The Third Sunday in Advent – 17 December 2017
A Sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-28 by Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
John 1:6-8, 19-28 English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light… 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.
THE INCARNATE WORD: WITNESS FOR HIM
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
John the Baptist did not just show up at Bethany across the Jordan after having made a personal decision to bear witness to the Light of the World, Jesus, true God and true Man. He was sent from God! The Greek word for sent is “apestalménos,” literally “having been sent,”a form of the verb “apostéllo” from which we get the English word “apostle.” We have to go to St. Luke 1 to get the backstory where the angel tells Zechariah the priest that his barren wife Elizabeth will bear a child named John. Last week as we looked at Mark 1:1-8, we remembered that John the Baptist’s purpose was to prepare his fellow Jews to receive Jesus, the Good News.
Now, whenever John the Evangelist uses the term “the Jews,” we need to remember this is not anti-Semitic. Jesus is a Jew. John the Baptist is a Jew. John the Evangelist is a Jew, the son of Zebedee, and those who come to question the Baptist are also Jews. So John the Evangelist wants us hearers and readers to note the contrast he is drawing between the priests and Levites, who came doing the questioning, and John the Baptist, the one they questioned. In v. 19, the Evangelist tells us “the Jews,” (again, his technical term for the religious leaders in Jerusalem) “the Jews” sent the priests and Levites (in Greek “apésteilan,” another form of “apostéllo”), and, then in v. 24, the Evangelist tells us these priests and Levites were sent (“apestalménoi”) by the Pharisees. You will remember the Pharisees had a special devotion to keeping a particular reading of all 613 commandments given in the Torah, the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses.
So, then, we have John the Baptist sent by God to bear witness to the Light of the world, Jesus, true God and true Man. And, this is already an in-your-face polemic (a strong verbal or written attack) on those who taught the written and oral Torah was the Light of the world. The Light of the world is not simply words on a scroll or a particular interpretation of those words. The Light of the world is Jesus, the Incarnate Word, who was already in the beginning with God and was God before He became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and Truth (Jn 1:1,14).
When John the Evangelist writes “There was a man sent from God whose name was John,” the “there was” in Greek reads “egéneto,” from the Greek verb “ginomai” which points us to the English word “genesis.” The Lord Jesus, the Light of the world, is already “in the beginning” (“arche”) with God and was God. John the Baptist, who is not the Light but came to bear witness to the Light, is a creature, who came into being, and not the Creator who sent him.
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?”
These verses build a marvelous bridge to the 21st century with that question, “Who are you?” (in Greek “sy tis ei”). Of course, hidden to them in their question is the full force of the verb “ei” which comes from “eimi,” which is translated “I am.” The One, whom John is not, the One whom they do not know, Jesus, the true Light of the world, is the incarnate “I Am,” God in human flesh. Time after time in John’s gospel, Jesus will say, “I am. I am the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Good Shepherd, the Door, the Resurrection and the Life, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” John the Baptist knows who he is and Who he is not! He is not the Christ!
Now contrast that with our day in which identity politics reigns. Almost 40 percent of those under 30 and about 50 percent of Roman Catholics under the age of 30 describe themselves as having no religion. The popular term for these is the “nones” (N-O-N-E), their answer to the religion question on the census. This didn’t just happen. The so-called “nones” didn’t spring from Zeus’ head, like the Greek goddess Athena, fully formed and dressed for battle. And, as Martin Luther would remind us in his Large Catechism commentary on the 1st commandment, everyone has a god, that which is most important to them and to which their heart clings is god.
In our day of identity politics, guess which god is the god of “the nones?” We need look no further for an answer than the self-declared, self-made through ever-willing-to-make-a-buck surgeons, “Caitlyn,” Glamour Magazine’s woman of the year in 2015, born 68 years ago as Bruce Jenner, the Olympic athlete who once upon a time appeared on the Wheaties cereal box. Yes, the god of “the nones” stares back at us not from the cereal box but from our mirror every morning. It’s all about me, what I think, and what I declare myself to be. I am so special.
In Exodus 3, the eternal LORD God says, “I am who I am.” In John’s Gospel, the eternal Word, the Lord Jesus declares, “I am.” But in our day, creatures with a birth date and a death date declare, “I am whoever I say I am.” Sometimes, it’s someone else, perhaps even a professor or a politician or pollster, who says, “You are who I say you are.” And, if you don’t already know who you are and who you are not, someone will always be glad to say, “Oh, my dear, you poor confused thing, let me tell you who you are.” And, if you let them, they will use you and abuse you for their own nefarious purposes. Because evil always does that! Evil is the lie, and the evil one is the father of lies. He loves to be anonymous, when people say he doesn’t exist!
If you don’t know who and Whose you are, if you don’t know what you are, or if you think you can create yourself, you are a sucker for identity politics, which is the big lie in our day. The professors, politicians, physicians, psychotherapists, and pullers-of-strings in popular culture who push that palaver will gladly steal your birthright for a pottage of philosophical poo-poo…if you let them. Tell them to go to hell! If you look in the mirror and were born with boy parts, you are a boy. If you look in the mirror and have girl parts, you are a girl. There are only two models. Male and female. We all knew that until recently. Farmers, and those who haven’t lost their minds, still know there are only two models. So, as the old farmer said when his boy came home from years and years in college with three degrees, he already knew what BS was. So MS must be more of the same, and PHD must mean piled higher and deeper!
