18. December 2011
Who is this John the Baptist? What is his testimony? Why should we listen to him? For the doubting world, John has an identity crisis. People just can’t figure him out. They know he is a Levite. They know his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth. But why is he “the Baptist?” Where does this message of repentance come from? By what authority does he institute this washing in the Jordan?
These are good questions. These are questions we should ask of every messenger. Who are you? Why have you come? Why should I listen to you? And so, the Jews sent priest and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” When it comes to religion, there can be nothing new under the sun. Either John is someone old or John is doing something new, and therefore, wrong.
And this is the testimony of John, when [they asked him] … “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” Testimony. Witness. Martyria. They want to know about John’s office. Is he in the office of Messiah, Christ? If so, then he has authority to preach new doctrine and to institute new holy things. No, John, confessed emphatically, “I am not the Christ.” I do not do a new thing but I am bringing an end to the old. I am pointing my finger at the Messiah was has come. I bear witness of him.
Undeterred, those delegates asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” They fully expected their Elijah to come again, in the flesh, just as Malachi prophesied: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse (Malachi 4:5).
And [John] said, “I am not.” Uh, really, John? You have turned the hearts of children back to the doctrine of their fathers. You have called them to repentance. He speaks as Elijah. Turn away from your idolatry. Return to faithfulness.
Jesus even calls him Elijah in Matthew’s Gospel: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.
John is the Elijah who has come. John directs the way to Jesus. The angel confessed to Zechariah before the altar of incense: “… And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
John is the Elijah to come but not the Elijah they expected. They expected the same Elijah that ascended to heaven in fiery horse and chariot to return again before the Messiah. Yet, here, as before, John’s identity is mistaken. Elijah’s identity is mistaken. Both are mere humble instruments of God. They have no power or authority of themselves but only in what they say and who they confess. They speak with power and authority because they speak the Word of God and in the Spirit of God.
Yet, there is the cult of personality. If not Elijah, then why should we listen to you? If not the Prophet, then why should we pay any attention? Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself? This is an identity crisis. Not for John personally but for the whole doubting world. Why should we listen to you? Why do you do the things you do? Why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
All good questions. These are questions you ought to ask, too. For I stand in this pulpit tonight and declare to you: Repent—the kingdom of heaven is at hand. By what authority? How can I say such a thing? Why should you listen?
Its all about the office and about the calling. John is called by the Lord into the office of prophet. He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’…” I am sent, I am called, I stand in the office of prophet. But he is no ordinary prophet but THE Prophet, the last prophet, the one who points to Christ. Zechariah sang: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins… (Luke 1:76-77).
His office is one of a voice. He speaks and points and then gets out of the way. There is no cult of personality around St. John. He speaks and we hear Jesus. He points and we see Jesus. He baptizes for repentance and we need Jesus.
John said: A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:29-30).
St. John is sent for the sole purpose of preparing the way for Christ. He is the herald trumpet to prepare for the King as He enters in. He is voice of the angel who points to Jesus in the voice of the prophet. His voice, with all the prophets, preaches repentance. Repentance, that is, turning away from your sins, is preparation for Jesus.
But St. John doesn’t want the credit. He is not the Messiah. He is not the Prophet. He is not Elijah. All the glory belongs to Christ. Christ is our one mediator. He is the Savior. He is the redeemer. No one comes to the Father except by Him. We have one Master to whose Word alone we are bound. We do not listen to voice of men, of saints, of angels, of prophets, or of kings. We only listen to the voice of Jesus, calling sinners to repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Maybe we’re a bit like those delegates from the Pharisees and Levites? Maybe we don’t know who to listen to or why to listen to them? Maybe we question their authority or their right to speak?
We run the same danger of putting our hope in that which is most brilliant in the eyes of the world. Maybe we’ll only listen if they claim to be Elijah or the Prophet, that is, with some special calling of the Spirit? Maybe we will only listen if it comes in bite sized nuggets of clever anecdotes? Maybe we’ll only listen if the messenger is old and wise or young and energetic? Maybe we’ll only listen if they fit within our expectations?
Repent. … Among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of who sandal I am not worthy to untie. Repent. Hear the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’…
Christ has sent one to prepare the way for Him. He has placed one in His stead and given him His authority. Listen to Him. Confess your sins, make ready your heart, lift up your gates, that the king of glory may come in. He is not the Christ. He is not Elijah. He is not the Prophet. He is must decrease and Christ must increase.
John is the voice of a preacher and baptizes with water in the office and by the calling of God. So also, God the Lord has made available to you a preacher, whose voice and hands declares the Word of the Lord and administers the holy Sacraments. It is God the Lord, however who is speaking through me, admonishing and administering. St. Paul says of the pastors of the church: We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.
But do not look to the person of the preacher. Do not look to person of John. He speaks only by calling and by another’s authority. The Holy Spirit calls faithful men to be stewards of the mysteries. He calls them to proclaim and prepare the way for Christ. Actually, the Spirit Himself proclaims and prepares, enlightening your hearts through the apostles’ doctrine and faithful preachers. Do not look to the preacher. Do not look to John. Look to God’s working and power.
This is a struggle for our flesh. We do not like to listen to men. We don’t want to see past their sinfulness and hear the voice of Christ. So was the same for the Apostles. St. Paul wrote to Corinth: Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase (1 Cor 3:6-7).
I must diminish but He must increase. I baptize with water, but the One stands among you whose sandal I am not worthy to untie. Know Him. Listen to Him. Be baptized by Him. Receive His flesh and blood. Rejoice in His voice that forgives. Be prepared by Christ for Christ as He comes.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church