Feet are important.
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 break the bones of a little girl’s feet, bind them up, and make it so that her feet are forever tiny, so she can’t walk, can’t work, and must be tended to for her entire life.
Culturally, in China, 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 that important.
Modern foot binding, if I may be so bold to say, is not that dissimilar. Ladies, how many of you have or have ever had a pair of needlessly uncomfortable shoes only because they look good.
If feet are important, shoes are, too.
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 there’s more to it than that.
How could sandals be offensive to God? Why should you remove them? The only way sandals are offensive to God is if they distract, if they get in the way of what He’s there to do, and God is there to redeem the world.
So what do sandals have to do with the redemption of the world?
And 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).
The obvious thought that comes to mind is that John humbles himself such that he refuses, even, to be allowed the privilege to serve the Savior of the World.
Is that how you read it? Is John 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.
But that 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, if you have $5 but you owe $6 or $600, you still pay the $5 that you have.
It’s pride, that beloved vice of ours, that refuses to pay back what is owed only because you can’t pay it all right now.
John is being humble.
He can’t and shouldn’t touch Jesus’ sandals.
But it’s not out 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.
John says what he does because he knows that God is there to redeem the world. That’s the concern. He doesn’t want to get in the way of what God is there to do.
The sandals of our Lord are that important.
Biblically, feet and sandals have to do with redemption, 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.
With nothing to offer them, she then 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.
They redeem them from the public shame of having to eke out, work and beg for their living.
With slim prospects and the possibility of suffering before her, 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). Ruth is wonderful.
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 bit of land, and he should redeem her, and take possession of it. Boaz convinces this guy to do this thing and benefit from it.
And the unnamed redeemer thinks it a great idea and says, “You bet.”
But clever 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.”
That part, the unnamed redeemer doesn’t like. That would mean he would forfeit his own plans and inheritance in order to continue someone else’s.
It’s like 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).
Sandals are that important.
Exchanging a sandal, untying someone’s sandal, even, could have to do with redeeming something, and John won’t stand between Jesus and the world’s redemption.
Remember, “when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask [John], ‘Who are you?’ he 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 don’t help save yourself.
You don’t. And you can’t.
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 the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment—to bring the world to repentance and faith.
That’s what God has done.
See, God doesn’t lay salvation before you and ask that you go and get it.
It’s not that God is “willing to save if…”
Rather, God desires the salvation of the world and has accomplished it in Christ.
God has redeemed the world.
No one touched His sandals.
Sandals were forbidden on the holy ground of God.
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 the cross and an empty grave. To the sacrifice. To the gift. To the love of God and our redemption.
There is one among us, who we know, Jesus the Christ. We’re not worthy to untie His sandals.
Because He redeems us. He saves us.
Feet and sandals are that important.
And how beautiful that they’ve brought such good news.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Advent 4 Sermon, 2019
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt