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The Actors of Advent: John the Baptist
John 1:19 - 1:34
December 19, 2021
Reverend Jason Harris
We continue our sermon series “The Actors of Advent,” by focusing on John the Baptist, who prepared us for the coming of the Lord. In this sermon, we explore what he is not, what he is, and why he matters as well as how through his actions, he shows us how we are to point others toward Christ.
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This is a time of waiting. I'm sure we're all waiting for the craziness of this pandemic to be over. I'm certainly hoping that this is COVID’s last stand, and we can move on with our lives. This is also Advent, and Advent is a season of waiting as we anticipate the celebration of Jesus' birth as well as his promised return. During this Advent season, we are engaging in a brief sermon series which we have entitled The Actors of Advent. We're taking a closer look at some of the key figures who played a pivotal role within the original Advent story, all of whom remind us that during this season of waiting, God calls us to an active and expectant faith rather than succumbing to passivity or indifference. That's true of the whole of the Christian life. We’re called to anticipate God's future promises in our actions now.
In this sermon, we turn our attention to John the Baptist, who might be one of the most enigmatic figures from the Advent story. He's got a reputation for being a wild and wooly character who lived out in the desert. His preferred style of dress was camel's hair, and as for diet, he preferred his grasshoppers dipped in wild honey. We can relate to his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. We can get a feel for what it must have been like to be Mary and Joseph, but John seems a little out there. So I've got my work cut out for me. Let's see if we can humanize John the Baptist a little bit. Let's see what we can learn from him as we consider who he is not, who he is, and why he matters. If you'd like, I'd encourage you to open up a Bible to John 1. I'll be reading v.19-34,
19And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
This is God’s word. It’s trustworthy, and it’s true, and it’s given to us in love.
Who He Is Not
Let me provide a little backstory. When the angel Gabriel first went to Mary to inform her that she would, in fact, bear God's one and only Son, Gabriel gave her a sign. The sign was that her cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant. So in effect, Gabriel is saying, You can trust that everything I am telling you is true. Just look at Elizabeth. If she can have a child against all odds, despite her age, then that means that God can do anything, even the seemingly impossible. After Elizabeth gave birth to her son, everyone would have expected that they would name the child Zechariah after his father, but Zechariah insisted "His name is John." Zechariah understood that his child had a job to do. It would be his task to prepare the way of the Lord.
Fast forward 30 years or so, and now John the Baptist and his cousin, Jesus, have grown up. At this point, John begins his public ministry. The thing is that we may fail to appreciate what a massive following John the Baptist had in the early part of the first century. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him [John the Baptist], and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Jerusalem, all of Judea, all of the region about the Jordan. This is the kind of thing that you would read about in the newspaper, despite the fact that John the Baptist was more than a little eccentric. Despite the outlandish clothes, the strange diet, the fiery messages, people were fascinated with him. He was causing a sensation, so they had to check it out for themselves. They went out in droves to see who he was and what he was all about.
This, of course, made the powers that be nervous, because John was leading a religious movement that ran outside of the traditional channels. They could only perceive this, therefore, as a threat. So the religious authorities essentially put together a truth squad. They sent out this group of people to try to get to the bottom of what John is all about. They asked a series of questions, and what's interesting here is that in reply to all of this questioning, John tells us three things that he is not, and three things that he is. The New Testament scholar Dale Bruner has suggested that this is essential to Christian discipleship. We have to have a right understanding of who we are, and who we're not, to rightly serve God's purposes, in order to actively participate in his kingdom work in the world. We run into all kinds of problems when we fail to see ourselves accurately, when we assume roles that are really not a right fit for us. It's essential that we understand who we are and who we're not.
