In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You can’t have Advent without angels, right? Well, be careful what you ask for. Because we have an angel today, but he’s not the sort of angel you might expect, and maybe not the angel that you want. This angel does come from God; he does come to speak God’s word. But he doesn’t have wings or wear a white robe. This angel eats locusts and wild honey; he wears camel’s skin clothes and a leather belt he probably made himself. He preaches in the wilderness.
I know the English doesn’t say “angel,” but the English word “messenger” is just a translation of angellos, from which we get the word “angel.” John is definitely an angel, a messenger from God. Go back to Malachi 3, where God says that He will send a messenger before Him, to prepare “My way,” God’s way. Or Isaiah 40, where He speaks of a voice crying, “In the wilderness prepare a way for the Lord, and make His paths straight. Or go to Exodus 23, where God tells the people, “I am sending an angel before your face, to guard you along the way, to bring you to the place that I have prepared for you. Pay close attention to him” (23:20-21). But John is sort of the reverse of that angel in Exodus 23. John doesn’t bring people from the wilderness across the Jordan River and into the Land of Promise. He brings them from Israel, the Land of Promise, across the Jordan River and into the wilderness. Into the place of their rebellion, and their unbelief, and their complaining against God, because He didn’t do the things they thought He should do. He brings them into the wilderness and what does he preach? All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades. Here today, gone tomorrow. Repent! John says. You are not as strong, not as good, not as in control, not as self-sufficient as you think you are. Try to control what happens to you. Try to fix your life when it goes wrong. With the best of intentions, try to make things better again. Why doesn’t it work? Why does it seem like every choice just makes things worse? Repent. All flesh is grass, and winter always comes.
This is why John preaches his repentance-baptism. This is why he is in the wilderness. The people come out to be baptized by John, confessing their sins. And then John directs them away from him to the one who comes after him. See, this is only the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. A mightier one is coming, a stronger one is coming. John’s words, John’s baptism, it all points to the one who is coming. One who is so much greater than John that John isn’t even worthy to bend down and untie the strap of His sandal. Where He walks is holy ground. John has come to prepare the way for God Himself in the flesh. John does his repentance-baptism, but the one who is coming will do a Holy Spirit baptism. John’s preaching is the beginning, but it’s not the end. Thank God! And you know where this gospel ends. In fact, the next time that Jesus is called the Son of God in the Gospel of Mark is when He is hanging dead on the cross. The Roman centurion says, “Surely this was the Son of God.” What a strange time and place to call Him the Son of God, when He’s dead. But the women come to the tomb on the first day of the week, and there’s a young man in a white robe (another angel, another messenger), and he says that Jesus of Nazareth is not there in the tomb, because He’s risen from the dead. But the women don’t get to see the risen Jesus in the Gospel of Mark; they just go away amazed and afraid.
But when the word of the angel John is fulfilled, when Jesus finally baptizes with the Holy Spirit after His resurrection and ascension, what happens? It’s really not too different from what John does. The people are baptized with the Holy Spirit, Peter preaches, and the people are cut to the heart, confessing their sinful inability, and what does Peter say? Almost exactly what John says: “Repent, be baptized, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). So it was at the beginning, and so it is until the end. The only thing that changes between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism is that Jesus dies and rises from the dead. That’s it.
And so it is today. Today, the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for Aspen. Today it begins, with baptism, repentance, and faith. Today it begins for her as it did for each of us. Today the comfort is preached to confessing sinners. Comfort, comfort people of God. Your warfare is ended; your iniquities have been pardoned; you have received double for all your sins. This is the beginning, but it’s not yet the end. We still wander in the wilderness, all flesh is still grass; its beauty is still like the flower of the field, here today, gone tomorrow. The grass withers, the flower fades—but the Word of our God stands forever. It remains, no matter what. And according to that Word, according to His promise, we are waiting for a new heavens and a new earth, in which—finally—righteousness dwells. We wait in holiness and we hasten, we long for, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” knowing that we will be found without spot and blemish because He has washed us with water and the Word. He has begun His work in the preaching of a repentance-baptism for the forgiveness of sins, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and He will finish what He started on the Day of the Lord, when He comes with all His angels to gather up those who belong to Him.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/6/14