Advent 4 – December 19th/20th, 2015 – John 1:19-28
In the Name of Christ Jesus our Advent King +
Just who are you? Who do you think you are John, that you would be out here in the desert, causing all this ruckus and commotion? That’s the real question that gets asked of John today in our Gospel lesson. Who are you, and why should we bother listening to you? John’s authority is attacked – he’s basically told to quiet down. Yet John doesn’t. Why? How? Where does he get this boldness from – how does he stand in the face of these attacks? John has this strength not because he knew who he was, but because John knew who Christ was. That was the key, that was the source of His strength, and it is also the source of our strength as we face life in this world.
The Apostle John uses interesting words speaking of John the Baptist here. These words set us up, prepare us for the rest of the text. Listen to the first two verses again. “And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”” Two very important words there that should catch our attention. First, testimony. Witness. Martyr in the Greek. That’s the word that is used here. John is giving testimony. Now, in certain parts of American Christianity today, a testimony or a testimonial is a weighted word – it refers to some person up at the front of the Church going on and on and on about how he used to be such a sinner but now he’s great and right with Jesus. That’s not what John is doing, and that’s not what testimony or witnessing is about. Not at all. Testimony isn’t about you, testimony is all about the truth. If you are called to be a witness in court, if you are called to give testimony, you’re not there to talk about yourself but about what you have seen. You are called to the stand and then you are sworn in. If you haven’t been in court, I’m sure you’ve seen the TV shows – Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? What John says here is the truth, he is speaking truly, he is giving the account of what really is. He’s not tooting his own horn, he’s not feeding people what they want to hear. In fact, he's not at all interested in himself; he has come to bear witness.
The second word is confess. The Gospel uses the word “confessed” twice to describe what John is doing. To confess is to speak together, and here John is speaking along with God God's own truth. He’s not going to make his part look bigger, he’s not going to try to shift the focus or placate folks – when they come from the priests and the Levites, John will say what he must say – the truth – even though it will end up with him in prison. John’s confession here is his death warrant, it means his head on a silver platter for a spoiled young girl.
So what is this testimony, this confession that John gives? It starts with, “I’m not the Christ.” The focus isn't about me, you should be looking towards the One who is coming – repent for His Kingdom is at hand! Well, then, who are you? Are you someone important? Can we give you an important title? John says no. Just stonewalls them. And so these folks from Jerusalem get a bit frustrated: “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” [John] said “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ as the prophet Isaiah foretold.” What humility. What simple humility. Here John could have taken credit for himself. He could have claimed that he is a mighty preacher. He could have claimed that he is a prophet like Moses, turning the hearts of the fathers to their sons. He could even have called himself the promised Elijah – that’s what Jesus will call him. But John’s not interested in himself. Who are you, John? Eh, I’m just a voice – a voice foretold by the prophet Isaiah – I’m just a man pointing to one who greater. How wonderful is that? John minimizes himself – he doesn’t puff himself up. I mean, this is John the Baptist– John the Forerunner – John the Baptizer -- he’s so important that we’ve given him multiple titles – but he doesn’t claim one for himself. Why not?
Hear what John says. “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.” John looks at these proud, power hungry underlings from the bigwigs in Jerusalem and confesses that he is nothing – at least not compared to Christ. This is the heart of what John is all about – it’s not about me, it’s not about who I am and what I can do – this isn’t about my glory, my fame. There is One who is coming, and He is coming quickly, and we all best get ready. He is the One you should be looking for, He is the One you should be preparing for, for He is the Christ, He is the Messiah, He shall baptize with the Holy Spirit and with Fire, He will win Salvation for His people. For John, it always all comes down to Christ. We hear folks saying that Jesus is my all in all – well that’s what you actually see when you look at John in the desert – it’s all about Jesus for John.
