The people of Israel are scared. And you all know how much these people complained; about the Egyptians, about water, about food, about being tired of the food they got, etc. So they complain to Moses and say, "Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire anymore, lest I die." When God descended upon the mountain to give the Ten Commandments to Moses it was too much for them; the fire and shaking mountain, the great smoke. So they said, "Moses, you speak to him! We're too scared."
And you know what God said? "You're right. You will die if I speak to you. It is too much for you. So here's what I'll do. I'll raise up from among you a prophet, an unintimidating man sharing your own flesh and blood, and he will speak to you."
God is merciful. The people had reason to be frightened. They were in the presence of a holy God, of whom the Psalmist writes, "he utters his voice, the earth melts." (Psalm 46:6) God of course knew this. And this problem isn't unique to Israel. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." No one can stand before God without some sort of shield, some sort of protection from his consuming fire of holiness. So God says, "I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers." One they won't need to be scared of, one they can listen to.
Fast forward to our Gospel lesson we meet John. He dresses funny. He preaches a lot. He baptizes. And he's gathered quite the following. So messengers from the Pharisees come. "Are you the Christ?," they ask. "I am not the Christ," John replies. Christ means anointed. The Old Testament prophesies that God's anointed will save Israel and rule the world. John honestly answers that he is not God's anointed. "Are you Elijah?," they ask. The Jews believed that the prophet Elijah, who ascended into heaven on a fiery chariot would return, because the prophet Malachi records, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes." (Mal. 4:5) Now John certainly fulfills this prophecy and even Jesus says that John is Elijah (Matthew 11:13-14). But the Pharisees do not understand what the prophecy means. John is not physically Elijah, who ascended into heaven. Rather he takes Elijah's office as the mouthpiece of God. So John says, "I am not."
Finally they ask, "Are you the prophet?" Jesus says that John is a prophet, yes, and more than a prophet. "He is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.'" (Matthew 11:10) Yet, John says, "No." Well, John certainly isn't like the prophets of old like Isaiah, who prophesied the virgin birth and Christ's death, yet it didn't happen for seven hundred years. No, John is not a prophet like that. Rather, he is the one who points and says, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" And when you follow his finger you actually see Christ Jesus the Lord!
Yet John means even more when he says he isn't the prophet. He says, "But among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the straps of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." John speaks of another prophet, the Prophet; the Prophet God spoke of to Moses when he said, "I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers." (Deut. 18:18). Well, here is the Prophet, Jesus Christ. He comes from among his brothers, born of the Virgin Mary, he shares our flesh and blood. He comes after John, yet John is not worthy to do the task of a slave for him and loosen his sandals. It is as John said, "This is he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.'" (John 1:15) John was born 6 months before Jesus. He began his ministry and gathered a great following before Christ began his ministry. Yet John acknowledges that Jesus is before him. How? Because this Prophet Jesus was with God the Father from the beginning. Through him the earth was made and without him not one thing was made that was made. While Jesus shares our human nature, so that it may be said of him that he is arisen from among the brothers, he also shares in the Divine nature, being true God from eternity.
And this answers our question, why John is so disinterested in himself. "I am not," is his reply. "Who are you?" "That's not important. I'm a voice, that is all. I'm a voice, who wants to tell you about someone else." Surely John is an extraordinary man. We would love to learn more about him. But John isn't interested in telling us about himself. He's wants to tell us about Jesus. That is his job. To tell people about Jesus.
So John gives a great example of how pastors should do their job. Pastors aren't supposed to be celebrities. People shouldn't follow them, because they like their personalities or think they're special. But they should listen to hear if the pastor talks about Jesus. John does this well.
Yet, in preparing this way, John also must preach the Law. He must declare the necessity for repentance. Because, although we like to poke fun at people of Israel, because they complained, and because they were so scared of God, they had something right that we get wrong. The holiness of God is a scary thing. We can't long endure the fire and shaking mountain, the smoke and lightning. God is too holy for us. The people of Israel knew this. We often forget it. We grow comfortable in our sin. We become ignorant of the fact that we cannot stand before a holy God. And so we grow ignorant of our need for Jesus.
God promised a prophet to come from among us, because Israel shook with fear at the presence of God. God sent Christ as a little baby in Bethlehem, because if he sent him in clouds and smoke in his bare righteousness, we would die of terror.
So John's job is to convince people that they need Jesus. That if God were to come to them without Jesus, they would die. But because God has become our brother, we have a Savior to whom we can draw near. John tells us to repent; turn from our sins. He preaches that even this Jesus, who comes as our brother has "his winnowing fork in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:12) This means that although Christ is truly our brother in the flesh, born of the Virgin Mary, he still condemns those who refuse to repent and believe in him, yet he will gather all those who have faith to live with him for eternity. So John warns. He calls to repentance. And he points to the only Savior we have, Jesus Christ.
Next Saturday we will hear the angel say to the shepherds, "Fear not! For behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:10-11) It is a blessing that God came to us as a baby in a manger. It is a blessing that Jesus Christ shares our flesh and blood? Why? First, because it proves that God keeps his promise. He sent us our Prophet and rose him up from among us. It proves what the prophet Isaiah spoke, "Rain down, you heavens, | from above,* and let the skies pour down the | Righteous One. Let the earth o- | pen her womb,* and bring forth Sal- | vation." (Isaiah 45:8) So God rained down the righteous one by sending Christ Jesus. And the daughter of Adam, the man of the earth, gave birth to our Savior.
Second, that Christ shares our flesh and blood proves that God loves us. He does not want us to shake in fear as Israel did at the foot of that mountain. He wants to forgive us. He went to great lengths to dispel our fears, to save us from our sins and to make us his very own people. Christ Jesus in flesh and blood demonstrates the greatest effort given to save. And it was a successful effort. The man Jesus takes away your sins. He is your God and Savior. There is good reason John wants to talk of him and not of himself. Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. And there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved, than Jesus, our Prophet, our God, our Savior (Acts 4:12). Amen.