Sermon audio here.
Before next Sunday, we will once again celebrate that most significant of events in human history, the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the wonderful proclamation that for your sake, God came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made Man.
This would be like, as Pastor Askins put it so strikingly on Thursday, a potter making himself into clay. But not just any clay—a clay vessel that was designed for the very purpose of crushing, so that the Shattered One might put the broken pieces of your and my life back together. Thanks be to God!
Today’s Holy Gospel sets before us the means by which Christ prepares you to receive Him, and we see a clear example of that means in St. John the Forerunner. John isn’t the means by which we are prepared for Christ, but that means was at the heart of his identity.
The people were very interested in who John was. They wanted to know all about him. But John knew he had precious little time, and he didn’t want to waste it talking about himself.
So he answers all of their questions as briefly as possible, basically telling them “no” three times without any elaboration. When they asked him if he was Elijah, you would’ve expected him to say yes. Our Lord Himself says John is the Elijah who is to come. But oddly, John denies even this.
Was John lying? The people surely had false expectations of Elijah, even as they had false expectations of Christ, and John certainly wouldn’t have wanted to feed those. But more importantly, John had no time or interest in talking about himself. He needed to get the attention off of himself and onto Christ, and the quickest way to do that was to simply tell them “no.” So he does, and then he gets right to the heart of his message:
“I am not the Christ. He is the one you need. But in order to know him, you need to hear me out. I’m preparing the way for Him. If you don’t listen to my preaching, you will not find Him.”[i]
Preaching, dear saints, is the means by which Christ prepares you to receive Him. St. John came to prepare the way for Christ, and he did it by preaching. A lot of people today don’t think they need preaching, but if you learn anything from John, it’s that preaching is the necessary prerequisite to receiving Christ. If it isn’t, then John’s existence is meaningless and today’s Holy Gospel is a lie.
You heard both John and Isaiah say it. He was the heralded forerunner whose job it was to make straight the way of the Lord. You know the imagery Isaiah uses well, but listen to it again. And as you do, keep in mind that Isaiah is describing the human heart:
“In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low. The uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain,” (Isaiah 40:3–4).
Isaiah first describes the heart as a wilderness. Biblically speaking, the wilderness isn’t a good place. Isaiah describes it as a deserted and forsaken habitation (Isa. 27:10). This is a picture of your heart, which has deserted Christ and forsaken His Word. Daily you choose for yourself what’s right and wrong and live for your own pleasure rather than His. Make straight what long was crooked. Repent.
Isaiah goes on describes the heart as a desert, a place where people go to die. Think of Death Valley, which got its name when a group of pioneers got lost there in the winter of 1849 & 50. Even though only one died there (as far as we know), they all assumed this valley would be their grave.[ii]
This corresponds to Isaiah & John’s description of your heart as a valley, a low area of land between mountains. If God calls you to live on His Holy Mountain in the Light of His Word, instead you’ve chosen to hide in the valleys and get lost in that which brings death.
At the same time, the heart is filled with pride that is taller than any mountain. Repent. God will level your pride—every mountain and hill will be made low—and if He doesn’t do it now through the call to repentance, He will do it on the Last Day by reducing you to stubble. Make no mistake: the uneven ground shall become level and the and rough places a plain.
The preaching of repentance is the means by which Christ prepares you for His coming. It’s what He did through John and it’s what He still does today. Every week, the most significant thing that happens in your life is hearing the call to repentance and receiving the testimony about Christ. What you hear is neither John nor the pastor, but the very voice of Christ Himself. The fact that God continues to speak to you today through preaching and the Word is no less a miracle than the Incarnation.
To not let Christ prepare you to receive Him through preaching would be like a farmer planning his crops in field full of weeds. Those of you who’ve had colonoscopies know the importance of preparing for the exam. In order to get the correct results, your stomach has to be completely empty. In addition to avoiding solid foods, the doctor makes you drink that gallon of horrible tasting liquid laxative. That’s the means by which you prepare for the exam.
That’s sort of how the call to repentance works. It’s not pleasant. The call to repentance is like a gallon of bitter laxative that goes in through your ears, clears out the refuse from your heart, and prepares you to receive the Lord.
It’s hard enough to come to the altar and receive the Sacrament in the right frame of mind even after preaching. Could you imagine what frame of mind you’d be in at the altar if the Divine Service began with the Sacrament? Preaching prepares the way of the Lord. This is why you hear the sermon before receiving Christ’s Body and Blood.
And through this miraculous gift, the Body and Blood of Christ in, with, and under the bread and the wine, Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled:
“The wilderness and dry land [of the heart] shall be glad…waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert,” (Isaiah 35).
The same Christ who became Incarnate in human flesh—the same Christ who prepares you to receive Him through preaching and His Word—this same Christ makes your crooked heart straight by His own Body and Blood.
This is the great testimony of Christ’s love to you. That the life which He laid down for you on the cross is given to you at His altar. You don’t need to wait until Thursday to celebrate the Incarnation of your Lord, dear saints. He is coming quickly, and indeed, He is here.
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] This is how Luther summarizes the message of St. John in his 1532 sermon for Rorate Coeli.