Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 17, 2023

John 1:6-8, 19-28 Commentary

John is asked questions that will also be pointedly asked of Jesus: Who are you? Why do you do what you are doing? They are questions we ask because we don’t understand, or we don’t believe what we’re seeing. It’s important to remember that they can be questions borne by curiosity as well as incredulity or skepticism.

Last week we were told that the crowds of people mostly came with curiosity, wanting to be part of whatever it was John was about. Knowing what we know about the leaders of the religious establishment from the rest of the gospels, it is hard to be open-minded about their posture here on the banks of the Jordan River. It is clear, however, that they feel entitled to an explanation of who John is and what John is up to, because, as they survey his baptising in action, they don’t understand it.

Their questions reveal everything they think might make John the Baptizer make sense. Is he the Messiah? Is he Elijah? Is he the Prophet? Figures such as these will (and have) come to proclaim the turning of the world—John’s very message in preaching repentance and baptising those who wish to live according to God’s world-order. Along with the Messiah, Elijah and the Prophet were promised in God’s Word to aid the people towards God’s righteousness (Malachi 4.5 and Deuteronomy 18.15). For all intents and purposes, John fits the bill.

But no, John says, I am not these figures. John is very much like Elijah with his words of warning about the coming judgement, and very much like the Prophet who prepares the way for the Lord to people’s hearts. Jesus will say that John IS his Elijah and more than a prophet in Matthew 11, but in his humility, these are not mantles John will give to himself.

Instead, he focuses on his vocational calling expressed through his ministry of baptism. With a profound level of differentiation, John knows that he is connected to these figures, but is not defined by anyone’s sense of them because he has been sent by God to testify to the light of the world. John the Baptist might be better called John the Testifier or Confessor; baptism was a tool for his work of helping orient people to the coming light of the world.

John’s ministry is about helping people get to the place and posture whereby they might be able to see the light that is hidden, standing in plain sight among them (verse 26). Maybe that’s why he can’t identify himself with the Prophet foretold or with Elijah: these figures have become attached to a meaning that seems to be keeping people from recognizing the true nature and presence of the Messiah.

Knowing Jesus as the Messiah will be a journey for John as well. In the womb of Elizabeth, John leapt for joy when Jesus, in the womb of Mary, entered the room. And in the verses that immediately follow today’s text, John will meet Jesus face-to-face and proclaim, “Here is the Lamb of God!… This is he of whom I [spoke]” (verse 29). And yet, while locked up by Herod, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11.2-6)

It just goes to show that even for those whose testimony is great, it can be hard to see and know the one who stands among us as our Saviour. Even for those sent with purpose and ministry from God. Even for those who know themselves and God quite well. Sometimes, the light feels more hidden or shrouded than exposed.

John the Baptist’s narrative arc represents the Advent season, from joy at the coming of the Messiah, to repentance as preparation, to carrying on in the work and callings God has given us with the intent of testifying through word and deed to the glory of God, and even to questioning and looking for God’s presence as we persevere through suffering and wait for the revelation of the Prince of Peace. Like John, we do it so that all people, including ourselves, might believe (verse 6).

Textual Point

Witnessing, testifying, and confessing are clearly the theme or keywords of this passage, appearing six times. John testified through both word and deed: he preached, baptised, and led a life worthy of his calling on the fringes of society, seeking to honour God with all the he had and was.

Illustration Idea

The last few summers have given many of us an experience of what it is like to have the sunlight hidden as smoke from wildfires infiltrate the air, making it impossible for days at a time to see the sun until a change in the direction of the wind clears the air. As a reminder, here’s some news coverage of New York City in the summer of 2023. As it did for John, our suffering, especially when the promises of Scripture are not fulfilled for us in this life, can hide the light from us, challenging us to give up our testimony. It’s important to remember, though, that asking God questions like “Why?” can be a form of confessing belief. And, even as John expressed doubt to Jesus, Jesus’s response was to praise John’s witness—and to tell us that our witness was just as valuable to God as John’s (Matthew 11.11).


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