Sermon preached by Revd Duncan Strathie

Sunday 17 December, 10:00am, Advent 3

John 1:6-8;19-28

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

The Testimony of John the Baptist

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

On this third Sunday of Advent we are given the invitation to engage with John the Baptist – the cousin of Jesus. He is usually the feature of the third Sunday of Advent as we continue our journey towards Bethlehem where we will welcome the coming the Christ-child on Christmas Eve. Those who compile the lectionary have chopped 10 verses out of the middle of our reading today, so it comes in two parts. Part one establishes the credentials and role of John and part two is a retelling of some of what he said.

The opening of John’s gospel is written in a very particular way. The first part is all about Jesus, “In the beginning was the Word”, establishing if you like Jesus’ credentials. Then we have the first part of today’s reading which is about John, establishing his credentials. Next comes another chunk about Jesus, “He was in the world…” which explains the practical outworking of Jesus’ credentials. This is followed by the second chunk of today’s reading which describes the outworking of John’s ministry and mission. There is a pattern. Today’s reading gives us John’s credentials and what that meant practically in terms of what he did. This is what the disciple John records in his gospel. John the Baptist and John the disciple, writer of the Gospel of John, are two different Johns. One is writing about the other—it’s easy to get them confused.

Our reading begins by telling us that “there was a man sent from God”. If you like, a ‘sent one’. In the Greek language of the New Testament, the word for a sent one is the word ‘apostle’. An apostle was a messenger sent by someone to deliver a message and when they spoke, they did so with the full authority of the sender. John’s purpose was focused and singular—‘he came as a witness to testify’. The aim of this witnessing and the testimony was, that many would be drawn to Jesus who is the Christ and have faith in him. As the writer of John’s Gospel puts it, Jesus is “the true light which enlightens everyone”.

And so, we have John’s testimony beginning in verse 19. Whilst the verses up until this point have been general in their focus – applying to all people, as we arrive in verse 19 so it becomes specific and focussed. This testimony is about when “the Jews” sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to interrogate him. Who are ‘the Jews’ in this context? The word John uses for ‘Jews’ is the word Joudaioi (pr. Yu-die-oi) [‘Ιουδαιοι] which appears more than 70 times in the Apostle John’s Gospel. That in itself shows us perhaps who John’s intended audience is, as he writes his Gospel. Usually Joudaioi is used to show the Jews in opposition to Jesus. John makes it plain that they set themselves against Jesus—against their long awaited Messiah.

John is also fastidious in his chronology. Between the opening verse of this passage and chapter 2 verse 11, John chronicles the events of the first week of Jesus’ public ministry. Right from the outset the Jews were against Jesus—John makes that plain. But more than that, this passage before us today is about witness. Having established Christ’s cosmic credentials in the prologue, verses 1-14, John now goes on beyond our passage, to talk of three different ways in which witness is given to the greatness and uniqueness of Jesus the Christ.

Firstly there is the witness of John the Baptist, then there is the witness of those who accepted Jesus as Master for themselves and became disciples, and finally the witness of Jesus himself through word and action. John is setting Jesus before us in three different contexts and in each of them is showing us his supreme wonder. But in the verses before us this morning we have to content ourselves with exploring the beginning of the John’s witness to Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.

If you heard rumour of a wild man, and a priest at that, preaching a strange message and baptising people in the lake in Canon Hill Park and I sent you to go and find out more about him, what kind of questions to do you think you might ask? Just think and reflect for a moment. It’s important for us to understand that in Judaism there is no concept of discerning a vocation to priesthood. It is a birth right and only those born a descendant of Aaron can become a priest. John was known to be the son of Zacharias who was a priest. If a man was not a descendant of Aaron nothing could make him a priest; if he was a descendant of Aaron, nothing could stop him being one! It was just that John was living out his priesthood in an unorthodox way and attracting a lot of attention. Perhaps he was seen by some to be a false prophet and so the ‘Jews’ sent a delegation to check out his preaching. The unorthodox attract attention. Think of Boris Johnson or Donald Trump, David Jenkins the former Bishop of Durham, Lady Gaga—our world is full of the unorthodox. John’s own pilgrimage, preparation for ministry and his formational pathway had not been normal by any stretch of the imagination. But despite this unorthodoxy, there were plenty of signs that God was at work in and through him.

