There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. (John 1:6)
So what do you think of John the Baptizer? You’ve had a week to think about him, to live with this Advent image in your head of this wilderness prophet wearing camel’s hair and leather, eating locusts and wild honey, calling people to repentance and baptism. What do you think of him? Do you like him? Would you want to meet him? Does he disturb you?
He disturbed the religious leaders of Jerusalem, that’s for certain. They sent priests and Levites out to conduct an investigation. And isn’t that how it always is when there is a man sent from God. There is certain to be an investigation from synodical headquarters. These things have to be controlled, managed, supervised, watched closely. We can’t be having guys impersonating Elijah and baptizing people in the Jordan without our approval, can we? We need to appoint a blue-ribbon panel to investigate this guy.
So they asked John, “Who are you?” Great question. The question of identity and purpose. Who are you? Or perhaps it might be better expressed, “Who do you think you are?” Implied is another question, “Who sent you?” John confessed. He spoke the truth. He didn’t flinch or deny, he didn’t engage in the weasel talk one hears from public officials these days, skirting the issue, avoiding the question. John was clear. “I am not the Christ.” Some apparently thought he was. People were waiting for the messiah. There were already messianic pretenders. John had all the right stuff – wilderness, camel’s hair, weird, ascetic, holy, intense. Their kind of messiah. He could rally men, gather an army, mobilize forces, establish the kingdom with violence.
John confessed clearly. “I am not the Christ.” He would come later, after John. Cousin Jesus. So who are you? Are you Elijah? You sure look like Elijah with that camel hair shirt and leather belt. You came in the same place Elijah left this earth in a fiery chariot drawn by the horsemen of Israel. Are you Elijah?
Again, John confessed clearly. “I am not.” Actually he was Elijah in anti-type as Jesus Himself says. But he wasn’t Elijah himself. So who are you? Are you the great Prophet of whom Moses spoke? The One who would arise from the people and lead the people as Moses did? Again the answer, even shorter – “No.”
So who are you, John? Inquiring minds want to know. The boys in Jerusalem need to know. We have papers to fill out, reports to make. Give us something. Here’s something: A voice calling in the wilderness. A voice. Nothing more. A prophet mouth to produce words. That’s all John wanted to be known as. A voice in the wilderness with a single message: Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight paths for Him.”
Then what’s with the baptizing thing, John? We don’t baptize around here. It’s unheard of. Why do you baptize if you are neither the messiah or Elijah or the Prophet? You don’t just go around baptizing. Why?
Here’s why: “I come baptizing 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.” That’s why. Are you satisfied with that explanation? You have to be; it’s all you’re going to get from John.
What a strange figure John is! Stranger this week than he was last week. He seems to have no identity of his own. He’s just a Voice calling in the wilderness and a finger pointing to Jesus, the One coming after him whose sandals he is not worthy to stoop down and untie. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” That’s where John is pointing. To Jesus, God’s Lamb whose sacrificial blood takes away the sin of the world. That’s where John wants your attention focused. Not on him but on Jesus. When John’s disciples were leaving him in droves to follow Jesus, John said, “Good! That’s how it should be. He must increase, and I must decrease. He must become everything, and I must become nothing. You can throw me away, you can lock me in Herod’s prison and loose the key for all I care. You can forget I even exist. I’m just a Voice calling in the wilderness, pointing to Jesus. Don’t follow me, follow Him.”
What a model for the ministry John is! In our day, when pastors are expected to be salesmen, politicians, outgoing winners who project a winning attitude and attract winners to themselves. Isn’t that what we really expect? Be honest. We want ministers to be kind, caring, gentle, nurturing. “Motherly,” dare I say it. Would you want John as your pastor? He was weird. This isn’t a contextual problem. He was as weird then as he would be today. And maybe weird will draw a crowd for a while, but sooner or later people are going to get tired for the repentance message and look for something more “relevant and meaningful.”
He came as a witness. That’s the word the evangelist uses to describe John. A “witness.” What does a witness do? He doesn’t talk about himself or his feelings or what he had for breakfast today. He talks about what he has seen and heard. His personal stuff is irrelevant to his testimony. When the religious types from Jerusalem came to John to interrogate him, he could have gone on and on about his life. And we would have had some fascinating details into this mysterious man from the wilderness. Who raised him when his parents died? Was it the Essene community in the wilderness? What was that like, growing up with wilderness monks? Or that famous question that sports figures get asked after the big game: What are your emotions right now? How do you feel about things, John?
But John would simply say, “Who cares? It’s none of your business. You don’t need to know, and I don’t need to tell you. I’m nothing but a Voice. What matters is the coming Christ and your repentance. That’s all that matters. John came to testify to the Light. He was not the Light. He simply reflected the Light and pointed to it, so that through him, through his preaching and his baptism, people might believe in the Light who is Jesus Christ.
One of the great insights in church history is the recognition that the sacraments retain their power even when the men who administer them are wicked scoundrels and even unbelievers. Luther once said that even if the devil or his mother were to pose as a pastor and preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments, these would be as valid and certain as if Christ Himself were preaching and administering, because it is Christ’s office and Christ’s Word. Now that doesn’t mean that we should tolerate scoundrels and unbelievers in the office of the ministry, but it does mean that should not put our trust in them either. They are instruments, witnesses, a voice and a finger, pointing to Jesus.
John is also a model for each of us in our priesthood of the baptized. The church is John the Baptizer of these end times, calling sinners to repentance and baptism, preparing the way of the Lord in advance of His second advent in glory. You are witnesses to the Light who shines upon you. Your witness is not about yourself – your life, your decisions, your feelings. Those are really quite irrelevant. You are a voice in this present dark wilderness, calling to a world that needs so desperately to hear. “The Lord is near. Prepare His way.” You are that finger pointing to the Lamb in Word and Sacrament – Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who takes away your sin.
People will investigate you too. They’ll ask questions. They’ll look for reasons not to believe you. Oh, look at your life. How can you call yourself a Christian, you hypocrite! That’s what they’ll say. Or they might say, “I just don’t have that God-gene. You do. You’re a good person, pious and faithful. But I could never be like that.”
You are a witness. The spotlight is not on you, but on Christ. You must decrease, become nothing at all. Christ must increase. He must be all in all. Your old Adam won’t like it. Face it – we like to be the center of attention. The world won’t like it. The devil will positively hate it. Which means you’re on the right track.
Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding
“Christ is near” we hear it say
Cast away the works of darkness
All you children of the Day.
The peace of God which surpasses our understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, until He appears again in glory, and you in glory with Him.
In the name of Jesus,