John The Baptist (or John the Signpost)

This is the sermon I preached at the 11.15 service this morning.  I preached a shorter version at the 9.30 that was also somewhat interrupted, but this is the full version of my sermon on John 1:19-28.  I didn’t find it particularly easy to prepare – the passage stops short of the great descriptions of Jesus in the next bit of John, and I didn’t get to talk about the way this passage is day 1 in John’s first week of Jesus’ ministry (which culminates in Jesus doing his first miracle in John 2:1-11), but I did enjoy getting into this particular text of John and seeing its message for us.  So if you missed it, here it is:

Sermon:

Our reading today breaks into John’s gospel at this point: Read: John 1:1-4
Into this beautiful poetry comes a story about an ordinary man in real flesh and blood history. So come back on a time travel expedition to this point 2000 years ago. To a people waiting in darkness. Waiting for Light to come. Waiting for the Light to be made known. Waiting.

For in John’s day the people were waiting. Waiting for a King. Waiting for relief from the Romans. The Jews lived in a land promised to them long before – yet they did not rule themselves in that land, and they longed for the day when the descendant of David, the new anointed ruler, the Messiah would come and defeat the Romans.

Meanwhile they struggle to survive as best they can. All sorts of groups have sprung up at the time, all with their own way of surviving Roman rule. The Pharisees with their efforts to keep the entire law. The Sadducees, many of them Priests and Levites with their adherence to only the law, and suspicion of prophets, controlling the temple worship and seeking to get along as well as they could with Rome. The Zealots seeking to overthrow Rome by force. Other people retreating into the desert to form a purer community of the real Israel. We have our similar ways of surviving darkness today: compromise, withdrawal, violence, hiding…

Into that world of struggle and darkness comes a man – his name was John– John the Baptist is not the light, according to the John who wrote about him John the Baptist comes so that people would see the light, and believe in the light and come to have the life that the light brings.

He comes preaching in the wilderness. Outside the cities and towns. The other side of the Jordan river. And crowds flock to him.
But John is different. People come to him. They repent of their sins. He baptises them. Even Roman soldiers come to him. They go back to their lives, to live as differently as they can. Some stay and listen to John, to hear his teaching. To hear his message of fire and repentance. Crowds of people.

So the leaders come to check John out – to make sure this man is OK:
1:19 the testimony of John when the Jews sent Priests and Levites from Jerusalem to check out John, and ask him who he thought he was, and who gave him the authority to baptise. “The Jews” in John’s gospel is pretty much always a convenient shorthand for the leaders of the Jewish people in Jerusalem.

Today we are going to simply focus on the two basic questions they ask. Both times we will look at what we can learn from John’s answer. The first question is “Who are you?”, and the second is “What is your status that means it is OK to baptise?” – and John’s answer is not what they expect, but has the potential to turn their, and our, worlds upside down.

I. John claims simply to be the voice making the way ready for the arrival of God to restore his people.
John the gospel writer makes it clear that Jesus is this coming of God. What he wants us to do is to
believe in Jesus, the God who comes into our messed up worlds.

The question the Jewish leaders ask in v19 is simple: “Who are you?” and John’s answer is straightforward. “I am not the Christ”. We are told that he confessed this clearly, not denying it, but confessing “I am not the Christ”. The opposite of the weasel denials of the politician about to run for office “I have no ambitions in that direction” – no a clear, straightforward denial. (footnote – I stole this illustration from Tom Wright’s excellent John for Everyone)

Christ means “anointed one”. Israel’s kings were anointed to show that they were chosen by God.
The Jews of Jesus day looked forward to one figure, “The Messiah” who would rescue Israel and restore the kingdom to what it had been in the days of David.
But John is not the Messiah, and he isn’t going to let anyone think so for more than a minute.
That’s very sensible politically – in the volatile climate of the day claims to be Messiah were very sensitive, and liable to cause much disturbance.

But it is also a reflection of his clear sense of call and identity. He is not the light – but comes to point to the light. Only one Messiah – and it isn’t him. Something we need to remember too in the work we do for Jesus – there is only one Messiah and it isn’t us.

The deputation scratch their heads and think harder. How about Elijah? Sounds odd to us.
But remember the stories. 2 Kings 2 describes Elijah taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire rather than dying. Malachi 4 talks about God sending Elijah before the final day of the LORD.

So maybe if John is not the Messiah he is Elijah – after all he lives in the desert and dresses and eats rather oddly. Once again John’s denial is straightforward. “I am not” This is slightly trickier than the previous denial because Jesus seems to imply in the other gospels that John is in some sense Elijah.

However it may simply be that John is answering the literal sense – “no I am not Elijah”, while Jesus is making the point that John the Baptist came in a similar way to Elijah.

