4th Sunday in Advent. John 1:19-28. (Download podcast.) This sermon was shortened to leave more room for our missionary presentation at Living Word REC in Courtenay, BC. Many thanks to Fr. Bill Klock for welcoming us to his parish and pulpit.
And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 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?” 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.” (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 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.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (John 1:19-28 ESV)
The gospel lesson this morning was written against a background of fevered eschatological expectation: faithful Jews were longing, hoping, and expecting the coming of the kingdom of God, the end of their long national chastisement under foreign domination, the forgiveness of their corporate sins. This would be for them the very central event in Israel’s history, the moment when the things they hated about the world – the Roman domination, wicked Herod and his abominable house, the corrupt priesthood in charge of the Temple – were undone, and when the prophecies of Daniel and Isaiah and Jeremiah would be fulfilled, when the new age would be ushered in, when the reign of the Messiah would begin, with all the incredible blessings that accompany it. We are at the fulcrum of history, the most momentous change ever to take place.
Into this fever of expectation comes a curious and outlandish figure, John the Baptizer. There’s an old song that says, “I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.” Well, John has an outfit. I saw the Hobbit this week, with my older kids. And as soon as Gandalf came on the screen, you knew he was a wizard. There are no clean-shaven wizards, and they all wear hats and long robes. Harry Potter does not look like a wizard. Dumbledore does. Well, what does John’s outfit mean? His garb of camel’s hair and leather belt, and his dwelling in the wilderness, links him with the prophets of the Old Testament, Elijah and Elisha, who overturned the kingdom of Ahab and Jezebel and extirpated Baal-worship from Israel. The Jews wanted to see a similar upheaval from John. And in many ways, they did: to say, as John did to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother Philip’s wife” was to point out very publicly that the present king was not faithful, not pious, not legitimate. It is the sort of criticism that can lose you your head.
In our reading this morning, the questioners of John are Pharisees, of all the factions of Jews the ones who most wanted the present order overturned, who believed in resurrection and were willing to use force to pressure others into conforming to their agenda. The whole reason that the Pharisees cared whether you ate with unwashed hands, or healed someone on the Sabbath, or rubbed heads of grain to get a snack on the Sabbath, or made lengthy prayers on the street corners, was that they were trying to get God’s attention and bring about the redemption of Israel by their heightened piety. They weren’t just snooty people, patting themselves on the back about how holy they were, and congratulating themselves on the fact that they were holier than you. No, they had an agenda for the entire nation, and if you were not on board with that agenda, you were part of the problem.
Thus, the first thing they want to know from John is, “Are you the Christ?” Recall that Jesus gets asked this same question by the high priest at his trial, and his reply is, “You say it!” But John does not answer that way: “I am not the Messiah.” He confessed, admitted that he was not. Nor is he the prophet like Moses whose coming is predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15, whom “Ye shall hear, and whoever does not listen to him shall be cut off from his people.” Nor, surprisingly enough, does he claim to be Elijah, even though Jesus will say that John did come in the spirit and power of Elijah, and he is dressed in an Elijah outfit, and is doing and saying Elijah things. John does not want the focus to be on him.
Please notice the logic of the Pharisees’ question: “Then why are you baptizing if you’re not the Messiah, nor the Prophet, nor Elijah?” Implication: if you’re baptizing, you must have something to do with the coming Messianic Age that we Pharisees have been waiting for! After all, it’s because of the Pharisees’ expectation of the coming Messianic Age that they are busily washing everything from their hands to bowls and cups. Everyone knows that if you’re baptizing, you must have something to do with the coming Kingdom. And of course, they are right about that.
What does John say he is? He says he is nothing but a voice, pointing everyone to Jesus. His whole life is about “Behold the Lamb of God!”
To say, “I am a voice” is to say “Don’t think about me. Think about what I am saying. Nothing else matters.” And John lives in a way that is consistent with that: just as Elijah was fed bread and meat by ravens at the Brook Cherith, John truly takes no thought for what he shall eat, or what he shall drink, or what he shall wear. He is not worried about any of that. He is concerned only to point to Jesus. He lives as a radically kingdom-focused man.
So ought we all to do. If you are baptized, you must have something to do with the Kingdom of the Messiah. We too ought to be pointing people to Jesus and letting them know that they they cannot live as if Christmas were not a reality.
But we do this. I hear Christians say that “I don’t feel very Christmassy this year” They think about Hurricane Sandy and the CT school shooting, or the typhoon in the Philippines, and they feel bummed.
This is to miss the fact that Jesus is the missionary of all missionaries: God saw that the world was broken, full of sin, and pain, and darkness and foolishness, and he didn’t just send money or food or good wishes. He sent His Son, God in the flesh, to come to us, to be a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and a glory for His people Israel.
Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann has some helpful words. He is writing about Lent, but his words apply just as well to Advent:
” Is it not our daily experience, however, that this faith is very seldom ours, that all the time we lose and betray the “new life” which we received as a gift, and that, in fact, we live as if Christ did not rise from the dead, as if that unique event had no meaning whatsoever for us? (…) We manage to forget even the death and them, all of a sudden, in the midst of our “enjoying life” it comes to us: horrible, inescapable, senseless. We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various “sins”, yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to us; Indeed, we live as if he never came. This is the only sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity.
“If we realize this, then we may understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it. … It is the worship of the Church that was from the very beginning and still is our entrance into, our communion with, the new life of the Kingdom. It is through her liturgical life that the Church reveals to us something of that which “the ear has not heard, the eye has not seen and what has not yet entered the heart of man but what God has prepared for those who love Him.”!”
This is the last Sunday of Advent, and tomorrow is Christmas Eve already. Take then this one last day of looking forward, of preparing yourself for the coming of the Messiah, the king of Israel, the king of the World. Remind yourself that you have been baptized. Change the Pharisees’ question a bit: Why have you been baptized if the Messiah has not come? And if he has come, do not live as if he has not.
Go enjoy Christmas, all 12 days of it.