Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
8 “For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the LORD has blessed.”
10 I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.
John the Baptist Denies Being the Messiah
19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”
21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Last week we had a cyclical sermon, this week we will have a backwards one! I know what you are thinking, most of my sermons are backwards. What I mean is that I will start with the New Testament and move to the Old. I think that is even biblical, isn’t it? Something about the last being first and the first being last. Or something like that.
Our New Testament reading finds John the Baptist doing the very thing that he is named for: baptizing. And verse 19 tells us that the leaders in Jerusalem sent the young priests and Levites to the site where John was doing his baptisms and ask him why he was doing this.
They ask him, “Are you the Messiah?”
“Are you Elijah? Or the Prophet?”
Still, his answer is no. So they ask him, Who are you? We need something to take back and tell our supervisors. They sent us here to find out who this guy is baptizing in the Jordan and so far, all we know is that you aren’t the Messiah, you aren’t Elijah, and you aren’t the Prophet. So who are you?
Verse 23, “John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” You can tell that Jesus and John are related because neither one likes to give straight answers.
John’s response should sound familiar to us as we looked at that passage from Isaiah last week. And it would have sounded familiar to the young priests and Levites as they would have memorized the writings of the Prophets in their youth. But as familiar as it might have sounded to them, it still really didn’t answer their question.
So the young Pharisees ask him, Why do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet?
You see, the Jewish leaders probably thought that John was a little off. Here is a guy wearing camel hair, eating locust and wild honey, and dunking people in the river. Baptism wasn’t an unfamiliar event, it just wasn’t something that some random dude would be doing in Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan River. Baptism would have been used in two different ways in the first century. The first way was if a Jewish person had become ceremonially unclean after something like touching a dead body or a woman who had her menstrual period, they would have to go through a ritual washing that would have resembled what we commonly call baptism before they could enter the Temple to worship and make offerings. It was a ritual that symbolized purity before the Lord.
The second way that baptism would have been used in the first century was when a Gentile became a Jewish proselyte. A gentile would go to a priest, go through classes on the Hebrew Bible, the men would be circumcised, and finally, they would go through a similar ritualistic washing before they could enter the Jewish Temple.
So this was weird. John was not a priest, so why was he conducting this practice? Furthermore, these ritualistic cleansings would have been done in the Temple courts and John was doing it on the other side of the river; the Gospel of John is sure to mention that it didn’t happen in Jerusalem or in the Temple. It happened in Bethany, on the other side of the river. The Jewish leaders thought this guy was a little off, but they wanted to make sure. That is why they go to check him out.
They ask him if he is the Messiah. The Jews were expecting the anointed one who would come and restore Israel. They ask if he is Elijah. Malachi 4:5 says that God will send the prophet Elijah back to the earth before the day of the Lord comes. They ask if he is the Prophet; Deuteronomy 18:15 promises that God will send a prophet like Moses when the world becomes corrupt. They don’t believe that he is the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, but they want to see if he thinks he is the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. Because if he isn’t, why is he baptizing, and baptizing in Bethany, of all places?
John is a very interesting person to me. John in some ways represents the typical Old Testament prophet. He speaks on behalf of the Lord, he dresses strangely, he eats strangely, he calls the people to return to God, and he is rejected by many of the leaders of his day. But John also represents the beginning of the New Covenant.
In the Old Testament, the Temple was the site of all major religious ceremonies. If you needed to make a sacrifice, you went to the Temple. You need forgiveness for something, you go to the Temple. You need to study the scriptures? You go to the Temple. The Temple was the center of religious activity because the Temple was believed to be the place where God dwelled.
Inside the Temple there was a room called the Holy of Holies. The Arc of the Covenant sat in the Holy of Holies, along with some other religious items. The Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of the temple by a big, thick, heavy curtain. And nobody dared to go into the Holy of Holies except for the High Priest, who could only enter one day of the year, The Day of Atonement. And if someone entered in an unworthy manner, it was believed that God would strike them dead.
We read in some of the Gospels as well as in the book of Hebrews that when Jesus died, the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple was torn in two, right down the middle. Now the God who was separated from the general public, the God who was inaccessible, the God who was hidden within the Holy of Holies was not limited in access. Anyone could come directly to God.
