John 1:6-8, 19-28 6There was a man, sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as an eyewitness to testify about the light so that everyone would believe through him. 8He was not the light, but he came to testify about the light. 19This is the testimony John gave when the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, “Who are you?”
20He confessed and did not deny. He confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21And they asked him, “Who are you then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” “No,” he answered. 22Then they asked him, “Who are you? Tell us so we can give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
23He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ just as Isaiah the prophet said.” 24They had been sent from the Pharisees. 25So they asked John, “Why then do you baptize, if you are not the Christ, or Elijah, or the Prophet?” 26“I baptize with water,” John answered. “Among you stands one you do not know. 27He is the one coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” 28These things happened in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Some thought John was the prophet Elijah, whom Malachi had prophesied would come to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:5-6). They noticed John was preaching in the same place where Elijah had disappeared when the fiery chariot carried the prophet to heaven (2 Kings 2:11).
Some thought John was the Prophet foretold by Moses. Others thought John might be the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah. John appeared to have all the right stuff to be Elijah, the Prophet, or the Christ. Wilderness, camel’s hair, weird, ascetic, intense. People believed that John could be starting a movement, make headlines, make a move against Rome, make a name for himself.
So, the Pharisees who oversaw the religion among the Jews, sent the priests and the Levites from Jerusalem out to the wilderness to interview John. The priests were like the band “The Who.” They found John and began singing, “Who are you? I really wanna know?” The Levites were singing back up, “Who, who, who who?”
They asked, “Who are you then? Are you Elijah?” “Are you the Prophet?” “Are you the Christ?” John answered “No” to all their questions.
They asked again, “Who are you? Tell us so we can give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John answered, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ just as Isaiah the prophet said.”
The Pharisees wanted them to ask a follow-up question about John’s authority: “Why then do you baptize, if you are not the Christ, or Elijah, or the Prophet?” Baptism was something new. The religious leaders had ceremonial washings that you did to yourself, but John’s baptism was done to you. They had sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins, but John came with a baptism for forgiveness.
They wanted to know who John was, but John only told them who he wasn’t. He wasn’t the One. John was only a voice and a finger. The voice testifying to the light that was going to be shining into this sin-darkened world. The finger pointing to the One who was standing among them that they didn’t know. They One who was coming after John, but who was so great that John was unworthy to untie this One’s sandals.
John did have a pedigree. He was the son of Zechariah the priest, and so he was also a descendant of Aaron in the priestly line of Israel. This was no small thing. But, instead of telling the folks who came out to question him who he was, he tells them who he was not. This way he could clearly witness to the One who is.
John was a witness. A witness, by definition, does not draw attention to himself, but to the person or event to which he is testifying. Witnesses are called upon to tell people what happened. If you had been present when the vehicle went into the pond by Home Depot earlier this week, you would have been expected to give a statement to the police about what you saw. If you would have seen Tom Petty any of the fifteen times he played the Marcus Amphitheater, your friends might want you to tell them about what Petty was like in concert. Witnesses are not merely passive onlookers. They have a responsibility to tell others what they have seen and heard.
John was a witness. The Greek word translated “witness” is “martus,” from which we get the word “martyr.” A martyr bears witness with his life and death. That’s what John did. John the Evangelist is very clear about John the Baptist. John was not the light. He had no light of his own. He came to bear witness to the light that was coming into the world. He came to point to Christ and get out of the way. He came to say, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” and then recede once again into the background.
John challenges us deeply. We want to be somebody. We want to leave a legacy behind. We want recognition, fame, celebrity, our fifteen minutes. We crave the standing ovation, the prize, the engraved plaque. We live in a culture of celebrity, where people will do outrageous things simply to be noticed.
The old Adam in us, that inner sinner of ours inherited from Father Adam, wants to be noticed, craves the spotlight. Each of us, in our own way, wants to be the center of attention, even in a small way.
Who are you? Sin has given us a false identity – an identity based on self, on our athletic abilities, on our physical gifts, on our ability to get ahead in the workplace, on our pride in what our children accomplish. Sin is an inward-curving disease that causes every thought, word, and deed of ours to be self-oriented. Our first thoughts are: “How does this affect me? What will people think of me? Will people still like me?” And when we worry about that, we will let others define us and shape our identities for us.