It's possible that we could have an excessively low opinion of ourselves because we only know who we are not. We might sink with feelings of inferiority. If we think, I don't know what I'm good at. Maybe I'm not good at anything. I'm a nobody. I'm nothing. I'm of no value or worth to God. Or by contrast, you could have an excessively high opinion of yourself. If you only think of who you are, it can inflate you with feelings of superiority. You'll say, Sure, I know what I'm good at. I'm good at everything! I'm a big shot, but just because you're an expert in one field doesn't mean you're an expert in every field. We have to have a right sense of who we are in order to rightly serve God and his kingdom purposes. John models that for us. He's aware of who he is and who he's not. He knows that God sees us for who we really are, and God doesn't make casting mistakes. He's got you where he wants you to be. He wants you to be you, and not somebody else. To be balanced, we've got to know our strengths and our weaknesses, our gifts, as well as our limitations.
One important question that we might ask ourselves is: Who am I? Who has God made me to be, and how is he asking me to contribute to his work in the world? Maybe I'm not a preacher, or a Bible teacher, but I'm good at encouraging people. I'm good at listening to people. I can pray for people. I can come alongside them. I'm good at organizing people or connecting people with one another. All of these things are vital. We have to know who we are not as well as who we are to have a right view of ourselves, our gifts and our limitations, in order to rightly serve God's kingdom purposes. John understood that, so when the religious authorities asked him, who exactly do you think you are? The first thing he does is offer three "I am not’s"—three things that he's not. The first is, “I am not the Christ.” V.20, “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” Another way to translate that would be he spoke right up. He didn't deny it. "He spoke right up and said I am not the Messiah." Stop and think for just a moment. I don't know about you, but no one has ever come up to me wondering Are you the messiah? So the very fact that John has to clarify this point, reveals the kind of following he had. The fact that that question was literally on people's minds, reveals that he must have been an incredibly impressive figure. But he says, “I am not the Christ.” I am not the Messiah. We've all met people who act as if they are God's gift to the world. We've all met people who seem to have a messiah complex. They need to be needed, and they think that they can solve everyone else's problems. What's striking about John is that in many ways, he was a gift to the world. God had given him as a gift to the world in order to prepare the way for the Lord, but he didn't act like that. He didn't have an overly inflated view of himself. No, he knew the role that he was supposed to play within God's kingdom purposes. He knew his place in God's order of things.
If he's not the messiah, then secondly, people thought, perhaps he's Elijah. In the first century, many people expected that Elijah was going to come back because according to the Book of 2 Kings, Elijah didn't die in the ordinary way. No, this great Old Testament prophet simply went directly to heaven, and the very last promise in the Old Testament Scriptures is that Elijah will come back. In fact, these are the last two verses of the very last book of the Bible, Malachi. They say that God would send Elijah before the great and terrible day when the Lord comes. So when John is asked, “Are you Elijah?” Again, he offers a negative statement, “I am not.” What's curious about this is that Jesus later did, in fact, say that John the Baptist was Elijah, so how do we make sense of this? In Matthew 11, Jesus will tell his followers "If you are willing to accept it, John is Elijah who is to come," and following Jesus' transfiguration—after his appearance is transfigured and he appears to be dazzlingly brilliant before his disciples—they're wondering about Elijah. Jesus explains in Matthew 17, “‘I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.” What's going on here? How do we make sense of this one? John the Baptist was right. He was not literally Elijah. He was John. He was his own person. He was not some reincarnation of Elijah. But Jesus is saying that, while that might be the case, John the Baptist nevertheless was destined to fill that Elijah type role. He is the one who comes like Elijah. He dressed like him in camel’s hair. He sounded like him with his fiery prophetic messages, and he was the one who prepared for the Lord's coming. What does that show us? On the one hand, it underscores John's humility. He never assumes some view of himself that isn't appropriate for who he really is, and yet, at the same time, it also shows us that Jesus knows us better than we even know ourselves. John won't claim to be that Elijah type figure, but Jesus knows that he is. Jesus knows us better than we even know ourselves, which is why we need his guidance in our lives. He sees in us what we can't always see in ourselves.
