Text: John 1:19-28
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
John the Baptist is a strange character. He dresses in unusual clothing. He wears camel’s skin for clothing. He eats strange food. His diet consists of locusts and wild honey. He is often depicted in artwork as somewhat disheveled with wild hair as if it’s been months since he’s bathed. Besides all of that, though, he was considered strange by the people of his day because of the message that he preaches and because of the fact that he is baptizing people. Ceremonial washings were not unheard of among the Jews, but the manner in which John applies baptism is new. And it’s been years—centuries, in fact—since they’ve heard anyone preach the way John preaches.
So some men sent by the Pharisees are sent to ask him who he is and why he’s doing the things that he does. They simply ask John, “Who are you?” They are not here asking John what is name is or what family he comes from. These are the typical questions of identity that we’re all used to asking. But their question has to do with authority. This becomes completely clear later on in the text, but it’s even clear from the beginning. John knows this. That’s why he gets the most important thing out of the way right off the bat. He immediately denies being the Christ. There is no doubt that many thought that he might be the Messiah. There had been this long gap in the prophetic ministry among the Jews of about 400 years. John’s bold end-times preaching of repentance and his baptizing made people think that perhaps he was the Messiah. While they may have been confused and wrong about many of the prophecies of the Old Testament, they at least knew that the Messiah would come before the end, that is, before God’s eternal kingdom would come. Here’s John saying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Maybe he’s the Christ. Of course, he is not, though. For him to claim such an honorable title would be blasphemous. John is not the Christ. He won’t have anyone making that mistake.
There was a belief—and still is a belief—among the Jews that Elijah will come before “the great and awesome day of the Lord” as Malachi writes. Elijah is one of only two people to have been taken into heaven without physically dying first. Enoch was the first one. We hear absolutely nothing about him after his assumption into heaven in Genesis 5. When it comes to Elijah, we have far more, though. Elijah, you’ll remember, was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire right before the eyes of his successor, Elisha. To the Jews, when Malachi wrote that Elijah would come before the Christ would come meant that the same Elijah that was taken up into heaven would come back down from heaven. This, of course, was not—and still is not—true. Now, John actually is Elijah in a sense. Jesus himself says that John is “Elijah who is to come,” in fact. John knows this, too. He knows that he is the fulfillment of that particular prophecy of Malachi. But he also knows that that’s not what the Pharisees mean when they ask the question. He is not Elijah. At least not in the sense that the Pharisees think he might be Elijah.
We read from Deuteronomy 18 a few moments ago. Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address, if you will, to the Israelites. He has led the people of Israel from the time that they were in slavery in Egypt, to Mt. Sinai, and through the wilderness. But he will not be the one to lead them into the Promised Land. Moses and the people of Israel are gathered just across the Jordan river from Jericho, just to the northeast of the Dead Sea. That task of leading the people into Canaan and leading them to victory over the people that inhabit the land will fall to Joshua instead. But Moses assures them that one day a prophet “like him” will be raised up among them to lead them who will speak the Word of God to them. He will be a mediator for them between them and God just as Moses was. For the people know that they can’t stand to be in the unmediated presence of God. The people are right and God promises them that he will send one like Moses to them. Well, John is a prophet. He is the last of the Old Testament prophets, in fact. Jesus even called him more than a prophet in our Gospel reading last Sunday. But he is not the prophet that Moses prophesied concerning. Jesus is that “prophet.” Again, the Pharisees here don’t necessarily recognize that the prophecy of Moses in Deuteronomy 18 is a Messianic prophecy, but John makes it clear that he is not the prophet that Moses spoke of, even if their definition of who that prophet is (or will be) is wrong.
John is not the Christ. John is not Elijah. John is not the prophet. So who is he? The Pharisees demand to know. For the ones who sent them demand an answer. So John gives them the answer. He is the fulfillment of prophecy given by Isaiah in chapter 40. He is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” He sounds the trumpet that announces the coming of Jesus. Jesus is the bridegroom. He is the one who comes to lay down his life for his bride, the Church. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John, though, is only the best man. The best man is important. He is the one who makes everything ready for the groom. He has special tasks such as making sure that the rings are kept safe and brought to the wedding ceremony. But once the bridegroom arrives on the scene, he gets out of the way. His job is done. Once Jesus’ ministry begins, John’s work is done.
Why does John baptize? To prepare people for the bridegroom. John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. In order for the people to receive the one who comes to forgive sins, their sins must first be revealed. This is John’s work. This is how the path is made straight for the bridegroom. In baptism, the old is washed away in order to make way for the new man.
It is not simply coincidence that John’s encounter with the Pharisees here takes place at Bethany across the Jordan. Yes, John carried out his ministry by the Jordan River, so that’s where the Pharisees would naturally go to find him, but John did his work of preaching and baptizing at the Jordan on purpose. This “Bethany across the Jordan” was, again, where the Israelites were when Moses died, right before they crossed over into the Promised Land and took down Jericho in the first of many military victories that God gave them. Here is where Elijah was taken up into heaven and Elisha was given a double portion of the spirit. Here is where Naaman was cured of his leprosy when he finally heeded the word and promise of God given through Elisha. Here is where Jesus himself will be baptized by John and will sanctify and institute all waters to be a “blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin.” John’s ministry prepared the Jews for the coming kingdom of heaven in Christ Jesus. It prepared them to cross over from the death of their sins into the eternal life that would be won for them by Jesus in his death and resurrection.
For Jesus is that one who comes after John whose sandals he is not worthy to untie, but he is also the one who was before John. Yes, John was born first. Jesus and John were close in age, but John is older. As far as their existence in human flesh goes, John comes first. But John makes it clear that Jesus comes before him. Jesus comes before him in rank, of course. Jesus is true God in addition to being true man while John is true man only. But Jesus was also begotten of the Father from eternity. For Jesus was there in the beginning at the creation. This St. John the Evangelist makes clear in the opening verses of his Gospel. But it’s not like Jesus was absent in the rest of the history of God’s people. He was there in the burning bush speaking to Moses. He was there in the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke leading Israel through the wilderness. St. Paul writes the rock from which the Israelites received water in the wilderness was Christ. The fourth man in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago was Christ. These are but just a few of the instances where he was present with his people. But John prepares the people of God for something more than this. He is preparing the people of God for the Word made Flesh to make his appearance among them. How should they react when Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven himself, comes among them? They should humble themselves. This is what John does. John will not accept the spotlight, but he will instead shine it on Jesus. Jesus is the one whose sandals he is not even worthy to untie.
May we, likewise, humble ourselves before the throne of God. Hearing the Word of God, our sins are laid bare and we realize that we, too are unworthy sinners. Those who heard the preaching of John were moved to repentance. They saw the need they had for forgiveness. They saw their need for the coming Messiah just as we come to the realization that we need God’s forgiveness. We need what Jesus comes to offer.
And now, just as the Jordan River served as the place where people heard the preaching of repentance by John and received his baptism as a preparation for the coming Jesus, we, the baptized, are called to repentance by the Word of God that we might joyfully receive Jesus with hearts that are ready for his appearing. Jesus comes and dwells among us and does not disappoint. He comes to win the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation in his death on the cross and he comes even today to deliver those gifts through Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and in the Lord’s Supper. And he will come again to deliver us from this valley of sorrow and bring at last to the joys of eternal life with him in the new creation.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.