4th in Advent

O Lord, raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, though our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through the satisfaction of thy Son our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

Epistle Philippians 4:4-7
Gospel S. John 1:19-28

The Collect is a prayer for grace and mercy, that we might be strengthened to run the Christian race. The obstacles in the way are all ours, in sin and wickedness. Only grace can remove them, and enable us to finish the race.

The Epistle begins with an apostolic call to continual rejoicing. This may seem to be either an impossible call, or one that cannot mean what is appears to say. After all, who does truly rejoice in all circumstances? Yet the prophet Habakkuk supplies us with a very real and very personal example of how a believer does indeed rejoice in the Lord always. He said, “When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble: when he cometh up unto the people, he will invade them with his troops. Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab 3:16-18). The prophet had been granted a vision of the coming destruction at the hand of the Babylonians, in which Judah would be made to suffer terribly. He has also been told that Babylon herself will be punished because of her sin in the way in which she responded to God calling her as his instrument of judgement. The result for him is a physical one; he feels the shock of it, and trembles and shakes at the thought of what is coming. Yet his response is to praise God! This is not praise because there is nothing else, but praise because he sees in all this the hand of God to save his people! Those who would rejoice always must then be those who discern God’s purposes in all things.

There are certain marks of a believer who truly rejoices. The first is that his “moderation” or gentleness is known to others. Paul expresses this in the passive voice, “let”, rather than the active, “make”. For what gentleness is it that must force itself on the attention of any? True gentleness is apparent by itself. Paul provides a strong motive for showing “moderation”, for “The Lord is at hand”. This could mean that our Lord Jesus is ever observing all we think and do, or it could mean that his return is imminent; both can go together. Either way, we are motivated in our behaviour by our hope in the Lord Jesus Christ.

A mark of true rejoicing is that we are without anxiety. This is not because we have no imagination, or because we manage not to live in the real world. Rather, it is because anxiety drives us to prayer, and prayer leaves us at peace, because we cast our burden on the Lord who alone can bear it. Paul speaks of “Prayer and supplication with thanksgiving”. Our prayers are not simply petitions, but must include praise and thanksgiving, as evidences both of our confidence that our heavenly Father will answer prayer, and as acknowledgement that he had already. Thus our thanksgiving is built upon a sure and certain foundation.

Those who know such joy, whose gentleness is known, whose prayers and praises come before God frequently, shall know the peace of God, such peace as passes all understanding. There is no explanation that the world can give of the contentment and joy of Christian men and women, and even we ourselves may at times struggle to explain it. But we know the cause of it, that God for Jesus’ sake is keeping us, until the day of Christ’s appearing, for “the Lord is at hand”.

The Gospel appears at first sight to have no obvious connection with the Epistle. It is the record of a deputation of religious masters, sent from Judea, to question John the Baptist. His immediate answer, “I am not the Christ”, showed that he knew what they were wondering; had Messiah come? This was a matter of great interest to the Jews, because the appearance of Messiah was the sign of deliverance for which they had waited so long. That they went on to ask who he might be, suggesting Elijah or “that prophet” (Deut 18:15), implied that they recognised something unique in John’s ministry. Here was one who, if not the Messiah, was preparing the nation for Messiah.

The continued questions allowed John’s moderation to be seen by these priests and Levites, in that he answered gently. However, this gentleness did not stop him from being plain and forthright about his role. He was, he said, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord,” as said the prophet Esaias” (verse 23). This quotation is from Isaiah 40:3 and marks the beginning of a prophecy of coming deliverance. A heavenly messenger comes with a word of hope from God to the nation, telling them that a work of preparation is beginning, one that will end in the appearing of salvation. Unlike all previous messages of hope this one will be final because, when God prepares the way, there will be no turning back. This will be a spiritual work, transforming the hearts and minds of God’s people. The obstacles to obedience of which the Collect spoke will be gone. Obedience will once more be the mark of God’s people.

John’s answer led to another question; “Why baptizest thou then?” They themselves used baptism as part of the proselytising process; their question, then, was not about baptism itself, but about John’s authority to baptize. For them, baptism was a means of entry into the covenant for those who had not been born Jews. That John should require Jewish people to be baptized would have been a plain statement that he considered them to be as outside the covenant as if they had been Gentiles. Such a judgement could only belong to the Messiah, or to Elijah, or to “that Prophet”. John then pointed his enquirers to our Lord Jesus Christ, in telling them that one was coming “whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose”. John’s point is that water baptism is not the be-all; the one “preferred before me” is, by implication, going to bring in something far greater. We know this to be the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion. John, then, in moderation, told his questioners that the Lord is at hand. It is what he does, not what men do, even in his name, that matters. His questioners had no peace—that was why they were so anxious to know who John was. If we would know true peace we will find it by knowing Jesus Christ. The Jews did not know him, and were at a loss to understand what God was doing through John. Later they would be at a loss to know what God was doing through Jesus Christ. We have peace when we bring all things to God in prayer, through Jesus Christ. The wonder of the Incarnation is that we are brought face to face with the One through whom alone all things are ours. Let us be sure that we know him truly, that we may have cause to rejoice for evermore.