Last Sunday we heard in the Gospel lesson about how King Herod Antipas had put John the Baptist in prison in one of his fortresses. He did it because John was calling Herod Antipas to repentance by saying that he should not have taken Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, to be his own.
That’s actually only part of a story that sounds like an ancient soap opera. Herod Antipas had married the daughter of Aretas IV, the king of Nabatea, a kingdom to the southeast of Galilee. It was marriage that helped to establish a time of peace and stability.
However, Herod fell in love with Herodias, and she agreed to marry him once he had divorced Aretas’ daughter. When Aretas’ daughter found out about this she was, of course, not pleased. And so she went to her father to report and complain about what Herod was doing. Herod did proceed to divorce Aretas’ daughter, and then took Herodias to be his wife.
King Aretas IV was angered by what Herod Antipas had done. The time of peace was ended, and Aretas went to war against Herod. He soundly defeated Herod’s army and would have pushed his advantage against Herod further, if it had not been for the Roman Emperor who ordered these two vassal kings to end their hostilities.
Writing around 93 AD, the Jewish historian Joesphus tells us: “But to some of the Jews it seemed that Herod’s army had been destroyed by God, who was exacting vengeance (most certainly justly) as satisfaction for John who was called Baptist. For Herod indeed put him to death, who was a good man and one who commanded the Jews to practice virtue and act with justice toward one another and with piety toward God, and so to gather together by baptism..” And then Josephus adds that Herod feared John the Baptist’s great persuasiveness, because others gathered together around John and were excited by his teaching.
It is interesting that as he wrote some sixty years after John the Baptist’s life and martyrdom, Josephus thought it was necessary to mention John the Baptist. John had certainly made an impression on people to be remembered in this way.
This background from Josephus helps us to understand the degree to which John the Baptist’s ministry captured the attention of his contemporaries. John’s call to repentance in the face of the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom – his reign – was part of the reason. But another side of this was the fact that he baptized others. Ritual washings were common in Judaism. However they were always self-administered. John was completely different because he applied the washing to others. It is for this reason that he became known as the Baptist.
In our Gospel lesson we see that John’s ministry certainly captured the attention of the Jewish religious leadership. Priest and Levites were sent from Jerusalem to ask John a very basic question: “Who are you?” We are told, “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” John immediately removed the biggest question that was on their mind. He confessed the truth that he was not the Christ – he was not the descendant of King David that God has promised would bring his end time salvation.
After this, his interlocutors ran through a list of the other end time figures expected by Judaism. They asked if he was Elijah or the Prophet. Each time, John said no. Then in exasperation they asked, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
John replied using words from Isaiah chapter forty, last Sunday’s Old Testament lessons. He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
But those questioning him still were not satisfied. And they focused in on his activity of applying a washing to others. They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “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 did not focus on himself. Instead he placed his baptizing ministry in relation to the One who was coming after coming after him. John pointed to One coming after him who was so mighty and glorious that John was not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.
Our text says that this was the witness that John gave. The prologue to the Gospel at the beginning of chapter one says that John was sent as a witness to Jesus Christ. We are told, “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.”
Immediately after our Gospel lesson, we learn more about the witness that John gave. 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 called people to repentance. We find this in John’s quotation of Isaiah as he says, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Yet in the Gospel of John a greater emphasis is placed on the fact that Jesus had come to offer himself as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In fact, John says this twice since the following day as John was standing with two of his disciples, he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said again, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”
During Advent we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We rejoice that, as John’s Gospel says earlier in this chapter, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus was greater than John the Baptist. He came before John the Baptist, because he is the Son of God. He is the Son of God who took on human flesh – a human nature – without ceasing to be God.
He did so for a reason. He did it to be the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Just as a lamb was offered in sacrifices to God in the tabernacle and temple, so Jesus came to be the sacrifice that takes away our sin. As Jesus will say on the night when he is betrayed, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” Jesus Christ was conceived and born into this world in order to give his life for you. By his death in our place Jesus Christ has won us forgiveness. The apostle John says in his first letter, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Jesus is the means given by the Father to remove the sins of which we are guilty. And because the he has done this through his death, Jesus is also the means by which we now are able to stand before God as those who are holy and righteous in his sight.
We are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ as the Son of God entered into our world. We will all expend great effort in this celebration. We put up a Christmas tree and decorations, bake Christmas cookies, play Christmas music, buy gifts, and travel to be with family.
Yet what is the witness that we give about the One whose birth we celebrate? What do we say to others about Jesus? Do we confess that Jesus born at Bethlehem is true God and true man at the same time? Do we confess that that he died on the cross as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, but then rose from the dead on the third day? Or are we silent because the world says that religion is a private matter that should be kept to oneself?
And what is the witness that our actions give? At the Last Supper, 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. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus Christ loved us by offering himself as the sacrifice on the cross. He served us by giving himself, the sinless Son of God, into death in order win us forgiveness.
Do our lives now share this love we have received in Christ by serving others? The apostle John wrote in his first 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. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
John the Baptist came as a witness to the Word become flesh, the incarnate Son of God. He pointed to the One who was greater than he. He declared, “‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Later in his ministry, Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Jesus Christ gave his flesh on the cross in order to free us from sin. On the third day, he rose from the dead as he defeated death. Now, he continues to come to us in the Sacrament of the Altar. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Just as John bore witness to Jesus as the lamb of God when he was in his presence, so also do we now. When the Words of Institution have been spoken – the words of our Lord – and the true body and blood of Jesus Christ are on the altar, we sing in the Agnus Dei: “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.” We bear witness to the incarnate Lord who comes into our midst to give us the very price he paid for our forgiveness and salvation. He gives us forgiveness and nourishes the new man in us so that like John the Baptist we can bear witness to Christ in what we say and do.