“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’ as said the prophet Esaias.”
John the Baptist, the Savior’s forerunner or “advance-man,” as we would call such a person today, had been “preaching in the wilderness of Judea” and in “all the region round about Jordan,” St. Matthew tells us (chapter 3), and had gained a great following among the people. His message was one of urgency as he preached “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” It wasn’t an easy message to hear; it was not the smooth-talking “pitch” that so many people look for today in preachers; but the holy evangelists tell us that people went out unto him in droves “and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1) — all, that is, except the leaders of the Jews, whose skepticism became evident in the investigation they launched against John. Some thought he just might be the Messiah! Others, realizing the potential political value of hanging onto John’s “coattails,” tried to curry favor with him and to flatter him. “And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who art thou?’” (John 1:19). The “big shots” didn’t come themselves; they didn’t want to identify themselves with John as of yet. Instead they sent “stooges” to “scope out” this popular prophet and to see what he was all about.
Here John the Baptist had the “ideal chance” to make a name for himself. But he forthrightly withstood any and all efforts to get him to accept personal acclaim and honor. “And he confessed, and denied not, but confessed: ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Art thou Elias [Elijah risen from the dead perhaps]??’ And he saith, ‘I am not.’ ‘Art thou that Prophet [like unto Moses, whom the Lord promised to raise up among His people]?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ Then said they unto him, ‘Who art thou, that we may give an answer to them that sent us? What sayest thou of thyself?’” (John 1:20–22).
The Jews gave John plenty of opportunity to “toot his own horn.” And “high profile” belly-servers today would have gotten plenty of mileage out of it too! For they want to be known; they look for name recognition; they cultivate a public image; they plaster their picture everywhere —on every flier, poster, and advertisement for their church or “ministry,” as they like to call their program, so that people recognize their face when they see it. Unlike St. Paul, who said, “We preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus, the Lord” (II Corinthians 4:5a), they preach themselves and hire booking agents to schedule “personal appearances.” Not so John, however; and not so any faithful Christian pastor who desires humbly to serve his Lord Jesus Christ and the cause of His precious truth!! “Christian” preachers in the proper sense of the term confess with the Psalmist: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy Name give glory, for Thy mercy, and for Thy truth’s sake!” (115:1).
And when John was pressed to say something about himself, he responded with the words of the Prophet Isaiah (40:3) concerning the Messiah’s forerunner: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as said the Prophet Esaias” (our title-text). Isaiah had prophesied of John that he would be a preacher of repentance —a forthright preacher of the Law in all its fierceness to convict impenitent sinners, to humble the arrogant, to clear “offenses” or stumblingblocks from the roadway of the heavenly King with the “bulldozer” of God’s truth, to bring the people to their knees in humble contrition (or sorrow) for their sins, and thus to prepare their hearts to receive the comfort of the Gospel. —Where indeed do we find such preaching today? It’s so rare that it’s practically extinct!! Belly-servers and the “church-growth” people who are interested in playing the “numbers game” on their growing databases will tell you straight out: “Such preaching drives people away from the church! It’s counter-productive! People don’t want a guilt-trip laid on them when they come to church; they want to feel good about themselves! That’s why even Jesus’ own steps of Christian admonition [Matthew 18:15–17] have such a poor record of ‘gaining’ people!! Can’t you see that??” —Apparently john didn’t “see it” that way! Neither did Jesus! Neither did Paul and the other apostles! And neither do we “see it” that way, when God says to every Christian pastor, Ezekiel 33: “…If thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand!” (v. 8).
But John’s message (and the message of all faithful Christian preachers) dare not be confined to the threats of the Law and the proclamation of God’s wrath against all impenitent and ungodly men. For to those who are humbly and sincerely contrite — brokenhearted over their sins (Psalm 34:18), disavowing their own merits as having any value in the sight of God for salvation (Psalm 143:2; Romans 3:20), begging God for even the crumbs of His mercy (Matthew 15:27) — the Gospel in all of its sweetness must be preached for their comfort and assurance; yea, it must predominate, lest penitent sinners be driven to despair, left in hopelessness, and plunged into hell by unevangelical preaching!
Thus, John the Baptist spoke not only of his mission to preach the Law to the impenitent, but his mission to preach the Gospel to brokenhearted and dejected, penitent sinners; for his citation of Isaiah’s prophecy was well-known to the Jews —the 40th chapter which begins: “Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord! Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!’ Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it!” (vv. 1–5). —That’s the Christmas Gospel which the angels [in Hebrew and Greek = “messengers”] of God proclaimed: “Fear not! For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people! For unto you is born…a Savior, Christ, the Lord! … Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!” (Luke 2:10–11, 14).
