23 December 2012 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 1:19-28
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
“Who are you?”
The question is not one of identification. They know who John is. The ones asking the question are priests and Levites from Jerusalem. And John is one of them, one of the family. John is the son of Zechariah, a Levitical priest himself. What’s more, Zechariah was the old priest whose barren wife miraculously gave birth to Zechariah’s son thirty years before – after Zechariah saw the angel of the Lord while ministering in the temple, after which Zechariah was struck mute by the angel, whose voice later came back after naming his boy the unusual name “John.”
Yes, that John. This baptizer in the desert is that John. They know full well who he is, and they know full well that God is doing something unique with John. But they are itching to know more. And so John’s own priestly tribesmen come to interrogate him: “Who are you?”
St. John the Baptist knows the real motivation behind their question, and he answers them by making a confession, in the words of our text, confessing: “I am not the Christ.” For the priests and the Levites, and King Herod for that matter,were terrified that the Christ would come and take away their power. They did not want the true Prophet, the true Priest, and the true King to challenge their positions and status, their wealth and their rule. And so they ask John with suspicion: “Who are you?”
Even though John has denied being the Christ, they hear John’s preaching. It is like no preaching they have ever heard, being so much like the prophets of four centuries ago. In fact, John preaches the very words of Isaiah to answer their question: “Who are you?”
He replies in the words of the prophet: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’” Last week’s Old Testament lesson was this very text, that selfsame “voice crying out in the wilderness,” which goes on to say: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”
That is who John is. He is the voice. He is the voice of God calling the lost children of Israel out of the wilderness of sin to the promised land of freedom and redemption. John is that voice that raises valleys, plows down mountains, levels the land, and evens out the rough spots. John is the voice that retools the contours of the world.
That’s who John is.
John preaches God’s Word. He knocks the proud from their thrones, and raises the lowly. And he does this not because he is the Christ, but because he preaches, proclaims, and prophesizes the Christ. That’s who John is.
And notice how John carries out this ministry of being the voice: by baptizing and preaching. John is not only the forerunner of the Christ, but he is the forerunner to Christ’s office of the holy ministry. John does not point men to himself, but rather points men to “the One who comes after” him, to Him whose sandal strap John is unworthy to untie.
That’s who John is.
How troubling and puzzling all this must be for the priests and the Levites and the palace of the so-called king Herod. This is not what they expected. And this is not what they want. How much easier it would have been to shut John down if he had been yet one more lunatic claiming to be the Messiah. He makes no such claim. And yet there he is, fearlessly calling the people, great and small, to repent of their sins, for God’s kingdom is near! Here is that great prophetic voice, moving mountains and turning the world upside down with preaching and baptism and with the pointing of the people to the Christ!
Here is the voice crying, “Rain down, you heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down the Righteous One; let the earth open her womb, and bring forth salvation.”
For John’s mother’s barren womb was opened by a miracle involving John’s elderly father. But John’s cousin Jesus is a greater miracle, for His mother’s virginal womb was opened by God the eternal Father Himself. John is a prophet sent by God to proclaim righteousness and call the people to repentance, but John’s cousin Jesus is the Prophet who is God sent to be righteousness given as a free gift to those called to repentance. John points the people to the way of salvation, whereas John’s cousin Jesus is the Way of salvation.
The question addressed to John is “Who are you?” but the greater question is: “Who is the Christ?” For this is ultimately the reason for John’s voice to cry out in the wilderness: to point to the Christ, to initiate Him into His ministry, and then to fade into the background as the Lord Jesus Christ proclaims the good news of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
And preachers like John have been called into service around the world, “their voice is gone out into all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” Preaching and baptizing, they continue to point the world to the Christ, whose sandals they too are unworthy to untie. The prophetic voice of calling sinners to repentance continues, along with the divine blessing of proclaiming the good news of forgiveness – in God’s Word and in Holy Baptism.
And like John, all Christians confess not only that we are not the Christ – in fact, we confess that we are “poor, miserable sinners,” but like John we also confess the One who is the Christ. When we are asked by a skeptical and hostile world: “Who are you?”, the greatest answer we can give is to do like John and explain ourselves in relation to Jesus.
So, who are you? Who are you, dear friends? Who are you?
You are a sinner. But you are a redeemed sinner. You are a forgiven sinner. You are a sinner transformed into a saint by the voice of God, by preaching and baptism, by word and sacrament. You are a confessor of the Christ, who, though we are unworthy to untie His sandal, He unties us from bondage to sin, death, and the devil. You are baptized. You are declared worthy by the prophetic voice.
Who are you? You are a Christian!
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In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.