HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
January 7, 2018
Baptism of the Lord
John 1: 19-34 (CEB)
19This is John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, “Who are you?” 20John confessed (he didn’t deny but confessed), “I’m not the Christ.” 21They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” John said, “I’m not.” “Are you the prophet?” John answered, “No.” 22They asked, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23John replied, “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, Make the Lord’s path straight, just as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24Those sent by the Pharisees 25asked, “Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered, “I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. 27He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.” 28This encounter took place across the Jordan in Bethany where John was baptizing.
29The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is really greater than me because he existed before me.’ 31Even I didn’t recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he might be made known to Israel.” 32John testified, “I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. 33Even I didn’t recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.”
There’s this old game that’s sort of a variation on 20 questions, I guess, though if it has some other name, I don’t know what it is. But the game goes something like this. One person chooses some figure, past or present, and then the others have to figure out which person it is. So the game might begin with one clue. “I am a female.” (Which, of course, is invariably followed by some snarky comments like, “Well, that really narrows it down!”) In any case, little by little, the person who is “it” will reveal clues until the others correctly guess the person they are thinking of. Sometimes, those clues might be in the positive: I am an athlete, I like to run, I won gold in the Olympics. At other times, the clues might be in the negative: I was not in the Winter Olympics, I was not on a Wheaties box, I am not still alive. Quite often, those clues “in the negative” are just as important as the clues in the positive.
This morning, we dive into John’s gospel at the moment when John the Baptist has come on the scene. And in this gospel, John the Baptist’s story begins with what essentially amounts to a game of 20 questions. “Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet?” Over and over again, this envoy of people sent by some higher ups in the Jewish leadership ask this question, “Who are you?” It’s fascinating to me that every time, John the Baptist answers the question by saying, “I am not…” “I’m not the Christ.” (Not that anyone asked that specifically.) When asked if he was Elijah, John said, “I am not.” And as to the prophet, John’s answer was, “No.” As you can imagine, this is significant. Here is this guy out in the wilderness preaching and baptizing, making a lot of noise and attracting a lot of attention. It’s clear that he’s a part of something big, and so people want answers, especially people “in charge.” The authorities need to know if this man is some sort of threat. They want John to say who he is, but all he will say is who he is not. That matters because, as this “voice crying out in the wilderness” knows, this story isn’t really about John the Baptist. His being is for the sole purpose of bearing witness to the one whom he is not; the one of whom John is not even “worthy to untie his sandal straps.”
So let’s spend some time this morning thinking about all that John the Baptist says in this passage because it is hugely important not only for what he tells us about who Jesus is, but also what he shows us about how we are to live as witnesses to Christ. Let’s begin by listening to John’s words as he is questioned, and then as Jesus comes onto the scene. With each denial of his own identity, John points to some key hopes and expectations of the Jewish people. And to understand Christ, it helps us to understand what people expect and are looking for in a Savior. The Israelites had long been waiting for a Messiah as they clung to the promises of God. They were looking for someone who would deliver them from political oppression. They were looking for someone like Elijah, who offered hope, and healing, and restoration. They were looking for a prophet like Moses, who would offer leadership and a moral voice. But as they take these questions and hopes to John the Baptist they are met with a resounding, “No!”
Now, clearly, John was none of these things. He identifies himself, not even by his name, but instead as, “a voice crying out in the wilderness.” But I think what is so significant here is the fact that when John the Baptist points out Jesus the next day, he also doesn’t say, “Here is the Christ, or here is Elijah, or here is the prophet.” No, John points to Jesus and says, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is unexpected, this is disorienting, it’s something wholly different from what people were (and are!) looking for! And yet, this is the will of God finally unfolding in the world.
When John was called to go and baptize, he was told that he would know the “one who baptizes with the Spirit” because he would see the Spirit come down and rest on him. John’s gospel doesn’t record the actual of baptism of Jesus, but John recognized all that Jesus was because in baptism, the Spirit came and rested on Jesus. John the Baptist sees this, and then he witnesses to what he saw. “Behold! Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This is a dramatic gift, the person of the Lamb, and John the Baptist wants all people to understand that. This identification of Christ should remind us of the Passover Lamb, who was sacrificed that the blood might be painted on the door frames of the Israelites so that as the spirit of death overtook Egypt, killing all the firstborn in the 10th plague, the firstborn of the Israelites would be spared. What that Passover Lamb offered was life, and life is what Christ offers as well, by freeing us from sin. And here is the other significant thing about how John the Baptist identifies Jesus. Notice that John says this Lamb takes away the “sin” of the world, not “sins.” Sins are each of those individual things we do that run contrary to God’s will. But sin is separation from God; sin is not being in relationship with God. It is a state of being apart or away from God. And so what the Lamb of God does in taking away the sin of the world is to tear down that barrier that separates us from God so that in God we can experience new life. This is so very different from a moral leader, or a political leader, or someone who restores something long past. I don’t think the difference can be overstated, and I think John the Baptist wants to make sure his hearers understand that because not only is this about who Christ is, it is also about who we are.
Today, we observe Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Baptism is an unveiling of who we truly are in God’s grace. As Jesus was baptized by John, the Spirit came to rest on him, and in that sign, John the Baptist understood that this was the Christ, who was the Lamb of God. Apart from all the prophecies and expectations of Israel’s history, this Messiah would not win by conquest or great moral leadership, but instead by tearing down the barrier between earth and heaven as he shed is blood on the cross so that people might have life abundant in God. And in the same way, our baptism unveils who we are in Christ. Apart from all the worldly expectations, apart from all the titles we carry like: Mom, daughter, sister, employee, retired, Rotarian, veteran, whatever, apart from how we are defined by others, we are ultimately a child of God, saved by the Lamb who tore down the barriers separating us from our God.
In a documentary entitled: “The Mask You Live In,” a scene shows a U.S. school teacher giving a group of high school boys a circular piece of paper. On one side they write what their image is—what they are trying to project to others. And on the other side they write what they are really feeling on the inside. Then they scrunch up the paper and throw it to another kid. Here’s how researcher Dr. Philip Zimbardo summarized the boys’ messages: “What they said was all the same. On the outside it said: ‘Tough. Fearless. Kick your butt.’ And on the inside it said ‘Lonely. Sad. Got no friends.’ Each boy was stunned that the others felt the same way as they did.” This applies to boys and men, but it also applies to all of us as we try to project an outward “I have it together” look while we all struggle inwardly with insecurities. The only way to overcome our insecurities and our need “project a false image” is to come to Jesus. One of the most powerful things about following Jesus Christ is that we don’t have to pretend anymore.
The world will always be trying to tell us who we are, but ultimately, we are not those people. We are children of God, claimed by the Lamb, in whom we find life. And as baptized children of God, we are not to call attention to ourselves, but rather to help all those around us see the presence of Christ in their midst.