"'Who Are You?' - A Witness for One Greater"
Dec.14, 2008 John 1:6-8, 19-28
And Now, the Star of Our Show...
The air is abuzz with excitement at the Air Canada Centre. Tonight the Maple Leafs are hosting their all-time rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. The place is packed, fans can't wait for the action to get started. The announcer comes on over the PA. But wait - what's this? A lone figure with a stick and a headset skates to centre ice. Meanwhile the announcer is saying: "Welcome to the Air Canada Centre, folks. Before tonight's game gets underway, I thought I'd treat you to a little extra hockey pizzaz..." Everybody lets out a collective groan as they realize it's the announcer out there skating with a wireless headset mike.
He continues, "First I'd like to show you how well I can stick-handle a puck down the ice..." There are murmurs from the crowd - "Where are the real players?" "Who's this guy think he is?" Returning to centre ice, the announcer continues (ignoring the growing rumble), "Next I'd like to show you how I can shoot the puck all the way from centre ice and get it in the net..." Now the Habs and Leaf players are all on their feet behind the bench, grumbling, "What's he trying to prove?" and, "Get off the ice - let's get on with the game!"
But the announcer still hasn't gotten the message. He says, "Finally I'd like to demonstrate how well I can skate backwards all the way down the ice.Watch carefully..." Suddenly the teams can stand it no longer. This is too much. As one, all the players clear the bench and skate out onto the ice. They quickly catch up to the announcer, grab him, and unceremoniously carry him shoulder-high off the ice. All the while he's heard stuttering and exclaiming, "Why's this happening? Isn't anyone interested? Put me down this instant!"
Of course, that would never happen in reality. Announcers know their place better than that - they know better than to try to upstage the main event. However, if someone could secretly tap into the transmission that's going on inside our brain, they might be surprised how much we think we're 'the star of the show'. We are SO self-focused. It's easy in our short-sighted inbred selfishness to forget we're NOT the main event of the universe.
In the trinitarian view the Bible presents, God was completely satisfied in Godself (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) quite before and aside from any creatures or time existed. We humans are not the chief attraction: far from it. John the Baptist had the right idea: he saw his role NOT as the main focus, pointing to himself. Instead, he sought to direct others' attention to the big things God was about to do - the Special One the Heavenly Father was about to bring on the scene.
"Who Are You?": Mr.Not-Not-No
As we saw last week in Mark 1, John the Baptist was a big success - baptizing thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands. The practice of water baptism had been used for Gentile proselytes converting to Judaism; John adapted this custom, insisting Jews too needed to be baptised as a sign of repentance for their sins. This popular surge out in the wilderness made the religious authorities back in Jerusalem nervous. "It's all about control, y'see - gotta keep those masses in check! What does this rabble know about the law?!" Perhaps there was a little jealousy. Perhaps they were trying to guard against heresy and blashphemy. Whatever the motivators, the Jerusalem head-honchos sent out a delegation of priests and Levites to check out this new fiery wilderness preacher (v19).
We know there existed a common hope or anticipation that John might be the long-awaited Messiah. Luke 3(15) says, "The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ." So that option was at the top of the inquisition's clipboards to check out. V20, "He [John] did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, "I am not the Christ."" 21, they continued, "The who are you? Are you Elijah?" Elijah had not died but been caught up to heaven in a whirlwind; the prophecy of Malachi (4:5) said Elijah would be sent before the day of the Lord. But again John rebutted the suggestion; "I am not." A third option was the 'prophet' Moses had mentioned God would raise up for people to heed, way back in Deuteronomy 18(15). So the sortie asked, "Are you the Prophet?" (with a capital P) Again John answered, "No."
Two 'nots' and a 'no' - the committee was striking out. John was not the Christ, not Elijah, nor the Prophet. Author/preacher Barbara Brown Taylor calls John the Baptist "Mr.Not Not No". Hard guy to pin down. He clearly wasn't going to conform to any of their preconceived expectations. They stop their suggestions and broaden the query in v22, "Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. [The most important line in their report was still blank.] What do you say about yourself?" Or, 'Who are you, really? What do you have to say for yourself?' It's not just a question about identity; it's even more a question about AUTHORITY - what gives you the right to do what you do?
Finally John can give them an answer. He reaches back into the authority of the Word of God, to Isaiah 40:3. He sees himself as an announcer, a herald, such as those who use to precede oriental monarchs warning the general population their highness was passing through. Just an announcer, "I am a voice shouting in the wilderness, 'Clear the way for the Lord's coming!'"
