Where's the Joy in John?
On the 3rd Sunday in Advent the pink candle on the wreath is lit. The pink candle is the only candle besides the center Christ candle that specifically means something. The 3 purple candles go with the purple paraments used during Advent and stand for repentance in general. On the 3rd Sunday in Advent the theme of repentance is lightened; the white of the Christ candle bleeds into the purple of repentance and makes pink. The 3rd Sunday in Advent has the theme of joy. The old Introit for this Sunday was "Rejoice in the Lord!" So far so good, but the 3rd Sunday is also John the Baptist Sunday. Notice his prominence in the Gospel and Collect. How in the world does John the Baptizer fit in with a note of joy? Ever sing a Christmas carol that had a reference to John? Ever seen a Christmas card that had him pictured anywhere? Where's the joy in John?
Is the joy in John's life? We read about that last Sunday. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness. He was clothed in camel hair which is very picky and uncomfortable, worse than wool. His only adornment was a leather belt. His diet? It was one of mere subsistence consisting of grasshoppers and wild honey. His life was ascetic, Spartan, austere, harsh. There were no creature comforts for this man.
John's life was not only strict, but it was supremely faithful. He was a faithful witness to the Light of the world, Jesus Christ. He denied himself saying that he was unfit to untie even the sandals of Jesus. Removing sandals was the duty of the lowest of the household slaves. Although Jesus Himself will later say that among those born of women there is none greater than John, John doesn't consider himself great at all. John doesn't even consider himself a person, but just a voice.
So is there joy in the strict, faithful life of John? Many have thought so in the past. Many think so today. Medieval monks would dress in hair shirts just to make themselves uncomfortable. Some would half starve themselves by never eating meat. Some would live virtually their whole life in self imposed isolation. You find this sort of harsh religious life outside of Christianity too. There are types of Brahman priests who starve themselves, sleep on the floor, pray for days at a time. Buddha is said to have went so far as to survive on a single grain of wheat a day. All of these were trying to get closer to God, trying to find the joy. But is that what John was trying to do? Did John think he got closer to God by eating so sparingly and dressing so uncomfortably? You're missing the point if you think so.
Joy is most definitely found in God, but you don't get to God by imitating the life of John. You don't get to God by making yourself suffer. You don't get to God by following a bland diet or dressing in uncomfortable clothes, or by cutting yourself off from others. O you might THINK you do, and that's far worse. Because the god who waits for you on the path of self-imposed suffering is not the true god, but a harsh, demanding demon that won't be satisfied till he gets your very soul.
So joy is not found, that is God is not found, by following John's diet, lifestyle, or dress. Well then, how about by following his faithfulness? Surely faithfulness must be the path to God. People think so. They resolve to pray, to read their Bible, to go to Church, to be totally focused on the things of God. Do you think people get to God that way? Think again.
Can you be a John the Baptist? Can you confess that lowly, ordinary looking Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah promised by God in the Old Testament? Think about what John did. The highest religious authorities in the land came to him, the leaders of the Church, and John pointed to a carpenter from Nazareth as the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. John confessed that this totally ordinary looking Man was the only Light of the world. Think you can do that?
In the face of highly educated, dedicated religious people can you confess faithfully that Jesus is the only way to God? Are you able to be so faithful as to tell your Jewish friend that he or she is praying to an idol? Can you tell that Muslim acquaintance of yours who is dedicated to his religion that it's useless, that he's so far away from the true God that he is going to hell? Can you tell that devoted Buddhist or Hindu who does elaborate religious rituals every single day of his life that his faith ought to be in a God who allowed Himself to be ridiculed, mocked, and crucified on a criminal's cross?
You think you can reach joy by your faithfulness? Think again. John confessed to high and mighty Church leaders that the lowly carpenter from Nazareth was the very Son of God who saves the world. Can you confess to your Protestant friends that the mighty, powerful, holy Lord Jesus came to you in 3 handfuls of waters at your Baptism? Can you say to them that the Lord forgives your sins on earth by the mouth of a man in Absolution? Can you point to the Holy Communion, the ordinary looking Bread and Wine and say to your Protestant friend, "There is my God and Savior"?
