December 22, 2019
Last week we learned about how great John the Baptist was. Here, we see that even those who do not follow John have noticed that there is something special about him. So, the Pharisees send priests and Levites to investigate and ask John, who he is. Yet, John is not interested in talking about himself. John wants to talk about Jesus, the Christ, who has come to save sinners.
“I am not the Christ,” John confesses. Christ is the Greek translation of the word Messiah, which means anointed one. The Jews were waiting for the promised Messiah, the son of David, who would lead the people Israel and sit on an eternal throne. John is not the Christ. Rather, he comes to bear witness about the Christ.
“Are you Elijah?” they then ask. You might remember that the prophet Elijah never died. He ascended into heaven in a whirlwind riding a fiery chariot as he passed his mantel onto Elisha. Moreover, the last prophesy given in the Old Testament was given by the prophet Malachi, who said, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” Since Elijah never died, many thought Elijah would return from heaven. Yet, John is not the same Elijah who ascended into heaven. John was born of Elizabeth the wife of Zechariah, the priest. However, the angel Gabriel did tell Zechariah that his son John would go before the Lord in the spirit and the power of Elijah (Luke 1:17) and Jesus himself calls John, Elijah (Matthew 11:14). So, John does fulfill this prophecy of Malachi concerning the coming of Elijah, but he is not the same Elijah from the Old Testament, rather, he carries out the office of Elijah by pointing the way to Christ.
Yet, instead of explaining all this, John simply says, “No.” Knowing that these priests and Levites do not understand what they are asking.
“Are you the prophet?” they ask. This shows again the confusion of these inquisitors. The prophet is not just any prophet, but a specific prophet foretold of in Deuteronomy 18, which was our Old Testament lesson. God told Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.”
This is called a Messianic Prophecy. A Messianic prophecy is a prophecy about the Messiah, that is, it is God promising through a prophet to send the Christ. This Prophet, whom God will raise up from among the Jewish brethren is the Christ. John does not fulfill this prophecy, but rather Jesus, born of Mary to the house of David does. Jesus is the Prophet. So again, John answers, “No.”
So, they ask, “Who then are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” John says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah says.”
This is a huge statement! John is claiming to be that voice promised by the prophet Isaiah. The voice, who would lift up the valleys and lower the mountains; who would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord! We heard this prophecy last week. Isaiah said the voice would call all the people grass, which will wither away. This means that you cannot trust in any human being. You cannot trust in yourself. You cannot earn your way to heaven, rather all your works will fade away like the grass in the field. This voice will tell the people to prepare the way of the Lord by repenting of their sins and looking to the Lord, who comes with comfort and forgiveness.
Yet, these priests and Levites completely miss the point. John has clearly moved the discussion away from himself and over to the coming of the Lord, but these so-called experts of the Law are still dwelling on John. “Why then are you baptizing,” they ask, “If you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John must be astounded at their one-dimensional mind.
“I baptize 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.” This is as if John said, “Why are you still asking about me? I just told you that the Lord is near! I’m nothing! I just pour water. But I tell you of one who is so great, I’m not even worthy to untie his sandles!
This isn’t to say that John’s baptism is nothing. Jesus himself tells us that John’s Baptism is from heaven. But John speaks as any minister of Christ. “I’m nothing. Don’t focus on me. Focus on Christ Jesus! He has the real power. I just pour water, but he is the one who is doing the real work in Baptism. I just speak words, but he is the one who is really forgiving sins through my words. Don’t look at me. Look to Christ!”
This is John’s entire ministry. He says of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) For John to become nothing, so that Jesus may become everything in the hearts of his hearers is John’s greatest desire. Jesus is the bridegroom. The Church is his bride. John the Baptist says in John chapter 3, “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.” And so, John rejoices at the coming of the Lord as people flock to Jesus.
John’s ministry is all about Jesus. John says of Jesus, “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’” With these words John confesses Jesus to be true God and true man. Jesus comes after John. His ministry began after John’s. He was born after John, being about six months younger than him. John knows that Jesus is a man. Yet, John also knows that Jesus is God. He confesses that he is before him. He calls him the Son of God. (John 1:32-34) John confesses that Jesus comes from above and is above all; that he gives the Spirit without measure; that whoever believes in the Son has eternal life!” John unwaveringly confessed Jesus to be the Christ.
And John also confessed Jesus to be the Savior, who would take away all sins. He pointed to Christ and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” And to John’s great joy, a couple of his disciples stopped following him and began to follow Jesus.
This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet said that John would do. He writes, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God! Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” (Isaiah 40:9-11)
When Isaiah prophesies of John, he speaks more about Jesus than he does of John. Jesus is our God who comes to shepherd us. It is John’s job to proclaim this. And that he does. This is the most important job in the world, because faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). This is why Scripture says, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news.” The way we receive Jesus into our hearts as our Savior and Redeemer is by hearing and believing his words. And for this reason, God sends out his ministers to be his voice, to echo John the Baptist, and proclaim the coming of the Lord. This involves raising valleys and flattening mountains by preaching repentance from sins; and it involves comforting those trapped in darkness with the light of the world, Jesus Christ.
Yet, just as the priests and Levites were distracted by John and his funny way of dressing and eating (He wore camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey), and his odd way of preaching (He called those who came out to him brood of vipers! And he even preached against the sins of the king!), so people today become distracted by men and things and do not focus on Christ. People let that which is superficial distract them from Christ Jesus, who is the substance of our faith. And many get distracted by different voices that sound more appealing than the voice, which points to Christ.
Yet, we must not listen to any voice than that which points to Jesus Christ. John has set a standard for us. He points us to Jesus and to no one else. He makes straight the way of the Lord into our hearts by showing us our sins and need to repent. He tells us to bear fruit worthy of repentance, meaning, don’t just say you’re sorry, but actually mean it by stopping the sin you are committing and trying to do better! And he points to Jesus Christ alone, who is the Lamb of God, who takes your sins away. He preaches the truth and will not budge, even if his head is literally on the chopping block. John does this so that you look not to him, but to Jesus.
John did not confess himself. He confessed Christ Jesus. Jesus says that whoever confesses him before men, Jesus will confess before his Father in heaven. And Scripture also says, “With the mouth one confesses and is saved. John teaches us to be like him. John confessed Christ, and so Jesus confessed John before his Father and the whole world. John teaches you to confess Christ and no one else. Listen to Christ and do not get distracted by things that will fade away like grass.
This week we celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ, who came into the world to save sinners. He is the fulfillment of all Scripture. Our Savior. Our Prince of Peace. But we won’t find him in a manger wrapped in Swaddling Clothes. We find him in the voice of John, which proclaims Jesus and makes a way for Christ Jesus to dwell in our hearts. May Jesus dwell in our hearts through faith until we see him return to gather us home. Amen.