compete with Baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Faith receives the salvation given in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. So, when a sermon preaches the Gospel it may not only express how salvation is gained, but also how it is given and received. So, a sermon preaching on Baptism or the Lord’s Supper or even on the preached Word is a Gospel sermon.
Thirdly, every good sermon should teach you something. The teaching in a sermon relates to both the law and the Gospel. There is a bit of confusion regarding the teaching in sermons, because people tend to be unduly proud of themselves. They often think that they know more than they do. And they think that if they’ve learned something once, then they don’t need to learn it again. However, that isn’t true even in non-spiritual matters. Yet, in spiritual matters, it is doubly untrue. Because what you learn in a sermon is not simply knowledge that you keep in your brain like how to do long-division. The knowledge you learn from listening to God’s Word goes to battle against Satan and your sinful flesh, curbs evil desires, convicts you of sin, guides you and comforts you, rescues you from doubt and despair, and strengthens your faith. You can’t say that you’ve learned something once in a sermon, so you don’t need to hear it again unless after hearing a sermon once, you stop sinning entirely and have perfect faith in Christ. Of course, then you would still desire to hear God’s Word out of pure pleasure.
So, what does this Gospel lesson teach us. Regarding the law, we’ve already learned that God commands us to listen to His Word. Yet, with regard to the Gospel we learn a couple of things. First, we learn that God’s salvation is given to us through a voice. God sends a voice to prepare His way. As He did with John, so He does today. If you are to receive God’s salvation, then you must listen to the voice which gives you God’s salvation.
Second, this voice itself teaches us something. John says, “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.” Here John refers to Deuteronomy 18, where God tells Moses that He will raise up a prophet from among them. This prophet is Christ. But what does it mean that John is not worthy to remove the straps from His sandals? It means a couple things. First, it means that Jesus is God. John is not even worthy to remove Jesus’ sandals, even though John came preaching before Jesus. Later in this same chapter, John tells us that Jesus is the one who came after him, but is before him. How can Jesus be both before and after John? He is after John, because He was born six months after him and began His ministry after John began his. Yet, He is before John, because Jesus is God Himself, the Word made flesh. This teaches us how our salvation is gained. If Jesus is not true man and true God, then He cannot pay for the sins of all mankind on the cross.
Next, it means that Jesus is the Redeemer. In the book of Ruth, Boaz tells the next of kin to Ruth’s dead husband that he is Ruth’s redeemer. Yet, the man was not willing to take Ruth as his wife. So, Boaz became Ruth’s redeemer. In order to legally confirm this exchange of redeemers, the man drew of his sandal and gave it to Boaz to mark Boaz as the legal redeemer of Ruth, and so Ruth became Boaz’s bride (Ruth 4:7ff). When John says that he is not worthy to loosen Jesus’ sandal strap, he is saying that he is not worthy to be the Redeemer. This means that Jesus and Jesus alone is the Redeemer of the world, as John himself proclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The voice makes straight the way of the Lord into your heart by proclaiming Christ Jesus, true God and true man, as the only true Redeemer to pay for your sins on the cross and take them away.
Sometimes people complain that they don’t learn anything from sermons. And there are some lousy preachers out there. However, often the problem is not in the preacher, but in the hearer, who isn’t listening to what is being taught, the law or the Gospel. Today, the Holy Spirit tells us to take heed of the voice preparing our Savior’s way to us. And when you take heed of this voice, you’ll recognize your Redeemer. Amen.