Finally, people ask, if you're not the Christ, and if you're not Elijah, maybe you are the Prophet. Moses had said in the Book of Deuteronomy, that one day God would raise up a prophet, like himself, and that is the one that they should listen to. And so to this question, John simply says, “No.” What I love about the way in which the gospel writer John retells the story, you realize that all these negative statements become more and more terse. “I am not the Christ.” Are you Elijah? “I am not.” The Prophet? “No.” I am not. I am not. No. So as for John, so for us, realizing who we are not, may clarify who and what we are, and the ways in which we're called to serve. This truth squad gets a little exasperated with John because he's not answering any of their questions. They say we need to give an answer. So who are you? Now in the affirmative, John offers three I am’s. I am a voice. I am a baptizer, and I am unworthy.
Who He Is
First of all, he says I am a voice. In fact, he says, I am the voice. “‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” Here he is directly quoting Isaiah 40, but what does this mean? Perhaps I could give you an analogy. When a president, any president, comes to New York City, what happens? The NYPD block off the streets. They create a barricade so that the presidential motorcade can make its way from one place to another. They clear the path for that presidential motorcade. Isaiah is saying something similar, but actually even more dramatic than that. Assume that the president is coming to New York, but there are, in fact, no streets. If you're going to make way for the president, in that situation, you can't merely block off the streets, you have to make a street. That was what Isaiah was talking about when he said he needed to lift up the valleys and lower the mountains in order to cut a path through the wilderness. You need to make the road straight. You need to create a highway for our God because our God is coming to us. John is saying, that's his task. He is now the voice, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” that we need to make a path for God to come to us. When he delivered this message, people knew that they weren't ready. They knew that they weren't ready for God to come to them, and that's why they showed up in droves to hear from John the Baptist, and to get their hearts in the right place for the Lord's coming.
What's the primary way in which John prepares them? Second of all, he says, I'm a baptizer. He baptized them. Baptism was a relatively common practice in the ancient Near East. In many different parts of the world, people would baptize themselves. It was considered a rite of initiation. It signified ritual cleansing. It was the thing that you would do in order to identify yourself with some new group or some new religion. But more often than not, you would baptize yourself. You would undergo some kind of ritual cleansing. What was unique about what John was doing is he was the one who was plunging people under the waters of the Jordan River, as they confess their sins. It was a way of signifying that their hearts weren't in the right place. They knew that they had to turn away from their past, and they had to commit themselves wholeheartedly to God in order to prepare themselves for an even deeper cleansing, an even deeper cleansing that only God could provide. That's what John set out to do, and that's why they gathered around him. But they knew that this was preparatory, and John hints at it here in our passage. It's even more clear in other passages from Matthew or Luke. He would say that he is baptizing with water, but the one who will come after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. That's the real cleansing. His is only one of preparation.
So who is John? He's a voice, and he's a baptizer. The third thing he tells us is that he is unworthy. V.26, he says, “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.” He says I'm not even worthy to untie the shoes of the one who is coming after me. That, of course, again, hits this note of humility. But it meant even more in the first century because for a first century student, they were expected to do absolutely everything—everything for their teacher, their master, their rabbi. But the one thing that a student was never expected to do was to untie their teacher's shoes because it was considered so degrading, so disgusting in that culture to touch someone else's feet. And therefore, only slaves were required to untie someone's shoes. But here John is saying, I can't untie the shoes of the one who is coming after me. I can't untie that one's shoes because I'm too good? No! He's saying because I'm too unworthy. I'm too unworthy to even untie his shoes. I wonder if that is your conception of Jesus.
We live in this modern world where in many ways we've lost the sense of the transcendent. To us, Jesus may have become so familiar to us, so comfortable, that we would have no objection doing anything at all. Yet John says that we really should see the truth, which is that we are not worthy to even kiss the ground that he walks on.
