A game that the younger three kids in our like to play is called Disney Headbanz. In this game, one person wears a plastic head band with Mickey Mouse ears. The head band has a spot on the front of it where a card can be placed. The game includes cards that have pictures of characters from Disney Pixar movies. It does make for an amusing sight as one of the kids wears Mickey Mouse ears with a picture of Ariel the mermaid princess attached to his or her forehead.
In the game, the person wearing the head band can’t see the card that is attached. The player does not know who the Disney character on the card is. They then ask a series of yes or no questions as they try to guess the character on the card in the allotted amount of time. As their questions narrow the field, they begin to ask, “Am I Snow White?” or “Am I Cinderella?” or “Am I Jasmine?”
In the Gospel lesson for today, priests and Levites have been sent from Jerusalem to John the Baptist. They are also asking a series of questions as they try to find out who John the Baptist is. They ask: “Are you Elijah?”; “Are you the Prophet?” Like the game Headbanz, those asking don’t know the answer to the question and receive answers in a yes or no format. Finally, in frustration they demand more information as they ask, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
The appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness along the Jordan River caused quite a sensation. He was not the only person around the time of the first century A.D. who did this. In fact we read in the historian Josephus about several individuals who showed up in the wilderness setting and claimed that they would do something miraculous that recalled what God had done in the conquest of the promised land. People were looking for God to act and free them from the power of Rome. And so groups of hundreds or even thousands of people gathered around these individuals who were acting like prophets. Of course, none of these figures ever delivered on their claims and invariably the Romans eventually sent forces to destroy the group.
Based on what the Gospels tell us, it appears that John the Baptist garnered even more interest than these other figures. His message was also quite different from them. John didn’t promise that he would do any miraculous action. Instead, he baptized people in the Jordan River – a baptism that the other Gospels say was a “baptism of repentance.” John declared that the judgment of the Last Day was about to arrive and that people needed to repent in preparation for this. People acknowledged their sin by receiving John’s baptism – an action that also meant they were looking for God to act.
In our Gospel lesson we learn that priests and Levites came out from Jerusalem to learn about John the Baptist. John was carrying out a religious ministry that had the potential to prompt the Romans to do something drastic, and therefore the religious establishment was very concerned and wanted to know more.
Ritual washings were part of the instructions of the Torah, and were associated with the temple. It’s not surprising therefore that priests and Levites were sent out to learn about John and his baptism. As I mentioned in the opening of the sermon, they didn’t get far at first as they tried to figure out John’s identity. In answer to the question, “Who are you?” John immediately got the big one on their mind out of the way. He confessed, “I am not the Christ.” John freely declared that he was not the Messiah.
And then the priests and Levites began running through their list of individuals who were expected to be part of the end times. They wondered if he was Elijah, returned from heaven. They wondered if he was the prophet like Moses whom Moses himself said that God would send. But the answer that kept coming back from John was “No.”
Finally in exasperation they said, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” John declared that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, and that his ministry was preparing the way of the Lord.
This didn’t satisfy them. And so they asked, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered, “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 explained his ministry by referring to the coming One. John declared that he could only be understood in relation to this One. He said that this One was of such importance and greatness that John wasn’t even worthy to untie his sandal – the action that a slave performed for his master.
John the Baptist says that he prepares the way for the coming One. And in fact at this point in his ministry in the Gospel of John, he knows who this One is. Immediately after our text we hear, “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.’”
John went on to say that he had come baptizing with water so that this One might be revealed to Israel. John had baptized Jesus. At this event, John had seen God identify Jesus as the One. John announced, “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.”
When we consider John the Baptist, it soon becomes apparent that he defined himself in relation to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ – the coming One – was the focus of his life and ministry. John’s existence could only be understood if you knew who Jesus was.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas this week, this observation raises questions for us – both immediate and also broad reaching ones. John could only explain what he did by referring to Jesus. The question for us is whether this describes our Christmas preparation and celebration this week. In the midst of all the sights and lights, presents and visits do we remember that none of this has meaning apart from the Word become flesh – the birth of the incarnate Son of God?
More importantly, do we understand how this is true of our whole life? Your true identity can only be understood in relation to Jesus Christ. You cannot be defined by your work, your sports teams, your hobbies or anything else that you consider important. Instead, it is Jesus alone who defines who you are – who gives you value, meaning and purpose.
Jesus has done this in two ways, and they are both explained in this chapter. John sees Jesus and announces, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
The Son of God entered into the world in order to take away the sin of the world. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, the Son of God became flesh in order to die for you. He came to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrifices – to be the one great sacrifice for sin by which forgiveness is given to all people. Your life is now defined by Jesus and what he did for you on the cross.
At Jesus’ baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon him. John explains that he baptizes with water but that this coming One baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Jesus died as the sacrifice for sin. But on the third day he rose from the dead. It is as the risen Lord that he now gives the Spirit to you. He gives the life giving Spirit. Through the Spirit he gives life to you – eternal life – already now.
Jesus announced to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The reason for this is that flesh gives birth to flesh. Sinful, fallen people conceive and give birth to sinful fallen people. They produce people for whom God and his ways are foolish. It is only the Holy Spirit who gives rebirth and creates spiritual people – people who are in tune with the Spirit of God. God did this for you in Holy Baptism. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Through the water and the word of baptism you have been born again as a child of God.
Your life is now defined in relation to Jesus. It is Jesus, the Lamb of God, who has made you a saint. It is Jesus’ Spirit who has given you life – eternal life. Your life is defined in relation to Jesus, and so now also your way of life has the same source. As Jesus was about to give himself for you as the Lamb of God who has taken away your sins, he said at the Last Supper: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus loved you by giving himself on the cross. As the risen Lord he has given you his Spirit who has created new life. And now by the Spirit our Lord leads you to live as one who belongs to him. He prompts you to love others in what you do and say. In this way witness is given to what Christ has done for you. The life of love answers the question that is addressed to John the Baptist in our text. Who are you? You are the forgiven child of God because of Jesus. You are the disciple of Jesus Christ who has been born again through his Spirit.