Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. In our text for this morning, again hear about John the Baptist, who takes every opportunity to point us to Christ who stands among us.
1. Our Gospel Reading begins with these words: 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” (John 1:19-20). Isn’t that interesting? John’s testimony is to vehemently insist, “I am not the Christ.” It’s interesting. These men want to know who John is, but John’s testimony is not so much who John is, but rather who he isn’t. He is not the Christ. And you have to assume that there’s a reason why John responds in this way and why his response is so emphatic. It seems likely that these men from Jerusalem knew who John was. After all, John’s father was a priest. John himself should have been a priest. But instead of following in the family lineage of becoming a priest, John moved out to the wilderness and started eating, dressing, acting, and speaking like a crazy prophet. It’s possible that the religious leaders from Jerusalem even were familiar with John’s miraculous birth story—his father being struck mute while serving in the temple and his barren mother giving birth to him. It’s hard to imagine that these things were not part of the motivation behind this question, “Who are you?” Perhaps this question could be paraphrased in this way, “Who do you think you are?” John’s response is to tell them who he is not: “I am not the Christ.” Now, whether these men thought that John was the Christ is irrelevant. John’s point is essentially this: “Stop asking about me, and start asking about the Christ.” The Christ is the one they should be asking about and looking for, not John.
2. How often is this us? We end up going through life a lot like these religious leaders from Jerusalem so focused on ourselves that we’re not looking for the right things or asking the right questions. There’s an obvious connection between this and the American holiday attitude of “me, me, me” and “stuff, stuff, stuff”, but I will leave you to ponder that on your own. What I find particularly striking is the parallel with our attitude toward life in general. Our minds have been so infused with American political and consumerist thinking that we’ve stopped thinking and asking about Jesus. The current pandemic situation in which we find ourselves is a painfully relevant example of this. When you’re asked to wear a mask, is your gut reaction to think about your personal freedoms? Or is it to ask how Jesus would have you respond to the situation? When you hear news about the vaccine mandates, is your gut reaction to think, “Oh good, humanity is finally going to eliminate this virus when everyone is vaccinated”? Or is it to ask how Jesus would have you respond to the situation? Don’t get me wrong—I know that I just made politically charged statements. That’s the point. If you’re offended by something I just said, then I would like to suggest that the Holy Spirit might be convicting you that you have become too focused on the thought patterns of this world. I have no intention of pushing a political agenda here. I’m simply saying that when we primarily think in terms of American politics, we’re guilty of the same thing the religious leaders from Jerusalem were. We need to stop thinking in the patterns of this world and to allow Jesus to transform us by the renewing of our minds so that we look to him before all else.
3. As we return to the text, we see the priests and Levites are about to respond to John’s statement, “I am not the Christ.” We read: 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) (John 1:21-24). So, John is not the Christ. That much has been established. But the priests and Levites are determined to figure out who he is. So, they ask if he is Elijah. If you’re not overly familiar with the biblical story, this might seem like a strange question. But for someone as steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures as these men undoubtedly were, this was a reasonable question. The prophet Malachi had prophesied long ago that the Lord would “send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (Malachi 4:5). Elijah was one of the great prophets of the Old Testament. Elijah himself never actually died. You might remember the story where he is taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot as his successor Elisha looks on. Because of this, many Jews believed that Elijah would return in the flesh before the Christ came. So, they want to know, “Are you Elijah?” Funny enough, in Matthew 11, part of which was our Gospel Reading last week, Jesus said this: “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Mt. 11:13-14). But when John is asked, “Are you Elijah?”, his response is, “I am not.” Why does he answer in this way? Is John oblivious to the fact that he is the great prophet who has come in the spirit of Elijah to prepare the way for the Christ? Probably not. In fact, I suspect that John is quite aware of this. He also knows that if he says, “Yes, I am Elijah”, the priests and Levites would not hear the truth. They would simply hear their own version of the truth charged in political overtones. These men were so fixated on their own agenda that they would not have been able to rightly hear the truth even if it were presented to them. So, John denies that he is Elijah. He denies being the great prophet foretold by Moses in Deut. 18. And he simply claims to be “a voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”.
4. My friends, this text is a warning to you and me. If we persist in our sinful self-obsession, content to think in the patterns of this world, we are in danger of becoming like these priests and Levites. It’s significant that we’re told these men came from the Pharisees. The Pharisees are the chief enemies of Jesus in the Gospels. And so, the warning is very real: do not allow your way of thinking to be conformed to the patterns of this world lest you also become an enemy of Jesus. When we don’t allow the truth of the Gospel to penetrate and change every aspect of our sinful hearts, we run the risk of becoming so callous towards it that we will be unable to rightly hear the truth when it is presented to us. My friends, don’t let yourself fall into this trap.
5. Our text concludes with the priests and Levites asking John one final question: “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 (Jn. 1:25-28). They still haven’t gotten it. John has tried to convince them that they are looking for the wrong thing—they really should be asking about the Christ. He’s declined to fully answer their questions about who he is because they aren’t able to actually hear the truth. And yet they continue to persist, “Then why are you baptizing?” John’s response is quite profound. He first says, “I baptize with water.” It’s as if he said, “Don’t worry about me. I only baptize with water.” Then he goes on to tell them what they really should be concerned about. He says, “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.” Do you get it? John is saying, “Stop focusing on me. The Christ stands among you!”
6. After this, no more is mentioned about this particular group of priests and Levites. What do they do? Do they go home and give a report about John to those who sent them? Do they stick around and faithfully listen to John while looking for the Christ who stands among them. We don’t know. And perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps you are meant to put yourself in their shoes. We’re not told what they do because the end of the story is actually dependent on what you do. Are you going to be like the Pharisees throughout the rest of the Gospels, resisting the truth and blindly looking to the patterns of this world? Or will you be a faithful disciple who allows the truth of God to penetrate your sinful heart even when it’s painful? Will you allow God’s truth to actually change the way that you think, act, and live even if it’s difficult? That’s a question only you can answer.
7. So, what do we do when we recognize that we are prone to this American political and consumerist thinking? What do we do when we recognize that we have been resisting Christ and his way of living? We listen to John the Baptist. The Christ stands among you! All you need to do is open your eyes to see it. We have spent the last three weeks discussing how Christ comes among us. Last week we discussed how Christ comes to us through the message of his called ministers. On the Second Sunday in Advent we discussed how Christ comes to us in his Word. On the First Sunday in Advent we discussed how Christ comes to us in his Sacrament. And later this week, as we celebrate Christmas, we will be reminded that Christ’s birth is a promise reminding us that just as Christ came into this world as a human being, so too does he still come among us today. Christ is right here in his Word and Sacrament. He speaks directly to us when we gather in his house. So, when we become aware of an area of sin in our lives, the burden is not on us to fix it. Christ has come and continues to come among us. All we need to do is stop actively resisting his work to transform us more and more into his image. Stop resisting and start cooperating with his Spirit who is at work in you. It is my prayer for each one of you that as this Advent season draws to a close you would look to Jesus in his Word and Sacrament and allow his Spirit to continue to cleanse your sin-filled heart so that you will be prepared when he comes again in glory to take us to be with him for all of eternity. In the name of Jesus. Amen.