Are You My Messiah?
Who can forget the children's book Are You My Mother? The baby bird goes from cow, to dog, to ditch-digger asking forlornly, "Are you my mother?" Something similar is going on in our text. The crowds seek the Messiah. They've been looking for Him for centuries, but it's been 400 years since God had said anything more about Him. Then the Word of the Lord came to John, and people flocked to him. The question on everyone's heart is: "Are you my Messiah?" That's the question John wanted them to ask to show how they had wrongly answered it. He wants to do the same for us.
The Word of the Lord came to John, and first thing he declared was Abraham wasn't their Messiah. "I know you're family has been identified with Abraham for generations. You're charter members of your synagogue. Children of Abraham. Big deal. God can raise up children of Abraham out of those rocks over there." The crowd cringed, but John went on. "Do you really think a dead, outward holding to religion can save you? Do you think chanting the synagogue liturgy Sabbath after Sabbath gets you to heaven? Do you think mumbling your prayers with your lips while your heart is somewhere else is pleasing to God? No, I tell you. The ax is already placed next to fruitless people like you. Any second God is going to pick it up and start chopping."
That sort of preaching hits kind of close to your tree. You've got Lutheranism going on in your life, don't you? You think your Lutheranism is going to save you? You think being Lutheran as far back as dirt means you can't be lost? You're proud that you've been a Lutheran all of your life. Well wake up and smell the hellfire and brimstone! God can make Lutherans out of rocks. God could make rocks mindlessly, heartlessly chant the liturgy the way we do. God could fill our pews with statues if He merely wanted bodies in church. If you think your Lutheranism is your Messiah, think again. God has already placed His ax at the root of fruitless Lutheran trees. If He chopped down fruitless trees of Abraham that had stood for thousands of years, He won't spare your 500 year old Lutheran one.
The Abrahamites got the message. Abraham isn't their Messiah. They were crushed. They say repeatedly to John. "What should we do?" If Abraham's not our Messiah, who can be? "What are we to do to be saved," they asked? So John tells them. "If you have clothing and food, share with those who don't. If you're a tax collector, stop taxing more than you're commanded. If you're a soldier be content with the provisions you get; no more pillaging and plundering with the other troops to make a better living."
On the basis of these words, what do the people think? John is probably the Messiah! Do you see what their idea of the Messiah is? A new Moses, a new lawgiver. Someone who would tell them how to live in order to be saved. To them religion was a matter of doing, but since God had been silent for so long they didn't know what to do. Now God had broken His self-imposed silence. John had shown up telling them what to do, so he must be their Messiah.
This is our opinion of religion too. That's why we're drawn to sermons that tell us what or how to do. We're no different than Adam and Eve who thought the answer to their sin was to do something: make garments of fig leaves. Whoever can tell us definitely what to do must be our Messiah! But that's not why John preached the Law to them. Put yourselves in their shoes. John shows them there is no salvation in being physical descendants of Abraham. They respond by asking, "What more should we do?" Now do you honestly think John says, "You need to do this?"
What was supposed to happen then? Imagine you come to hear God's Word and I call you a bunch of snakes, and tell you God's wrath is about to break out against you for your outward, dead religion. You say to me, "What should I do?" And I say, "Every time you see someone with not enough clothes: share your extra. Every time you see someone hungry share your food. Whatever your job make sure you stay away from the sins that are popular in that line of work."
Have I given you what you need? You came looking for the Messiah and I point you to what you do. Does that help? Haven't I only added to the weight of things that you're not able to do? John telling them to share their food and clothes and to stop participating in the common sins of their professions is like me saying you can't be saved unless you give to every telephone charity, send money to every TV special for starving children, and always obey the speed limit and seat belt laws?
Have I bought you to the repentance that John really wanted to bring the crowd to? They repented from their Abrahamism, a religion based on what Abraham did, only to turn to a religion based on what they did. John tried to show them that salvation cannot be based on doing by piling up laws high and heavy, but the people still thought he was the Messiah.