The Pharisees in the bunch aren't totally satisfied by this; if he's just a voice, why the baptizing? At first John answers a little obliquely in v26, "I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know." He's clearer in v31, "...the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel." Baptism isn't just for the benefit of the repentant thousands; it's also the way God's going to introduce the Messiah!
The inquisitors returned to Jerusalem with their very sketchy report, and John continued ministering to the waiting multitudes. The leaders had been frustrated because they asked about John himself, but he consistently pointed away from himself to Jesus. "It's not about me." He was content to have merely a secondary role.
Announcing the Special Son / Lamb
An announcer draws your attention to something. There is a group of words from the same Greek root in this passage that keep coming up again and again: the words are 'witness', 'testify', and 'testimony'. V7, where it says he came "as a witness to testify" is literally 'martyria hina martyreo' - though 'witness' and 'testify' are different sounding in English, the Greek is almost identical: 'martyria' and 'martyreo' (you can see the connection to our English word 'martyr', someone who dies witnessing to their faith). This theme runs all through this passage. V8 John came as a "witness to the light"; 15 John 'testifies' concerning Jesus; 19 this was John's 'testimony'; 32 John gave this 'testimony'; 34 I have seen and I 'testify' that this is the Son of God. About seven occurrences within the chapter. Who is John, really? A witness, someone who testifies to what they've seen with their own eyes.
Enough about John. He'd wish we hadn't spent so much time on him already! What IS his 'testimony' about the Christ - what's he trying to communicate about Jesus? Chiefly four things.
John has this quirky little thing he keeps saying about the one who comes after him is really before him. V15, "He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me." And again in v30, "This is the one I meant when I said, 'A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.'" NRSV, "ranks ahead of me." This probably caused some of John's disciples to shake their heads and wonder if their master had been out in the sun a little too long that day. But John the Baptist's trying to get at what John the Gospel-writer mentions right off the bat, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was with God in the beginning." (Jn 1:1f) In other words, Jesus pre-existed everything, being from forever, outside time, with the Father and the Spirit, from the get-go. The Baptist may have been a little older than his cousin physically, but Jesus had him beat hands-down in terms of aeons. Jesus is the Long-before Surpasser; His pre-existence answers our need for ORIGIN, knowing where we're ultimately from.
Lord / Son of God
John's very up-front about Jesus' DEITY as well as His eternity. V23 John says he's 'making straight' the way for WHO? "The Lord." That would be Adonai, one of the Old Testament names for God. What's he implying - the Almighty God is actually coming in human form? Unthinkable! But John emphasizes his own inferiority in 27 to the worth-ship-ful One, 'the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.' Really elevates this Coming One. Then in v34 John spits it flat out, "I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God." Wow! What can that mean? Don't forget for Old-Testament-trained Jews that would be a difficult concept, as they're used to drilling it in that "the LORD is one."
But John's just relaying what's obvious to him: at Jesus' baptism, John heard the Father declaring, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." (Mk 1:11) So 'Son of God' Jesus is, on God's own authority! John didn't hesitate applying this title to Jesus even though it was clearly pertaining to the Messiah (1:49; 11:27; Mt 26:63).
Jesus being "Lord" and "Son of God" answers our need for security - somebody needs to be in control, and I know it's not me! This past week the rioting in Greece over the probably accidental shooting of a teen by police demonstrated how fragile security is in society. Many cities were affected by the unrest. Riot police had to be called out. Young people were looting shops and destroying property - part of a wider-spread discontentment with the governing party. With just a one-seat margin of majority, there was concern the government would be able to preserve order. Even in the birthplace of democracy, it doesn't take much to bring humans to the point of anarchy and destruction. We need the Lord to provide order and boundaries.
Lamb of God who takes away Sin
Another way John describes Jesus is found in v29: "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" This takes us right to the core of what Jesus came for, His sacrifice in the place of us rebels at the cross. But this was revolutionary compared to what most people expected of the Messiah: they thought he'd be a triumphant conquering ruler who would free them from foreign domination - not a sacrificial servant. In John 12(34) Jesus' audience protests when He talks about being "lifted up", "We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, 'The Son of Man must be lifted up'?" The Messiah would not be a sacrifice, as they understood it. Even Jesus' own disciples had trouble accepting that He'd be betrayed, killed, and rise again; Mark 9(32), "But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it." Old Simeon maybe had an inkling something like that might happen - he prophesied to Mary, "A sword will pierce your own soul, too." (Lk 2:35) But John the Baptist seems to be the first colleague of Jesus to really 'get' what He came for. Perhaps as son of Zechariah the priest John was especially aware how a lamb had to be offered twice a day on the altar at Jerusalem, morning and evening. Or maybe John perceived what the prophet Isaiah was getting at when he wrote of the Suffering Servant in chapter 53(7), "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth."
