John 1. 19-28 | Advent 3B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

The Gospel of the Lord

Please find a pen or pencil and a sheet of paper. Y’all knew it was only a matter of time before this moment when I succumbed to the dark side of my teacher-ly instincts. Well here it is. It’s time for a pop quiz. Question 1: fill in the blank: Who did Jesus mean when he said “truly, I say to you, among those born of women, there is not anyone greater than __________?” And Question 2: short answer: write about John the baptizer in less than 200 words.

By the time you reach the NT, there have been any number of strange characters in Israel’s history. Perhaps the strangest of all is John – the forerunner of Jesus. In a good cop/bad cop game plan, Temple officials sent Priests and Levites across the Jordan River to where John was baptizing folk. In a probe/jab interrogation, they were determining whether he was the Messiah or someone who could, at the very least, show them the coming Messiah (vs. 19-22). Notice he tells them who he isn’t.  John isn’t the Messiah, isn’t Elijah (Mal. 4.5) and isn’t Deuteronomy’s prophet (18.15).  He just isn’t the right answer to their questions. Perhaps, like them, we drift more naturally, looking for  someone like a Moses, the deliverer, or like a David the rugged, humbled king or a Daniel the statesman or an Isaiah with his vast prophetic landscape. Notice, however, he does tell them who he is “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord:.  They weren’t listening for Isaiah’s curious voice echoing across the Wilderness (40.3).

Now the Lord sent John as a witness so here’s the theme I want to propose to you in the Gospel’s characterization of John this morning-  like John, you and I are most successful and attractive when we attach the loyalty of others to Jesus rather than to ourselves. The only way for an increasing Jesus is a decreasing self. The Lord sent John to teach us this.

Let’s stretch out a bit and move to the other Gospels. Luke tells us John’s parents – Zachariah and Elizabeth- belonged to Israel’s priestly clan, living in a one stop sign village – Bethlehem.  They were elderly and childless. Can we not suppose that during their lifetime they held the children of others so lovingly, so longingly in their arms? Long past childbearing, suddenly, into the shadows of their unfulfilled hopes, their desires, into their barren arms came their own child sent by the Lord (Lk. 1.5-25, 57-59). Wonderful, miraculous, yes, but more than that. It’s overpowering. To hold your child in your arms for the first time is the kind of experience that brings a lump to your throat, that brings you to your knees, brings healing tears to your eyes. 

And that child was sent to Israel also. Luke tells us John spent his time in the Wilderness not the Temple. It wasn’t Palmdale or Palm Springs. It was rugged, a place of self-denial, sparseness not something sought out by most folk. Luke tells us John in the Wilderness “grew and became strong in spirit” (1.80). In that environment the Lord gave him the vision and words for his baptism ministry.  And Luke tells John’s Wilderness development was being paralleled by his cousin Jesus in Nazareth’s village “and he (Jesus) grew and became strong, he was filled with wisdom and the Lord’s favor was on him” (2.52). Matthew and Mark  tell us when this son of priests did appear, was he ever different from the clergy of his day. He was dressed in an itchy, three piece camel suit held together with a wide leather belt. He had a crunchy diet – locusts washed down with honey. He was lean, leathery like the Wilderness (Mt. 3.4; Mk. 1.6). And note this carefully, he could get away with beginning his sermons “you brood of vipers”. Y’all got off easy with a pop quiz! He spoke in images gleaned from the Wilderness. He came to Israel as a “voice” to announce the Lord’s coming (Mt. 3. 3. 7; Mk. 1.2-3).

Let’s return to the Fourth Gospel, especially to the first chapter. John was a man sent by the Lord to Israel as a witness (1.6). He had a common name but he was far from ordinary. Remember, although priestly, he was embedded in the Wilderness not the Temple. But he didn’t blend into either one. He looked like a survivalist more than a priest but he preached like a revivalist. John knew that no one received ministry except from the Lord (1. 31). He had a ministry – a repentance baptism done in the Jordan River. Now water is powerful. It can sweep over the land, wash things away,  break things down. So John’s water baptism, making a public repentant profession, was regarded as a sweeping away in order to participate in a renewed allegiance to the LORD’s kingdom. But Jesus was about to appear with something far and away more sweeping – a baptism with the Spirit that led to being born again (1.33). 

