John 1:19-28: Not the Messiah We are Expecting

John the Baptizer2 (610x377)Many folks like to talk about themselves, whether they will admit it or not. Such talk can even be a sign of our fallen nature having its way in our lives. Such talk reveals that life is about me–not others, not God, or not even about God for me.

But John the Baptizer acted differently. He didn’t like talking about himself. We can see that in the way he answered questions. Not only did his answers come across as abrupt, but when he did speak, he referred to himself by who he was not.

How did that go? It went like this: John was not the long-prophesied Messiah. He was not Elijah. He was not the prophet. (Our Old-Testament reading spoke of that prophet, someone like Moses, who would mediate between God and the people.)

Frustrated, those information gatherers from Jerusalem demanded more. “Give us an answer for those who sent us. What do you have to say about yourself?” But John acted in such a way, as if saying, “I have nothing to say about myself.”

But that irritated his interrogators. They had to have something to give to those who sent them. But John still refused to reveal his identity. So, they pressed him all the more, unwilling to take “no” for an answer. Finally, John confessed: “Call me a voice. I’m a voice crying out in the wilderness as Isaiah had foretold: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’ Are you satisfied? That’s me. I’m that voice!”

He’s a voice? How odd. But there it is: He’s a voice calling for people to prepare themselves for the coming of the Lord, the Messiah. He was that voice.

But even that answer didn’t satisfy. Because if John wasn’t the Messiah, if he wasn’t Elijah, and if wasn’t the Prophet, then why was he baptizing? Who gave him the authority to plunge people under the wave and raise them from the waters, as was then done to Gentiles who became Jews, as a people waiting for the Lord? Why was he doing that?

John then answers why he is baptizing. But even that answer isn’t much of a reply–at least, it seems that way. He says: “I baptize with water, but among you stands someone whom you do not know. He is coming after me, whose sandal straps I am not worthy to untie.” That’s John’s answer.

Someone among them, whom they don’t know or recognize, is the One who certified John to call people to repent and give them such a baptism. That someone wanted John to call people away from their works righteousness. They were to leave their sinful self-sufficiency and pride behind, embracing the new life that depends on the mercy and grace of God.

“Someone whom you do not know”: so much is packed in so few words. This was more than people not recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. John’s statement was packed with theology AND politics! For it’s easy to miss the Messiah who looks like an ordinary man. Jesus didn’t look spectacularly messianic. After all, they were looking for a powerful, earthly leader. They wanted a Messiah, who would come to throw off the yoke of Rome, where Israel would become an independent nation once more.

But Jesus wasn’t that Messiah. He looked like a commonplace laborer, a carpenter, not a political king or military leader. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should want to follow him,” said the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 53:2). Jesus looked like an ordinary Joe in a crowd of ordinary Joes.

That’s why John was baptizing. He came to reveal who the Messiah was–because you wouldn’t figure that out by looking at Him! Even John confessed: “I didn’t know him, but I came to baptize with water that he might be revealed” (John 1:31).

When John baptized Jesus, God unveiled Him as the Messiah. Jesus is the Son in whom the Father delights, the One on whom the Spirit descends, and the One who will give the Spirit without measure. He is the second Person of the divine, holy Trinity in human flesh and blood, fully man and fully God.

John saw that at the baptismal waters. But it was only a glimpse. Then Jesus looked the same as always–an ordinary looking Joe, once more. God was training His people to trust their ears and not their eyes, to walk by faith and not by sight.

John’s calling, His whole ministry, was pointing people away from himself to Jesus. For the One he baptized was the Messiah, who once stood with him in the water, whom God declared to be His one-and-only Son.

The One to whom John pointed didn’t look like what people expected their Messiah to be. But that’s how it is with Jesus. When He was born, the angels burst forth from heaven, telling and singing to shepherds that the Savior, the Messiah, was born. But when the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see Him, all they saw was an ordinary infant, with no kingly trappings.