The deputation have to think harder. John has this large preaching and baptising ministry, so who does he think he is?
Their next attempt is “the prophet”. This one is based on Deuteronomy 18:14-20
14 The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practise sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. 15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. 16 For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, ‘Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire any more, or we will die.’
17 The Lord said to me: ‘What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.
Based on this some people expected a figure like Moses to appear at some point – but John simply here says “No”. John is not the prophet.

They have had 3 guesses at his identity and they have failed each time. And so in desperation they blurt out “who are you? We need an answer to take back to those who sent us – what do you say about yourself.”

Perhaps they gave up too soon, or maybe no-one really took Isaiah 40’s mention of a voice literally,
but these experts in the OT missed the figure that John now claims to be.
John is simply a voice. A voice pointing away from himself to God’s great redemption. He is preparing the way for God to come back to his people and bring his people back to his land.

We heard those wonderful words read from Isaiah, of how God would gather his people and bring them home from Babylon to Jerusalem. Some of John’s listeners would no doubt have said “but we’re already home” – but others would have realised that their home was not yet truly home.
They lived still in a land occupied by foreign rule. The temple was a shadow of the former temple, and there had been no coming of God to the present temple as there had to Solomon’s.
God needed to come back, and they were ready to hear that he was on the way. And John, the gospel writer has told us that Jesus is the one John is pointing to.
We know that Jesus is God himself come to show us what God is like and bring about God’s plans.

And so the message is quite simple. Jesus is on the way. And John the gospel writer makes clear that Jesus coming is a two stage coming. He comes once to save, and will return to bring about God’s rule on earth – judging sin, and all who walk in darkness. So when we hear John saying “God is on the way” I wonder what we think. Life here can often be too comfortable to want to be disturbed. The countryside around is so beautiful. We are so fortunate to live in such a lovely area – even the view from Tesco’s car park is beautiful. Cleeve hill is beautiful. It’s tempting to make life about my comfort here and now. And yet. If my comfort comes at the expense of loving God and loving others then this message from John is a wake up call.

Jesus is coming back. To put everything right, including executing justice on all who prefer darkness to light. That was John the Baptists message, and that is what we all have to face. The leaders who question John do not seem convinced, and carry on doing the same thing to Jesus – and end up crucifying him.

Instead of being the interrogators of John and Jesus we need to be those who submit to their message. We need to be those who come to the light to become part of Jesus rescued people, and joining his mission – like those who are baptised by John.

II Which brings us on to the second question John is asked – why do you baptise – if you aren’t any of these three figures? John’s answer is that he baptises because the True Messiah is coming – and our response to that should be to submit to Jesus as our Lord and our King. John baptises because the True Messiah is coming and so we need to submit to Jesus as our Lord and King.
Some groups did baptise – Most often baptism of gentile converts – but requiring Jews to be baptised was not usual at all – After all Jews did not need to be purified, they were God’s people anyway – how could they be treated like Gentiles? Surely some particular authority is required for John to do this? John’s answer comes in V26-7 he talks of how one stands in the midst of them whom they do not know.

This person he talks of is the one who will come after John – the one John is preparing for –
God himself come in the flesh. God himself come to rescue and save. This person to come is greater than John he is the light, and he gives light to all. John is not worthy to untie his sandals –
John is not worthy to be his lowliest servant – remember how the lowliest slave got to deal with feet – stinky dirty roads.

John’s answer to “why do you baptise if you aren’t the Messiah, or Elijah or the prophet”
is essentially – because one far greater than me is already here – and I am not worthy to serve him at all.
John is preparing the way for Jesus by telling Jews that they need to be put right with God –
being Jewish is not enough. For us, being baptised, being confirmed, being church goers is not enough. A cheque we receive is useless until we deposit it in the bank.

John makes quite clear that each of us needs to respond personally to this message that Jesus is coming and we need to be ready. Can’t rely on anyone else to do it for you. John preparing the way for Jesus involved him calling people to repentance, and to be ready to put their trust in Jesus.
They came out to John to be baptised in the Jordan river – the same river that God had parted as Joshua marched the people into the land – the Jordan river is a symbol of God’s people coming back to God’s presence.

And for us too, turning to Jesus is a coming back to God. Today we have the accounts of Jesus birth, life, death and resurrection. We know far more than John did about Jesus. But the challenge is the same – do you believe and trust in Jesus as Saviour and Lord?
Christmas is a good, and a bad time to think about such things. Full of shopping, full of festivity, full of people – and it can be hard for all sorts of reasons. But the reason we celebrate is because of the man John points us to.

The Light coming into the darkness. The darkness does not understand it, and cannot overcome it, but it can still be very dark. We need to trust the Light. The Light that is Life.
So at Christmas we need to carve out time to look at the manger, and the God who lies in it.
To open our bibles, and read of the babe at Bethlehem who grew, lived, died and rose again.

In our lives we need to prepare the way for him to come. We need to point others to him – sign posts like John. And we need to remember that our world will be saved and transformed by God, not us. In all we do we are simply sign posts to Jesus and in all we do we must trust in Jesus and submit to him as Lord and God.

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