John 1:19-28 (Third Sunday in Advent—Series B)
“One Who Prepares the Way
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
December 14, 2014
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is from the Gospel Lesson recorded in John 1:
And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” 24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice. ‘Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’ ‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’ ‘I can’t explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’ ‘I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar. ‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, ‘for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’ ‘It isn’t,’ said the Caterpillar. ‘Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,’ said Alice; ‘but when you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will some day, you know—and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?’ ‘Not a bit,’ said the Caterpillar. ‘Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,’ said Alice; ‘all I know is, it would feel very queer to ME.’ ‘You!’ said the Caterpillar contemptuously. ‘Who are YOU?’ Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation. (Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 5)
Who are you? We get asked that question all the time. We usually respond with our name, or perhaps our occupation. “I’m John. I’m a locksmith.” “I’m Kevin. I’m a teacher.” It would seem very strange indeed, as strange as the scene from Alice in Wonderland, if we were asked “Who are you?” and we started talking about someone else. The individual doesn’t want to know who we are not, but rather who we are. We just don’t identify ourselves in the negative by saying who we’re not nor by pointing to someone else. Yet that is what John did when the Jews from Jerusalem sent to him priests and Levites so that they might ask him, “Who are you?”
He starts by telling them who he isn’t—“I am not the Christ.” It seems that the priests and Levites were wondering especially if he might be the long-promised Messiah. So John cuts right to the matter and confesses, “I am not the Messiah.” Okay, that clears up the big question, but doesn’t tell us who you are then. Elijah was prophesied to return before the coming of the Messiah, are you Elijah? “I am not.” Are you the Prophet like Moses who is to arise? “No.” Again, we know now more clearly who John is not, but what about who he is?
Here again no name, no profession. He says, “I’m the voice crying aloud, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ just as Isaiah the prophet said.” So you’re just a voice? That’s the answer we get to take back to those who sent us? Who is that guy out in the wilderness around Bethany beyond the Jordan, the one baptizing? Oh, he’s not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet. He’s just a voice talking about the One who is coming after him, One we don’t know yet, of whom this voice is not worthy that he should untie the strap of His sandal. Who is he? We don’t really know.
What a reply by John to his official inquirers! He clears up for them who he is not, but really doesn’t offer much in the way of identification of himself except to say that he is the voice of one crying of whom the prophet Isaiah wrote about in chapter 40 of his book. Why? One commentator put the answer this way: “The Baptist might have answered the question addressed to him in a positive form by stating his name, parentage, and divine commission. Instead of this he answers the implication that lies in the question and thus from the start meets it squarely and directly. In all his proclamation to the people he had said nothing about himself. He himself was only a minor figure, one who came to point to Another far greater than himself, which all who heard him could have no difficultiy in perceiving. When he is now asked directly who he himself really is, [John] replies in the same way, pointing away from himself to this Greater One. That is what makes his reply a confession and a testimony.” (Lenski, 108-109) As the Gospel writer penned, “This is the testimony of John. . . . And he confessed and did not deny, and confessed. . . .”
John’s testimony and confession was not about himself. In answer to the question, who are you, it was more important for John to point away from himself to One who comes after John, Jesus the Christ. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.” (John 1:6-7) In other words, John would say about his own identity, “It’s not important. What is of greatest importance is that I point you to the Coming One, the Christ Himself, the Light of the World. I am not the Christ. I am simply the voice God sent to you to prepare you through repentance and faith to receive the One who is God-made-flesh, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ the Lord.”
Now take a look at yourself. Who are you? Each one of us is tempted to give our name, our job, maybe family history. But I ask you to take a look at John and learn from him to confess and to bear witness to who you are by pointing to the One who made you who you are. You are a Christian. Whose name do you bear? The precious name of Jesus the Christ! Doesn’t that mark who you are more than anything else? Christian—child of God—heir of salvation—light of the world—salt of the earth! That is who you were redeemed and forgiven to be by Jesus Christ. It is your baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ that makes you a Christian, one who belongs to Christ, one who is in Christ and Christ in you, the hope of salvation.
But unlike John, we don’t always confess, but often deny that we are Christians by the way we live and act Monday-Saturday. So we should examine ourselves and ask ourselves the hard questions. Do the words I use, and how I speak and talk, point others to Jesus? Are my actions consistent with my faith in Jesus? Does what I do and how I do it point others to Jesus? As Christians our lives are to be witnesses to Christ and living confessions of faith. But they are not always. Many times they are the polar opposites. Thus we hear the call of John—repent.
In sorrow over our failure to confess Christ with our lips and lives, we acknowledge our sin and ask Jesus for forgiveness. Through His Gospel, the Lord Jesus bestows upon the repentant the very forgiveness which His blood purchased on the cross. The faith we were given in Holy Baptism apprehends that forgiveness and makes it ours. We die to sin and rise to new life in the forgiveness of our sins. In the power of the Gospel of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit turns us from our sinfulness, turns us from our failings to live for Christ and to bear witness to Christ with our words and actions. He changes us. He empowers us through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament to confess and not deny, but to confess in what we say and how we live and act that Jesus Christ is the Lord of our lives, our Savior and our King. Like John, you and I are prepared to always make a defense for the hope that is in us to anyone who asks, “Who are you?”
God’s Word challenges all of us this morning to look again at who we are in Christ. We are Christians who bear witness and point to Christ in what we say and do. Next time you and I are asked, “Who are you?” let’s tell people “I am a Christian. I believe that Jesus is my Lord and Savior from sin and death. Can I tell you more about Him?” By the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, make the good confession of faith in Christ every day, Sunday-Saturday. Be like John, a voice in the world of darkness pointing the way to Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. Amen.