That glorious “good news” of the Gospel has real value, of course, only to hearts prepared to receive it by the preaching of the Law — thirsty hearts longing for the Water of Life, hungry hearts yearning for the Bread of Life, dying hearts craving the Resurrection and the Life! To the impenitent, those who persist in wickedness and “continue in sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1b), the grace of God means nothing; and the proclamation of the Gospel falls on deaf ears! Therefore it is wrong to comfort the impenitent with its sweetness! But from a humble, contrite sinner, whose hardness of heart has been hammered to pieces by the Law (Jeremiah 23:29), the precious assurance of forgiveness, life and salvation dare never be withheld; for the Lord doesn’t want to break off the “bruised reed,” the plant whose stem has been bent and kinked —He wants to splint it, bind it up and heal it! He doesn’t want to extinguish the spark on a still but barely glowing wick —He wants to restore its flame to new brightness with the Oil of the Gospel (Isaiah 42:3)! And so John the Baptist pointed his penitent hearers to Him “who [was] preferred before [him], whose shoe’s latchet [he was] not worthy to unloose” (John 1:27), identifying Jesus the very next day and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, ‘After me cometh a man which is preferred before me, for He was before me.’” (vv. 29–30).
But the exemplary confession of the Savior’s forerunner is not only the prototype of all public Christian preaching; it is also the model for all personal Christian testimony! Every true Christian confesses to the Lord with Jacob of old: “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which Thou hast showed unto Thy servant!” (Genesis 32:10). And that same humility of spirit characterizes the testimony he gives to others. When asked, as was John the Baptist, “What sayest thou of thyself?” how better to answer than with the Apostle Paul, who said that he was “chief of sinners,” with the Centurion of Capernaum, who said that he was not worthy that Jesus should come under his roof, with the woman of Canaan, who freely admitted that she was no better than a dog in Jesus’ sight and yet hungry for the crumbs of mercy that fall from the master’s table! For of ourselves we are but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27; Psalm 103:14) and totally unworthy of the Lord’s grace and mercy toward us (Matthew 8:8; etc.). And even as regenerate children of God by faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26), we confess with Isaiah regarding even our best works of sanctification as Christians: “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (64:6a), and in the words of the Lord Jesus regarding the best efforts of His disciples: “Say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done that which was our duty to do’” (Luke 17:10).
Moreover, as was John the Baptist in his public proclamation of God’s Law for the conviction of sinners and for their contrition, we must be ready at all times to bring to the erring and to manifest, impenitent sinners the admonition of God’s Law in all its fierceness, lest they imagine their sins to be of no great consequence and their result no great matter! For their very souls are in imminent jeopardy of damnation, the Bible tells us; and it’s our job in our day-to-day relationships with people, just as it is your Pastor’s in his public office, to warn the wicked of God’s wrath against sin and to urge them to repent quickly before it is too late and their time of grace is past! (Cf. Jesus’ mournful words over Jerusalem, Luke 19:42). This will not make us “popular” with those who brush off our admonition, who counter-accuse us, and who malign our good intentions toward them; but it is our Christian duty, according to our Savior’s own specific instructions in Matthew 18:15-17 and in many other passages of God’s Holy Word (cf. James 5:19–20), to endeavor to gain those who have erred and gone astray.
Then too, lest we convict a manifest sinner with the Law of God and see him brought to sincere and humble contrition, but then leave him to twist on the executioner’s rope in despair, let us be well-versed in the comforting passages of the Gospel, whereby we can bring needed and immediate assurance of forgiveness to a penitent sinner, with, if nothing else, the soothing words of Jesus Himself to the man sick of the palsy: “Son [Daughter], be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee!” (Matthew 9:2) or, according to the exemplary confession of John the Baptist six verses following our title-text: “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), or with Martin Luther in the beloved verse of his Christmas hymn:
This is the Christ, our God and Lord,
who in all need shall aid afford.
He will Himself your Savior be,
From all your sins to set you free!
Christmas is indeed one of the happiest times of the year for us Christians, and for good reason! But let us not permit these precious days to go by —with all the opportunities we have in our visits with friends, relatives and co-workers— without following the exemplary confession of John the Baptist and putting it into bold and yet humble practice, telling others why Christmas is such a happy time, why we so desperately need a Savior, why we could never save ourselves, who Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, really IS, what He accomplished in our place to satisfy God’s justice and redeem us, what God for Jesus’ sake declared for all the world in view of Christ’s vicarious atonement, and how we and all penitent sinners receive the blessings of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation by faith in this dear Savior of ours! Make up for the ofttimes empty messages of off-the-shelf Christmas cards with an added message of your own! It may well be the best Christmas gift a friend or neighbor, even a relative, will ever receive! And may God grant for Jesus’ sake that they both hear and heed your confession to their own great Christmas joy, both now and in eternity!
— D. T. M.