Advent 4 (2013) - Rorate Coeli
Delivered By
Pr. Mark D. Lovett
Delivered On
December 22, 2013
Central Passage
John 1:19-28

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

“And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ … Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.” (John 1:19, 24)

It’s most probable that the Pharisees and everyone knew of John’s birth and the miraculous events and sayings that surrounded it. After all, John’s father, Zechariah, had been serving as a temple priest the year John was born, and would have been in the limelight, so to speak. Which means John was of the tribe of Levi. He was a Levite and so was related to the priests and might have even gone on to serve as a priest; had he not been imprisoned and beheaded by Herod. At any rate, the Pharisees sent a convoy of John’s relatives and tribe to him to see what he would say about himself.

It was a calculated move by the Pharisees. It was meant to disarm John. John was preaching repentance to all; to Pharisee and tax collector, lumping everyone together. Imagine if you were lumped in with active and known prostitutes, or druggies, or Democrats…or Republicans. But that’s how John prepared the way of the Lord: by lumping everyone together and calling everyone to repentance; rich and poor, righteous and wicked. But surely he wouldn’t assume to have such authority over his family. That’s what got Joseph in trouble. Remember Joseph of the Old Testament? His brothers sold him into slavery. Why? Because he dared to believe the dream sent by God that they would bow down to him. The Pharisees meant to disarm John by sending a convoy of his father’s family. They hedged their bets that John wouldn’t insist on his baptism unto repentance, on calling his own family and tribe to repent. Surely he wouldn’t claim to have authority over his relatives. But John’s authority didn’t come from John, but from the One who sent him.

And that’s really the issue at hand. Authority. The Pharisees wanted to know what authority John had. They didn’t care really about the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet. If they did, they’d have listened to John. They only cared about themselves. And this new authority meant they had to repent. And for the sinner there are only two evil and wicked words: submission and repentance.

Jesus reveals this later when the Pharisees come to Him to discover the source of His authority. But He reveals their sin and puts the question to them, “John’s baptism: was it from God or man?” He gets to the heart of the matter. For in our heart of hearts, we sinners want to be ruled by no one, not even God. We want to be our own god and master and do whatever we think is best: calling for ourselves what is good and evil. We want no one to judge us and call us to repentance. Especially not someone, someone like John, who we see as our equal and from among us.

But we don’t reserve our rebellion only for God. But in rebelling against God, we rebel against all God-ordained and God-ordered authority. So we rebel against parents, governments, employers, and pastors. Can you feel the rebellion rising in you as you hear the titles? Fear creeps in that is afraid that this might be a power-grab. The fact that I included pastors cause some backs to straighten and eye brows to rise. Suddenly John’s authority hits a little too close to home.

In every situation we want to see ourselves as above the law. The law, we so often surmise was put there for other people. Not for me. Which is why when the policeman pulls us over and we hem and haw and blame him for our woes, trying to usurp his authority by calling his character into question. Our boss tells us what to do and we go off mumbling about not having time and how they don’t understand what we do for them and so forth; never mind that they’re the boss. Be honest, you chafe under authority. And the closer the authority is to telling you what you must and mustn’t do, the more direct the authority, the more you chafe under it and resist it. The closer the authority is over how you live your life, the more you rebel and question that authority. The closer the authority comes to calling you to repentance, the more you reject and question it.

Which is why the Pharisees rebelled against John, their pastor who was sent from God. He was telling them how to live and what they ought and ought not do according to the ways of the Lord. He was putting his boney finger in their face and saying “Repent” and “Thou shalt,” and “Thou shalt not.” And they rejected him the way Israel rejected Moses and the prophets.  

We are consumed with thoughts of power and authority and who has it and who doesn’t.  Not so we know to whom we ought to submit and or honor, but so we know whom to avoid and cut down so their authority is undermined. It’s in our nature, our inherited-from-Adam nature, to rebel against authority. And the bigger the authority, the bigger our rebellion. And, like the Pharisees who sent a convoy to John, our rebellion isn’t usually so direct as to be noticed. It consists in duplicity and subterfuge. We rebel by pretending we didn’t hear, or by pretending they’re not talking to us. We rebel by asking questions to put the one with authority on the defensive. We rebel by making those in authority took stupid or ignorant or conceited. Then we feel better about ignoring their God-given authority.

Authority has the power to tell us what to do. And because we’re sinners, that’s exactly what we don’t want. Authority has the right, even the duty to watch us. And that’s the real bur in our saddle. We wouldn’t care if our boss, our parents, our government, or our pastor had authority over us as long as they didn’t care to watch us. But authority that doesn’t watch is no authority at all. Rather, authority consists in watching those in their charge. So parents watch children, bosses watch employees, governments watch citizens, and pastors watch parishioners. Not to lord authority over them, but to guide them in the right paths and warn them when they begin to go astray. Authority is of God, not of man.

Repent. That is the sermon of St. John the Baptist. Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. There stands one among you whom you do know. He is Christ the Lord. He has authority over life and death; over heaven and hell; over all things seen and unseen. He has the keys to paradise in His body and blood. What He looses is loosed forever and what He binds is bound for all time and eternity. His is dominion and power over every living thing in heaven and on earth and under the earth.

And He stands among you not with the gavel of condemnation or judgment but with the Shepherd’s Staff of mercy and steadfast love to lead you in paths of righteousness that lead to eternal life. He stands among you and sets the prisoners free, freeing you from your sin and death, your wicked lusts and your perverse greed and your godless rebellion. He stands among you having fulfilled the Law on your behalf and recons to you His own obedience to the Father. He stands among you as the Prince of Peace and the King of Mercy, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The Lord is good to all and His mercy if over all that He has made. (Psalm 145:9)

+ In Nomine Iesu +