Advent 2023: John the Baptist

17 Dec 2023

Advent 2023: John the Baptist

Passage John 1:19-34

Speaker Phil Woodcock


Transcript (Auto-generated)

This transcript has been automatically generated, and therefore may not be 100% accurate.


So it's got to be Christmas. Ant and Dec have been to the jungle. Strictly's got a champion, so it's obviously Christmas. And later on today we've got some carol services, so it's time to start thinking about Christmas. But before we do, before we get to that, we need to talk about John.

Now, John was a pretty strange bloke. He wandered around the desert preaching about God whilst wearing animal skins, eating locusts and other wild food. And in other words, he was a bit rough. He's not the sort of bloke you'd want to take home to meet your mother, frankly. And that means he'd have been largely ignored by the nice people and he was largely ignored.

But once his crowd started getting bigger, the religious leaders of the time, they wanted to know why he was muscling in on their act. Why was this scruffy guy getting involved? How did he get the crowds? How did he get all these people coming to him that they didn't? Now, you might have heard of a chap called Ray Stedman, and he suggested that the phenomenon that was John was a bit like the way that Billy Graham's revival started.

Billy Graham started out with a dodgy suit, a really loud tie and a little tent just outside Los Angeles. And hardly anyone came to listen to him. Until, that is, a couple of very high profile actors from Hollywood turned up and then all of a sudden, crowds started appearing and many people began to hear of him and hear the message that he had. So John the Baptist, his movement grew to a point where the religious leaders just couldn't ignore him. John didn't fit with their idea of religion.

They were well dressed, well respected, very cosy with the Romans. Someone was rocking their boat and they wanted to know what was going on. So as we heard in the passage, they sent out this delegation to see John.

Verse 19, the priests and the Levites, they go and meet John. And one article I read, it calls them the church's private investigators, sent out to get. Get a handle on what was going on. They ask a simple who are you? Now, there's the obvious meaning, what's your name?

But secondly, there's a second part to that, and it's, who do you think you are? Who are you really? What do you like? What kind of person are you? And there's a third aspect, too.

Who are you to talk like this? By what authority do you speak? Who gives you the right to talk like that? In my head, I imagine a scene as though John the Baptist has been cornered by a whole horde of journalists, all shouting questions at him. Who are you?

What are you doing? Why are you here? But all the time they've got an ulterior motive for these questions. They are not there quizzing John because they think something amazing is happening from God. They're there to find a reason to debunk him.

I'm pretty sure that none of them at this point are thinking that this scruffy guy heralds the start of something so amazing.

John, of course, tells them exactly what he's told everybody else. I'm not the messiah. So then they ask him, well, if you're not a messiah, are you Elijah? Are you the ancient prophet who frankly looked a bit like you and lived like you? The priest has obviously read the prophecy in Malachi where God says, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day the Lord comes.

The jewish people have been waiting for Elijah because they knew he would signal the coming of God himself. The priests are probably a bit relieved when John tells them he's not Elijah either. But hang on a minute, here's a sidetrack for you. Some passages in the gospel do treat John as though he were Elijah, even though he says he wasn't. Even Jesus says that the transfiguration, that's Matthew 17.

I tell you, Elijah has already come and they did not recognise him. So how is that possible if John says he isn't Elijah? We need to go back to Luke 117 for that. And that's the story of John's dad, Zechariah, when he was told by an angel about the future birth of his son. Now in that verse 17, the angel says about John, he will go on before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah.

So thats how the Old Testament prediction was fulfilled. John wasnt Elijah, but he came before Jesus in the spirit and power of Elijah. It wasnt actually Elijah resurrected. And he was able to say to the priests, I am not Elijah. So the questioning continues.

If he's not Elijah, then is he a prophet? They want to know. Many people had interpreted what Moses said in deuteronomy. The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me, to mean that one of the prophets, maybe Jeremiah, would return in the future. They want to know if John is that prophet.

His answer is very short to that one. No.

So then the summary, if you're not the messiah, you're not Elijah and you're not a prophet, what are you? Now these guys have been sent from the town by their bosses to get an answer. And they can feel that they're in danger of not getting one. They plead with John, give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?

And John finally gives them something, a line of scripture they would have known well, which must have shaken them.

Now I've got this mental picture of these religious detectives sent out to cheque out this nutter in the desert. And they probably thought, yep, quick trip out there, home in time for a nice lunch. And instead, what John tells them turns their world upside down. John tells them he is a prophet fulfilling another prophecy, that of Isaiah. I am the voice of the one crying in the wilderness.

Make straight the way for the Lord, John tells them he is the person who Isaiah said would come in advance of the messiah. John knew what God wanted from him because he'd read Isaiah's prophecy. Isaiah 43, it says, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. John knew he was creating a highway for God. He was building a road.

Not so that God. Not so that we could get to God. That's what Jesus does later. He was creating a road so that God could get to us. Isaiah goes on to tell us how that road will be built.

In chapter 40, verse four, Isaiah says, every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low. The rough ground shall become level, the rugged places are plain. And that's still how we build roads, isn't it? We fill in the dips, we level off the hills, we straighten the bends and we flatten out the bumps, which is what John is preaching about, actually. He's saying, repent, straighten out your life.

