What are you hoping to see? (Dec 13, 2020)

What are you hoping to see? (Dec 13, 2020)

January 2, 2021
Benjamin Ehlers

What are you hoping to see?

John 1:6-8, 19-28

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Christmas is coming. It’s just around the corner. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you. The signs of the season are everywhere, grabbing your attention. This time of year, many churches too are trying to get your attention. There are live nativities. There are Christmas events. There are service projects. There are special worship services. And I know many families do make time for some of these special Christmas events this time of year. I’m glad for that. I hope you plan on coming out to see and hear the special worship services that we will have. But as you are planning on attending, consider also that reason why you are going. What do you go to see? What is the draw, and what do you hope to get out of it?

There was a big draw out in the wilderness long ago. People were going out in droves to see this man who wore strange garments, ate a strange diet, but most importantly, preached a powerful message and baptized! They came from all over – from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. He was getting so much attention, in fact, that the religious leaders had to take him seriously and find out about him. By whose authority does he do these things?

So, “The Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was” (Jn 1:19). It’s obvious he left people with quite an impression because these were the top suspects of whom he might be: Are you the Messiah? “He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Messiah’” (Jn 1:20). Pause here for a minute. They were so close! I find it amazing, and yet heartbreaking, that they actually ask if John is the Messiah. And when he says, “No, I’m not, but He is,” they don’t even consider the possibility. Ok, if you’re not the Messiah, Are you Elijah? Malachi prophesied about the prophet Elijah coming back as a forerunner to the Messiah. Actually, we just read that prophecy. And although John is the fulfillment of that prophecy, he was not the fulfillment in the way they were thinking. They thought this prophecy referred to a resurrected Elijah for a renewed ministry. So, John answered, “I am not” (Jn 1:21). Then, are you “the Prophet” that Moses prophesied about (Deut 18:15)? This prophecy of “the Prophet” was actually about Jesus, the Messiah. So, John once again answered, “No” (Jn 1:21).

Well, they need some sort of answer. Important people are asking about him. They are trying to see if it’s worth their time to go out and hear what this John has to say. Or, if he was a threat to their religion, which, despite all it’s sights and sounds, rites and rituals, was having a hard time competing with this loner out in the wilderness. So, they ask him flat out, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (Jn 1:22). And John replies, “I am the voice.” But I don’t say this about myself. I find it so fascinating that they ask what he says about himself, by his own authority. But John says, “No, no. I don’t say anything about myself. But listen to what God says about me through his prophet, your prophet, Isaiah.” We just had this reading last week. “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (Jn 1:23).

This is the one who gave John his authority. This is the one whom John pointed to. In fact, the reason John was out there looking strange, eating a fad diet, and drawing a crowd was so that people might come out to see what is really important. John is so downplayed here in this text. He humbled himself, got out of the way, so that the true Light of the world could shine! I mean, just listen to how this text reads: “There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light” (Jn 1:6-8). So plain and matter of fact. But then, the writer launches into a vibrant and deep description of the Light. “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:9, 14). John testifies about him. He cries out about him. What are you hoping to see? I hope it’s Him.

Afterall, what’s the alternative? What if John were the main event? What if John was there merely to instruct the people about his strict ascetic lifestyle? About abstaining from alcohol, wearing a garment of camel’s hair, and subsisting on wild honey and locusts – calling upon all to emulate his example as a means of attaining salvation? Isn’t this what all the other religious leaders were doing? Didn’t the Pharisees demand that people follow their ways, emulate them, and look glowingly upon them and their actions? If John had done that, he would have been yet another false prophet, attracting people to come see him for all the wrong reasons. Instead, he directs all people, even his own disciples, away from himself and toward the Light of the world. It’s as if he wanted to say: “I am not the Christ. I am not the Light. I cannot illumine you, nor can I give you life. But believe in Him and be guided by Him whose witness I am. By means of my distasteful appearance I want to urge you to pay better attention to me as I testify about Christ, the Light of the world.” (adapted from Luther’s Works, Vol. 22, p. 49-50).

Sadly, many are drawn by these things, and go to see them for all the wrong reasons. As you think about all the Christmas events that piqued your interest, consider why they did. What are you hoping to see? Do you hope that by participating in a coat drive or distributing gifts to the less fortunate, you can feel better about yourself? Do you hope that by listening to Christmas concerts and carolers, or driving through light shows you will better feel the atmosphere of Christmas warming your heart? Do you hope that by attending the worship service with the lights and sounds you will be more a part of it, more immersed?

