"The Baptizer's Witness to Mystery"
Dec.11, 2005 John 1:6-9,15-28 Advent III
It's vital in life to discover our identity, who we are. That's the consuming question of adolescence, trying to answer the questions, "Who am I? What am I becoming?" That journey extends long into adulthood. For Christians, knowing who we are comes largely as we realize who we are NOT. Our identity and sense of self-worth isn't based on our skills or accomplishments, but on the Father's love for us as shown in Jesus.
It's hard without outside help to overcome the "me"-culture's fatal narcissism. Society capitalizes on youth's uncertainty; the advertisers and even well-meaning adults (perhaps parents projecting their own unfulfilled dreams on the next generation) are only too happy to tell us who they think we should be. The market trains us to become self-focussed consumers that feed the system. Judging by the media, "It's all about ME". Even such an ordinary thing as computer operating systems reflect me-ism. Back in Windows 3.1, the organizing application was sensibly called "File Manager". But with Windows95 and later versions that changed; now it's "My Computer", "My Documents", "My Pictures", "My Received Files" - my, my, my!
John the Baptist in a primal way models for us trust in God that frees a person to become the individual the Lord intends. John's dress was back-woodsy and eccentric, but he didn't have to keep up with what colours were "in" that year. He didn't fit nicely into any market niche; you don't see shops in the malls catering to those who dress in camel's hair. A diet of locusts and wild honey kept him from having to push a cart up and down the aisles at the grocery store. His self-controlled consumption patterns made him largely independent of the system, and freed him to offer honest appraisal of questionable behaviour. He called hypocritical religious leaders "brood of vipers", offspring of snakes. He even rebuked King Herod for taking his brother's wife - a denunciation that landed him in prison and eventually cost him his life (Mt 14:3-10). John's ascetic lifestyle freed him to be bold, and as a prophet tell others what they needed to hear. John decided life wasn't about satisfying oneself with comfort or making others happy, but primarily serving God.
"Who are you?" That's a question that chases us through life, and hounds John a lot in our text. V6, "There came a man who was sent from God..." John was conscious that he had a mission. From Jerusalem came a team of Grand Inquisitors to help clarify his identity. V19, "the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was." Crowds had been going out to the wilderness to hear John and be baptized, so the religious leaders decided they'd better check him out. The Sanhedrin (71-member ruling council) was made up of Sadducees and Pharisees; priests and Levites were Sadducees, with the Levites having some teaching responsibilities. Heresy was punishable by death, so this wasn't just a friendly visit! The stakes were high, so John had better answer carefully.
Repeatedly they ask, "Who are you? What do you say about yourself?" Here's where we see John knows who he is - and who he's not. He confessed freely that he was not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet Moses predicted back in Deuteronomy 18(15). When they kept pressing him for an answer they could take back to headquarters, he eventually quoted Isaiah and said, "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, 'Make straight the way for the Lord.'" (1:23) God was doing some heart-readying work through his ministry, preparing the people for someone yet to come. John realized he was just a forerunner, like the heralds that ran ahead of dignitaries in those days and announced people better get ready for officials to pass through. John's attention is not focussed on himself but on the person he refers to twice as "the one who comes after me." (15,27) His identity derived from the Messiah, the One who was waiting in the wings.
For Christians, our personal identity is always derivative, not me-focussed. Knowing who we ARE comes partly through knowing who we are NOT. "I have been crucified with Christ; and it's no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me." (Gal 2:20) Self-negation is healthy when it's preparation to give Jesus control. He put it this way: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." (Mr 8:34f) In Romans 6(11) Paul could write, "Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus." Those who've died with Christ to do away with sin will also live with Him (Rom 6:8). Paul could say point-blank to the believers at Colosse, "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God." (Col 3:3)
Primarily a Witness
This derivative identity is in relation to something else: believers are of necessity witnesses, pointing beyond ourselves to the Wonderful Mystery of Jesus. Being a witness is a big emphasis in John's gospel: he uses some variation of the word 47 times. We see the root word several times here, though it's disguised in various forms. V7, He came "as a witness to testify" (same word, twice; literally, "he came as a witness to bear witness"). V8, "he came only as a witness to the light." V15, "John testifies concerning Him." V19, "Now this was John's testimony..." John's mission in life is to announce the wonderful miracle that's about to happen, to bear witness to what God's showing him, so other people can clue in and realize the marvel of what's transpiring.
A witness is someone who tells what they have seen in history. Not "second-hand" evidence, but direct observation. For Christians, the wonderful event has happened outside us, but touched our lives in an irreversible way. The 'born again' have witnessed a wonder or mystery that will take the rest of our lives (and even eternity) to unpack and understand. Paul speaks of "the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past"; "the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints.To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is [what's the mystery?] Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Rom 16:25; Col 1:26f)
God's genuine mystery contrasts with neatly cut-and-dried man-made religion, usually packed with lots of laws, do's and don'ts, and a merit system thrown in for some incentive. "Just master these 613 regulations and you'll be fine." The Pharisees believed their own oral traditions were just as important as God's inspired word. Today, someone may tell you, work through the 8 levels in Scientology and you'll get to call yourself an "Operating Thetan". Man-made religion uses laws because that gives someone control, and a handy ranking system so you can keep track of who's currently on top.