Jesus looked to be a pauper’s child, not a prince of royal lineage. He was wrapped in strips of cloth and sleeping in an animal’s feeding trough. When those shepherds tiptoed in and bowed down before Him, they saw nothing remarkably God-like about that little One. He was just a baby, an ordinary Joe of a baby. And yet God’s angels had told them that He was the Son of God, their Savior.

It was the same with the Magi, those wise men from the East. They had come to Jerusalem to find the King, for that was where kings live, in a palace. But, after leaving Jerusalem, the star then led them to a small town, to an ordinary looking boy. There they were, giving gifts to an everyday looking child. This is the King we traveled so far to see? But God’s star didn’t lie. It revealed the truth that their eyes could not see.

“Among you stands someone whom you do not know.” John was the last Old-Testament prophet to point forward to the Messiah. John also invites us to look beyond what we see with our eyes and believe what we hear. John, the greatest prophet of all, confessed that he was unworthy to get down on his knees and unstrap the Messiah’s sandals. Even a slave’s job was too exalted for the greatest of the prophets when it came to Jesus.

For the One to whom John points is much greater than John. Although Jesus was six months younger than John; in His divine nature, Jesus existed before him. Jesus existed before Zechariah and Elizabeth, John’s parents. He existed before David, before Moses, before Abraham, before Noah, before Adam, even before time itself.

Jesus is as we sing: “Of the Father’s love begotten ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He” (LSB 384). Jesus was born when John was six months old, and, yet, He existed before him. As Jesus would later say, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). He is the Word made flesh, living among us.

Although looking routinely ordinary, examine what Jesus came to do! He didn’t come among us to be served–not even to have His sandals unlatched. No; He who was before time came into our flesh that He might serve us. He came to off-load our sins and carry them to His cross. There, He went to die the death that was ours, to break the bondage of sin, destroying the dominion of death. When He rose from the grave, He opened the Kingdom of heaven for all believers.

That’s why John was happy to be nothing, if it meant that he could be a voice. He would proclaim the One who serves us all, the One who became the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world. Being God’s mouthpiece for His entire life, John didn’t talk about himself. God had sent him to proclaim the Greater One who is among us, whose sandals we are not worthy to unstrap, but who still comes to be our Savior.

As it was with John, so it is with us. Within our Lord’s Church, the talk is not about you, me, or us. It isn’t about what you or I may want. In the Church, the talk is always about Another. It’s about the One whose sandals we are not worthy to untie. It’s about the One who is greater than we, because He was before we ever were. As we are the work of His hands in creation, so also are we the creatures of His own redeeming.

Jesus came among us–as one of us–to serve all of us. He carried our sins as He accepted His cross. For us, He died our death to overcome the sharpness of death. Jesus comes to serve and to give His life as a ransom for the many, for all!

It’s still that way today. As in John’s day, Jesus comes to us in seemingly unglamorous ways, humbly and hidden. Like back then, without someone to tell us otherwise, we wouldn’t know that He was here. For the God we would expect, wouldn’t be the God we would see. And so, God is also training us to trust our ears and not our eyes.

Jesus still trains us to walk by faith and not by sight. And so He comes to us in His body and blood, hidden within ordinary-looking bread and wine. He comes in His usual unglamorous way, giving us His forgiveness, bringing us the life that never ends.

The Church: it’s not about John, it’s not about me, and it’s not about you. It is all about Jesus–who He is and what He does–for you! Worship in not our work for God, but His work for us, among us, humbly coming to us, enlivening and strengthening our faith. Indeed, Jesus is among us, our Emmanuel.

And so, before we greet Him in the manger, that humble feeding trough, on December 25th, we welcome Him one more time as He comes to us at His Table. Today, Jesus comes bearing the only Christmas gifts that we need for eternity, gifts without which we cannot live. To Him alone be all glory and honor with His Father and the life-giving Spirit, now and even into the ages of ages! Amen.