This Sunday is the Third Sunday in Advent. Last week we focused on the ministry of John the Baptist, and this week we again focus on John the Baptist. I’ve always wondered why we needed two weeks in every year to focus on John the Baptist. Isn’t that a little redundant? Perhaps its best to think of these two Sundays as Anticipation and Fulfillment. Last week we heard John’s message of repentance, as we anticipated the imminent coming of the Messiah. This week we see John in prison and Jesus affirms that He is the Messiah and that John is the one who is sent ahead of the Messiah to prepare the way.
The hymn of the day, When All the World Was Cursed, by Johann Olearius, takes the prophecies, setting, life, and ministry of John the Baptist and condenses these things into four stanzas. You might assume that this would lead the hymn to feel very dense and intellectual, but in actuality it is so well written that it flows nicely from beginning to end. Every phrase naturally follows the next, and yet every line contains a clear Scriptural allusion. So, instead of listing the hymn stanzas by stanza, I’m going to list it one or two verses (lines) at a time.
When All the World Was Cursed
By Moses’ condemnation
The hymn-writer starts by sending us all the way back to Moses, the law-giver. In Deuteronomy 27, we hear a description of a liturgy that Moses and people of Israel participated in before entering the Promised Land. Here they read a series of curses against those who broke God’s law, the last of which is as follows:
26 “‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’
This curse is on everyone who breaks God’s Law, which is everyone who sins. Who has sinned? The entire world has sinned, as it says in Psalm 14
2The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
3They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.
This is the setting for the story. The entire world is under the curse of sin.
Saint John the Baptist came
With words of consolation
Does it seem odd that it says, “Words of consolation”? After all, didn’t we read John calling for repentance and calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers last week? The consolation of John is the promise of the Messiah, who brings peace between man and God. John is the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 40:
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
With true forerunner’s zeal
The greater One he named,
And Him, as yet unknown,
As Savior he proclaimed
John gained a zealous following and became famous throughout the region, yet he never lost sight of the fact that his role was to point to Christ. We read about this last week in the reading from Matthew 3:
1 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
He says this despite Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:
11Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.
John, then, came into a world that was under the curse of the Law and preached a message of repentance, of hope, and of comfort; proclaiming to the lost world that the Savior was coming soon.
Before he yet was born,
He leaped in joyful meeting,
Confessing Him as Lord
Whose mother he was greeting.
The first half of this stanza is clearly telling us the story from Luke 1, when Elizabeth, pregnant with John, was visited by Mary, who was pregnant with God.
39In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
By the power of the Holy Spirit, John was able, even in the womb, to recognize the Savior and point to Him.
By Jordan’s rolling stream,
A new Elijah bold,
A new Elijah? This is from the prophet Malachi, where in Malachi chapter 4, it says:
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Jesus says of John in Matthew 11:
12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Jesus himself says that John is the fulfillment of this Old Testament prophecy. The reference to Elijah means that John is a great prophet, and there was an expectation in the culture at the time that Elijah would come. John preached in the wilderness, by the Jordan River. This is why last week’s hymn started, “On Jordan’s banks, the Baptist’s cry”.
From Stanzas 2 and 3
He testified of Him
Of whom the prophets told:
Behold the Lamb of God
That bears the world’s transgression,
Whose sacrifice removes
The devil’s dread oppression.
Behold the Lamb of God,
Who takes away our sin,
Who for our peace and joy
Will full atonement win.
This is a reference to John’s encounter with Jesus in the gospel of John.
29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
This is why John’s message is considered to be peace and consolation. Jesus has come to be the Lamb of God, to take our sins away, and to reconcile us to God. He is the propitiation for our sins, meaning that through Him God’s wrath over sin is satisfied. The curse of Moses is lifted, and we have hope, life, and salvation through our Lord.
I should also point out that this line from John is a part of our communion liturgy. As we head to the altar to receive the body and blood of the lamb, we sing, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.” In our communion liturgy, we affirm the words of John. We confess that Jesus is the Lamb of God and that He is truly present with us here on earth through His body and blood.
In response to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, we ask in stanza 4 that we may be repentant of our sins, and strive to follow our Savior until we have eternal life with Him.
O grant, dear Lord of love,
That we receive, rejoicing,
The word proclaimed by John,
Our true repentance voicing,
That gladly we may walk
Upon our Savior’s way
Until we live with Him
In His eternal day.