Witness. What comes to your mind when you hear that word “witness”? The courtroom, perhaps. You think of that person sitting on the witness stand who is under oath to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” A witness is someone who speaks about what he or she has seen or heard. If you are a witness to an accident, you are called to testify to what you saw, what you heard. A witness isn’t there to talk about himself; a witness is only as good as his testimony. We have “eyewitness news” on television, claiming to tell and show the truth of what’s happening.
You might think of witness in the religious sense, as in “witnessing,” as in engaging in a religious conversation with strangers. That word tends to give most of us lifer Lutherans a case of the nervous sweats. Witnessing has some bad connotations for many. People standing on street corners handing out leaflets that people throw on the ground. Or being accosted by someone with a leatherette Bible demanding to know, “Brother, are you saved?” Or those pesky Jehovah’s Witnesses going door to door with bag loads of literature. Or that endless, stream of consciousness “personal testimony” from the person sitting next to you on the airplane, detailing her entire life story leading up to her dramatic conversion, in the hopes that you’ll be so moved by her story that you’ll pray the “sinner’s prayer” with her on your flight to Phoenix.
In the Gospel according to St. John, the word for preach is martureo, to bear witness, to testify. Preaching in John is testimony. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the word martyr in martureo. Witnesses to Christ often testified to their death. There’s no witness protection program. John the Baptizer was a witness, to testify to the Light who is Jesus Christ.
John was put under oath by God to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He was “sent by God.” He didn’t go on his own authority. He didn’t get up one morning with an itch to preach, but he was called and sent by God. We have no idea what that entailed how, where, or when John was called and sent. We’re simply told that he was sent by God to testify and baptize, and that’s enough.
The religious leaders of Jerusalem didn’t trust John, nor did they receive his testimony. John was too outside the box of their religion. This wilderness man dressed in camel’s hair and leather, eating locusts and wild honey, preaching repentance and baptizing people in the Jordan river, was too much of a loose canon on the religious deck. He didn’t go to the centers of religion – the temple and the synagogue. He didn’t make his appeal to the religious leaders – the priests, the Levites, the Pharisees. He didn’t seek anyone’s approval or permission. He didn’t fill out the right forms, get the permits, pay the fees, cowtow to the bureaucracy. He just showed up in the wilderness and began to preach and baptize.
The priests and Levites came out of the temple to John. They didn’t come to confess their sins or to be baptized. They came to ask John who he was, who sent him. They asked him, “Are you the Christ?” thinking that perhaps John might be the Messiah, the long awaited liberator of Israel. But John said plainly, “No, I am not the Christ.”
They asked him, “Are you Elijah,” remembering that Elijah didn’t die but had been whisked off to heaven in a fiery chariot on the same spot in the Jordan wilderness where John had appeared. They recalled that Elijah wore camel’s hair and leather, and they remembered the prophet Malachi who said that a messenger would come before the great day of the Lord. And John could have said “yes.” Jesus later said that John was Elijah for those who believed that Jesus is the Christ. But John simply answered, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet,” they asked, remembering the words of Moses in Deuteronomy about how God would raise up a great prophet from among His people. Could John be that prophet Moses had spoken of? ohn was a prophet. In fact, you could argue that John was the greatest of the prophets because he was closest to Christ. All the other prophets of the OT pointed to Christ through pictures and images, but John got to point to Christ directly and say, “Behold the Lamb of God.” But John simply said, “No.”
Three questions, three negative answers, and his no’s keep getting shorter. Do you get the impression that John didn’t want to talk about himself? He was a witness, sent to testify about Christ, not about himself. The testimony of John was not a personal testimony, but Christ testimony. He was nothing; cousin Jesus was everything.
The priests and Levites pressed John. “Who are you? Come on. Tell us something so we can report back to headquarters. Who are you?” John said, “I’m a voice. That’s all. A anonymous voice calling in the wilderness, sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of Messiah. “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
The Pharisees, who controlled the synagogues, also came out to do their own investigation. They questioned John about his authority. “If you’re not the Christ, or the Prophet, or Elijah, why do you baptize?” Baptism was something new. They had ceremonial washings that you did to yourself, but John’s baptism was done to you. They had sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins, but John came with a baptism for forgiveness. And you don’t just invent make these thing up as you go. It either comes from God or else its worthless. So why do you baptize John?
John’s answer points to Jesus. For John, everything points to Jesus. All questions are answered in Jesus. And so John explained, “I baptize with water. But already there is standing among you someone greater whom you do not know. He’s the One to pay attention to. I’m not even worthy to untie his sandal straps.
It’s all about Jesus. John’s baptism had one purpose: to prepare the people for Jesus. The church, this congregation, has only one purpose: to point to Jesus and prepare the way for His coming in glory.