John baptizing in Bethany on the other side of the Jordan seems to be symbolic of the beginning of the new age, the decentralization of worship. God was no longer in there; God was now out among the people.
Not only that, God became accessible to regular people. John’s father was a priest and his mother was also from the line of Aaron. But we have no reason to believe that John had any ambition to take up the role of priest as his own occupation. But here was John, performing the act of a priest, baptizing people. John bore witness to the beginning of the new era where God was accessible to everyone, everywhere. That is why the Jewish leaders are so interested in what John was doing on the other side of the river. He wasn’t following the rules.
As important of a person as John is, he knows his place. He is a bridge between the Old and the New, but he realizes that it isn’t about him. He says in verse 26, “I baptize withwater, but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
I am not the Elijah, I am not the Prophet, and I am not the Messiah. But the Messiah stands among you and I am not even worthy of untying his sandals. I am not worthy of being his servant. John says, My job is to point to him.
Last week I showed a picture of John the Baptist, but that picture is really a portion of a larger work known as the Isenheim altarpiece painted by Mathias Gruenwald from 1506-1515. It is an interesting piece with several wings and levels. If you are ever in France, it would be interesting to take an up-close look at this piece of art, which is now housed in the Unterlinden Museum.
Now I know that most people don’t like dead Swiss theologians as much as I do, but you may have heard of a man by the name of Karl Barth. Barth is especially known for his 13 volume magnum opus known as Church Dogmatics. Church Dogmatics took Barth 35 years to write and there is something like 6 million words between the 13 volumes. Let’s just say that Stephenie Meyer has a lot of work to do if she wants to keep up with Karl Barth. And if you don’t know who Stephenie Meyer is, that’s okay. Church Dogmatics is believed to be one of the greatest works of theology of the 20th century.
Karl Barth taught in at a German university during World War II, when he spoke out publically against the Nazi regime. Thankfully for him, and us, he was deported back to Switzerland rather than being killed. He was a highly influential theologian, and he continues to influence many theologians today.
I mention Karl Barth because he kept a replication of the Isenheim altarpiece above his desk as he wrote those volumes of books and documents speaking out against the Nazis. He frequently references the artwork in his writings. And he comes back time and time again to this bearded man, dressed in camel hair, with his finger extended toward the man hanging on the cross. We know that John the Baptist was not at the crucifixion of Jesus, but Gruenwald chose to include him in this painting. And Barth loved it. Because Barth said that we as Christians are to do the very thing that John is doing in this picture. We are to point to the Messiah.
Barth kept that picture close by because he wanted to remind himself often that no matter how many books he published, and how many lives he influenced, he was not the Messiah. He only points to the Messiah.
We need this reminder every now and then as well. Especially as Mennonites who tend to have a strong desire to work for issues of peace, justice, and poverty related problems around the world. We need to be reminded that ultimately we are not, nor will we ever be, the savior of the world. Now I have absolutely no doubt that as followers of Jesus that we need to be doing what we can to make the world that we live in look more like the world that God wants it to be; the world that God created it to be. We are called to lives of discipleship, but being a disciple means that we are not the Messiah. We already have one of those.
John the Baptist knew that he was not the Messiah; he knew his role. And because he knew his role and was comfortable with his role, I believe that he was able to be more effective in his calling.
When we turn to our Old Testament passage, we will likely remember hearing this one from somewhere else. This is that passage that Jesus chose for his first sermon in his home town. He sat down, read these words, and proclaimed that these things had been fulfilled in him. He came to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to the captives, the year of the Lord’s favor.
In its original context, Isaiah spoke these words to the Israelites after they had returned to the Promised Land and things were not quite as great as they expected. The reason for that is simple: they were still living in a fallen world. Other nations still had the free will to rise up against the Israelites. People still had the free will to steal or harm one another. But it is clear that this is not nor has it ever been God’s will. Verse 8 says, “For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing.”
We can’t redeem the world all alone. But together we can work to make this world a little more like God intended for it to be. As the Bible tells us, we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus. It might seem like it should go without saying, but don’t forget that you are not the Messiah. You are simply pointing to the Messiah. When we love others, serve others, and share with others, we point to the Messiah. When we share our faith verbally, we point to the Messiah. Do what you can to make this world more like God intended for it to be, but remember, only the Messiah will bring the Kingdom of God in its fullest.