But it's a mystery we witness to: and mysteries don't fit neatly into fixed language. So believers may sometimes end up talking in riddles, parables, near-oxymorons and paradoxes. Take John 1:14 for example: "The Word became flesh...the One and Only who came from the Father..." Common sense wonders, How can someone be both fully human and fully God? Or v15, "He who comes after me...was before me." That can't be, unless Jesus had some kind of pre-incarnate existence with the Father. Or v18, "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made Him known." The part "no one has ever seen God" ties right in with Exodus 33:20, when God said to Moses, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." But somehow the Bible asserts Jesus is God and has made Him known, has shown us the Father. Jesus declared to Philip, "If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him." (Joh 14:7) Paul states that Jesus is "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15) - easy to say, harder to grasp or accept.
John saw his task as witnessing to a mystery, something not everyone was going to understand. John's mission had a certain irony, trying to point out to people someone who was standing right in their midst but they didn't recognize, didn't appreciate as being their very Creator. "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." (Joh 1:10f) For many, the mystery didn't make sense; but John did what he could to point out its significance.
Unpack Christ's Greatness and Grace
Two words sum up the impression the Baptizer is trying to get across about Jesus in this passage: Greatness and Grace. Those words can just as suitably be our theme, as the redeemed.
V15, John cries out, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.'" Jesus was greater, John acknowledged Jesus surpassed him, "ranked ahead of" him. Christians conscious of our forgiveness and unqualified righteousness can relate to Paul who stated, "I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."
John got excited about how great Jesus was from day 1: Luke tells us when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby in her womb (that's John) "leaped for joy" (Lk 1:41,44). In v27 John says "I am not worthy to untie" the thongs of the sandals of the One coming after him, that is, Jesus. He humbled Himself before Christ. Jesus noted, "Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist" (Mt 11:11); now if John wasn't worthy to untie Jesus' sandals, where does that leave other mortals? But there's hope, for Jesus adds, "Yet he who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he."
John was very comfortable with Jesus rising in prominence, even when John's own followers started following the latter. He responds in 3:27, "A man can receive only what is given him from heaven...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.He must become greater; I must become less."
There's maturity in accepting the situation and assignment in life God gives us. Trusting Christ, we come to find joy in His Kingdom advancing, not just our own status, power, or possessions. If the Lord needs me to play second fiddle in a project that He wishes to go ahead, so be it. It's His greatness that matters, not enlarging my ego.
The other theme that's big in this passage, besides greatness, is grace. V14, the One and Only came from the Father "full of grace and truth". V17, "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." The contrast here accents the nature of grace: law, with its rules and unattainable standard of perfection, is cause for regret and guilt when our fallen nature fails to comply to the letter. No one could ever be acceptable to God on the basis of law alone. But Jesus provided the sacrifice that was needed to make atonement; grace means God imputes our guilt to the Sufferer on the cross, and swaps His righteousness with us. The perfection of the unattainable standard is attributed wonderfully to us through the Son's unconditional sacrifice. That's grace.
John put it simply when he saw Jesus coming toward him and said to those around, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn 1:29) V16 says "From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another," literally - 'grace upon grace'. It just keeps piling on from a loving God, to whom we're now reconciled. John's very name, a form of Jonathan, means: "Gift of God" or "Yahweh is a gracious Giver."
When four members of Christian Peacemaker Teams were being held hostage this past week, the deadline for their execution was set at Thursday. When Wednesday came, the kidnappers moved the deadline back to Saturday. That gave the hostages 2 days' 'grace'. Families of the hostages breathed a small sigh of relief; any extension was very welcome.
When it comes to our own moral state, guilt and sin had held us captive. Those jailers are even harsher than the kidnappers: they imprison for eternity. But Jesus has brought far more grace into play for those who commit their lives to Him: He negotiated our permanent release from sin's entrapment by substituting His life for ours, taking our place. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" - and be reconciled to an absolutely holy God(2Co 5:21). As the mystery is revealed, we begin to see Jesus' greatness and also His grace.
Leave 'em Wondering
While crucifixion to self is the beginning of our life in Christ - knowing who we are NOT - God's goal for His children is that they become glorious expressions of the complete person He designed us to be, a wide variety of brothers and sisters to His Son (Rom 8:29). The Creator intends for us to be originals, one-of-a-kind, not carbon copies. As we discover our identity in Christ, we also start to find out how we too can be witnesses like the Baptizer. That may involve some unique talent or curious gesture that catches other people's attention and points them to the Lord.
