ESV John 1:19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He 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.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
John’s answer was Isaiah 40. The question had been, By what authority are you baptizing. Isaiah 40. His was the voice of preparation for the Christ.
Jesus had said, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” God had fitted John for his important purpose, giving him faithfulness, and humility, and a strong sense of that purpose. His was a supporting, and very significant role.
The Old Testament figure, Joseph’s was a supporting, and very significant role. He was one Jacob’s sons. He was the second in command in all of Egypt. Joseph – a Hebrew – wasn’t the Egyptian Pharaoh, and never would be under any circumstances; but his position was very important. God caused him to rise to it from humble circumstances. He used Joseph’s position to save His family, and people from starvation during seven years of famine (Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers for their cruelty to him is a pretty important lesson that comes out of it too – they had sold him into slavery in Egypt as a young man). The nation of God’s people who settled in Egypt during that time (at the invitation of the second in command in all of Egypt) are the ones who, after 400 years of subsequent captivity, were led by Moses, and Joshua to the Promised Land of Canaan. They were the family line of the Christ. The second in command was a very important position, though Joseph was a servant to the one with the greatest position in that country.
John the Baptist had people asking him in our text if he was the one of greatest importance. They were giving him the opportunity to answer yes to the question, Are you the Christ? They were asking the question because he was doing something spiritually-related that they – the spiritual leaders of Israel – hadn’t authorized. He was Baptizing the people for the forgiveness of sins (essentially claiming to be working with the power of God).
John diminishes himself with his answer. He is an example for us of godliness and great humility. It says of him in our text: 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” He gave the same answer for the follow up questions of whether he was Elijah, or the Prophet. It was certainly true that John had come in the spirit and power of Elijah. His father – Zechariah the priest had prophesied this about him at his birth. Also, according to that prophecy John was turn[ing] many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God (16), and mak[ing] ready for the Lord a people prepared (17).
John the Baptist had a specific and very important role to play in preparing people to receive the Christ. His role of preparation was so critical because God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life; and this truth was in danger of being completely ignored.
Our reason has no use for a savior from sin. Our answer to guilt is to find someone who seems guiltier than we are, and comfort ourselves with the thought that God will be too busy with that person to worry about we’re doing. There are terrorists slaughtering people at workplace Christmas parties in the name of a pagan god. Certainly my little sins aren’t worth God’s time. That’s the way our sinful nature thinks.
John’s purpose was to convict the hearts of sinners like us. His role as the forerunner to the Christ was to convince people through the power of God’s Law that any amount of sin is serious to God. All sinners are in the same category as far as He is concerned. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
We’re only talking about things people can see. It’s the inherited corruption that God sees in each of us that matters. No one can avoid sin’s punishment unless God intervenes – not you, or me, or anyone. God’s plan is the only one that matters, though people deceive themselves. They attempt to make their own way (God’s involves suffering and sacrifice; theirs imagines itself to be avoiding all that). Sometimes people wonder, why do we need to hear about sin all the time? True preachers today who follow John’s faithful path preach God’s Law in all of its severity. We need to be told of our sins so that we cling to Christ – the One who comes as the answer to sin and death.
Having diminished himself with his answer, John, then, exalts the Savior. The Savior is the Christ of God. He is the One Whose sandal straps neither John nor any other preacher is worthy to untie. He is the One Who rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glory of His righteousness and wonders of His love – as the carol Joy To The World proclaims. He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.
That line of that carol refers to the words: (Genesis 3:17-19) cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In the face of the curse of death that God pronounced on all people because of sin, the Son of God comes to make His blessings flow. He comes in human flesh so that He can live perfectly like we couldn’t. He comes in human flesh so that He could die as punishment for our sins. He comes as the only human being conceived – not from a sinful human father – but by the Holy Spirit in perfection. That is why He can make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.
John the Baptist “…‘Makes straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” This means that hearts are changed through God’s Word and Baptism. They are opened to receive that Savior Who comes with the ultimate blessing: forgiveness and eternal life. The same is meant in the words of the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson: 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. That’s talking about our hearts being prepared to receive the Savior. Whatever is out of place – whether high or low – the preaching of God’s Law makes the path straight so that sinners turn to God for His mercy. Christ is the answer to our guilt and sorrow. The preaching of God’s true word by John the Baptist, and by others who follow him turns many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and makes ready for the Lord a people prepared.
John’s answer that diminished himself, and that exalted Christ is evident in you who believe. You are those people this morning. Your hearts have been prepared to receive the answer to your guilt and sorrow. The answer is the Christ who comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found. Your hearts have been prepared through Baptism. The Holy Spirit has caused you thereby to put on Christ. His perfection covers your guilt because in Baptism the LORD has given you faith to lay hold of what Christ purchased for you with His own blood on the cross. Your hearts have been prepared through your hearing of God’s powerful word. It is preached by those who follow John the Baptist in his work of preparing. Your hearts have been prepared through your receiving of Christ’s true body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar for forgiveness, comfort, and strengthening.
You are different people than you would have otherwise been. You have experienced love like no other. The love that you have experienced as God’s children who know His forgiveness is anxious love. It is love that can’t sit still. It must move about also to other hearts that need it. This love longs to be the answer for them like it has been for you. You are motivated by anxious Christian love. You have hearts thankful for God’s undeserved forgiveness. Your anxious, thankful heart is surrounded by people in much pain who have need of the same joy that you have – the joy that comes from knowing the love of God in Christ. Those people may be in this sanctuary right now. All of us need each other’s encouragement. Certainly also, they are among your co-workers, and neighbors, and family members.
John was a preacher who humbly and faithfully prepared hearts to know that joy. He prepared hearts to know the love and forgiveness of the One Who humbled Himself even to the point of death on the cross, and then rose as the first of those who will rise to join Him in His eternal kingdom. In this season in which beautiful lights greet us everywhere we go, you and I shine as lights that point to the Savior. Christ’s love lives in us through the power of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament. We celebrate that here this morning. We celebrate it in this coming week. We celebrate it for as we long live in this world.
John’s humble answer of Isaiah 40 – the voice of preparation for the Christ – is as necessary today as it has ever been. We gather our hearts to hear that message, and then to proclaiming it. Amen.