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It strikes me as ironic that the person we know as “John the Baptist” is labelled for what he did as a by-product of his true mission. Indeed, in the twenty-second verse of the opening chapter to the gospel according to John we read, “Then they said to him, “Who are you? “Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” And in response, in the next verse, “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.”
In other words, we might more accurately say that John was a prophet. But he was a prophet with a singular purpose.
Earlier prophets had issued warnings to the people, called upon them to change their ways, advised them of events to come; but John was aiming at only ONE event: the coming of the Messiah.
And when he arrives, John does proclaim that arrival.
In the twenty-ninth verse of the opening chapter of the gospel according to John, we read, “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Now, we might wonder at John’s wording. Did he KNOW that Jesus was to be crucified? Because the concept of the “Lamb of God” has meaning only in this context.
And I cannot help but hear the word’s from the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” words drawn from the twelfth verse of the fifth chapter of Revelation. In his crucifixion, Jesus becomes the sacrificial lamb for the children of Israel.
John continues, “This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” And, he has previously said of Jesus, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
But when he says “he was before me,” we are reminded of how the gospel writer begins this chapter: “In the beginning was the Word.... He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him....”
Not only was Jesus before John, but Jesus was before EVERYTHING! So John is really understating his case. There were many who were “before” him who could lay no claim to ranking ahead of John. But Jesus was more than simply before. Jesus was one with God, in the beginning with God, and transcends all time.
John continues, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Now, we might question what John means when he says, “I...did not know him.” I think John knew what to expect, what he was awaiting. But he did NOT know when he would arrive or what he would look like.
In fact, we don’t know whether John expected to see the Messiah in his lifetime.
But John did know WHY he was doing what he was doing. He came baptizing that the Messiah might be revealed. In other words, he’s making preparations for when the Messiah WILL arrive.
We Christians today might say the same thing. We don’t know when Christ will come again, or what he will look like, or what that event will be like. Indeed, maybe he already has, and we missed him. But whatever the case, we need to be in preparation. John’s baptism with water was the symbolic washing away of sins.
Although we are baptized only once, we need to be in constant touch with God in prayers of confession for our sins.
“And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”
But beyond John’s symbolism in the dove, the gospels of Mark and Luke add this to the scene of Jesus’ baptism: “a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
So there are signs that could be seen and heard. We don’t know who or how many saw and heard these signs, but it is really only important here that John did. For he has been awaiting this moment. Everything in his ministry is centered on this moment.
John continues, “I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”
It is fulfillment of John’s prophecy, as recorded in the sixteenth verse of the third chapter of the gospel according to Luke:
“John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
God has taken a momentous step in history. The same God who sent John the Baptist to baptize with water has now sent Jesus to baptize with the Holy Spirit.
“And,” John affirms, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
Now, John is behaving in a unique manner. He has claimed his calling by God: to baptize with water. But he also proclaims that one greater than he is coming, one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. He does not know when the Messiah will come.
Indeed, if he were seeking personal fame and glory, which he is not, and which his life-style completely denies, he could behave as if the Messiah will not come in his lifetime. He could stretch his time in the spotlight. But he does not.
When the signs are right, when he realizes that Jesus is the Messiah, he openly testifies, “I myself have seen...this is the Son of God.”
If you’ve heard me preach before on John the Baptist, you should know that he is one of my Biblical heroes. In his own special way, he has established a model of humility that most of us--especially including myself--cannot touch, but should aspire to.
John is like a businessperson selling a product that he KNOWS will be superceded by a better product. His is not a bad product, will always be a good product, but a BETTER product is coming. He knows this and even REJOICES in it, looks forward to its coming.
And when it does come, he celebrates it. How crazy can we get? Celebrating the competition! But for John, Jesus and the baptism of the Holy Spirit were NOT the competition. They were the fulfillment of prophecy.
Several years ago I participated in a weekly Bible study in Joplin with a dozen other pastors. And even though we were studying scripture, because we were pastors we frequently got into discussions about our work and the church.
On one of those occasions the question arose, “Why is it that pastors seem to get along better than they did, say, ten or twenty years ago?” And an answer came, “Maybe it’s because we’re not in competition like we were.”
And another answer came, “Maybe it’s because we’ve figured out that we’re all in the service of God through Jesus Christ, rather than in the service of ourselves.”
Our text continues, “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”
Now, since scripture does not tell us, let us speculate on what is happening here. Did John want his disciples to leave him and follow Jesus? Was he encouraging them to leave? John is only repeating what he had said the day before.
He is affirming what he believes. He is not uncomfortable with that. But still, does he believe his work is over? Is he HAPPY with his disciples, his followers, leaving him? Would he be pleased if they ALL left him to follow Jesus? These are tough questions.
Now, I would not advertise for the United Methodist Churches in Bolivar or Prairie Chapel, although I think Dan and Stuart are very good pastors. Indeed they don’t NEED advertising. Each of those congregations seems to be doing quite well.
But would I be upset if you left this congregation to become part of one of those? No. If I were, it would be my own selfish ego that would be upset.
If I am concerned for your spiritual lives, and you geniunely believe your spiritual needs are better met by worshipping elsewhere, then I would WANT you to do so.
I suspect that John the Baptist may have had thoughts something like this. I suspect that even if he had disciples leave, there were still disciples who may not have been quite prepared to leave to follow Jesus.
And now, our story shifts.
“When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”
I think that verse is worth a whole sermon. Let’s put ourselves in the place of those disciples. We’ve left John the Baptist, motivated by his proclamation, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” and we’re hoofing it down the road behind Jesus.
Suddenly, he stops, he turns, he looks at us, and he asks, “What are you looking for?” Folks, this is not a trick question. What ARE we looking for? How would WE answer Jesus?
If he were in this pulpit right now, asking, what are YOU looking for, would you have an answer? Or, would you be like John’s former disciples who ask, “where are you staying?” Did THEY know what they were looking for? Or were they just curious?
Or were they following Jesus because they thought that it was the thing to do? A really “tough” Jesus would have pinned them down.
But our Jesus is a soft touch when we least deserve it.
“He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.”
I think that the answer to Jesus’ question, “What are you looking for?” at least for these two disciples, was “We don’t know. We aren’t sure. But we do know WHO we are looking for. And we trust the judgment of John the Baptist in this matter. We think YOU are WHO we are looking for, and we would just like to spend time with you.”
That seemed to be good enough for Jesus. And, I think it is good enough for him today. Many of US may have an answer similar to that of the disciples.
We may feel confused about life, not sure what we want, or what we SHOULD want, or of what direction in which we should be moving. Sometimes we may feel like we’re just treading water, and we’d like to grab hold of something to pull us somewhere.
So, of the two disciples, one was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. “He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).”
And maybe THAT was what they were looking for. Maybe it was not teachings, or directions, or prophecies. Maybe they were just looking for the Messiah.
“He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
Now, there are multiple stories in the gospels about the selection and naming of Peter, but I want to conclude with one from the gospel according to Matthew.
In the eighteenth verse of the sixteenth chapter, Jesus proclaims, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Jesus always knew what he was doing. He invited two guys who didn’t seem to know WHAT they wanted to follow him, knowing that the brother of one of them could be an anchor for the twelve disciples he needed, and an anchor for the church after his death and resurrection.
May John the Baptist and the early disciples be examples to all of us. Amen.
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