We look forward to Jesus coming again some day as triumphal victor over this world's evil. But for now we treasure His first advent as the pure innocent Lamb of God, taking our place, paying our debt for sin. Such a lamb answers our need for cleansing, forgiveness, resolving our mess-ups.
Even such a well-known saint as Dwight L Moody was not perfect, and needed forgiveness. One day Moody's children let the horses out of the stable and it took him a long time to get them back. He really told them off. Finally at night when the children were in bed, Moody went up and apologized to them for having spoken as he did. His daughter-in-law in later years was asked what was her outstanding memory in the life of DL Moody. She said, "He could tell his children that he was wrong and ask them to forgive him." That trait was what his children esteemed more than anything else in their father.
We all 'blow it' from time to time; we need a Lamb of God to take away our sin.
John then saw Jesus as the One who existed Long-before; as Lord / Son of God; as Lamb of God; and, as Life-igniting Spirit-soaker. V33, "...the One who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit." John 'dunked' people in water for baptism; he foresaw Jesus' effect on people as drenching them "with the Holy Spirit - and with fire" (Mt 3:11; Lk 3:16). So doing, He answers our need for something to fill the emptiness in our life, and transform us into the creatures of love and strength and beauty and fruitfulness God intended. Paul stated, "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit..." (Rom 14:17) Jesus is the One who receives the Spirit from the Father and pours the Spirit out on believers (Ac 2:33).
Sold Out - to Your Shoelaces
John isn't out to announce himself; he's out to make much of Jesus, to highlight His goodness every way he can. That's what witnessing or testifying is about: simply sharing with others how you have seen the Lord's goodness made real in your life. John allows Jesus to be great in his life, he makes Him the focus.
V27 captures just how much greater John values Jesus: He's the one "the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." NLT, "I'm not even worthy to be His slave and untie the straps of His sandal." Bible in Basic English version, "I am not good enough to undo His shoes." Do you see how much greater John makes Jesus, in comparison?
John had disciples; rabbis in general had disciples, it was customary. But there were certain things even disciples weren't expected or required to do for their masters. For example - undoing their sandals. That was SLAVES' work.
Fast-forward a bit with me to the Last Supper, Jesus' last night on earth with His disciples. John 13 tells of an important incident that happened around the mealtime. What was it a servant should have done, but didn't get done - and the disciples thought they were 'above' doing? Washing their dirty feet. A basin was there, but the disciples avoided it, not wanting to stoop to do such a menial, unpleasant task for the others.
So who did it? Jesus the Master "showed them the full extent of His love" by stripping to work-clothes, wrapped a towel around His waist, took the basin, and washed their feet. John the Baptist viewed himself as lower than a slave compared to the Christ. Jesus lowered Himself to do for the dusty disciples what none of them were prepared to do for each other. He loved them by serving them, at the point of their least-pleasant need. Then He drove the point home by saying if their Lord and Teacher washed their feet, they should wash each other's feet, for the servant is not greater than the master. A serving spirit is an obedient spirit; "Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them." (Jn 13:17)
We discover satisfaction in the Holy Spirit not only by tongues and prophesy and other fruit or supernatural gifts, precious and valid as those are; the Spirit also becomes manifest in us as we follow His leading in humble, loving acts. Washing feet. Lending a hand. Making that phone call to the lonely person. The Spirit magnifies Jesus in our lives to the point that we're ready to do ANYTHING, however menial, to make His love real to another person. We're not interested in doing it for 'brownie points' or to chalk up heavenly credit; simply out of gratitude for Jesus' grace abundantly shown already in our lives. So we become 'sold out' to our shoelaces, honouring Him in all our service. There's a humility there that looks up to the Lord.
The inventor of the telegraph, Professor Samuel FB Morse, was asked by a friend, "Professor Morse, when you were making your experiments in your moms at the university, did you ever come to a standstill, not knowing what to do next?" "Oh, yes, more than once." "At such times, what did you do next?" "Whenever I could not see my way clearly, I prayed for more light." "And the light generally came?" "Yes. And may I tell you that, when flattering honours came to me from the invention which bears my name, I never felt I deserved them. I had made a valuable application of electricity, not because I was superior to other men, but solely because God, who meant it for mankind, must reveal it to someone, and was pleased to reveal it to me."
Do you know what the first message sent by the inventor of the Morse code was? "What hath God wrought!" Let's pray.