So going back to the idea of me sending you to find out what this wild and unorthodox priest was going on about, what might you say to test his orthodoxy? How might you feel about it? At the time of John there was, amongst the Jewish community, a heightened sense of expectation surrounding the coming of Israel’s Messiah. John through his baptising of penitents and his preaching, very much fitted the mould of expectation that led some to think that he himself was actually the Messiah. So that was the first thing the Jewish emissaries asked John, “are you the Messiah”? John was quick to deny their claim. The second thing asked was, are you Elijah the Prophet returning to us. Remember that Elijah was taken up directly into heaven and didn’t die as such, so there is an expectation that he might one day return. John’s behaviour and ministry seemed to suggest that he could be a returning Elijah. The third thing John was asked was, are you the expected prophet that is to return at the time of the Messiah? There was within Judaism the idea that Isaiah or Jeremiah would return to herald the coming of the Messiah—some worthy of the prophetic big guns.

In denying the he was himself the Messiah, John bore a clear witness that the ‘anointed one’ was nevertheless a hidden presence amongst them. The hiddenness was laid bare at Jesus’ baptism when John saw God’s Holy Spirit descend on Jesus—and remaining on him. The ‘remaining on him’ is important as it sets a stark contrast to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament who was a sporadic visitor who never stayed long anywhere. When we add to this Andrew’s direct reference to Jesus as the Messiah in verse 41 and Nathaniel’s declaration ‘you are the King of Israel’ in verse 49, we can say that together these statements tell us three important things about Jesus.

Firstly we can see that the Messiah would embody God’s kingly rule and so comes with the authority of God the Father. The second thing is that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is enabled to carry out the ministry that God the Father has sent him to earth to deliver. The third important thing is that in accepting these titles and names, Jesus is in effect fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah as well as proclaiming his Lordship over all the earth and all peoples. So the emissaries of the Jews asked John the Baptist who he was and all he said by way of response was that he was nothing but a voice calling people to prepare the way for the King—a direct quotation from Isaiah 40v3.

In Biblical times roads were nothing more than rutted stony tracks. However, when the king, especially a conquering king, rode through his lands to survey his riches, the roads were straightened and smoothed out to make the royal journey easier. When that is the norm, the reference to making straight the paths makes more sense. All that John the Baptist is saying is that ‘I am a nobody; I am but the voice telling you to get ready for the coming of the King’. John’s sole function was to be the preparer of the way—any greatness he had came exclusively from the one for who the way was being prepared.

Our passage today offers us a model for our own discipleship and ministry. It presents John the Baptist as having a clear sense of who he is and who he is not, of his role in manifesting God’s work on earth, of God’s presence and revelation when he sees it, and of his life’s work as a testimony to that revelation. He baptises not to cleanse people from sin but to witness to God’s saving presence in the world. The John the Baptist we find in John’s Gospel shows how what we do reveals to others what we believe. In this season of Advent, have we reflected on our individual identity enough to have a sense of the talents we have, and those we do not have, to carry on the work of God in our own particular contexts?

Are we aware of the sort of God we reveal to the world by our words and actions? Do our acts witness to a God who takes away that which alienates people from God and each other, and does so not by militant violence but by sacrifice? Do they reveal a God who remains present in the world? Or do our acts witness to a different sort of God altogether? The presentation of John the Baptist in John’s Gospel before us this morning, challenges us to examine how our actions testify to our beliefs and what beliefs it is that they present to the world. This Advent as we make our own preparations, we are invited to reflect on the question, “how do I witness?”

Amen