2017 December Issue
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Sermon Ideas For John 1:6-8, 19-28 Part 4

For the holiday church-goer, John the Baptist must seem an intruder upon the usual celebrations of Advent and Christmas. Who is this man and who invited him to the party? They are comfortable with wise men, shepherds, and even an unwed mother. But who is John the Baptist?

Comfort for perplexed revelers might be found in the fact that their questions are precisely the questions of the religious establishment in the first century. The Jerusalem delegation came to determine the identity of John and to examine his novel rite of baptism. The answers to the questions are also uppermost in the mind of the gospel writer. Whoever John is, the writer stresses in every way that he is subordinate to Jesus. John the Baptist is not the "light of the party." His role is to bear witness or testimony to the light.

Yet John's role is so important that his introduction intrudes upon the hymn to the Logos. In John 1:6-7, John's mission is the same as the gospel writer's (John 20:31). John the Baptist is sent from God to bear witness to the light, "so that all might believe." While the Baptist is nothing more than a witness, he has a prominent place among the characters who give meaning to this holy season.

If John is a man on a mission, so are the priests and Levites (John 1:19). They have been sent by "the Jews," a term employed often by the gospel writer as a blanket designation for the opponents of Jesus and the disciples.1 Three times (verses 19, 22, and 24) the delegation speaks as to it's organizers and purposes. They have come to determine the identity of the Baptist and the source of his authority, albeit unofficially at this stage.2

The delegation finally catches up with John at Bethany beyond the Jordan. While tradition tells us that John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River near Jericho, Luke tells us that John went throughout the region of Jordan preaching and baptizing.3 In fact, scholars and guides in Israel today point out three places where John baptized.4 All three are, interesting enough, associated with Elijah, whom John denied being.

One of the three sites was Bethany beyond the Jordan, which we now know to be far from Jerusalem in the north and east of the Jordan River. In other words, the delegation from the capital traveled far to inquire of John. Nevertheless, the popular following accorded John required discernment as to the truth of his claims. The fact is that John made only one claim for himself.

Before John was allowed to speak, the priests and Levites interrogated him. Anticipating their first question, John confessed (verse 20) that he was not the Messiah. The inquiry then followed the usual lines of examination. "Are you Elijah?" they asked. According to Malachi 4:5 and Jewish expectation, Elijah would return bodily before the coming of the Messiah. When John denied that he was Elijah, the belief of the day led to the final question: "Are you the prophet?" Popular sentiment held that "the prophet" of Deuteronomy 18:15 was Jeremiah. This belief is behind the answer of Jesus' disciples to his question in Matthew 16:13 as to His identity. John's response continued to deny the role of forerunner.

When John is finally allowed to speak, he claims only the role of a herald. John quotes from Isaiah: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness..." (40:3). He feels deeply that his role of announcing the coming of the Lord was a minor one and an unnecessary one now that the Messiah is in their midst (verses 26-27).

While some scholars view this deprecation of John and even his rite of baptism as more polemical in nature, the humility of John challenges us as much as it confused his first hearers.5 John felt his own unworthiness to be tied to the coming One and subsequent events. He was less than a slave. His humility is even more marked when contrasted to the teaching of Rabbi Joshua Ben Levy in the third Century CE.6 "Every service which a slave performs for his master a pupil will do for his teacher, except loosing his shoe."7

Certainly as the world comes to know this intruder upon the Advent and Christmas story, he will be judged to be infinitely more important to the beginning of the gospel than he himself allowed. After all, the one who knew him best said of him: "there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11). Jesus went even further in affirming John to be Elijah (verse 14).

Some years ago, monks in a desert monastery believed they had discovered the bones of John the Baptist. They celebrated their discovery and proclaimed it far and wide. While the importance of such a discovery cannot be discounted, a rediscovery of the Baptist, his role, and message might better serve a Church preparing for yet another announcement of the coming of the Messiah.

Willis Britt Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies

NOTES

1. Any thorough discussion of first century Judaism will point out the danger in not differentiating the many sects of the Jews. One reference is: Charles R. Page, Jesus and the Land (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 62-70. 2. For more detail on the nature of this inquiry and its organizers see, Alfred Edersheim, Jesus the Messiah (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 214-237. 3. Luke 3:3. 4. The three sites for baptism are Bethany beyond the Jordan, a tributary of the Yarmuk River, the Jordan River near Jericho, and at Aenon near Salim and south of Beth Shean. 5. Some scholars hold that the treatment of John the Baptist in John's gospel differs from that given by the Synoptic writers. This difference is often attributed to a polemical concern. For a discussion of this issue see, Fred Craddock, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 14-15. 6. The designation CE is used in academic circles as a replacement for AD. It is felt that CE, which means of the Common Era, is more pluralistic and inclusive. 7. Wilbert F. Howard, The Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1952), 482.

For more information about the Jerusalem Center, please contact Willis Britt at (601) 268-3355 or Kristine Haley at (800) 929-5327.