It is fitting that the man who calls himself out of humility, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” writes about two moments of great humility in the first chapter of his Gospel. Let’s save the first and greatest moment of humility for Christmas morning. Today let’s look at the second moment of humility: John the Baptist resisting the urge to call himself someone he wasn’t.
It is not easy to be humble. We all have a few things about ourselves that are braggable. Given the right occasion you are able to brag about how good you are at something or how much you know about something. There was a time when I was a sports trivia fanatic. I could tell you practically every World Series and Super Bowl winner. A fellow pastor I know memorized every hymn number in The Lutheran Hymnal and Lutheran Worship. I’m sure he’s got a good head start on Lutheran Service Book. Perhaps you have your braggable moments as well.
Sometimes our bragging goes too far. You get caught up in how much you think you know that, as we say back home, you get too big for your britches. You think you know someone and you brag about your connection. You realize, however, that you hardly know the person but you want to look good so you stretch the truth. You think you’re an expert about something but you realize that there’s always something more to learn that someone knows and you don’t know.
John the Baptist could have been that guy. He could have said, “Sure, I’m the Christ” or “Call me Elijah 2.0” or even “I’m that prophet you’ve been waiting for all these years”. John tells the truth. He doesn’t care about making a name for himself. He gives a witness, a testimony about who he is and what he does. The testimony isn’t an account of how he came to faith or how he got to be who he is. His testimony is nine words: I am not the Christ. I am not. No.
Imagine if John would have played along with those sent from the Pharisees. They’re looking for an explanation. John could give them what they’re looking for simply by making a false testimony. That would do him no good, not to mention those sent from the Pharisees. John would be a liar. John would point everyone away from the true Messiah and to himself. Doing so would have ruined his entire ministry of repentance toward the forgiveness of sins.
John the Baptist takes the opportunity not to lie, but to tell the truth. I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said. The Pharisees, even those who were sent from the Pharisees, should have done their homework. When John says these words, it should be evident that the Christ is near. John also points this out when he says to them, among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.
The word “know” has some subtleties. We see it in the English language. You can know someone, like a friend or an acquaintance. You can also have knowledge about something. The thrust of the verb “to know” in John’s words to the emissaries from the Pharisees is the latter definition. These men, even the Pharisees themselves, may “know” Jesus as someone on their radar screen of public personalities. Yet John tells them they don’t “know” who Jesus is when it comes to knowing about Messiah or the one who comes before Messiah. As the younger generation might put it, “You guys don’t have a clue about the one who is to come.”
We “get a clue” about the calling of both John and Jesus in John’s words. John’s calling is to prepare the way of the Lord, just as Isaiah prophesied some seven hundred years before. Though John is considered the greatest of all prophets, he’s nothing compared to the capital “P” Prophet, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Prophet promised in the Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy chapter 18: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen…I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.
The capital “P” Prophet needs a lowercase “p” prophet to prepare everyone for the big moment. That’s John’s calling: preparation through the preaching of repentance and through baptism. The way is made straight in the preaching of repentance. You are turned from sin toward a new way of walking: a straight path behind the ample shadow of Messiah, Jesus Christ. As Saint Paul writes to the Church at Philippi: The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything. Jesus comes to take away your anxiety about today and tomorrow. Jesus walks before you through the valley of the shadow of death. You have nothing to fear. Jesus walked that way before you. He cleared the path for you to receive His forgiveness and His righteousness.
If John says he’s Messiah, your hope is dashed to pieces. John’s righteousness is nothing. He can’t even untie the sandal strap of the one who comes after him. Thanks be to God that John didn’t take on something bigger than himself. John witnessed who he was, not who he wasn’t. In his confession we see our own confession; our own witness. We are nothing outside Christ. Jesus is our all. Jesus did not spurn the Virgin’s womb. Jesus did not despise becoming man. Jesus did not hoard His innocence and His mercy to Himself. Jesus gives to John, to you, and to me all that we need to bring us with Him into our heavenly Father’s presence. We are clothed in Christ. It is enough.
My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless His holy name forever and ever.