John’s baptism came to its fulfillment the day Jesus stood in the Jordan River and was baptized by John, and the Holy Spirit descended and the voice of the Father spoke. John testified, “I didn’t even know him.” Even though John and Jesus were cousins, they grew up apart. John grew up in the wilderness; Jesus grew up in Nazareth. John would not have known who Jesus was.
Without Baptism, John would not have known who his cousin Jesus was. That gives us some insight into how God works in the world. He works hiddenly, covertly, under cover. Luther called God the Deus absconditus, the God who hides Himself. John even told the Pharisees that the greater One, the Messiah, was already standing among them. Maybe Jesus was even part of the crowd that day. And no one would have had an inkling as to who Jesus was. He looked like any other man from Nazareth. Semitic, olive-skinned, coarse dark hair, carpenter’s callouses on his hands. A working man turned preacher and rabbi . There was nothing about Jesus that said “Son of God” or “Messiah.” There was no shiny halo floating around Jesus head. No neon arrow pointing at Jesus saying, “This is the Christ.” It was the voice of the Father and the descent of the Spirit like a dove in Jesus’ baptism that revealed Jesus for who He is – the Christ, the Son of God. The purpose of John’s baptism was to reveal Jesus as the Christ.
God hides Himself and works under cover, and He reveals who He is and what He is doing through visible signs. We call them “sacaraments.” John’s baptism was a sacramental sign that revealed Jesus to the people. John’s preaching was a sacramental sign. John saw Jesus coming and he pointed to Him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I was talking about. This is the one who is greater than me because he came before me. This is the Son of God.” The Word and the sign testify to Jesus, they bear witness, telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth that Jesus is the eternal Word, the Son of God, the second person of the undivided Trinity, the Messiah promised of old. He is God’s Lamb, the sacrifice appointed from the foundations of the world to bear the world’s sin and take it away in His death.
Behold the Substitute Sacrifice, the Vicarious Victim, the One who life stands for the world, for you in your sin. Behold the unblemished Lamb, the whole burnt offering, God’s Holocaust offered up for the life of the world. That’s John’s testimony, the word from his lips with the water of his baptism, making Jesus known, revealing the Mystery hidden for the ages.
We too have signs that reveal Jesus to us. We have His Word preached and heard. It’s why God sends preachers to the church, and why He sends the church out into the world to proclaim. Without God’s Word we’d have no clue that Jesus died for all, that He took away the sin of the world in His death. We’d have no idea. We’d still be offering sacrifices, trying to save ourselves with religion, trying to justify ourselves before God. But God sends preachers, anointed with the Spirit, called and ordained, authorized and under orders to point to Jesus and say, “Behold, God’s Lamb who takes away your sin. Trust Him. Don’t trust me, don’t look to me. Trust Him and look to Him.”
We have Baptism. Baptism is God’s personal testimony to you, personally, individually, by name. God has set you apart, consecrated you, anointed you, made an example out of you, holding you up to the world, dripping wet in baptismal water, and saying, “This is my beloved child.” Baptism reveals something you would not otherwise have known, a mystery hidden from your eyes and ears. You were buried in the death of Jesus. You were raised in His resurrection. You were seated in glory at His ascension to the right hand of God. Baptism reveals these things to you, things that otherwise are hidden and not knowable. They must be believed, trusted, and Baptism gives you something to believe in. You are clothed with Christ, you are anointed with the Spirit, your sins are washed away, you are reborn, renewed, a new creation in Christ. All of this is revealed in your Baptism. Don’t take it lightly. It’s God’s personal testimony to you.
We have the Lord’s Supper. Again what is hidden the Word reveals. “This is my body. This is my blood.” We experience only bread and wine, and that too is a gracious gift. Would you want to experience Christ’s body and blood? Not me. But He gives His body as bread, and His blood as wine, and His Word makes known what is hidden from our senses. And the Supper reveals the great hidden truth, the Mystery, that we live off the death of Jesus. His body given into death is our bread of life. His blood shed on the cross is our wine from heaven. Profound, wonderful, hidden things are revealed here.
Jesus is present everywhere. No doubt about it. He’s the Word through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together. He’s God in the flesh, who fills all time and every place, who is all in all. But in His Word and in Baptism and in the Lord’s Supper, we have a visible sign, a sneak peek at the Word hidden under all the creation, making everything new.
That’s why every Sunday, we take up John’s preaching and make it our hymn and prayer. “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” Something deeply profound is revealed. The sin of the world is taken away in the death of Jesus. All sins of every sinner, inclusively. No one is left out of this Lamb who was slain but lives. You, my dear friends, are witnesses. You are put on the stand to testify to your little corner of this world. You are witnesses to Jesus – proclaiming, preparing, pointing our dying, messed up, terrorized, sin-filled world to its Savior. The Lord has anointed your lips to preach good news. You are ambassadors of peace in a world at war. You have good news to bring, eyewitness news, not just at Christmas time, but any time. God is at peace. The world is reconciled. Behold God’s Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Your sin.
In the name of Jesus,