sermon on John 1:19-34
Last week it was angels and shepherds. This week it’s John the Baptist.
Last week, angels were directing our attention toward a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And then shepherds brought us along for a visit as they shared the news.
This week, John the Baptist is out in the wilderness, with a similar role of pointing to Jesus.
I don’t want to spend all our time this morning on Bible study comparisons of the gospels and on recounts explaining history, but will say that for a while, we understand John to have been more popular and attractive, to have more of a following than Jesus. The other gospels say crowds were going out from Jerusalem and the surrounding country to hear him. Somewhat like Jesus, John was arrested and killed for being seen as dangerously revolutionary. That level of acclaim and influence seems to have persisted even after his death.
The other gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—give more of a portrait, with descriptions of John’s curious wardrobe and peculiar diet, and his message with baptism of repentance drawing the masses out to the wilderness.
With that message about sins and calling for radical reorientation in our life, I’d note that we usually hear these passages about John the Baptist in the middle of Advent. They can be awfully demanding and dour words in a season when we want to focus on cheer and all being merry and bright. With odd disjunctions in how our usual lectionary and liturgical year fit together, if we think about Advent as preparation for Christmas, remember that John wasn’t pointing toward a Messiah by getting ready for a birth; this is already when Jesus is an adult. And John’s preparing the way of the Lord isn’t the adornment and accumulation of the holidays, but is about clearing things away.
So maybe it actually feels more appropriate and fits better today, as you’ve cleared away some of the Christmas detritus and perhaps begun to clean up and pack away the ornamentation. Maybe that makes you feel ready to address straightening things out.
Indeed, that version of John the Baptist from other gospels may seem especially timely for us starting a new year, in these days that cause us to look back in reflection, to assess our lives, to take stock and resolve what needs to change. This transition to the new year can be a repentance moment.
And that may be some of the reason for John’s enduring popularity. He’s the self-help sort of figure. Evidently it’s not just us, but those ancient crowds also that like self-improvement projects and find them to be an endless diversion. There’s always something about ourselves we’d change, that we wish were different, that we feel to our core is a little rotten, is not quite right. Those ancient crowds could head out for a retreat of wilderness renewal, for the washing of water to give a sense of a fresh start, with assistance and direction from a guru instructing them exactly what they needed to do and how to practice being better.
The thing is, though, that’s not why we mark the enduring legacy of John the Baptist. And the Gospel of John focuses more directly on his importance for us as a secondary sort of character. In the Gospel of John, the main point isn’t his background baptizing or his potential in preaching repentance and radical reorientation of our lives and values. His central identity here is as John the Testifier or John the Witness. He is sent by God so that everyone might believe through him, it says. Which is saying something pretty big.
And yet for the huge importance of that role, he spends his time pointing away from himself. It’s emphasized and reiterated in our reading today: “he confessed and did not deny it, but confessed.” I am not! He said he was not the Messiah, not the anointed and chosen one.
He said he was not Elijah, the prophet we met this fall in conversation with the still, small voice of God, who was taken up into heaven and expected to return. That’s an interesting one, since the other gospels specifically try to associate him with Elijah, including as the reason he’s wearing that curious wardrobe. It’s so strongly connected that our Old Testament is arranged to end with the book of Malachi with the final words, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” which leads into the appearance of John the Baptist at the start of the New Testament in Matthew.
But here John says he’s not Elijah. And he says he is not the prophet. Even though he was out at the Jordan River to guide people back into the Promised Land, he distances himself from being identified with the prophet Moses said would follow in his footsteps as a leader. So there could be reason to see John in those roles, enacting those expectations.
But he says he’s not. He’s just a pointer to Jesus. That is his central role and identity, as a witness to the light. A billboard, and advertisement, as Linda said. John the Testifier. A penultimate, secondary character, who ranks lower.
The point of all of this is Jesus.
Well…so you may not be entirely surprised by that, at least until you stop to consider it. I think there is a fair amount of presumption that church and the practice of faith is really about making you a better person, that we think primarily of our self-improvement projects and resolving that we’ll be a little nicer and more helpful and holier in the coming year.
But that is pretty hopelessly self-centered, and with fairly bleak prospects. The reason we keep making new new year’s resolutions is because we keep failing. The reason there are always new diets and new workouts and new tips for healthy living is because we remain so unsuccessful, frustrated even at convincing ourselves we’re doing fine.
And I suspect a fair amount of our prayers and ponderings as we gather here weekly to confess are reflecting on the parts of ourselves we’d like to improve, and that there’s a broad sense of sermons as encouraging little pep-talks to send you back into life motivated to try again, with some notion that maybe by the end you’ll be able to sneak by as good enough to make it in to heaven.
But that’s not the point. That’s not the central message or why we’re here. That’s not why John is important to us. He points, points away from ourselves, points to Jesus. And as we continue in the weeks ahead with this fourth gospel, we’ll have the benefit of having our gaze continually refocused on Jesus. He himself is our core, the reason we’re here, the point of it all.
But that keeps coming with surprise. Last week those angels and shepherds pointed to the surprise of a baby in a barn, which pointed directly away from the usual expectations. The proclamation about the birth of a savior, the lord, and the son of god were words that usually indicated Caesar, the leader of the Roman Empire, the absolute ultimate central pinnacle of power. So an outcast baby in a backwater barn at the edge of the Empire, visited not by wealthy aristocrats and fierce generals and influential politicians, but attended only by shepherds, well, that would’ve been the opposite of any indicator of prestige or power or potential.
The Messiah who will come to save us, and the sign is a baby?! That’s certainly not the mighty new King David that the people were anticipating and yearning for. We get it wrong not only in thinking that it’s about us and how well we’re doing by society’s standards or God’s measurements, but also wrong in what we hope for or expect when God shows up for us.
So in a similar surprising way today, we get the same reversal of expectations with John’s pointing personality. We have the sense of what the people are looking for in their questions to John—they want a Messiah, probably meaning one to come and drive out the bad guys. They want an Elijah, a mystical undying miracle worker who drops down out of heaven to bring about God’s final vision. They want a prophet like a new Moses to guide them out of wilderness wanderings and lead them into a Promised Land. That’s what the people want, and we probably could agree with wanting a messiah to straighten out society and get things running right again, or somebody to show up with all the answers, to save us from our troubles, to be a great leader, with some sort of moral revolution, with panache and power and in whom we can be proud.
But not only does John the Baptist reject the claim to be any of those things, he won’t point to Jesus as fulfilling them either. He sees Jesus walking by and points his long bony finger and says, “There’s the one. Jesus. He’s the lamb.”
Lambs aren’t especially known for their military might. They’re weaklings. They’re not known for their leadership capabilities, since they’re mostly apt to roam astray. They’re common, regular livestock not known as much of anything special. What they are known for is dying, for offering blood for a Passover marker and serving as dinner. With our ongoing surprise, John points to Jesus and says that that’s him, and that’s what this is all about.
As I was visiting family and friends in Eau Claire this past week, almost every conversation turned to assess the state of our lives and world through this past year and deeply asking what we can change or do about it. I know this congregation holds those concerns dearly, too.
But the pointing of John the Testifier doesn’t give us much resolution. This doesn’t come with a step-by-step how-to manual. It’s not explanation but proclamation, pointing to Jesus: Lo, unto you is born a savior, a tiny left-out baby who will die. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!