We live at a time when humility is not valued by society. Instead, quite the opposite, the emergence of social media has fostered a culture in which the way to get ahead is to call attention to yourself. The level of attention can now be easily discerned. In fact, this has been called the “quantification of attention.” A person can see how many friends they have on Facebook, and how many likes and comments their posts receive. Twitter tells you how many followers you have and how many lists you are on. YouTube tells you have many times your video has been viewed and how many subscribers you have.
In order to gain and maintain attention, a person needs to do, say, and post pictures that continually call attention to him or herself. The “I” needs to be placed constantly before the public so that it will notice – so that it will pay attention. Humility is a recipe for failure in the social media era.
In our text this morning, the priests and Levites who had been sent to John the Baptist find him to be a frustrating mix. On the one hand, there was no ignoring the fact that John was doing things that attracted tremendous attention. John showed up in the wilderness of Judea. Dressed in a manner that evoked the prophet Elijah, he called people to repentance as he announced that the kingdom of God – his reign – was imminent.
Yet as I mentioned last week, the thing that really stood out and caught people’s attention was the fact that he applied a washing to others. He baptized them. Jewish ritual washings were very common, but they were self-administered. A person applied the water on him or herself. But John was different. Instead, he applied the water to others. For this reason, John became known as “the Baptizer.” He definitely attracted attention as crowds from all over flocked to him.
John attracted so much attention that it was impossible for the Jewish religious leadership to ignore him. When we hear the questions they ask him at the beginning of our text, it is not hard to understand why. John tells us that Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” John knew what they were wondering, and so he confessed, “I am not the Christ.” Then they followed up by asking him whether he was Elijah or the Prophet. To each of these, John responded, “No.”
False christs and people claiming to be end time prophets had appeared among the Jews and would continue to do so. These individuals attracted a following, and then at some point the Romans took notice. The message of these figures always seemed to include ideas that came from the exodus – the notion of God acting to free the Jews. The Roman rulers were not about to let such ideas take hold, and so they slaughtered these groups and killed the leader. Agitators like this posed a threat to the peace and order of the land. It was never a good idea to give the Romans a reason to start killing people.
In frustration the priests and Levites asked, “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 used Isaiah’s words that we heard in last week’s Old Testament lesson to describe himself.
However, John’s interlocutors didn’t find this very helpful. So they asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” They asked John what justified his baptizing ministry.
There was no denying that John’s unique ministry was drawing great attention. But when questioned by the religious leaders, John refused to put the focus on himself. First, he denied that he was the Christ, or Elijah, or the Prophet. And now he said, “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 contrasted himself with someone coming after him who was utterly and completely superior to him.
For the reader of the Gospel of John, this humility - this refusal to focus upon himself and instead determination to point to the One coming after him – is not surprising. In the prologue the apostle John had just said: “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. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
The Gospel describes John the Baptist as a “witness.” The exact same word is used at the beginning of our text as it says, “This is the witness of John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem.” He doesn’t claim any credit for himself. Instead, he speaks of the One coming after him. John says that this One is far greater than he. John may have baptized with water, but later he goes on to say about the coming One, “For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.”
John the Baptist acts and speaks in our text with humility. He makes it clear that he is there to serve. He prepares the way. He is a witness. This is very different from the way we often conduct ourselves. We don’t act with humility, but instead are boastful and self-centered. We don’t want to serve, but instead try to get out of having to do anything. We are not a witness. Instead we often act like Jesus Christ is the secret we are trying to keep from others.
In our Gospel lesson this morning we hear John the Baptist say, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” These are the same words that we heard in our Old Testament lesson last Sunday. During this season of Advent we are again reminded about how John went before Jesus Christ.
Yet rather than emphasizing how John the Baptist called people to repentance, the Gospel of John describes John the Baptist as a witness to Jesus. Immediately after our text, John tells us that the next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John came to be a witness to Jesus Christ and his saving ministry. He pointed to Jesus who came to be the sacrifice on the cross.
In his first epistle the apostle John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” In and of itself, blood of course is not something we consider to be clean. It stains clothes. It is something we have to wash off our skin.
But the description of Jesus’ blood here is grounded in the Old Testament sacrifices through which God gave forgiveness and cleansed the tabernacle of Israel’s sins. These sacrifices were a type – something in the Old Testament that pointed forward to what God would do in the New Testament. They have found their fulfillment in Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world.
We prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth – his presence as a baby in a manger. Yet because of our sin, the Son of God became flesh to be a sacrifice. The apostle John went on to say in his letter, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
John tells us that our faith leads us to live in ways that seek to avoid sin. But when we stumble, we have the comfort of knowing that Jesus Christ is the risen and ascended Lord who speaks for us. He says that no accusation can be raised against us about sin because he is the propitiation for our sins. By his sacrifice sin has been judged. It has been atoned for and removed as something that separates us from God. By his sacrifice the wrath of God has been answered. Yet it was God the Father who did this Himself by giving the incarnate Son in our place. He sent Jesus to be the Lamb that has taken away our sin.
In this we see the love of God. We see the love of the Father for us, that he sent his Son to be the sacrifice for our sin. We see the love of the Son for the Father, as he carried out his will. We see the love of Jesus for us, as he offered himself to be the sacrifice for sin – as he offered himself to receive God’s judgment for our sin.
Born again of water and the Spirit we are taken up by this love in our lives. Jesus said, “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.” Through the Spirit’s work, the love we have received from Jesus is now shared with others. The apostle John writes later in his letter, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” The love of Jesus for us was an action. And so now, our sharing of Jesus’ love with others is also action. John said, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
In our Gospel lesson today, John the Baptist says, “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.” As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ we see that he is the mighty One who followed John the Baptist. Yet the humility of his birth reminds us that the mighty One came to be the Lamb of God – the sacrifice that has taken away our sin.