If we realize that, then that unlocks the very meaning of the gospel for us. As the forerunner to Jesus, John shows us, paradoxically, that this is the only way to become a Christian. Most people probably think that if you're a real Christian, if you're the real deal, then it means that your faith is strong enough, your devotion is deep enough, your thoughts are innocent enough, your motives are pure enough, your actions are good enough to make you worthy of God's love. That's why you have it. You've done all the right stuff. You've done all the right things. You're worthy of God's love. But no, that's not how the gospel works. God doesn't love you because you're qualified. Rather, he qualifies you because he loves you. It's precisely those who believe that they are absolutely unworthy of his love, who actually receive it. And when you get that, when you see that, when you understand that, then that's what makes you want to jump in a river and dedicate your life to him all over again. Dale Bruner puts it like this,
“Blessed are the poor [not the rich] in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,’ as Jesus promised at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount…It is those overwhelmed with Christ who are undergirded by him; those who sense their unworthiness are exactly those credited with worthiness—with the reckoned righteousness of God…Those knowing themselves unworthy are, paradoxically and precisely the divinely ‘worthied.’”
God doesn't love you because you're qualified. He qualifies you because he loves you.
Who is John? John is not the Christ. He is not Elijah. He is not the prophet. Who is he? He is a voice. He is a baptizer and he is unworthy. But why does he matter? Why are we talking about him today? Because John famously points us to Jesus. The 20th century theologian Karl Barth kept a replica of an early 16th century painting of the crucifixion painted by Matthias Grünewald above the desk in his study. In this painting, we see a depiction of Jesus hanging on the cross, but the cross itself is bowed rather than straight. It's almost as if the cross is being pulled down by the weight of sin that Jesus bears because he bears the sin of the world. To the left of Jesus stands John the Baptist. And in one hand, he holds a book, and with his other hand, he simply points a single finger at Jesus crucified. Above his pointed finger, we read the inscription, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” the words of John from the Gospel of John 3:30. The image itself is historically anachronistic, because at this point in time, John the Baptist had already died. He'd already been beheaded when Jesus was crucified. In fact, this is the way in which John the Baptist is often portrayed in Christian art because he was famous for pointing others to Jesus. It's all based on this episode that takes place in the passage that is before us. In v.29, we read, “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, [and I like to imagine that he pointed and said] ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” He says this before his own massive following of disciples. He says this in earshot of them all. He takes a stand. He points, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Karl Barth used to say that that is the primary task, not only of the Christian preacher, but of every Christian. Every Christian is called to be the finger of John the Baptist, pointing to Christ, and to him crucified. That's our primary task—to deflect attention away from ourselves and to center it on Jesus and him alone, as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
Part of the reason why that is so important is because it is so easy for us to miss Jesus. It's so easy for us to miss Jesus in the modern world in which we live. There are so many people around us today who have no idea who Jesus is, or the radical difference that he could make in their lives. The irony is that even John failed to fully appreciate who Jesus was. He failed to realize that his cousin was in fact, the Christ, the Messiah, despite what his parents might have told him about the unusual circumstances surrounding his birth, as well as Jesus' birth. Somehow, he missed it. He tells us that right here at some point, Jesus himself had joined John's group of followers in Bethany beyond Jordan. He says that again here in v.26, “Among you stands one you do not know.” Somehow, at some point in time, Jesus became one of those followers of John the disciple, and perhaps for that reason, John doesn't realize who Jesus really is. He doesn't realize that Jesus is the Christ. He says, twice in v.31 and 33, “I myself did not know him” Even I missed it. I didn't realize it. I didn't recognize him for who he was. It wasn't until John saw the Spirit of God descend upon Jesus, like a dove, alighting upon a branch, when he realized that this is the one that God had told him would come after him, the one who was greater even than he.