If you're low, God will raise you up. If you're arrogant, come down off your high horse. If life is bumpy, smooth things out so that God can meet you. Now, I might be doing these priests levites disservice, maybe because they knew the scriptures, they got excited and maybe some of them went running back to their bosses in a state of excitement to give them the good news. But given what we know about the religious leaders of the time and the way they're almost universally portrayed, I doubt it.

And we're not told that again. In my mind, I can see them frustratedly asking the last question, why then do you baptise if you're not Messiah, if you're not Elijah and you're not a prophet, why are you baptising these people now? Baptism was a new thing. Nobody else was doing it. So they were no doubt curious and they're starting to get a little bit tense.

They need answers and things are starting to sound a bit serious. If prophecies are getting fulfilled. But if some of the first prophecies are being fulfilled, is there any reason why the one about a messiah coming next might not be true too suddenly? Lunch is looking a long way off for these guys, and maybe they're frightened by what John says next. John doesn't bother explaining why he's baptising.

After all, the word baptised and what he's been doing speaks for itself. Instead, his reply is designed to just be the truth. And what a shocking truth it must have been. I baptise with water, but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one that comes after me, whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.

John tells them in that simple sentence, he's just an ordinary man.

But he also says that someone far greater than him, somebody whose sandals he's not worthy to untie, is coming. But the biggest thing he says is Jesus is already here. Among you stands one you do not know he's standing there and they don't get it. That's a challenge, challenging thought to everyone who was there at the time. The much prophesied saviour of the world is right there among them.

Now, John's thrown the challenging questions from these investigators back, and where they've demanded certainty, preferably that he was a complete nutcase, John offers them some massive confusion. Now, scholars tell us from analysis of the other gospels that this incident took place at least six weeks after John has baptised Jesus in the Jordan. And in fact, in this gospel, John the Baptist tells us that the next day Jesus had been previously baptised. So John obviously recognises Jesus in the crowd as the one that he baptised. And the Holy Spirit came on him and tells the priest that there he is.

The one that came is standing among you. What these guys, these religious investigators, wanted from John, they wanted to be able to categorise him. They wanted to be able to put a label on him to explain away his antics. He might have been misguided, he might have been a fruitcake or some cult or something else that could explain why he didn't fit in with their official view of religion. But as we know, time and again, the religious people didn't know Jesus was among them.

They didn't know who Jesus really was. And of course, we know that they tried everything to make him go away.

Now, as we hear from the gospel on the next day, the story continues. We can only assume that the religious guys have gone scurrying away to report to their masters that this crazy man in the desert seems to be saying what he's saying is some of it could be true. He's saying that at last the prophecies of a messiah will be fulfilled. Not just that, actually, that they already have been. Now, John, the gospel writer, wants us to make sure that if you haven't yet got this message, you get it.

So he reports that John the Baptist says to a couple of his followers, look, look. The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I meant when I said, a man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me. I myself did not know him. But the reason I came baptising with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.

John there is using the image of a sacrificial lamb as an echo of Genesis 22. You might remember when Abraham took Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him to God, because God had requested that. And Isaac says to his father, where is the lamb? And Abraham replies, God will provide the lamb. John here is saying, here is the lamb that God has provided who will be the sacrifice for the whole world.

Here is the one who fulfils all the Old Testament promises. And why did John say, I didn't know him? They were cousins, after all, growing up, so they must have known each other, played together. But what John means is, I didn't know he was the Messiah. I did not know until I baptised him and I saw the Holy Spirit descending on him.

This passage, more than any other, I think, finally draws a line under the longing, the sheer and ever increasing desperation for a saviour that we find in the Old Testament. Right from the start of the Bible, people have been longing for something or someone to free them from their sin and set them on the right path with God. As we know, salvation only comes from God and the Holy Spirit itself. In this passage, John tells us that the Holy Spirit is on Jesus, that finally the one who has come to fix everything is here. Things change from now on.

John knew he was the signpost. He was there for that purpose, to identify who the messiah was. But he also knew he could only go so far. I can only baptise with water, but someone else is coming who can baptise with the Holy Spirit. John could tell people to repent, and by being baptised with water, those people could symbolically wash themselves clean.

But he couldn't forgive their sins. John tells us, verse 34. I have seen and testify this is God's chosen one John was saying, this is Jesus and he fulfils every prophecy you have ever read. Here is the thing you've been longing for centuries for, and he is the son of God. Now in this time of advent, while we wait to celebrate the birth of Jesus, what John says still holds true of our world today.

As a world, many people don't know who Jesus is. I'd say as a world we've not seen the light and yet we've got to. And of course, as John says, Jesus has been among us. And yet, do we really appreciate that? Do we know that?

Do we see that? Or is it more convenient to carry on and ignore that fact? Here's a more up to date question for you. Does how we do Advent and Christmas proclaim our christian faith? Or are we just part of the same Christmas that non christians have as christians?

Hopefully we've got some of those things sorted, but the world as a whole hasn't. So perhaps as Advent continues, we are all called to be more like John the Baptist. You don't have to wear a fur and eat locusts, but you have to be different. You have to tell people about our faith. If we don't build the road, there is no way that people can meet Jesus and travel back with him on that road to God.

We know, as Jesus tells us, no one comes to the Father except through me. We know we don't do the work. We simply prepare the way. We simply make it easier for Jesus to meet people. We can all be John the Baptist here now, especially in advent and on towards Christmas.

Let's make sure we're open about what Christmas really means to us. Let us be the voice crying in the wilderness that more people might know who Jesus is and what he is to us. Amen.