12-24-23 Rorate Coeli

Bible Text: John 1:19-28 | Preacher: Pastor Andrew Richard

There are two views of the Christian life. According to the first, the importance of Jesus decreases in the Christian’s life over time, and according to the second, the importance of Jesus increases in the Christian’s life over time. Now the idea of Jesus decreasing should sound strange to you, but think of why such a view appeals to human nature. Jesus offers us the forgiveness of sins, which supports us like a crutch and heals us like a medicine. Yet a crutch and medicine are constant reminders that we are not well. Is it a credit to Jesus that I continue to lean on Him like a weakling and partake of Him like someone with a terminal disease? Would it not rather be of more credit to Him if I could take a few steps on my own and need the medicine less? Am I not presuming on the blood of Christ by needing to hear about the forgiveness of sins constantly? Isn’t it time I move past that and instead turn my attention to how I should live the Christian life?

This is the attitude toward Jesus that is prevalent in all too many Christian congregations. People regard Jesus like some sort of atonement tollbooth. “He’s the only reason on I’m the right road, but He’s 150 miles behind in the rearview, and growing more distant by the minute.” You lose sight of Jesus―the real Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world Jesus―you lose sight of Him and very quickly the Christian life becomes about something other than Jesus. Sometimes it still sounds Christian, like when a congregation focuses on evangelism as if it’s the sole purpose of the Christian life. “Jesus wants you to spread the Gospel.” But that’s simply to look at other people’s need for the forgiveness of sins and not my own. Sometimes the emphasis sounds slightly less Christian, like when a congregation focuses on social ministry. “Jesus cared for the poor and crippled and blind and lame, and that’s what it’s all about.” But that’s to pretend that mankind’s problem is something other than sin and the impending wrath of God. And sometimes the emphasis is clearly anti-Christian, like when a congregation focuses on approving the world’s sins. “Jesus accepted people as they are, and we do too.” But that’s to ignore the fact that Jesus called a sin a sin and called people to repentance.

Jesus must increase in the Christian life. He is everything to us. He Himself makes this clear when He says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned” (Jn. 15:5-6). It is no insult to Christ if I lean on Him constantly and partake of Him constantly. Jesus “came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). There’s no offense to Christ there, but only offense to our sinful pride that doesn’t want to admit that it needs the forgiveness of sins. But get down, pride! Closing your eyes and plugging your ears won’t change the fact that you’re a sinner and it won’t save you from the wrath of God. I am a weakling, but Jesus is my strength. My case is terminal and will end in death, but Jesus is my resurrection. This is the hope of each one of us. Jesus is your strength. Jesus is your life. Jesus is your everything, and you say with the Apostle Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21).

Now understand, this is not to presume on the grace of Christ. We don’t use the blood of our Lord as an excuse to sin. We sing, “How could I refuse to shun / Ev’ry sinful pleasure / Since for me God’s only Son / Suffered without measure?” By Baptism the new man is gaining strength and the old man is daily being put to death. This does mean that sin decreases over time. At the same time, as we deepen in our knowledge of God’s Word, we become more keenly aware of our sins. We must always pray with David in Psalm 19, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults” (Ps. 19:12). Yet God makes what is secret known to us. Certainly at some point in life, probably multiple times in life, you’ve had the horrifying realization (and every Christian has): “That was a sin! And I didn’t even think about it! How many times have I done it? Lord, have mercy!” By His Word, Jesus is constantly giving us new insight both into Him and into ourselves and our own nature. Sin may be decreasing, yet our awareness of our sins only increases, and thus the cross of Christ only becomes more and more dear to us. Jesus never becomes less important to the Christian life, but only and ever more important.

John the Baptist put this best when He said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). Those words summarize this Sunday of the Church Year and summarize the entire sermon: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” If you’d like to see what these words look like in the life of the Christian, simply look at John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. “Who are you?” the priests and Levites ask. We learn in Luke 3 that “all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not” (Lk. 3:15). So John answers, “I am not the Christ.” When they press him to identify himself, he will only do so according to the Word of God. He quotes the prophecy from Isaiah 40 that speaks of him: “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (Jn. 1:23). John points to Jesus and says, “It is He who, coming after me, if preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose” (Jn. 1:27). Even though Jesus says, “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11), John will not speak highly of himself, but will only glorify Jesus. “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Who are you? The world asks that question, the devil asks that question, our own hearts ask that question: Who are you? And we do well to answer like John. First, you must say, “I am not the Christ. I am not the Christ. The Christ is named Jesus, because He saves His people from their sins. I cannot save myself from the least sin. I can only commit them and heap them up and beg the Christ to forgive them. I cannot make one hair of my head white or black, or add an hour to my life or a cubit to my height, let alone determine my own future. I can only entrust myself to the Christ who holds me in the palm of His hand and who governs my life according to His gracious will. I cannot defeat the devil. I can only look to the Christ, my Conqueror, who has overcome every temptation of the devil and crushed that Serpent’s head. I cannot deliver myself from death. I can only hold fast to the Christ, who died and has risen and holds the keys to Death and Hades. I am not the Christ, but I am secure because I know who is.”

