If you were among the religious leaders of Jerusalem when John the Baptist began his ministry, there was cause for concern. There would be a history of prophet like figures showing up in the wilderness. These men often drew a following. Israel had been in the wilderness before Yahweh had brought them across the Jordan River, and then enabled them to conquer the promised land.
At the moment, it was not the Canaanites who ruled the land, but instead the Romans. The people longed to be freed from rule by these Gentiles. It wasn’t hard to recognize that movements like this could be dangerous. The Romans weren’t going to tolerate any potential threat. In the later instances that we know about, the reaction was to send out troops and slaughter the people. And things could get out of hand. The Romans had not forgotten that there had been a revolt in 6 A.D. that had to be put down using legionary forces brought down from Syria.
John the Baptist was on the other side of the Jordan River carrying out his ministry. He was drawing very large crowds, and the leaders needed to find out what exactly was going on. We learn that priests and Levites were sent from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” We are told: “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” Right from the start John took the big one off the table. He made no claim to be the Christ – the Messiah – sent by God to bring his end time salvation.
So next, his questioners began to run through the list of expected end time figures. They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” Elijah had been taken up by God in a whirlwind. God had declared through the prophet Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” Yet John told them, “I am not.”
Then they asked, “Are you the Prophet?” We hear in our Old Testament lesson about the prophet like Moses promised by God. There seems to have been different versions of this expectation present in first century Judaism. But John replied: “No.”
It’s hard not to sympathize with John’s questioners at this point. They had run out of all the obvious possibilities, and they were at a loss. They had been sent to learn information about John, and thus far they had come up with nothing. So they said to him, “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 quoted Isaiah in a typically Jewish way that compressed the content of several verses into his one statement. As we heard in last week’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah had written, “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.’”
John the Baptist made a dramatic claim. He said that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. He was the voice in the wilderness who has preparing the way for the Lord. He was the one who was calling for the way to be made straight – for every obstacle to be removed.
As the last of the Gospel writers, John assumes that his readers are familiar with many aspects of the basic story about Jesus. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he doesn’t emphasize the call to repentance issued by John the Baptist. But that call is still clearly present here. John was the one telling his hearers to “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
As we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Lord at Christmas, John’s words call us to remove all those things that hinder our focus on Jesus Christ. They call us to repent of all distractions that receive more attention than Jesus himself. Ask yourself this question: During the last three weeks have you spent more time decorating for Christmas, baking for Christmas, planning for Christmas and buying presents for Christmas than you have spending time in God’s house, reading God’s word, and praying? John’s words call us to repent and to turn our attention to the Lord, his Word, and prayer as the true spiritual preparation for the celebration of our Lord’s birth.
John’s questioners still did not have a clear answer they could understand. So they asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” As I mentioned last week, ritual washings were very common in Judaism. But these were all self-administered. John was completely different because he applied the water to others. The Jewish religious leaders were asking what authority he had to do this if he wasn’t one of these prominent figures.
John’s answer wasn’t about himself. Instead, it focused on the One coming after him. John’s authority to baptize was to be found in this One. He 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 seemed like a big deal. After all, crowds were going out to see him and he had even been given the “title” – “the baptizer.” But John declared that his ministry was only about preparation for One who was far superior to him.
In the verses after our text, we learn that this interaction took place in the time after John had baptized Jesus. 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’s baptizing ministry offered forgiveness – forgiveness received at the Jordan River and not at the temple. He had proclaimed that the coming One would gather the wheat into the barn – that he would gather the forgiven people of God. And so it is not entirely surprising that John called Jesus the “Lamb of God.”
And then John added something else. He said that he had come baptizing with water to reveal the greater One. In fact, this definitive revelation had occurred when Jesus was baptized because God who had sent John to baptize had told him, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” John declared, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”
We saw in last week’s Gospel lesson that like the Old Testament prophets, John did not understand everything that was true about the Christ. In fact, he says things here that are true in ways that most likely John did not fully understand. Jesus Christ is indeed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But during his ministry our Lord revealed that he is the sacrificial lamb who offered himself for our sins. During Holy Week Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Then the apostle John adds, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”
Jesus died on the cross as the sacrifice that makes atonement for our sins – that removes them as the barrier between us and the holy God. The apostle 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 the sacrifice was killed on the cross and buried. But then, on Easter, God raised him from the dead. Because Christ has defeated death in his own resurrection, his words are true: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
John baptized with water, but he had been told that the One on whom he saw the Spirit descend and remain, was the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. As the time of Jesus’ death approached, he spoke about his coming ascension and told the disciples, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
It is as the risen and ascended Lord that Jesus has baptized us with the Holy Spirit. He has given the Spirit to his Church. He gave you the Spirit and new life through baptism for there you were born again of water and the Spirit.
Jesus has done this so that we can receive his forgiving love. He has done this so that we can share this love with others. Our Lord told the disciples 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.”
Our text this morning speaks about the testimony, or witness, that John the Baptist gave. He bore witness to Jesus Christ as the one who is greater than he. And then in this chapter he went on to point to Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and who baptizes with the Spirit.
The risen and ascended Lord has given the Spirit. Jesus said to the disciples, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” Today, we receive that witness through the Gospel of John and the rest of the Scriptures.
It is the witness that God himself gives to us. The apostle John writes in his first letter, “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”
This is the testimony which we have received and believe. And so like John, we have received a testimony – a witness - that we are to share with others. We may not be prophesied prophets like John, but we know the whole story of how the Son of God died and rose from the dead to give us forgiveness, resurrection, and eternal life. And so God sends us to speak this testimony – this witness – to those around us.