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.)
John the Baptist stood on the other side of the Jordan, at the edge of the wilderness, where the LORD God made covenant with Israel by grace alone. Having rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt, and having brought them through the waters of the Red Sea to Sinai, there the LORD God made with them the Sinai covenant and gave to them the ten words to live by. The ten words were the heart of how those whom God had graciously chosen were to live; the other 603 commandments were commentary. Later, the Lord Jesus, the Word made flesh, true God and true Man, Light of the world, summarized the words by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18 – love God and your neighbor! And indeed the first of the ten commandments: “You shall have no other gods” is lived out by serving the neighbors whom God places into our lives. That’s what Jesus does perfectly even unto death on a cross for us and our salvation! We need Jesus!
We will talk more extensively about the difference between John the Baptist’s Jewish ritual washings and Christian Baptism on January 7, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. But we are celebrating this weekend the Baptism of Joseph Parslow, whom God is graciously claiming through no effort or merit of Joe’s own as God the Holy Spirit joins Joe to the death and resurrection of God’s beloved Son Jesus. With all of us, Joe will reject all the other stories that try to tell him who and whose he is. And then, God will mark Joe with the cross of Jesus and seal Joe with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that Jesus’ death on the cross is indeed for Joe. From now on, Joe can, like every baptized Christian, return to his Baptism every day, renouncing all the false stories, and remembering he belongs to the one true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Lord God sent John to be a witness to Jesus, the Light of the World, true God and true Man. The Greek verb for witness is “martyrion” from which we get the word “martyr,” one who witnesses to Jesus with his or her whole life even unto death with Him. We know that John the Baptist witnessed in such a way, telling the truth to wicked king Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias, and for that John lost his head when Herod lost his mind over Herodias’ daughter.
Who are you? If you have been baptized with water in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are a witness to the Light of the World, Jesus, true God and true Man. That’s who and Whose you are. Remember who and Whose you are! Cry out in the wilderness of identity politics, of confusion, and all this world’s false stories. Pray for your neighbors. Point them to Jesus. Invite them to worship with you on Christmass Eve!
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
The Incarnate Word: Witness for Him
Lord, we beseech you, give ear to our prayers, and enlighten the darkness of our hearts by your gracious visitation; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 92).
John 1:8 “…He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
Origen [3rd century Bible scholar and theologian in Alexandria, Egypt]: “He was testifying to the divinity of Christ’s conception and birth. For what indeed is John except everywhere a witness and forerunner of Jesus? He precedes his birth and dies a little before the death of the Son of God, that, by appearing before the Christ not only to those in birth but also those awaiting the freedom from death through Christ, he might everywhere prepare for the Lord a prepared people…” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: John 1-10, 30).
John 1:20 “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’”
Origen [3rd century North African Greek theologian]: “It is likely that John saw from the question the reverence of the priests and Levites. Their question suggested their secret suspicion that he who baptizes is the Christ, but they were cautious about asserting this more boldly that they might not seem rash. This is why he declares with good reason that he is not the Christ, to remove all their suspicion about him first, then, in this way, to present the truth…” (59).
John 1:23 “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,’Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
St. Augustine [late 4th – early 5th century Bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa]: “So if Christ is the Word, John the voice, John was taken over as the voice in order that the Word might be spoken to us. And that the Word might come to us, the voice preceded it. That is why it is both true that Christ was before John in eternity, and that all the same, he had not to be born first, unless John came to us before the Word as the voice. So there is going to be a time when we shall see the Word as he is seen by the angels; now however let us make progress in the Word, so that we may remain with him forever” (62).
John 1:26 “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know,”
St. Cyril (5th century Patriarch of Alexandria and Doctor of the Church): “The Baptist teaches those who were sent from the Pharisees now even against their will that Christ was within the doors. For I, he says, am bringing an introductory baptism, washing those defiled by sin with water for a beginning of repentance and teaching them to go up from the lower to the more perfect” (63).
- How is the darkness of sin, death, and evil encroaching on the lives of those you love?
- What are some of the ways you witnessed to Christ alive in you this past week…other than simply being “nice” like many of your unbelieving neighbors?
The Lord’s Prayer
As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.
The First Petition
Hallowed be Thy name.
What does this mean?
God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy among us also.
How is God’s name kept holy?
God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!
1. Pray for every unbaptized child and adult you know and for the child’s parents, too.
- Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.
- Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend Luther’s explanation of the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer. Meditate upon where your lives are and are not conformed to the Word of God. Pray together to grow in God’s grace by asking for specific help.
- Pray daily in Advent using Scripture and devotions. Reflect upon the Incarnate Word who comes into the enemy-occupied areas of your life and those of your loved ones. Ask the Holy Spirit to open the hearts, minds, and ears of those you want to invite to worship.
- Popular American culture has no problem telling people what to believe, think, and feel. This is nothing other than “evangelizing” or “witnessing” to the false gods to which many foolishly cling. Do not be afraid to let others know you are a faithful Christian.
For Husbands and Wives
Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”