If God can only be reached, if true joy can be found only if I am always faithful, then I'm going to be miserable most of the time. You see while John was not reed shaking in the wind, I sometimes am. While John was willing to lose his head for preaching the Word of God, I cower over merely losing face. While John "did not fail to confess, but confessed freely," I have, I will, I do fail. So I can never get to God by doing what John did or by living how John lived, but NEITHER DID JOHN!
Our text says literally, "There came a man who was commissioned from the side of God." John started out right next God. We know from Luke that he was filled with God the Holy Spirit while still in his mother's womb when Mary greeted his mother. John didn't live where he did, the way he did to get closer to God. John started out close to God from before he was even born, and it was not that John came to God but that God came to John through the voice of Mary the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ.
John knew that. That's why John doesn't point you to his life style or even to his faithfulness. John points you to Jesus. We don't remember John the Baptist on this joyous Sunday in Advent because of John's harsh life or because of John's faithful life, but because of John's finger. The joy in John is not found in John's strict life or in John's faithfulness but in John's finger. No one before John had such fingers as he did. No one before John pointed to Jesus of Nazareth as the Lamb of God who would carry away the sins of the whole world. No one before had pointed to Jesus as the answer for anyone oppressed by sin, marked for death, terrified by the devil or death. No one before had pointed to Jesus as the source of forgiveness, life and salvation. John is a joyous figure because of where he points (Luther's House Postils,3, 316). We should see him on Christmas cards with one of those big foam fingers pointing to Jesus in the manger.
Follow the finger of John. Don't follow where other fingers point you. Some point you to harsh, depriving lives as the way to God and His joy. Others point you to the commandments of men or even the commandments of God. "Do these and you will live," such fingers say. But if good works were destined to save anyone, they certainly would have saved John, and he would have taken comfort in them. But read your Gospels; John says nothing about his good works, his austere life, or his faithfulness. He speaks only of Christ. He points only to Christ saying that grace and truth come from Him, forgiveness comes from Him, the world's sins, his included then, are carried away by Him. (Luther's House Postils, 3, 322)
John, by his finger, points us to true joy. not the worldly joy of parties and dancing, eating and drinking, but a joy far sweeter. The joy of knowing we remain alive after our bodies are dead and decomposing in the earth; the joy of being righteous in Christ; the joy of escaping from hell into heaven. You see all of us will have to see and listen to the devil at some point in our lives. This usually happens, Luther says, at the final moment when one is grappling with death. Every Christian will reach the point when he or she is truly conscious of sin and death. Then their only hope and consolation will be to look where John's finger is pointing: the Lamb of God who carried away the sins of the world (Luther's House Postils, 3, 322).
Friend, unlike John I can't point you to Jesus walking along the Jordan, but like John, I must relentlessly point you outside of yourself. I dare not point you to your heart to see Jesus there because as you know if you look there all you'll see is the sin and death that dwells in every sinner. No, I must point you outside yourselves to Jesus. So, when you're grappling with death I point you to your Baptism which Peter preached "forgives your sins." When you are grappling with Satan and his accusations, I point you to my lips which Christ commanded to forgive your sins freely for His sake. When Satan, sin, and death have conspired to convince you that there can be no eternal life for you because of your many sins and your dying body, then I point you to the Bread and Wine of Communion and say, "Here is your Savior in flesh and blood to save you from your sins and death."
Friends, there is great joy in the Jesus John and I point to, and having this Jesus in your life through Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion does produce in you the same things He produced in John's life. You deprive yourself of money, giving it to support the preaching of the Gospel and those less fortunate. Money you could use to buy more or better food, clothes, lodging you give to the Lord. You deprive yourself of time and talents to do all sorts of things in God's name whether at home, office or church. John's life was different because God came to him. Your's too is different because the same God came to you too.
And John's faithfulness is your faithfulness. You confess out loud your faith in Jesus as the only Savior every Sunday. You bow and kneel, when able, before the Bread and Wine of Communion as a public confession that you are in the presence of your Lord and God. You take comfort in your Baptism and in the Words of Absolution though most of the world around you says it's just plain water and ordinary words.
"But I do none of these things perfectly." Of course you don't; neither did John. That's why John pointed to Jesus not to himself. Your salvation is not in how much you sacrifice to Jesus or how faithful you are to Jesus. Your salvation is in how much Jesus sacrificed for you and how faithful He is to you. Your joy is in this same place. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent III (12-15-02), John 1:6-8, 19-28