Isn't it refreshing? It's always refreshing when Christian leaders admit their weaknesses, and acknowledge their own limitations as John does here. None of us, myself included, none of us have it all figured out. All of us need help from time to time. That's why John the Baptist models for us what it means to be a witness to Jesus. In the opening prologue to this gospel, the gospel writer tells us that John the Baptist came as a witness—to bear witness to the truth so that all might come to believe through him. John was not the light that was coming into the world, but he came to bear witness to the light. Likewise, Christians are all called to be witnesses. We don't claim to have all the answers. We don't claim to have it all figured out. We merely point to the one where the answers can be found, and when we do, when we point to Jesus, we give other people the opportunity to discover the true story of which their lives are also a part. Jesus alone is the word of God. He's the final word. We're merely a voice helping people see who Jesus is. We're just the finger. We're just the finger of John the Baptist, pointing away from ourselves and centering people's attention and focus on Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
So my question for you this Advent is, where will you take a stand and point others to Jesus? How will you use your voice to say, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Perhaps there's a family member or a friend that you could invite to join us for our Christmas Eve service, or you could share our service online with someone who might need to hear it. The best way to point to Jesus is to point people to the Scriptures. That's where we can see and hear and discover Jesus today. You might encourage a friend to read through the Gospel of John, and you could even read through it with them. You could ask them to make a note of their questions, their comments, the things that confuse or surprise them, and then you could get together to talk about it with them as they make their way, little by little, through that gospel. You could read it together. We all have this responsibility to bear witness to Jesus, to point others to the reality of who he is and what he's done for us. We have to help people see that Jesus did not merely die a senseless death on a cross. Jesus did not merely die for humanity in general, he died for you in particular. But his suffering and death will not do you any good as long as it remains outside of you. No, you have to appropriate it for yourself. You have to take it up into your heart and into your life. And when you believe afresh, that Jesus is the Lamb of God who died for you in order to take away the sin of the world, then you can experience the kind of cleansing, the kind of cleansing that only God can accomplish that runs so much deeper than what merely water can do. You can experience that now, today.
That's what brings me back to that painting by Matthias Grünewald because next to John the Baptist, there's actually a lamb. There is a lamb holding a cross, not unlike the lamb in the very top stained glass window in our sanctuary. What's unusual about this lamb is that it has been slain, and yet it is alive. Its throat has been cut, and yet it stands. There is blood pouring out of its neck into a chalice. It's a very strange, disturbing image, and it recalls the Book of Revelation, which refers to Jesus as the Lamb who was slain and yet who is alive. Revelation tells us that no one can enter into the presence of God, no one can stand in God's holy presence, no one can enter into his kingdom, no one can receive his ultimate future promises, unless that person has washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, making them white. Talk about a shocking image. We would never talk about washing white robes in blood and expecting them to come out gleaming white. Yet that is the kind of cleansing that Jesus as the Lamb of God offers us. This is what it means for Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It's an image that takes us back to when God first rescued his people from their bondage in Egypt. He saved them from their oppression and slavery through the Passover Lamb who has sacrificed in their place. But Jesus is the true Passover Lamb who died, so that we might live, who was sacrificed, so that we might be cleansed. Jesus not only gave his life for us, but he is alive now, which is why we can meet with him now. We can experience him now. As you come to this table, as you see the bread broken, as you see the cup poured out, I want you to stand back and see, behold, with fresh eyes, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and experience the kind of cleansing, that only God can bring, cleansing by the Holy Spirit with fire.
Let me pray for us.
Father, we thank you for this enigmatic figure of John the Baptist. Despite his outlandish clothes, and his strange diet, and his fiery message, he prepares us for the coming of the Lord. We thank you that he is a voice, a baptizer, and that he is unworthy because it shows us how we might receive your grace by acknowledging our own unworthiness. And so we pray that you might shower your love upon us so that we might be cleansed. And once cleansed, transform us, Father, into witnesses, who point others to the reality of Jesus and what he has done for us—the Lamb who was slain, and yet who reigns. We ask all this in Jesus' name. Amen.