It’s good to know who you are, and who you are not. John the Baptizer knew who he was, and who he was not.
He wasn’t the Messiah, the Christ. A delegation of priests and Levites from synodical headquarters in Jerusalem went out to John to investigate. They always send a committee. “Who are you,” they wanted to know of this wilderness man with strange clothing and an even stranger diet. Are you the Messiah? People had been watching and waiting for Messiah. They were expecting someone who would rally the troops, liberate Israel, and establish the throne of David. They were looking for superman, the mythical mighty man, the one who was going to act for truth, justice, and the Israelite way. A leader of holy war. A Bin Laden sort, really. Perhaps this wilderness stranger was the one.
“No,” John said. “I’m not the Christ.” He was another, a greater One than John. Cousin Jesus who was on His way to Jordan’s water to be revealed as the Anointed One. But John was clear, he wasn’t the Messiah everyone was waiting for.
“Are you Elijah,” they asked him. The prophet Malachi has said 450 years earlier that Elijah would appear before the day the Lord appears. Perhaps he was Elijah. He kind of looked like Elijah, with the camel’s hair coat and all. And he appeared at roughly the same wilderness place that Elijah has disappeared in a fiery chariot. So, maybe he was Elijah.
Jesus said he was. “For all the prophets and the Torah prophesied until John; and if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.” But John wasn’t willing to lay that on himself. That was for Jesus to say. John didn’t seek celebrity. His job was to point to Jesus and step out of the way. And so the simple answer, “No, I’m not Elijah.”
“Are you the Prophet, then,” they persisted. If not the Christ or Elijah, maybe the Prophet of whom Moses spoke. “YHWH your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him” (Deut 18:15). He sure fit the bill.
But again a simple and direct “No.”
“Who then are you?” John refused to work with their categories. He gives them only what they need to know. “I’m a voice calling in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
“Why then are you baptizing,” they asked him. “Who authorized you to do this if you aren’t the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet? What are we going to tell our ecclesiastical supervisors?”
John never answers their question. Instead he points to Jesus and says, “I’m not worthy even to bend down and tie His shoes laces.” It all happened in the obscure town of Bethany. Not the one near Jerusalem, but the one in the wilderness, on the other side of the Jordan, far away from Jerusalem and the temple. That’s how God works, ever subversive, sneaking in the back door.
John was a witness. A witness tells of what he saw and heard. He doesn’t talk about himself. If you are called as a witness in a trial, you aren’t called to talk about yourself, but about the facts, what you saw and heard. Feelings don’t count when it comes to testimony. Not that feelings don’t matter, they’re just irrelevant unless you’re testifying to your feelings. You can say, “I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m joyful,” and no one can dispute that.
John’s witness was not to talk about how he felt about Jesus, or how close he felt to God. “He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the Light.” John didn’t seek the spotlight. He didn’t want to be center stage. I hear in today’s text a man extremely uncomfortable with the public eye, and with all the questions. John probably wouldn’t care if you forgot his name. He wouldn’t be upset if you didn’t send him a birthday card. All John wanted to do was point his finger in the direction of Jesus and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus had to increase; John had to decrease.
That’s very difficult for us to accept. It’s wars against everything going on around us and inside of us. We live in a celebrity-driven culture. We elect action heros as governors and B-grade actors as president. To get elected these days, you have to look good on television or you don’t stand a chance. We define success in terms of the attention paid to us. Those Hollywood types may complain about the paparazzi, but let the strobe lights go away, and they’ll do anything for that fleeting 15 minutes of fame.
It’s in each of us, too. Old Adam and Eve are very self-oriented, self-centered, self-absorbed. Children, even the littlest ones, show this inborn tendency. They are the center of the universe, and everyone is at their beck and call. Our desire to control each other is more of the same. Not only do I know what’s best for me, I know what’s best for you too. The sin of self-centeredness is like a virus that pervades our humanity. We want to be gods, and we don’t look highly on the competition.
It infects our churches too. Celebrity pastors, mega-congregations. Look at me, look at us. Come to our church. I cringe when I hear people say “your church” or when they refer to this congregation as “Pastor Cwirla’s congregation.” There were three pastors here before me, and it wasn’t their congregation either. It’s the Lord’s church – His Word, His Baptism, His Body and Blood, His ministry, His people. It’s all the Lord’s. We just work here.
The congregation at Corinth was infected with the celebrity virus. People would say, “I follow Paul” or “I follow Cephas” or “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Christ.” And Paul says, “We’re nothing but workmen, building on the foundation of Christ. You are God’s field, God’s building. We’re nothing but carpenters and bricklayers and plumbers.” He says, “So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours and you are Christ’s and Christ is of God.” (1 Cor. 3:21)
It’s not being a faithful witness to say, “I’ve decided to follow Jesus and so should you.” It’s not a faithful witness even to say “Come to my church” or to say to an unbeliever “You need to go to church.”
The apologist John Warwick Montgomery wrote a provocative little book intended to ruffle feathers entitled, Damned Through the Church. His point was that you don’t invite people to go to church, as if going to church is the good work that saves them. You proclaim the saving person and work of Jesus Christ, how the Son of God became Man, suffered and died for the sin of the world and rose from the dead to justify us before God. How He gives out the gifts of His death and resurrection in that bunch of believers He’s gathered together for just that purpose. In other words, you don’t point to your self and your piety or the preacher or the programs or success of your religion. You point to Jesus Christ whose body is the church. You point to the Word of forgiveness, to Baptism, to the Supper of Christ’s Body and Blood.
I wonder what John would say if he walked in this morning and stood in this pulpit. I think he’d probably take note of our comfort, our complacency, our casualness. He’d certainly call us to repent and prepare the way of the Lord. He’d probably chide us for all the silly things that cause us distraction in church, all those things we think are so important but aren’t. He’d stare us in the eye and say, “Forget about your felt needs, your feelings, your problems, your pieties. Forget about your self. Christ must increase; you must decrease. And that’s going to be good for you, because in losing your self you will find your self in Christ, and in dying each day to sin, you will rise to new life in Jesus.
John would also point out how blessed you and I are. He never lived to see how it all came out – Jesus’ death and resurrection. We know how it came out. We have the eyewitness testimony, the written deposition of the gospels. We have a Baptism greater than John’s – of water and the Holy Spirit. Buried with Christ in His death; raised with Him in His resurrection. We have the Supper of Jesus’ very Body and Blood.
John knew who he was, and who Christ is. He knew he was not the light; He knew Jesus was, and trusted Him. Jesus is your Light and your Life. Christ comes here and now to forgive you, He is your Light in the darkness of sin and death. He comes soon to raise you and give you Life.
Come soon, and quickly, Lord Jesus.