Who are you? That was the question that was asked of John. Who are you? That’s a good question to ask yourself. We can learn a lot about ourselves if we observe the way John saw himself. Instead of looking inwardly, we look and point at Christ, as John did.
John spoke two memorable sentences during his ministry. One we sing in our liturgy every Sunday and is printed on the stained-glass window in the back of the church. “Ecce agnus dei.” “Behold, the Lamb of God.” John pointed away from himself and toward Jesus. That one simple sentence summarizes Jesus’ entire mission. Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb, the substitute Sacrifice, the vicarious Victim, the blood that atones for the sin of the world. That sentence is John’s legacy. It’s not about John, but about Jesus. “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John, the martyred witness, pointed his finger so that eyes focused on Jesus. He testified so that ears turned to the real Christ.
The other memorable sentence from John was spoken when John’s disciples were all leaving him to follow Jesus. The world perceives this as a failure, but John the witness saw it as what had to happen. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). John meant that his fame and celebrity had to decrease. He was not the center of attention. John was Ed McMahon to Jesus’ Johnny Carson. John was Robin to Jesus’ Batman. John was Tonto to Jesus’ Lone Ranger. John was the sidekick. Jesus was the hero. John was the warm-up act but not the main event. John was the moon that reflected the light of the Son of God.
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
In saying that, John was wittingly or unwittingly articulating the Christian life. Who are you? You are the one who must decrease, Jesus must increase in your life. The old Adam, the old you, must daily drown in your Baptism. The new man of Christ living in you arises. You become smaller and Christ becomes a bigger part of your life.
John didn’t care what people thought about him, what his reputation was, whether people believed him or respected him. He knew he didn’t fit in. He was different. He didn’t let the world tell him who he was. His identity came from the Lord and His Word. The Advent Christ defined who John was. He was the witness in the wilderness.
Be that witness in the wilderness. Point to Jesus with your finger. Tell who Jesus is with your voice. You were made to be different in your Baptism. Every day you are made different in your Baptism as you die and rise anew. Dare to be different, to stand apart, to be called weird, out of step, crazy, fanatical … WELS. Let the world mock the camel’s hair and leather belt of Christ’s robe of righteousness you wear. Let the world snicker at your wilderness diet of the body and blood of Christ. Let the world make fun of you live differently than everyone else.
Don’t worry about what others think of you. Christ thinks enough about you to live and die for you. Don’t be concerned if you don’t fit in at school or work. Christ reminds that the world hated Him, so its going to hate you, too. The feelings of the world are irrelevant. Let your identity come from the Lord and His Word. The Advent Christ defines who you are. Be that witness in the wilderness of this world.
The world desperately needs to hear your witness. Proclaim “the Lord is near; prepare the way.” The world needs to see the Light of Christ shining in the present cultural darkness. The world needs to follow your finger pointing to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world on the altar of the cross and gives out that forgiveness upon the altar in church.
You are a witness, whether you like it or not. The spotlight is on you. You must decrease, become nothing at all. Christ must increase. He must be all in all. Your old Adam won’t like it. We like to be the center of attention. The world won’t like it. The devil will positively hate it. Which means you’re right on track.
John’s greatness was Jesus. That’s where your greatness is, too. We are not worthy to stoop down and untie His sandals. Yet, He bends down to save us. He stoops down as an infant in the manger. He stoops down to die upon the cross. He stoops down to be buried in the tomb. All so that He might make us great through His birth, death, and resurrection.
On Friday, I attended the funeral of Pastor Martin Janke, the pastor who had confirmed me. The funeral was at the church where I had grown up in and gone to grade school. When people asked who I was, I explained that I was the son of Harold and Mary Zarling. When I saw some of my classmates, I explained I was married and had four daughters. When I stopped by Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School, where I had graduated from and my sister had been a big basketball star and has a plague and everything, I explained I’m the brother of Dawn.
With each of those explanations, I made myself lesser and my parents, my sister, my family, and my pastor were made greater. Although, in reality, I was made greater through my connection to all of them.
The same is even more true when it comes to Jesus. As you explain your relationship to Christ, you make yourself lesser and make Jesus greater. Although, in reality, you are made greater through your connection to Christ. That’s who you are. Amen.