Bible Text: John 1:19-28 | Preacher: Pastor Andrew Richard | Series: Advent 2019 | Today is called the Sunday of the Preparation, because it is the last Sunday we have to get ready to receive our Lord at Christmas. And John the Baptist prepares us, just as he prepared the people of old. John directs us to Christ and stirs up in our hearts a great honor for our Lord. Meanwhile, we see the devil at work trying to bury Christ through various strategies, but fortunately our foe will not succeed.
“And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’” The priests and Levites were the most revered people in Jewish society, and they were coming from the most renowned city. The people must have thought, “What an honor it is, John, to have such people inquiring after you!” And the priests and Levites themselves show John great respect when they ask, “Who are you?” They show they’re willing to take him at his word.
And they’re clearly willing to let him have the highest title, that of Christ. We don’t hear them offering this title, but we do hear in Luke 3 that “all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ.” Popular opinion would have allowed John to claim the title. And the priests and Levites must have at least alluded to the title of Christ, otherwise John’s response to their question would seem to come out of nowhere: “and he confessed and did not deny, and he confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’”
The priests and Levites persist in offering John high titles, “What then? Are you Elijah?” This is a reference to the Old Testament reading from a couple weeks ago, Malachi 4. The Lord said through Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” Now Jesus did identify John as this Elijah. Jesus said of John the Baptist in in Matthew 11, “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” Why then does John deny the title? The Jews expected that the same Elijah who was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire would return. John is not literally Elijah, as he and Jesus both know full well. Rather, as the angel Gabriel said about John in Luke 1, “he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah.”
Now John could have explained this, but he simply says, “I am not.” We see he’s in no mood to talk about himself. John’s testimony bears little resemblance to what have become known as “testimonies” in our day. To give one’s testimony has become an occasion for personal storytelling in which the audience usually learns a good deal about a human being and scarcely anything about Christ. While there is a way to relate one’s experience of Christ’s mercies in a way that magnifies Christ, these testimonies tend toward personal honor rather than honor for Jesus. John won’t have it.
“Are you the Prophet?” they ask. Certainly John is a prophet. But the Prophet is the one Moses spoke of in today’s Old Testament reading, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen.” John was not this prophet. Jesus is. John simply answers, “No.” In spite of the accolades and titles and honors they’re willing to heap on John, he doesn’t even answer them ten words, and with the words he does say he avoids their flattery.
At this point the priests and Levites tip their hand and acknowledge that they have come on official business to put John’s answer on record, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” They have now opened the door wide for John to say whatever he wants. And what does he do? He simply quotes from Isaiah 40, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
In the priests and Levites we see the devil’s flattery. The devil flatters you as well. He pretends to honor you and tries to puff you up with yourself. He will say, “You’re the greatest thing ever!” Don’t fall for it! The devil will show you how improved you are compared to that awful person you used to be. He will point you to the work of your hands and congratulate you on what a good job you’ve done. The devil, of course, hates your good works, since God is pleased with them, and so he’ll try first of all to make you proud of doing something that God hasn’t even commanded. But if that doesn’t succeed, he’ll put up with actual good works, provided he can twist them to suit his purpose of making you proud. In sum, the devil will try to make you think you’re greater than Christ himself. Everyone else might need to confess their sins, everyone else might need salvation, but not you.
And in the midst of such flattery we turn to the Scriptures as John did. With God’s own words we talk about ourselves and say the same thing he does. This is what the word “confess” means. It means “to say the same thing.” It can be a confession of sins, for instance, when we say the same thing about ourselves as Jesus does in Mark 7, “out of the heart of man come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” We must speak these words of ourselves, and we see that God’s Word sufficiently breaks our pride and keeps us humble, despite the devil’s flattery.
But this is not all the Scriptures say about us. In 1 John 3 it says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we are his body, branches of him who is the vine, God’s building, God’s field, God’s workmanship, salt, light in the Lord, saints. These are all phrases that appear in the Scriptures describing who we are in Christ. We confess all of this as well, and the Lord teaches us that he has made us far greater than we could ever make ourselves by being puffed up by the devil’s flattery.
Well since the priests and Levites have made no headway with their flattery, they turn to accusations. We have a little note that leads us to expect a change in tone: “Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.” Knowing this, we suspect that the messengers have not been acting in good faith, that they are two-faced and are going to turn on John, which they do. “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
Now this is a baseless accusation. The heavenly Father had sent John to baptize, and John knows it. Later in John 1 he even refers to God as “he who sent me to baptize with water.” But again, John does not get sucked into a trap of the devil and start thinking about himself. John’s mind is on Christ.
John says, “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 readily confesses his lowliness compared to Christ. But then he takes the opportunity to confess Christ. This is the greatest sort of confession. Certainly we ought to confess the truth about who we are, but more glorious is the confession of who Christ is.
Christ is far above us, higher than the heavens are above the earth. Now John’s birth was announced by an angel, he was miraculously conceived (since his mother was advanced in years), he could point to portions of the Old Testament that were specifically about him, he had the high honor of being the forerunner of the Lord, and yet John says he’s not worthy of Jesus, not even to be his dirty slave and untie his sandals. If one of the most honored men the world has ever seen said this about himself, then we must be worms! We must be the scum of the earth!
That is true. Yet the devil with his accusations doesn’t want us to move beyond that. With his accusations the devil not only tells us how wretched we are, but then goes on to say that you’re a lost cause, that God hates you, that you have rebelled and made yourself an enemy of the truth. With John we acknowledge our lowliness, but with him we also look to the great and high Lord, of whom we are not worthy, and yet who stands in our midst.
John was not worthy of Jesus, yet Jesus came to be baptized by him and stood in the place of sinners. You are not worthy of Jesus, and yet Jesus came and removed all the accusations that stood against you by taking away your sins. He suffered the accusations so that when the devil’s accusations come to you, they’re empty. As it says in Romans 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We are still not worthy of Jesus, and yet he comes to us still and gives us his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.
So we saw how John defeated both the flattery and the accusations of the devil. He did so by confessing. He confessed the truth about himself. He confessed the truth about the Christ. And this is how we prepare for Christmas. We confess that we are lowly sinners, in opposition to the devil’s flattery. And we confess how the great Christ has humbled himself into our midst to save us, in opposition to the devil’s accusations. Thus we have neither pride nor despair, which may seem to be complete opposites that have nothing to do with each other. Yet they have at their core the same problem: focusing on ourselves instead of focusing on Christ. And so John the Baptist gives us what we need to prepare for our Lord’s coming, and that is a big old dose of “get over yourself.” That is what we need. John turns us away from ourselves and directs us to Christ. He stirs up in us a great honor for our Lord. And now having prepared us for the Lord, John the Baptist bows out and leaves us to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Amen.