John the Baptist was extremely humble; he wasn't concerned at all about his appearance, keeping up with the trends, or making a favourable impression. But through God's leading, John became one of the most unique, fully-individuated persons that ever lived. He played a one-of-a-kind, key role in "rolling out the red carpet" as the Messiah's forerunner; Jesus later acknowledged the Baptizer had fulfilled the expectations about Elijah coming before the Christ (Mt 17:12). The principal tool John used that would be his "curious gesture" was water baptism. Before this time, converts from other religions to Judaism may have been baptized; but John customized the ritual and adapted it to picture the radical repentance of heart God is looking for. The inquisition committee may have been ticked that John was treating God's "chosen people" like Gentiles, suggesting that Jews as well as others needed to be baptized.
Another reason John baptized was to make Jesus known to Israel; it became Jesus' first real public appearance at the launch of His ministry. John said in 1:31, "I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel."
And a third aspect of water baptism as John's tool was that it formed a contrast to what the Messiah would do. In Matthew 3(11) John said, "I baptize you with water for repentance. But...He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." Water is at the other extreme from fire. The very nature of John's medium offset the nature of Messiah's ministry, burning up chaff and gathering the good grain into His storehouse (Mt 3:12).
John sure was an original. He found His identity in discerning God's call to be a witness to Christ's mystery, emphasizing to all who came Jesus' greatness and grace. The tool he chose to express himself, baptism in water, ideally suited his message, picturing both how we need to get right with God by washing away our sins, and how through faith in Jesus we can be plunged into the Holy Spirit's fire.
I'd like to leave you with a couple of examples of how people today are witnessing to the mystery of Jesus by their own individual means designed to leave people wondering. First, how would you like to be an evangelist among one of the fastest growing groups in Canadian society today? Sound exciting and significant? It's as easy as visiting your local nursing home. According to Statistics Canada, are one of the fastest growing groups today: in 1995, those over 65 made up 12% of the population (roughly 1 in 8); 35 years from now, they're projected to make up 23%, or about 1 in 4. And they're hurting. Men over the age of 85 commit suicide at a rate nearly 6 times the national average, giving them the highest suicide rate of any age group.
Ministry with seniors can take many forms: reading to residents; helping them write a letter; playing board games; bringing in a pet to visit; helping those with oxygen tanks take a walk in the park. Monthly visits can do wonders for a senior, even if it's just 20 minutes long. If they know someone is coming to see them, they have something to look forward to.
This requires a year-round commitment: not just filling the halls at Christmas with the sound of carols, handing out cards and cookies then leaving, never to return the rest of the year. Though the residents are thrilled at such visits, no meaningful connections are made. After it's past, they plunge back into isolation and loneliness.
Paul McMullen is chaplain at a seniors' home in Toronto. He observes, "We who want to see people come to the Lord or rejuvenate a relationship with Him must first be a living witness. You have to EARN the opportunity. Then you will have the chance to present the gospel."
Throughout 50 years of married life, Ron and Daintree Bartlett from a Baptist church in Haileybury, Ontario have played music to entertain the elderly. They volunteer 80 hours a month playing at least 8 instruments at rest homes, hospitals, a blind drop-in, and Cree Nursing Home. One old-timer fan comments, "Most of us just love to hear the old songs played on simple instruments.We all love it when Ron plays the saw and Daintree the accordion." Mrs Bartlett notes the old folks know all the words to the gospel songs and other old-time favourites - "even folks suffering from Alzheimer's." She adds, "Wherever we go to play, if folks are in the dumps, we know that they have a sparkle in their eyes and a tap in their toes when we leave." Giving joy to others and helping people lean on Jesus are major reasons the Bartletts witness through their music.
A recent issue of FaithToday also highlighted Janet Burke, who began quilting at age 40 and has developed into a popular speaker who travels with her award-winning quilts and tells how their creation helped to bring healing. She says quilting helped her grown in health and faith; it's given her the time and quiet and expressive outlet to deal with childhood sexual abuse. This tool helped her find answers to the mystery of a painful past. Disturbing, long-buried memories surfaced and were finally dealt with. She recalls, "I could see answers to questions that I had [revealed] on cloth; they would just leap out at me. For instance, one of my questions was, 'How come - if God is so powerful - He allows a little girl to go through something like this?'" In the process of quilting, she's discovered previously unknown springs of creativity bubbling up within her, new-found joy and deeper trust in God. It's helped her give up workaholic ways; now she delights in the simple act of creating beauty and sharing it with others.
Even though some of her work is explicitly Biblical, it has received honours from the Canadian Quilters' Association and the Mississauga Quilters Guild. Her most recent quilt, "The Way Home", illustrates Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and also as the vine, the bread of life, and the alpha and omega. Like John the Baptist, in her own way she too is pointing to the wonder and mystery of Christ.
What's your tool - the 'curious gesture' God's waiting to use through you to express His greatness and grace to others? Whether seniors or Sadducees, may they come to appreciate more about Jesus through your witness, as we follow John's example. Let's pray.