This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’
From the wisdom of our lectionary authors, we’ve been given the second half of the first chapter of John’s gospel that we began last week. And rather than reflecting on it as a whole, I’ve chosen to piecemeal it into four sections, each accompanied with a familiar Christmas hymn. I know others like to simply offer readings and hymns on this Sunday after Christmas but I think the pastor should reflect at least a little on each reading. So bear with me as I reflect a little this morning…
In this passage, we encounter that ever-important question posed to John and later to Jesus, “Who are you?” It’s an important question because it’s a question that has befuddled us for the last 2,000 years. John will go on to answer the question but let us pose the question to ourselves, “Who am I?” Or more safely, “who are we?” We are a group of people gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus in our own lives and in the world around us. We’ve all been touched by Jesus in one way or another and we’ve all claimed him as our Lord and Savior. Jesus has come into our lives and has guided us through the joys and trials of our lives. Jesus has given us the love and patience to endure times of uncertainty, difficult relationships, and seasons of doubt. Week in and week out, we gather in the name of the one who encourages us and strengthens us, Jesus Christ. That’s who we are as a group but who are we as individuals? Each of us is a person in dire need of Jesus. Each of us is a fragile person with hopes and dreams. Each of us is a person trying to maneuver the joys and struggles of this world. Hopefully each of us is blessed with more joys and struggles but this is never guaranteed. Each of us is seeking a purpose for being here in this world. Each of us wants to be seen and heard, to be told that we matter in this world. That’s who we are as individuals and as a group. So who are you, John the Baptist?!
He [John the Baptist] said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” ’, as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’
In this passage, we hear John specifically answer the question, “Who are you?” “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John knew his purpose, to prepare the world for Jesus. It was very clear to him what he needed to do. He needed to get people to repent and ask for forgiveness for their sinful ways. He used water to offer that forgiveness in washing away their sins and the power of sin over their lives. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had such clarity of purpose?! Truth be told, very few of us are blessed with such clarity. Most of us struggle to know our purposes. Most of us struggle to know what God wants us to do with our lives. Surely He doesn’t want us to work unsatisfying and unrewarding jobs! Surely He doesn’t want us to live in harmful relationships! Surely He doesn’t want us to live selfish lives! Okay, then why do we find ourselves in such situations and relationships? What is their purpose? What is OUR purpose?! Perhaps to simply bear fruit: bear fruit in our relationships, bear fruit in our jobs, bear fruit in our lives. Be the light of the world! Or more accurately, allow his light to shine through you. What a simple purpose to have, to simply bear fruit and shine his light on the world! So how about you, Jesus…who are you?!
This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’
In this passage, we hear John the Baptist describe who Jesus is: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” It’s an interesting title, Lamb of God. On the one hand, it speaks to the innocence and purity of Jesus. We often focus on how we are called to be sheep to our great Shepherd, Jesus. We are to place our absolute trust in him, much the same way a sheep places its trust in the shepherd. What we are quick to forget is that Jesus himself is also considered a sheep. He, too, places his absolute trust in the Father to guide and protect. This is no more evident than as we see and hear at his crucifixion. As a man, Jesus is just as fragile as the rest of us and needs a shepherd just as much as we do. Of course, Jesus is more than just a sheep. He is a very special sheep: a sacrificial lamb. His purpose was more than to simply bear fruit and shine a light. His purpose was to also die on behalf of others, die so that we might live. Few of us, if any, are given such a purpose. Jesus is unique in so many ways and he has multiple purposes. Surely to serve as a sacrificial lamb isn’t his only purpose?
And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 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.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’
Sure enough, in this passage, we hear that Jesus has more purposes than simply to serve as a sacrificial lamb. John explains that Jesus is to baptize with the Holy Spirit and serve as the Son of God, two very distinctive purposes. So what does it mean to baptize with the Holy Spirit as opposed to baptize with water? It means to empower others to speak with truth. The Spirit goes within us to strengthen us and give us wisdom. The Spirit gives us the ability to bear fruit and shine the light of Jesus. So what does it mean that Jesus is to serve as the Son of God? It means that Jesus is deeply connected to yet distinctly apart from God. Children are deeply connected to their parents by sharing the same DNA yet they do not share the same body. A child has its own body, mind, and spirit but they never lose that connection to their parents. Jesus is a man with many purposes and we celebrate all of them this Christmas season. We, too, have many purposes but perhaps our greatest purpose is to bear fruit and shine his light. Who we are individually and as a group are deeply connected to who Jesus is. Let us give thanks for having a similar purpose with Jesus. Thanks be to God!