A couple of weeks ago a minute and a half segment of video appeared on the internet that caused a huge volume of discussion, debate and speculation. The video was a very brief trailer for the movie Star Wars Episode 7 – The Force Awakens.
Now to say that this movie is an event is a huge understatement. The three original Star Wars movies are iconic pieces of science fiction that were also huge commercial successes. George Lucas had spoken about a prequel trilogy of movies and in 1999 Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace appeared, followed by two more movies in 2002 and 2005. These movies were all huge commercial successes as Lucas filled in the story that set the stage for the original 1977 Star Wars – which now became Episode 4. However, the movies had a mixed reception. While visually stunning, in the opinion of many the acting and dialogue left a bit to be desired.
George Lucas himself had indicated that in his mind, the Star Wars story was finished with the six movies. However in 2012 Walt Disney bought Lucas’ movie company, Lucasfilm. They soon announced that a sequel trilogy of movies would be produced – movies that would carry the story on after the last movie, Return of the Jedi. George Lucas would not be involved in this project – something that, ironically, many Stars Wars fans think is a good thing.
While Lucas was gone, real excitement was generated by the fact that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are returning to reprise their roles as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia. Reports about the beginning of movie production under director J.J. Abrams have filled the internet.
And then, Walt Disney released the first trailer for the new movie – really nothing more than a tease. However the opening scene of this minute and a half video generated a question that everyone was asking: “Who is this guy?!?” The trailer opens with a black man wearing an Imperial Storm Trooper uniform in a desert setting. There is no explanation. There is no context for understanding who this character is. And so people have been wondering who he is – the general consensus being that this is one of the main characters in the new trilogy of movies.
“Who is this guy?!?” It’s the same question that the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem was asking about John the Baptist when he appeared in the Judean wildness along the Jordan River and began administering his baptism of repentance. In our text this morning the Pharisees send priest and Levites to John in order to find out who he is. They come with a series of questions about John – none of which are the right question. Instead, John the Baptist bears witness that the answer to his identity is not to be found in him, but instead in the One who comes after him.
This morning our text is found in the Gospel of John. And John’s Gospel is just … different. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke share many similarities, and so they are usually grouped together. John, on the other hand, stands alone. It is usually assumed that John was the last of the Gospels written. One of the reasons is the manner in which he seems to assume his reader already has a knowledge about Jesus and the story of his life. So, for example, John chapter 1 only really makes sense if you know about the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism – and yet John’s Gospel doesn’t provide an account of Jesus’ baptism. John assumes that you already know the basic details of what happened.
All that John tells us about John the Baptist and his ministry before our text is this statement earlier in chapter one: “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. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
From the other Gospels we know that John showed up in the Judean wilderness along the Jordan River. He dressed like the prophet Elijah and preached a message of repentance because God’s reign was about to arrive. He administered a baptism by which people demonstrated that they were repentant and needed God’s forgiveness.
First century A.D. Palestine was a place where end time expectation was simmering just under the surface for many people. They were looking for God to do something dramatic on behalf of Israel, just as the prophets in the Old Testament described. Many people were looking for a kind of “second exodus” – a great rescue of God’s people from Roman rule just like he had done for them when they were enslaved in Egypt.
The wilderness had been the place of God’s saving action in the past. And so the first century Jewish historian Josephus tells us about several occasions when figures showed up in the wilderness and acted in prophetic ways. On those occasions, crowds flocked out to that individual. Things were no different with John the Baptist.
Crowds going out to the wilderness to hear a prophetic figure was more than a little unsettling for those in Jerusalem. After all, who knows what it could prompt or provoke? And so priests and Levites were sent to learn more about John.
Just before our text this Gospel says that John came to bear witness about the light. In our text we hear this witness. The Jewish religious representatives asked, “Who are you?” The Gospel of John tells us, “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” John had not come to be the center of attention. He didn’t claim to be something he was not.
So next the Jewish religious figures ran through the list of individuals that various Jews expected to be sent from God as part of the end times. They asked if he was Elijah, or the Prophet mentioned in our Old Testament lesson today. When he said no, their frustration began to show through. They said, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied with the words of Isaiah chapter forty that we heard last week: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
John the Baptist confessed – he bore witness - that it was all about Jesus. John confessed that he was all about Jesus. When pressed about why he baptized, John responded, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” John pointed to the One who was greater than he. He did not hesitate to say so on this day. And he did not hesitate to say so on the next day.
Just after our text we learn that the next day “he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
John pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God – as the sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world.
On this Sunday just a couple of days before Christmas Eve, it’s not hard to apply John’s words to our setting. John the Baptist’s witness was to Jesus. He didn’t let anything – not even his own reputation or ego – get in the way of this. Yet far too often Christmas itself has become something that is bigger than Jesus. The Christmas season and all of its trappings points to itself, rather than to the Christ.
Yet the Christmas season just puts in bold relief what you do all the time. Your words and actions show that you consider yourself to be more important in your life than Jesus. You speak about yourself – what is going on in your life and your plans for the future – before you will ever speak about Jesus Christ to others. You spend time on the things that interest and amuse you, long before you will spend time on Jesus, his Word and the ministry of his Church. You spend money on yourself for all those wants you have, long before you will consider returning a real offering to the Lord.
John the Baptist is a model for us in our Christian life. He put Jesus first in his life and witness. He conducted himself in this way because he knew Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He knew something else as well. At the same time that John identified Jesus as the Lamb of God, he bore witness saying: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who entered into the world at Christmas as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He came to be lifted up on the cross for our sins and then to rise again on the third day. He has baptized his Church with the Spirit and now continues to give his Spirit through the waters of Holy Baptism, for it is there that you were born again of water and the Spirit.
Because our Lord has done this for you, like John the Baptist you now confess and bear witness to Christ. You do this in word and in deed. You do it in word as you tell others about who Jesus Christ is and what he is for you – your Lord and Savior who died on the cross for your sins and rose from the dead. You do it in deed as you share Christ’s love by serving and helping others in your home, at work and at school.
During these days leading up to Christmas you have focused great time and energy on giving gifts. You have searched stores and the internet for the perfect gift and that great deal. Consider the effort you have put into this. And then consider the fact that it is this effort and more that we need to put into sharing the most important gift: Jesus Christ. We are preparing to celebrate God’s gift of a Savior at Christmas. This is the gift that we need to share with others in word and deed during every day of the year.