John 1:19-28: Repent!

John the Baptizer Preaching2 (610x350)So, there was John the Baptizer living up to his name and baptizing!  And the Jewish leadership of his day was chafing in discomfort because of it.  So, they confronted him: “Why are you baptizing?”  We can also ask, “Yes, John, why are you baptizing?”  For 2,000 years later, we’re clueless about those baptisms taking place before Jesus instituted His baptism in the New Covenant.

So, John was baptizing.  Was this something that he started?  No, John didn’t invent this washing with water.  But how do we know?  We can tell by the question the priests and Levites asked him.  They asked, “WHY are you baptizing?”  They didn’t ask, “What are you doing?”  They didn’t ask as if they had never seen water being used in such a way.  For that word, baptism, even to be in their vocabulary showed that they knew about baptism.  So, baptism was nothing new to the Jews.

Yet, that still leaves us perplexed.  For if you were to read through the entire Old Testament, you would find that it never mentions baptism, not even once!  The Old Testament only mentions washings and sprinkling with water–but they prefigured and pointed to the baptism that Jesus would command His Apostles to do.  Even the Old-Testament Apocrypha, written between the Testaments, is silent on baptism.

Now we have a mystery.  After all, John was doing something that wasn’t that strange.  Even Jesus approved what John was doing.  More than that, Jesus insisted that John even baptize Him to fulfill all righteousness.  How can that be?  For there’s not a single sentence of Old-Testament Scripture that John can quote to support the baptism he is doing.

So, unless John was some guy who made it up as he went along, what was his authority for baptizing?  It was this: John was working within the context of a living tradition.  In other words, such Old-Testament baptisms developed from within God’s Old-Testament Church.

Within a couple of hundred years before Christ, baptism became a way to bring Gentiles into the Jewish faith.  It was then that a Gentile male was not only circumcised according to God’s mandate, but he was also baptized.  Females were also baptized.

Now, if only one Gentile became a Jewish believer, he was baptized and brought into the community.  But if a Gentile head of household became a believer in the one, true God, then he and his entire family were baptized.  That’s sounds especially New Testament-like, doesn’t it?

Well, what was the purpose of this Old-Testament baptism?  You won’t find the answer in Scripture but history.  Such a baptism showed a Gentile leaving behind his Gentile ways that kept him away from God.  He was now a new person, someone who believed in the Lord.  His sinful, Gentile ways that contradicted his new life in God and even the Messiah to come were now no longer part of his life.  That was his old life, washed away, cleansed, and now no more a part of his new life.

That’s where John got his baptism.  That’s the baptismal practice that he inherited.  He didn’t invent it or start some novelty.  It developed from within the Old-Testament Church.

But there was something different that John did do that made the priests and Levites angry with him.  And it was this: John was baptizing Jews as if they were Gentiles!  Yes, John was baptizing Jews as if they were Gentiles!  (See NICNT, Revised Commentary on John, pg. 123)  That was the abrasive salt that chafed the wound.

That was why the Jewish leadership was angry with John.  “John, are YOU the long-promised Messiah?  Are YOU Elijah?  Are YOU the Prophet, Jeremiah (2 Maccabees 15:12-15)?  If not, then on whose authority can you conduct such baptisms?  Who are YOU to be doing this?”

And John answered that he was a voice crying out, preparing the way for the Lord, who was the promised Messiah Himself.  That’s what John was doing–he was preparing the way.  But to do that, he had to call his own people, the Jews, to repent.

John’s own Israelites needed to turn from their wrongful ways.  For although they still had the proper, outward forms that God had commanded: circumcision, Passover, and the sacrifices, they had lost what those Old-Testament “sacraments” were meant to be.

You see, those Old-Testament acts, which God had commanded, were how He bought people into His Old Covenant and graced them with His forgiveness.  Yet, by Jesus’ day, the Jews had turned it all around and gotten it all wrong.  For them, it was all about doing what God had commanded.  For them, it was all about being righteous in God’s eyes because they were doing what God had commanded.  How sad: They lost the treasure about God bringing His people His grace and forgiveness through such ways.

The purpose of God’s sacrifices had become upended.  It’s a bit like those in the Church today who say that baptism is only about someone showing that he is a Christian.  They, too, have it backwards, just like the Jews whom John called to repent.  For Scripture tells us, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).

So, for the Jews to receive the Messiah who was just around the corner, they needed to change course.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t get what Jesus would teach and preach.  If they didn’t, it would be as if Jesus was speaking a different language–as if He were from some alien world.

The Jewish people needed to repent!  That was why John was baptizing them as if they were Gentiles.  For they had drifted so far from God that they were now outside the Church, even while still being within the churchly institution.

But, they were circumcised!  How could they be outside God’s family?  True enough, they were circumcised, which meant that they didn’t need to be re-circumcised–if such an act were even possible!  Besides, such a re-circumcision wouldn’t be needed anyway.  After all, wouldn’t God’s promise to bring someone into His Old Covenant still hold true?  Yes, so re-circumcision wasn’t needed–repentance was!

So, there was John.  What could he do to help prepare the way for the Messiah?  What could he do to show the people that they had strayed so far from God’s ways that they were nearly Gentiles, although technically still being Jews?  Ah, he could baptize the Jews as if they were Gentiles!  And that was what John did.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, John cried out, “Repent!  For the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 3:2).  And so, this day, I ask you: “Where have you strayed from God’s ways?  Where have you become like the Jews of old, outside the Church, even while still being within the churchly institution?”  This is for real, for keeps.  This is not some game.  That’s why we don’t play at our worship, because what takes place here even echoes into eternity.

Repentance is not a matter, as the Christmas song says, of being naughty or nice.  It’s about admitting that, apart from the Messiah, Jesus Christ, we are all naughty all the way down to the bone.  Like the Jews John was calling to repent, we, too, need to be brought in line with Jesus the Messiah.  It is not we who are to shape and mold Jesus to our way of thinking.

In John’s day, most of the Jews wanted a Messiah to fit their expectations.  All the while they were yearning for the false Messiah of their own liking the real Messiah was right before them.  Don’t be like those who refused to repent and chased after the Messiah of their own liking.  Such a Savior can’t save you.  Only the real Savior, to whom John pointed, can save you.  As it was back then, so it is today.

Jesus is the real deal.  Turn from the god you want to the God who is.  Admit that part of you wants a god made in your own likeness.  You want a god who will smile down on you, approve all that you may be doing, and affirm all your thoughts and deeds.  That was what the Jews wanted in Jesus’ day.  And to those expectations, John cried out: Repent!  To those expectations, I cry out: Repent!

Only the real Jesus, the real Messiah, saves.  Any other Jesus is too weak to right your wrongs.  Any other Jesus does not give you His righteousness for your sins and failures.  For a Jesus in your own image only has your own sins to offer.  And what you have on your own isn’t clean enough to prepare you for eternity.

Where you have failed and faltered, only the real Jesus, whom John proclaimed, can right your wrongs.  So, live in His rightness and let go of your wrongness.  That’s what repentance is–letting go of your wrongness, so you can live in the rightness of Jesus.

That was John the Baptizer’s message.  So, listen to his voice still crying out today.  After all, his message is just as timely today as it was back then, for his message still rings true.  It’s only in the rightness of Jesus that you have eternal life.  That’s what Jesus’ incarnation is all about: Giving you His life in place of your death.

So, come now to receive His life that He gives you.  For in His Supper a marvelous exchange takes place.  Jesus gives you His life in His body and blood while He takes away your death–that’s how intimately linked His Supper is to His cross.  For where humbled bodies and souls will receive Him still, the Messiah still comes to give life and salvation.  Amen.