Who are you? That’s the question posed to John by the delegation from Jerusalem, the religious priests and Levites who were sent to investigate this strange wilderness man. Who are you? Or perhaps the question is more aptly put, “Who do you think you are? Calling people to repentance. Baptizing all sorts of filthy sinners – prostitutes and tax agents and riff raff – as if they could take a bath and all would be forgiven. Who are you? Dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey. Calling us a ‘brood of vipers’ and daring to call good, respectable religious people to repentance. Who do you think you are, John?”
John’s answer: “A voice of one crying in the wilderness. Nothing more than a voice.”
John was a witness sent from God to testify, to point, to direct attention away from himself to a Coming One, one who was greater than John, One whose sandals John was not worthy to untie, one who was the Christ, the anointed One, the messiah of God. John was not the Christ. He was clear on that. Some thought he was. Some thought he would make good messiah material. But John knew who he was and who he was not. “I am not the Christ.”
Some thought he was Elijah, whom Malachi said would come to prepare the way of the Lord. Jesus Himself called John Elijah, as one who came in the spirit and power of Elijah and who even appeared in the same place where Elijah disappeared. But John would not apply that designation to himself. “I am not,” he said. He left it to Christ to give him his identity. He was content to simply be a voice in the wilderness.
Some thought he was the Prophet foretold by Moses. But again, John denied it. “I am not,” even though he stood at the end of a long prophetic line and he was a prophet in the truest sense of the word. The prophets before him pointed in the general direction of Christ, often vaguely, usually speaking in a kind of prophetic double-speak in which they spoke of the present situation and the coming Christ in the same breath and with the same words. But John had no future tense in mind. His vision was firmly locked in the present moment. The kingdom of God was at hand. The time had come. What was once far off had now drawn near. Get ready. Make straight the way of the Lord.
I’d like to quote at length from a marvelous sermon by Dr. Martin Franzmann on John the Baptist entitled “He Shall Be Great.” Franzmann says it so well it bears repeating and reading, so bear with me:
“…[the] greatness of John is a greatness of subordination. This is the greatest of all. ‘I am not Elijah, I am not the Prophet, I am not the Christ; I take no title, not even Elijah, unless my Lord wants to give it to me. I am but a Voice crying in the wilderness. I am exhausted in my function of crying: ‘Repent, be baptized, look to the Greater One.’ He must increase; I must decrease. This is my joy, and this my joy is full.’ John had no bigness to get in the way of his greatness, and therefore he had no jealousy to darken the bright joy of his subordinate greatness. We find this greatness reflected too in St. Paul: ‘What then? So Christ be preached, I do rejoice, and I will rejoice.’”
John the Baptist paid the price for his kind of greatness, for this greatness of independence, of confidence, of concentration, of absolute subordination. Men twiddled theological thumbs at him and did not make up their minds about him. They swathed him in the whipped cream of their indecision. Is his Baptism from heaven? We do not know. They treated him as one of a number of theological lights – stimulating, provocative, entertaining. They rejoiced for a season in this burning lamp. And ultimately their verdict was: ‘He’s demon possessed.’ Or in modern parlance: ‘He’s psychopathic. He’s compensating for something. He needs to be medicated. He’s narrow, one-sided, fanatical.’ No answer of John the Baptist to these critiques is recorded; but the whole record of his life cries out, ‘Who cares? Who cares?’”
Franzmann is right. John didn’t care what people thought of him, what his reputation was, whether people believed or respected him. He didn’t let the world tell him who he was. His identity came from the Lord and His Word, the prophetic preparing Word put on his lips. The Christ to come defined who John was. His whole view of himself was wrapped up in Jesus, so much so that John rejoiced to decrease that Christ might increase.
Sin has given us a false identity, an identity based on self, on power to control others, on making a name for oneself, on building a network, a kingdom for oneself. Sin is an inward curving disease that causes every thought, word, and deed of ours to be self-oriented. What will people think of us? Will they like us? Will they reject us? And when we worry about that, we will let others define us and shape our identities for us.
John would have none of that. He didn’t fit in. He couldn’t be boxed in, catalogued and neatly gift wrapped. John wasn’t true to himself, he was true to the Word and to the Christ whose way he was preparing. And in that sense, John serves as a pattern for the church in these gray, last days. The church likewise calls out in the wilderness as a voice, with no identity other than a baptismal mark with water, with no message except the Word of reconciliation with God and forgiveness of sins.
The church offers no solutions to the world’s problems, no cures for Ebola or HIV or cancer or heart disease, no answers to the perplexing questions of the ages. The church may feed the hungry, but it cannot solve world hunger. It may pray for peace, but it cannot bring an end to war. It may care for the widowed and orphaned but it cannot fix the breakdown of family and society. The church may find herself involved in social issues, but her true home is in the wilderness, and her true song is to be a lone Advent voice calling out to anyone who would hear: “Repent, be baptized, get ready. The kingdom of God is at hand.”
Pastor and author Eugene Petersen once wrote, “Lord, teach us not to care so that we might truly care.” It’s when we no longer care about ourselves and our fragile egos and we stop catering to that whiny old Adam of ours who wants everything his way, that we will be in a position truly to care, to love the neighbor as Christ has loved us, in that grandly unconditional way of grace that loves the loveless and the unlovely, that forgives and keeps no record of wrongs, that hopes all things and endures all things because the kingdom is ours in Christ.
“We are funny-looking figures too, we who inherit John the Baptist’s mouth, finger, and voice, as Luther put it. We are odd, misplaced-looking fellows, a curious sort of gentry, as we catch sight our reflection in the shop windows of the world. Well, who cares? Who cares? So nobody who is anybody thinks we are somebody. Who cares?
There is Somebody who cared, and Somebody does care, if we will enter upon the heritage of John the Baptist, if we will take up John’s finger, John’s mouth, and John’s voice and cry, “Repent!” and point to Christ and call Him Lord. The Coming One, the Mightier One, He cares. The Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us, He cares. The Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, He cares.
John renounced all bigness, and became great in the sight of the Lord. Jesus cared. Jesus called John the greatest of those born of woman; he called him a prophet and more than a prophet. He called him the messenger foretold by Malachi who would prepare the way of the Lord. He called him Elijah, asserting that his Baptism was from God and not from men, and that his way was the way of righteousness. Jesus cared.
And if we will enter upon the heritage of John the Baptist, we shall know that He cares for us. We shall one day hear from His lips: ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of thy Lord’”
So far Franzmann.
This is the spirit of Advent. Not get ready because Christmas is near, but get ready for the Lord is near. Repent and return to Baptism. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and your sin. He is there for you in water, Word, bread and wine. Receive Him anew and point the way for those around you. Be that voice in the wilderness that God has made you in your Baptism. Dare to be different, to stand alone, to be called weird, out of step, offbeat, strange, crazy, fanatical. Let the world mock the camel’s hair and leather belt of Christ’s robe of righteousness that you wear. Who cares? Let the world snicker at your wilderness diet of the Body and Blood of Christ hidden under the most insignificant of bread and wine. Who cares?
What matters, all that matters, is that Jesus cares, and that He cared enough to descend from His royal throne to step into our world, our life, our sin and death to free us. The ad slogan for Hallmark is “when you care enough to send the very best.” God cared enough to send His very best, His only-begotten Son. And found in Him, you have all the identity that you need. “To those who believed on His Name He gave them the authority to be called ‘sons of God.’”
In the Name of Jesus,