Monday, December 15, 2008

Denial as Confession

The Third Sunday in Advent
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Bror Erickson

And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny but confessed, I am not the Christ.”

Denial as confession, it wasn’t a denial but a confession. This phrase has always intrigued me a bit. He did not deny but confessed, I am not the Christ. One denies the truth or confesses the truth. John the Baptizer was a strange fellow, but he confessed the truth. Many were tempted to think that maybe he was the Christ. His disciples seemed to have been a thick headed group of people. Some it seems were convinced that he must be the messiah, the Christ. Many thought he might be. He embodied the concept of a religious man, strict, legalistic, and ascetic. Jesus said of him that of those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. (Matthew 11:11). He also said of him “
[33] For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' [34] The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Luke 7:33-34 (ESV)

It is common to our psyche to think of the one who takes no pleasure in the world as being the religious man. Jesus it seems knew how to enjoy life, John the Baptist it seems despised life. He didn’t drink, he ate very little. He preached the law in such a way as to almost suck any joy out of life. He wasn’t married, what woman could live with a man like that? But for man there is nothing more pleasurable than a good woman. God gave women to man that man might find enjoyment in them, as helpmeets. Of course, women like men are given to sin, and can often be as much of a source of trouble for man and affliction, as man can be for women. But we tend to think of the religious man as one who does not enjoy the company of women, monks and catholic priests. And the religious woman as a nun who does not enjoy the company of a man. We think of the religious person as one who makes himself poor, so that others might be rich. We think of the religious man as being one who goes above and beyond what is “normal.” In short we think of the religious man in terms of the law.
John was the epitome of this religious man. People considered him holy, and righteous for his ascetic lifestyle, his strict self denying way of life. His disciples thought him to be the messiah, no matter how many times he confessed that he wasn’t. They could not be shaken. They followed him around, did what he asked, were baptized by him, and baptized others with his baptism. Perhaps they saw in him one who could teach them to live the holy life, as he lived the holy life. One who could teach them to be christs, teach them to earn their right to be considered holy as he was holy. Even though he keeps saying he is only there to prepare the way, that one will come after, one is already there for whom he is unworthy to unstrap his sandal. Unworthy to perform the deeds of the lowliest slave in the house, and wash the man’s feet. As righteous a man as John was he was unworthy to wash Christ’s feet. Yet his disciples stayed by him. They wouldn’t take the cue. “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” A couple go, and follow the lamb, but the others stay.
Reminds me of seminary. My first quarter I was assigned most of my classes. I had Confessions with a world famous prof. Coveted by Lutheran Seminaries around the world, a man I was blessed to study under, Dr. David Scaer. My dad had studied under him. The man knew me straightway and remarked that he might be looking at a ghost. But first class the Dr. Scaer, aptly named and scarce with compliments, told us of a coming prof. who was the smartest man he had ever met himself included. A prof. He personally flew over to Germany to get, a prof. He had to convince to come over to the states. And who reluctantly left his parish to teach. I had also heard of this man elsewhere from people I knew in Germany. Well after that class, I went and made sure I took the great majority of my systematic classes from him. I think I might have been the first Zieglerite. Ziegler hasn’t been around long enough to be as famous as Scaer is. Neither does he have quite the brash personality to carry the fame. But I am glad to have studied under him. Many of my friends stayed with Scaer. They didn’t take the cue. Though, they were hardly impoverished for staying with Scaer. But they didn’t study under the smartest man Scaer ever met either. They didn’t believe him I suppose.
It is some wise the same with John the Baptizer, and Jesus. People know John the Baptist, they know the law. They half reluctantly enjoy life, thinking it is a sin to do so, but helpless not to. People often desire to be more like John the Baptist, if they only could. They believe it is a weakness that they don’t consign themselves to the ascetic life. There are atheists I know who resent the religious man because they cannot be like him, or so they think. Truth be told, it isn’t too hard to be a hypocrite as legalists are. Not saying that John the Baptist was a hypocrite. He was too humble for that. He knew his place. He knew as strict of a life as he lived it still did not make him worthy to wash the feet of Christ, who came eating and drinking, and often enjoying life. People know the law. They listen to it. It nags at them. They know the law they are comfortable with it. John embodied the law, and people listened to him when he spoke it. But when he pointed to the gospel their ears fell deaf.
John had a cult following. We hear of him even in acts chapter 19! John had been dead for years and the people still adhered to him, and did not know of Christ and the Holy Spirit. They had yet to hear the Gospel that he proclaimed. Even today when people talk of Baptism they get Christian baptism confused with what John was doing. They make their kids wait to make that kind of commitment, rather than letting them hear the Holy Spirit speak the Gospel of promised salvation in those waters as infants. They make baptism into law. Baptism becomes the commitment of the believer, who shows his commitment by being baptized as a promise to keep the law. They hear the gospel but they don’t listen to it. They refuse to be comforted by it. They refuse to be forgiven by it. John confesses not to be the Christ, and they hear it as a denial. They hear the word of God say the law offers no salvation and they think they will lose heaven if they eat or drink. The gospel may forgive sins, but are not works also necessary for salvation? They cannot see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the gospel it does not make sense.
But John confesses he is not the Christ. He doesn’t deny, he confesses. In denying himself, in denying that he is the way, in denying that the law he preached is enough, he confesses Christ, he confesses the truth, he confessed the gospel. If there is salvation it must come from one mightier and greater than me, John says. And he points to Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who forgives sins, the one who stands among you now, even now, baptizing not with water but with the Holy Spirit, sanctifying you with the forgiveness of sins, and bidding you to eat and drink with him, his body given for you, his blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. John points to Jesus, because he is the Christ who forgives sins, and forgives you. John points to Christ because he is the source of true Holiness and salvation, who takes from you guilt and replaces it with joy. He points to Christ because he is the one anointed by the Spirit of the Lord God, who replaces the oil of mourning, with the oil of gladness, who comforts the people with forgiveness and does not extinguish the bruised wick. In Christ the holy man does not despise life, but enjoys the gift God has given him, life itself, and the daily bread needed to sustain it, yes the things of this world, bread and wine, and the wife whom you love. (Ecclesiastes 9)
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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