In this John teaches us. To be a Christian is to turn away from your own glory, your own praise, your own desires. To be a Christian is to repent. And I’m not saying this because I’m mean or because I’m cranky. Rather, Christ Jesus and His forgiveness frees you from the burden of trying to prove yourself right, of trying to justify yourself. It’s hard work coming up with excuses. It’s hard work doing the song and dance, it’s hard work trying to convince your neighbors that you are wonderful all the time. It’s hard work, because we are sinners. Each of us has dropped the ball on something this past week, we’ve hurt people by what we’ve done, by what we’ve left undone, and our initial response is to try and convince everyone that we really are good people. John shows us that we don’t have to. We don't have to build up our reputation; our task in life isn’t to try and impress our neighbor – we are to love them. And those times when we don’t love our neighbor – we apologize to them, and we confess our sin to God. And then like John, we look to Christ. The Cross is where we see our sin covered, the cross is where our forgiveness is won. . . we look to Christ our Crucified Lord, the Holy, Righteous One who has died in our stead to win for us forgiveness. There's a reason that's a giant cross and not a giant mirror. The Cross is where we take our hope from, that’s where we constantly look to, that’s where we get life. We come to the altar humbly confessing our sin, trusting in His Words take and eat, given for you, shed for you, delighting in His forgiveness.
John is also the example for our witnessing, our proclamation of the Gospel. It can be hard to talk to others about the faith, can’t it? I have a hard time doing it myself often enough. . . the nervous feeling in your stomach, the hesitation, should I say something, what if I upset them, is this the right time, what will they think of me, what do I say? Or your mind races nervously while you stand there and don’t say anything. John teaches us. Simply point to Christ. Witnessing, proclaiming the Gospel is simply that. . . proclaiming the Gospel, the Good News, telling people what Jesus has done for them. And you know what Jesus has done for them, because Jesus has done it for you too. When you see someone in pain, someone suffering, someone feeling bad over something they’ve done – you’ve felt all those things too. Just as Christ comforts and forgives you, so too He forgives and comforts that person, and sometimes even through you. Simply point to Christ. Don’t worry about trying to convince the person how wonderful you are or how your life has gotten better because you’re a Christian, don't try to tell them that it's not that bad or what they did wasn't that bad – that’s not what they need – they don’t need your awesomeness, they don’t need promises of a dream life. They need Jesus and His forgiveness and the life He brings – show them, point them to Christ. Proclaiming the Gospel isn’t about you. Our Lord has told us that it is the Holy Spirit working in us, speaking through us – let Him do His work.
And know this – John does not merely teach us as individual Christians. He teaches this Congregation what we are to be as a congregation. Just like John, we are to point to Christ in everything we do. And that is such a comfort – because we know that Christ Jesus is the point of this place – and that Christ Jesus Himself will tend it. I’ve been around plenty of congregations, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that there is a temptation to always try to paint a pretty picture, to pretend that there are no warts, to pretend that we are always just perfect and loving to each other. Ain’t the case. A congregation is a family, and there’s always warts and rumblings and grumblings in any family. And the temptation we face is to try to focus so much on putting on a well made-up face for the community, for our neighbors that we forget our purpose. This building wasn’t built in order to prove to our neighbors how wonderful we are, it wasn’t built to make us look wonderful – it was built to be a place of God. This is a place where God’s Word is read, where it is preached, where it is sung in our hymns and liturgy. This is a place where God comes to us in His Own Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins. It is God’s house – the place where God deigns to come and give Himself to us. On this, let us be ever more and more eager to focus upon Christ – to admit our own unworthiness, and invite our equally unworthy friends here to behold Christ and His gifts to us. And as long as He wishes to come to people in this place, He will provide. When we remember this, we remain humble and let God be God, and it’s a great thing, for God always comes to save His people. That's what He delights in. It's why Christ Jesus comes in the first place. The trouble really only comes in when we no longer look to Him and rather try to focus upon ourselves.
That was the problem in Jerusalem. People wanted to see their own rank and glory and power, so John told the people of his day that one stands among them whom they did not know. But thanks be to God, you do know Him – Christ Jesus the Lord has brought you here to His house. He is Emmanuel, God with us. He has washed you richly in His forgiveness, lavished His love upon you. He brings you every blessing of life and salvation, he frees you from your guilt, frees you from the burdens you place on yourself. And so, in response, we gather together and we praise Him, we point to Christ and Christ alone, waiting for Him to come and give us His blessings, both now and eternally. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, Come quickly. In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +