John 1:6-8; 19-28
(watch here: https://youtu.be/8dir-rDft9k)
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord,”’
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
This week’s gospel reading sounds awfully similar to last week’s. In both passages, we encounter the key character of John the Baptist. Two of the four weeks in this Advent season are dedicated to the same person. One would get the impression that the larger church and whoever devised our weekly lectionary wants us to focus in on this one person! After all, he is the most notable person who prepared the people of Israel for welcoming Jesus. Who better to look to in our own time of waiting than John the Baptist? His preaching and baptizing call us to repent…to acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness as a way of preparing our hearts and souls for the true Messiah. We’d do well to use this time of waiting for the birth of Jesus by getting hearts and souls ready. Remember what I said last week? Jesus is coming whether we like it or not. Jesus is coming to share the Father’s love but only to those who are able to receive it. Those of us who are living in sin, who are reveling in our sin, who have no desire to seek forgiveness for our sin, they cannot receive the gift the Jesus that brings. Their hearts and souls are hardened and this season of Christmas is nothing more than an opportunity to glutinously bask in feasting and gifting and fellowship with family and friends. They fail to consider that the real reason to celebrate this season is the coming of Jesus and with him the Father’s love. Christmas is about Christ, nothing more and nothing less! It’s only right and appropriate that we should dedicate two of the four weeks of the season to a man whose sole mission was to prepare us for Christ.
Though last week’s passage from Mark and this week’s passage from John are very similar, I think there is an element to this week’s reading that is a little more pronounced and something that can guide us through this season. John was a humble man. John was a man who knew the limits of his abilities. John was a man who knew his abilities were no match to those of Jesus. Humility was a striking characteristic of John. Here was a man who had developed quite a reputation preaching and baptizing along the Jordon river. People would come from far and wide to hear him speak. They would eagerly come down to the waters to receive his gift of a new life freed from the bonds of sin. They no longer had to carry around the burdens of their sin. John freed them of their regrets and sorrows. What’s more, he gave them hope in the one to come. He gave them hope in the love they were to receive. Hope is a great and mighty gift indeed, second only to the gift of love. And John, while not giving them the greatest gift of love, was certainly assuring them of their ability to receive it. If they but sought forgiveness for their sins, if they but cleansed themselves of their sins, then they would be able to receive the Messiah and his most precious gift of love! John’s gift of hope is no small gift!
A man who so graciously gave such a gift, a man who was adored by so many for giving them his gift, risks the very real temptation of inflating his own self-worth and importance. No doubt John was tempted daily to believe that he was more important than many other people. Ask any great leader who has won the trust and love of many people and they would readily admit there is a great temptation to believe they are more special than they actually are. John most likely dealt with such temptation, especially as crowds who gathered around him grew and grew with each passing day. Eventually he got the attention of the church leaders as we heard in our passage for today. They were curious to know who he was and by what power he was able to gather such growing crowds. But John, true to his humble character, never allowed himself to succumb to the temptation of inflating his self-worth. He never put on airs that he was more than just a messenger. He didn’t even claim to be a prophet, let alone the great prophet, Elijah. No, John was a truly humble man, always downplaying his importance in preparing people to receive the true prophet, the true Messiah. I imagine he’d even claim that anyone could do what he did. “Anyone can baptize someone with water,” he’d say. After all, it’s God who does the real work in baptism. God claims us and forgives us and clothes us. We simply run water of another person. Anyone can do that! And even then, John knows his baptism is far more inferior to the baptism of Jesus who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. John knew that not only anyone could do what he did but also that what he did wasn’t even the best, more effective, way of doing it. John was truly a humble man indeed!
Perhaps the reason why we focus on John for two of these four weeks is because we are not only to prepare our hearts and souls but we are to walk humbly through the season. Perhaps we are to use his witness of bold humility as a guide for going through the Christmas season. I think it’s safe to say we all know what to expect from the Christmas season. We can expect to be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the season. We can expect to hear nonstop carols in the stores and on the radios. We can expect to see lights and decorated trees and decorated houses and decorated stores. We can expect to get caught up in the shopping madness of busy traffic and busy aisles and busy checkout lines. We can expect the laughter and glee and frivolity and festivity. We can expect the crazy office parties and weird family gatherings. These are all expectations we can have with the season of Christmas. But just because we can expect these things doesn’t mean we have to be guided by them. No, we can walk through the season humbly, gently yet persistently reminding people there is something much larger to be celebrating. There is something greater than all the sights and sounds and madness of the season. There is Jesus! There is the gift of the Father’s love that Jesus comes bearing. There is a promise of renewal and rebirth underneath it all. Jesus brings new life, new love, new hope! Jesus is the greatest gift of the season and we, like John, simply need to humbly remind people of this gift. We, like John, need to point our fingers to the one who is greater than you and me, the one of whom we are not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. If John can walk so humbly, then you and I most certainly can too.
John’s witness not only prepares us for the coming of Jesus but it also empowers us to walk through the season with clarity and integrity. We know the season is about Jesus. We know the season is about love. We know the season is about giving. Everything else that goes with the season simply reflect these truths. Let us go through the season both prepared and empowered. Let us go through the season rejoicing as we celebrate the Advent candle of Joy. God is with us…and soon will be! Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.