And when you’re pressed further with the question, “Who are you?” then, like John, you identify yourself according to the Word of God, “Who am I? I am a child of God, as it is written, ‘Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!’ (1 Jn. 3:1). I am redeemed, and I am the Lord’s, as He says, ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine’ (Is. 43:1). That’s who I am.” The pastor and hymnwriter Erdmann Neumeister had a good answer to the question, “Who are you?” In a volume of his sermons, published in 1719, he has a lengthy sermon on Baptism for this Sunday of the Church year. And immediately following the sermon is a hymn that he wrote for this Sunday, flowing out of his sermon, which we know as “God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It.” Who are you? “God’s own child, I gladly say it: / I am baptized into Christ! He, because I could not pay it, / Gave my full redemption price.” “I am baptized into Christ; / I’m a child of paradise” (LSB 594:1, 5). That’s who I am. I am a baptized child of God, redeemed by Jesus.

And thus, like John, we identify ourselves only in a way that points to Jesus and says, “Life is all about Him. I am nothing of myself, but by the grace of God I am what I am (1 Cor. 15:10). Jesus is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose (Jn. 1:27).” That’s how John ends the conversation, and that is the last word for us as well. Jesus is great. We are not worthy of Him. He must increase, but I must decrease.

This is a call to get over yourself. The world might gather around you and offer you all its vainglory and try to get you feeling mighty good about yourself. But in the end, as the world turned on John so it turns on you. It approaches you only to ensnare and tempt and bring accusations. So get over yourself. World, you don’t want me. I’m nothing, and you know it, or you should know it, so don’t flatter. You want Jesus. He sees your heart and He protects me from all evil, and He would give you true glory.

The devil might come and entice, saying, “Wouldn’t this sin be pleasant and agreeable to you? What’s the point of a temper if not the thrill of losing it? What’s the point of the appetites if not the satisfaction of indulging them. Food for the stomach and the stomach for food.” And when the devil so entices, you get over yourself. Your sins are not more delightful than the commandments of God. No mortal is the source of pleasure or beauty. Man can only make cheap knockoffs of real delight, and real delight is the Lord’s. Real delight is the pleasure of having a good conscience for the sake of Christ. Real delight is knowing that the Holy Spirit is working in you to bring forth good works. A cheap thrill that you’ll regret later is nothing compared to life in Christ. Get over yourself, and the devil can get over himself too.

Satan might come and accuse, saying, “Look what you’ve done now. That was a sin. You knew it was a sin. You’re a law-breaker; you broke the Law of God. That’s no light matter, breaking the Law of God. Breaking God’s Law gets you hell. You’re going to hell.” And when Satan accuses, you get over yourself. You say, “Yes, I sinned, and I take sin seriously. But Jesus shed His blood to wipe out my sins. Shall I then fear hell? Is my sin greater than God’s blood? No, He must increase, but I must decrease. My sin is nothing, and His cross is everything. My sin is a weighty matter with me, but Jesus’ atonement is weightier than all sin put together. He is the Lamb of God who takes away not merely one sin, nor only my sins, but the sin of the whole world, so great is He and so light are my heavy sins to Him.” Yes, get over yourself, and look to Jesus, and your conscience will have rest.

God might send you cross and trial, and say, “You shall bear this for a time.” And when your flesh cringes and whines and wants to say, “No, that’s not good for me,” then you get over yourself. Could a weak, confused, blindfolded mortal know more about what he needs than the almighty, all-knowing, eternal God? Would your loving Father in heaven, who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, ever do you any harm? In the frailty of our minds we can only imagine good coming from good, but we need to get over ourselves, because God certainly isn’t that limited. He can make good come from good, and good come from evil, and good come from the everyday, and good come from the extraordinary, and good come from heaven, and good come from hell, and good come from angels, and good come from devils, and good come from sinful man. For it says in Romans 8, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Your cross and trial is not greater than God. It has not taken Him by surprise, as if He needs you to figure out how to make everything ok. Your cross and trial are from Him, as surely as Jesus’ cross and trial were from His loving Father in heaven. What you endure has not escaped His notice. He is indeed the one who appoints a cross for you, because He loves you.

Get over yourself. It’s such a comforting doctrine. I tell it to myself regularly, and often smile and feel relief from it. Jesus must increase, but I must decrease. And what a fine teaching to take up on the morning of Christmas Eve. Tonight we celebrate that a baby was born into the world and that baby is God. The infant Jesus has power in His little finger to raise the dead and to drive out demons. In His pinky flows the blood of God which atones for the sin of the world. No temptation stands a chance against Him, no sin is too much for Him to forgive, no cross is beyond His reach, no stone is too great for Him to roll away. But all is His to command. Before Him all must bow. In Jesus we see that the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. And so we get over ourselves and cast ourselves on Him, for He must increase, and we must decrease. Amen.

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