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We’ve come now to the halfway point in the season of Advent. Christmas is just 14 days away. There’s not much time left to get ready for the big day. I hope you will be ready. So does John. John’s whole purpose and goal in life was to help you get ready for the big day. And for John, it’s not about shopping or decorating or presents. For John, it’s about repentance. According to John, you don’t get ready for the big day by getting into the ‘Christmas spirit,’ but by getting into the Holy Spirit.
This morning, John directs our attention to John. Lets be sure that we don’t get confused about these two Johns. There’s John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. John the Baptist is also an evangelist but John the Evangelist is not a baptizer. John the Baptist evangelizes by preaching and baptizing. John the Evangelist evangelizes by telling us what John the Baptizer was preaching and what his baptism meant. John the Evangelist was a disciple of John the Baptist but John the Baptist told John the Evangelist to go follow Jesus. John the Baptist pointed people to Jesus and so does John the Evangelist. I hope that clears things up.
John the Evangelist points to Jesus saying, ‘In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’ Then, John the Evangelist points to John the Baptist saying, ‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all men might believe through him.’ That’s what John the Baptist’s life was all about.
Your life is all about going to work, taking care of parents, taking caring of your spouse, raising the children, coming to church, ATTENDING THE ANNUAL VOTERS MEETING. John’s life was all about ‘that ALL MEN might believe through Him.’ We can’t all be John the Baptists or there’d be no one to go to work and care for your spouse and raise your children and come to church. But we are thankful that ‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.’
John the Evangelist writes, ‘He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.’ One of the problems that John the Baptist had with ‘bearing witness to the light,’ is that a lot of people that John was trying to ‘witness to,’ found him to be such a fascinating person that they were more interested in him than in who he was bearing ‘witness to.’
For example, a contingent of religious leaders came to where John was preaching and baptizing, and their big question was, ‘who are YOU’? The question that they should have come to John with is, ‘who is HE’? ‘Who is this one who comes after you but was before you.’ ‘Who is this One on whom you saw the Spirit descend from heaven and remain on’?
They ask ‘why are you baptizing’? when what they should have asked him is, ‘can I be baptized.’
They remind me of the two new kittens we have. When I point to something that I want them to pay attention to, like a toy or a ball of yarn, they come and sniff my finger. That’s what these fellows who came from the home office were doing. John the Baptist was the finger pointer, and instead of looking to the One he was pointing to, they were more interested in his finger.
Now, I’m not exactly sure why John the Evangelist included this in his Gospel. But it does strike me that there are lots of folks out there who are very interested in religion and spirituality and even Christianity. And they ask lots of questions and it seems like they’re searching for answers, but its really just the ‘debate’ that they’re interested in. For every ‘reason to believe,’ they’ve got a reason for why your reason is not very good. I can never figure out if they are they’re just testing or if they’re really that confused or just lonely. But after about the tenth, ‘but what about” I’m ready to say, ‘quit talking about it and go build something.’
So, I think I can understand why, when John saw these religious types coming into the desert to debate with him, after awhile he’d scream ‘you brood of vipers. Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.’ Which I think is just another way of saying, ‘just go build something.’
Rather than engaging in their stupid debate, John just laid it out straight. ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’ ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one YOU DO NOT KNOW, even he who come after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.’ John just points them to Jesus.
And then John the Evangelist writes, ‘These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.’ And that’s where I’d like to have us focus our attention.
We’ve said this before but it bears repeating again here, John the Evangelist has a very unique style that is much different than Matthew, Mark and Luke, and this is what makes the Gospel of John so much fun. For instance, compare the Christmas account in Matthew and Luke to John’s Christmas story. Matthew and Luke write about angels and shepherds and Mary and Joseph and a sold out inn in Bethlehem.
John tells the same Christmas account like this, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5) See what I mean. John sees things differently.
So when John writes, ‘all this took place in Bethany, across the Jordan where John was baptizing’ he sees something here that the Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t see.
John carefully identifies the location where John the Baptist is preaching and baptizing. It’s ‘in Bethany across the Jordan.’ That is, it’s on the other side of the Jordan from Israel. It’s east of Israel. This Bethany is not to be confused with the Bethany where Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived and where Jesus spent a lot of time. That Bethany was west of Jerusalem and west of the Jordan River. ‘All this took place in Bethany, across the Jordan where John was baptizing.’ So, what’s the significance?
I grew up in a town just outside of Philadelphia called Langhorne. And on the corner of Pine Street and Maple Avenue is the Langhorne Hotel that dates back to Colonial days. On the outside of the building there is a plaque that reads, ‘George Washington slept here.’ And there are records that prove that.
If the Israelites had put up little plaques along their journey through the wilderness, there would be a plague in Bethany across the Jordan that reads, ‘Israel slept here.’ In the book of Joshua, we read that Moses led the people of Israel through THE WILDERNESS. And after 40 years, they came to the east side of the Jordan River. That’s where Moses hands the reigns over to his nephew Joshua.
Joshua is the one who will lead Israel out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Joshua does just what uncle Moses told him to do. He commands the priests to carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan River and stand in the water with it. The Ark of the Covenant was the place where God’s presence could be located. When they did, the Jordan River stopped flowing. Joshua describes it by saying, ‘the water piled up in a heap.’ And just as Moses had led Israel out of the bondage and slavery of Egypt through the parting of the Red Sea, now Joshua would lead Israel into the Promised Land through the parting of the Jordan River.
And the place that they entered the Promised Land from was, Bethany on the other side of the Jordan.
Now, centuries later, John the Baptist is at precisely the same spot as ancient Israel had been. He is in the WILDERNESS, calling all Israel to come into the WILDERNESS, to the other side of the Jordan River to be baptized in the Jordan River.
In an incredibly real and physical way, John is positioning the New Israel right where the Old Israel was. From there, John prepared the people for the day when the 2nd JOSHUA, which by the way, in Hebrew is ‘Yeshua,’ which is also translated ‘Jesus,’ when this 2nd Joshua would come and lead His people, out of the wilderness of our sin and death, through the waters of Baptism by the Holy Spirit, and into the Promised Land.
So listen, don’t question John, don’t debate with him, and don’t argue with him. Listen to him. He is sent from God to point you to Jesus. Jesus is the One whom ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon.’ He is the ‘anointed one’ that Isaiah pointed to as well. Fix your eyes on Jesus.
We can debate and argue about the causes and remedies for poverty all day long, but only Jesus ‘brings good news to the poor.’
We can do all of the research and development that money can buy to find a cure for the sadness and depression caused by our sin, but only Jesus ‘binds up the brokenhearted.’
We can writes Declarations of Independence and Bills of Rights until we run out of ink, but only Jesus ‘proclaims liberty to the captives and opens the prison to those who are bound.’
Do you really want to DISCUSS this and DEBATE this? I say, let’s believe it and live it. ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ (1Thess.5:16-17).