Advent 4 Sermon, 2016
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
Feet are important.
So important, that the concept of feet stands for many different things in many different places.
If you’ve read The Good Earth, you’ve come across two different schools of thought regarding the feet of women: either they should not be bound, so they can work, get pregnant, give birth in the rice field, and go back to work. Or, you should bind a woman’s feet, break the bones, bind them up, and make it so that her feet are forever tiny, all so she can’t walk, can’t work, and must be tended to for her entire life.
Culturally, a wife with bound feet was greatly prized, because it meant the husband was successful enough to afford such a thing. Every working mother wanted her daughter to grow up with bound feet to save her from the shame of being poor. Feet are important.
Modern foot binding, if I may be so bold to say so, is not that dissimilar. Ladies, be honest, how many of you have ever worn shoes that were needlessly uncomfortable only because they looked good.
If feet are important, so are shoes, right?
Scripture speaks to this as well—not to foot binding—but to the importance of feet and even shoes.
In Exodus, Moses approached the Lord who had appeared to Him in the burning bush and was told, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
I used to think that Moses had to take his shoes off because you’re not supposed to track mud across God’s nice, new floors. That’s how I thought of it.
But I’m now convinced there’s more to it.
How could sandals be offensive to God? Why should you remove them? The only way sandals are offensive to God is if they get in the way of what He’s there to do, and God is there to redeem the world.
So, really, the question is, “What do sandals have to do with the redemption of the world?”
The answer is, “Potentially a lot.”
John the Baptizer says, regarding the Christ, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26-27).
There are some obvious comparisons here. John baptizes with water. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Jesus came to the Jews, from the Jews. He came to His own, and His own received Him not (cf. John 1:11). And, humble as he is, John won’t dare to touch even the dirty sandals of the Savior.
That’s how we read it, right? John’s being humble.
He considers himself so low and Christ so great that he won’t ascend to the role of dirty sandal cleaner. He’s in the presence of greatness, so he can’t do anything.
That’s how we normally read it, I think.
But that reading makes no sense. You can’t excuse yourself from love and service to your neighbor by claiming you’re too terrible to help. You can’t grow in the faith if you don’t practice your faith.
Or, to say it another way, if you have $5 but you owe $6 or $600, you still pay the $5 that you have.
Your good works are like filthy rags, they can’t save you; nevertheless, you still do good works, because 1) they’re commanded by God and 2) your neighbor needs them.
John is being humble.
He can’t and shouldn’t touch Jesus’ sandals.
But it’s not because of false-piety. It’s not a humble-brag where he’s showing you how holy he is by making a big deal out of a sandal. It’s not that.
John says what he does because he believes that God alone saves. That’s the concern. That’s what’s going on. John can’t touch Jesus’ sandals, because God alone saves.
Feet are important.
In this case, feet and sandals have to do with the redemption of the world. And John knows better than most that that’s Jesus’ job—not ours. Let me explain…
In Ruth, we read of Naomi and Elimelech and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. All go into the land of Moab, and the sons marry Moabites. Ruth is the wife of one of Naomi’s sons.
Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, dies, and, after ten years, the two sons die; so Naomi is left without a husband or children.
So, she implores her son’s wives to leave her, to go back to their mother’s houses, and one does.
But not Ruth.
This is a big deal, because, culturally, the expectation would be for someone in the family to marry Ruth in order to continue the family’s line and inheritance.
Those men are called redeemers; they take responsibility for the family and provide for whatever needs there are.
Knowing that her prospects were slim, that she may even suffer because of it, Ruth says, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
Fast forward a bit, and it comes to this:
Naomi and Ruth have two redeemers. Number one is unnamed. Number two is Boaz.
Boaz goes to this unnamed redeemer and says, basically, that Naomi has this parcel of land, and he should redeem her, and take possession of it.
The unnamed redeemer thinks that’s a great idea and says, “You bet.”
Then, and how clever is this, Boaz adds, “By the way, when you take possession of the land, you’ll also take Ruth as your wife, to continue the line and inheritance of her husband.”
The unnamed redeemer doesn’t like this. That would mean he would forfeit his own plans and inheritance in order to continue someone else’s.
I’ts a kind of cultural suicide.
So he refuses and tells Boaz to buy it for himself.
And so we come to this: Ruth chapter four, starting at verse seven: “This was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the redeemer said to Boaz, ‘Buy it for yourself,’ he drew off his sandal. Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and to Mahlon. Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day’” (Ruth 4:7-10).
Like I said, feet are important.
Exchanging a sandal, untying someone’s sandal, even, could have to do with redeeming something, and John wants there to be zero confusion between him and the Christ.
Remember, “when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ [John] confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you…?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said’ (John 1:19-23).
John’s role was to identify the Christ.
He does that very well, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
But the bit about not untying Jesus’ sandals is important. What he means is, God alone saves.
God alone redeems the world.
God alone dies for sin and removes it.
He won’t touch Jesus’ sandal because you could then make an argument that John had something to do with redeeming things, and he wants there to be zero confusion.
In the Church, divine monergism is the term used to describe God’s work in the salvation of man.
“Monergism” combines the words for “alone” and “work” to teach us that God alone works our salvation.
“Synergism” combines the words for “together” and “work” to teach that man cooperates with God in salvation.
You don’t save yourself. You can’t help save yourself.
God accomplishes salvation and gives it.
Our Heavenly Father sent His Son to earn salvation, and, with the Son, He sends the Holy Spirit to convict us all concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment—to bring us all to repentance and faith.
That’s what God has done.
In the Small Catechism, we confess in the explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, [He has] enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith.”
See, God doesn’t lay salvation before you and ask that you go and get it.
He isn’t “willing to save if…” He desires your salvation and has accomplished it in Christ.
God has redeemed the world. And God our Heavenly Father put everything beneath Jesus’ feet, because Christ our Lord redeemed all of creation.
John’s message, then, his words regarding being unfit to untie Jesus’ sandals, points not to John’s piety but to Christ Himself. To Jesus’ work in redeeming the world. To cross and an empty grave. To the sacrifice. The gift. To the love of God and the forgiveness of our sins.
There is one among us, who we know, Jesus the Christ. We are not worthy to untie His sandals, that’s true, because He is our God.
He redeems us. He saves us.
Feet are important.
And they’re beautiful when they bring us good news.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!