Is that what you think? Christianity is a religion of doing right things? The Messiah is the one who tells you what to do to be saved? Think again. Think of the rich young man and the lawyer who thought Jesus was the one who could tell them what to do to be saved. Jesus gave them such impossible works to do that they choked. Would that they had choked to death; would that we would choke to death too because as Paul says the Law works on a person till it kills them, till they give up the foolish thought that they can keep the law good enough, repentantly enough, fruitfully enough to be saved.
If you have told a person who thinks he can be saved by doing all that the Law requires he do to be saved and he doesn't die, you can't do much more with him. John was faced with this situation. He told those who wished to be saved by doing what to do and they said, "Okay." They expected the Messiah to be a lawgiver; John spouted laws. He must be their Messiah! All John could do at that point was point them away from himself to Jesus. All he could do was show them that they have the wrong man.
But some of them were like you. Some had been choked by John's laws of doing. Some knew that sin is in the very fabric of their being that even while trying to change their behavior, they were sinning! Their Messiah can't be just someone who tells them what to do. He must be something different. And John assures them, and us, He is.
The Messiah is more powerful than John. John can only tell you what to do and not to. The Messiah has the power to change people. There is as much difference between John and the Messiah as between the Lord of the house and the lowest servant in the house who had the duty of untying the sandals of his Lord. "Don't be satisfied with me," says John. "I'm not your Messiah. Yes, I baptize with water but the One who comes after me is the source of Baptism itself. He pours out the Holy Spirit and fire."
John isn't contrasting his baptism with Jesus'. Just because you see the word "baptize" doesn't mean its talking about the sacrament of Baptism. John says as I pour water on you - the word baptize means "pour" water - the Messiah will pour the Holy Spirit and fire on you. When the sinless Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world, what happened? Sins were paid for; peace was made between God and Man, and the God-Man, Jesus, ascended into heaven to pour out the Holy Spirit. And on the Last Day Jesus will pour out the fires of judgment.
You don't need John for a Messiah. You need Jesus. He won the Holy Spirit for you by doing the law that you can't and by paying for all the laws you break. He then pours His Spirit on you to work the impossible: life in your dead body, forgiveness in your dark soul, and faith in your unbelieving heart. And once He has gathered into His barn every last grain of wheat He planted, grew, and harvested by the Spirit, Jesus will pour out fire to burn the chaff.
Do you feel the question that burned in some hearts after John finished? If you're not the Messiah where is He? John will tell them in later verses of chapter 1. He will point them to Jesus, the Son of a woman named Mary who had been born in scandalous circumstances. John will point them to a plain man trained by His father in carpentry. Peter and Andrew and others followed his pointing to Jesus. Many, probably most, of John's disciples did not.
We face a similar dilemma. Our Messiah isn't the Lutheranism that has been in our family for generations. Our Messiah isn't doing this or changing that in our behavior. Our Messiah cannot be a lawgiver who can only give us more guilt. Who then is our Messiah? Like John I could point you to a Carpenter from Nazareth standing on the banks of the Jordan, but go ahead and look. Jesus is no longer there.
I have to point you to something more ridiculous than a carpenter from Nazareth on Jordan's banks. I point you to Water, Words, Bread and Wine. When your sins are absolved it's Jesus voice speaking. When you're baptized it's Jesus' hand pouring the Water and the Spirit on you making you a new creation. When you eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus who else but Jesus Himself gives them to you?
John pointed to a plain looking Man and said, "There is your Messiah." I point you to plain sounding Words, and plain looking Water, Bread and Wine and say, "There is where your Messiah meets you." Neither John nor I point to what you do. The Law commanding you to repent and do is to function like the ditch digger in Are You My Mother?. It is to dump you safely in the nest, not of your mother, but of your Messiah. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Third Sunday in Advent (20091213); Luke 3: 7-18