John did not have the first place but he did have a place. There would be no competition between him and Jesus. Light is coming. Darkness is already here. In the darkness we cannot see the Lord. We stumble around. To see Jesus in the light is to see the Lord.  Jesus not John is the light but John was going to hold out the light (1.6-9).

John would say clearly he was sent for a witness.  A witness is one who has personal knowledge and uses it as evidence. He declared of Jesus “ I have seen and I witness that this is the son of God” (1. 34). He came so that another might shine (1.7-8, 15). He said “I am a voice crying in the Wilderness….” He was not the Word who was with God in the beginning (1.1ff). The sound of his voice was limited (1.19-24). He was not Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet and he didn’t present his priestly credentials. Outside the traditional channels, he is just a “voice. John had no illusions. Too often people are attracted to a lamp or voice and not the Light or the Word. In her book “Through the Gates of Splendor”, Elizabeth Elliott reproduces one of her husband Jim’s prayers. In the spirit of the Baptizer, he prayed  “Lord God, forbid that those who hear me would confuse my words as though they are yours or take your words as though they are mine.”  

John never said he had no purpose. But he was not indispensable. He had a firm grasp on his ministry – Jesus must increase, I must decrease (3.30). He came to clear the path, remove the obstacles in Israel’s mind to the coming Messiah. He was a one man road crew filling in the potholes, picking up the litter, trimming the trees. All this so people could see the Messiah. And it is here we see the most significant aspect of his ministry – he needed to get out of the way. He wasn’t part of the procession. He stood to the side with stunning gracefulness. Advertising one’s ministry as a way to improve behavior or status just makes someone one more religious person handing out self-help flyers in the spiritual marketplace. Polishing one’s celebrity is nothing special. However, admitting as John does “among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” is.  You don’t have to look very far in church settings to see that very few people can handle success or planned obscurity like John (1.25-28).

His joy, satisfaction came from obedience to his ministry not from fame, honor, celebrity. Farther into the Fourth Gospel, we hear John draw on a familiar event – a  wedding – to develop further his supportive role as a witness. Weddings in the Second Temple period were mega-affairs – laced up tightly with honor codes. The “friend” of the groom was a “witness” for the couple and the community. It was an important and delicate job to certify that the marriage had been consummated. John’s humility calling attention to Jesus not himself is captured in this declaration “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete” (3.27-30). 

But remember, here’s the tension. He doesn’t look or act like we expect. Up close, we might not like him. And aren’t we sure we wouldn’t hire him as a managing editor or media image consultant. And don’t we have our doubts he’d fit in well on a faculty or be a rector. He probably wouldn’t get to a mission board’s discernment weekend. He just doesn’t fit the mold. We’re not convinced we can figure him out. When you can’t figure someone out you kinda want to hit the delete tab. But take note. This is the very person who preceded Jesus. (1.29-34). All this is to say he was balanced. He had both feet on the ground. He wasn’t the Light but he could hold out the light. He wasn’t the Word but he had a voice. He wasn’t the groom but he was the friend. He said “Look, the Lord’s lamb. He’s the One. Take a good look at him” (1.29). 

So let’s revisit the theme I proposed to you in the Gospel’s characterization of John –  like John, you and I are most successful and attractive when we attach the loyalty of others to Jesus rather than to ourselves. The only way for an increasing Jesus is a decreasing self.  Like John, you and I have been sent. We have a ministry. Like John, you and I, sent by the Lord, are not insignificant. We’re not the Word, but we have a voice, We’re not the Light but we hold out the light. We’re not the groom but we stand as a witness for the groom.  Like John, you and I, sent by the Lord, have a ministry of promoting Jesus not ourselves. Like John, you and I, sent by the Lord, should rejoice when Jesus has first place in our ministry.  Like John, you and I,  sent by the Lord, in committing others to Jesus should be committed to gracefully surrendering the spotlight. 

Thus endeth the quiz, Beloved

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