What are you hoping to get from it? We long for the nostalgia. We eagerly anticipate the emotion that swells with our favorite Christmas songs. But that’s not what we need. That’s not the point of any of this. In fact, it’s a feeling and emotion that will not last. If that’s all we are hoping for from a church this Christmas season, then we’ve come out for all the wrong reasons – reasons that will quickly fade and leave us feeling empty once again. The trees will eventually come down. The lights and ornaments will be put away. Those beloved Christmas songs which warm your heart and fill you with nostalgia will soon shift to the minor tones of Lent. And if that’s all you came for – the lights and the sounds – then what are you left with?

So, consider again, what are you hoping to see? What are you hoping to get out of Worship? Are you hoping to feel more immersed in the spirit of Christmas? Don’t just feel immersed. Be immersed. “Dear Christian friend, on him depend; be of good cheer and let no sorrow move you. For God’s own Child in mercy mild joins you to him – how greatly God must love you!” (CW 40:3). Are you hoping to warm your heart? It’s not found in the glowing lights and peaceful music. “O Jesus Christ, Your manger is my paradise where my soul is reclining. For there, O Lord, we find the Word made flesh for us – your grace is brightly shining” (CW 40:1).

There’s ultimately one reason why we have all of this. Why we have a building. Why we have beautiful music, special services, a special ambiance this past week and on Christmas Eve. One reason ultimately for anything we do as a congregation. One thing I want you to go home knowing and believing each and every Sunday. All of this is to witness and testify concerning the Light, so that through him all might believe. So that you might understand why Jesus was born for you. So that you might know who he is, God’s Son, our Savior. So that you might know about his death and would take hold of the forgiveness earned for you on the cross. So that you might know about his resurrection and trust completely in your salvation through him, so that you have the certain hope of heaven. That’s what I hope you are coming to see and hear. Not the lights and the sounds, but the Word made flesh, the Light of the World.

This is why John came. So that you might believe. This is why he attracted attention. To point you to the Light. This is why we have the prophets, and why the Old Testament believers had the ceremonial laws of God, the temple, the priesthood, the rituals prescribed by God. To draw attention, but not to these things themselves. We are talking about this very thing in Bible class on Sunday mornings. God gave the sights and sounds of the temple, the priesthood and garments, the rites and rituals so that the eyes of the world would be fixated on this nation, and their God. So that people would know without a doubt that God is holy and we are not. That we needed a mediator between us and God. That the only way to atone for sin was by blood. While many of the ceremonies of the Old Testament where grand, and the temple magnificent, and the priests who administered them stately in appearance, the constant repetition of the ceremonies was evidence that in themselves they were incapable of removing sin.

Yet they all pointed to the one who could. Jesus is the fulfillment of the sacrifice of atonement. It is only his holy, precious blood by which we are made presentable to a holy God. He is the priest who sacrificed himself and took away the sins that separated us from God. That is why the curtain in the temple that separated the people from the Most Holy Place was torn in two. Because now you are no longer separated from God. Christ came into the world to save sinners. He was born to save you. And now, he serves in heaven itself – the true temple – as your mediator.

Sadly, after Jesus ascended into heaven and persecution broke out against the Christian church, many Jewish believers wanted to go back to the sights and sounds, the rites and rituals of worship at the Temple – worship that focused on these rites and rituals as the way to salvation. Worship that lost sight of what it was meant to point to – Jesus the Messiah. Sadly too, as I hear people new to the area ask about churches, and they list their priorities for a church, the top of their list is often programs for the family to plug into and music style, rather than specific biblical teachings. And please, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not at all against children’s programs, different styles of worship, and service projects. I think they are all really good things to be doing. But they don’t come first. They are not the reason why we attend church, nor our top priorities when finding a church. Number one is our Savior, the Light of the world. He alone can straighten out our lives and lead us on the way to salvation. And he alone can give us the proper focus of our children’s programs. He alone can give us the proper motivation for service projects – sharing Christ’s love and his Gospel. He alone can make the peace that fills our hearts while singing that particular song – he alone can make that peace last.