With people queuing up to be baptized, some officials from Jerusalem force a time-out on John. They’ve come to interrogate. Jerusalem’s clergy wonders, “What’s going on out in the desert? Who is this guy? Where did he get the authority to preach and baptize?” In our 21st century Lutheran parlance we might say, “Does this guy have a Call? Has some group of Christians asked him to do this?”
Yet, their thoughts ranged even higher, as evidenced by the questions they asked John. And when we see this back and forth exchange, we realize what a potentially humiliating moment this was for John.
“Who are you?” And he says, “I’m not the Messiah.” Did that bum out some of the baptismal candidates enough to get out of line?
“Then, are you Elijah?” The scribes and priests knew the prophecies of Malachi that said another mighty prophet would come, either like the great Elijah, or Elijah returned to life. Certainly the ears of some of those baptismal candidates hoped to hear a “yes.”
“Nope, I’m not Elijah.” Strike two. Maybe now some think, “Why did we even bother coming out here? Is this just some crazy cult? Maybe this guy really is just a locust-eating weirdo.” The irony here is that John, by the later testimony of Jesus IS Elijah. He was just either too humble to say that – kind of like when Jesus told people NOT to tell anyone what He did or to call Him the Messiah, even though He was – or he honestly didn’t understand that particular prophecy as applying to him. Though that last isn't likely, since John's father more than likely passed on Gabriel's words to his son. Perhaps John was splitting hairs with hair splitters. They though he was a resurrected Elijah and he could say, honestly, "I'm not."
Then the testers hurl out question three: “Are you the Prophet?” This refers to Deuteronomy 18 when God told Moses that He would send a prophet like Moses for all to hear and obey. Some thought Jesus was this Prophet also. And in that identification they were correct, even though they misunderstood what that meant.
But again, John answers, “No. I’m not the Prophet.” Strike three. We know that John didn’t suddenly lose his entire ministry, but others must have wondered what the priests and Levites wondered, “If he’s not the Christ, or Elijah, or the Prophet, then who and what is he and what are we doing here?”
The priests and Levites even foreshadowed their Pharisee brothers who would later say about Jesus, “Who can forgive sins but God alone.” They ask, “Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet?” In other words, “By what authority do you do these things? How can you – a random weirdo preacher – claim to say and do the things you do?”
A key question for us to wrestle with. By what authority do we do the ministry we do? Is it because we’re the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior? And immediately we agree with John, “No, I’m not.” Except our actions sometimes belie that answer. Sometimes it seems like we’re convinced that we are the Savior, because, well, “This church sure would fall apart without me.” “If I wasn’t here, there wouldn’t be this growth or that success.” “If I didn’t do it, who would?”
Let me make a careful distinction here. I’m not advocating just standing around and saying, “God, get this done.” That’s akin to saying, “Give me a million dollars, Lord,” holding out your hand and waiting. Even Jesus denies this. When the devil said, “Jump off this five story building, God will protect you,” Jesus said, “No, I’ll take the stairs.”
What I’m talking about is pushing Jesus into the background and thrusting us into the foreground. “If I don’t work 80 hours a week and deny myself time with my family, then….” That’s making yourself the Savior and stealing the glory from Christ, whether you say that as a pastor, or as the bread-winner in your home.
It happens too when we look around the church and point to anything except preaching the Word, teaching the Word, counseling and consoling with the Word, baptizing adults and children and distributing the body and blood of Christ as what will get things done. “If we only have this greeter method or that follow-up program, this smiling face or that perfect landscaping, this eye-catching sign or that fancy musical system and so on and so forth, then…” Again, that’s not to say any of those things are bad or wrong in and of themselves. But they’re not Saviors. They don’t make disciples. They’re not the Light.
And neither are you or I. We aren’t the Light. We just have the Light. We just show the Light. We just talk about the Light. “Why then do you baptize if you aren’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet?” Here, John doesn’t seem to give an answer. He acts a lot like his cousin Jesus, who tended to deflect certain questions, or answer questions that weren’t asked. John points out the difference between himself and Jesus, that “Someone…coming after me.” “He’s great. I’m not.” Later, when his own disciples point out that Jesus seems to be stealing all John’s thunder and handling more baptisms than John, John says, “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
John calls himself a groomsman. We could call him Jesus’ Best Man. And the bride John talks about is the Church, believers, Christians. And John says they belong to the Bridegroom, the Groom, Jesus. And groomsmen just do what the Groom asks them to do. Later, John will actually answer the question put to him, “By what authority do you do these things?” He answered it saying, “I didn’t know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water.”
Someone sent John to baptize. Someone authorized him. God. God issued a Divine Call to John. At some point God specifically told John, “Go out and baptize,” because that baptismal ministry wouldn’t just bring people to repentance and distribute to them forgiveness, but because it would also be the means by which God the Father would publicly announce, “My Son is here!” God called him even before John was born. The angel Gabriel told John’s Dad, “Your son will teach God’s people and point them to the coming Savior.” By what authority did John do these things? God’s.
We have that authority too, both privately and publicly. Because while none of us are the Messiah, we have the Messiah to share. He didn’t stay around to continue His public ministry. Angels aren’t going around making announcements or preaching Gospel messages. He uses people, humans, us. Christ gave to the Church, to believers, the authority to forgive and not forgive people. The Church announces reconciliation or excommunication. Peter said to all of you, “Proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
And then God uses more Johns. God calls pastors and gives to them the ministry of reconciliation. He makes them His ambassadors. He hands to them the keys of the kingdom, to preach, to baptize, to commune. That’s what the Divine Call you sent me told me to do. So that authority comes from outside of us. It comes from a Divine Call. For some that Call is to a life, a vocation, of pastor or teacher. For some, the Call is to a life of Christian witness in whatever other role, job, or vocation you have. Because the Church has the Light to talk about, testify about, witness to, and share.
And there’s the point. Because we’re not the Savior, we need to find out who is. Because we tend to act like we’re Saviors, we need to see who really is the Savior and what a Savior really does. So God sent a man named John. And God sends pastors and teachers. And makes some of you such. And God gives Christian parents and children and employers and employees and makes you such. To do an amazing thing: Point to and reveal Christ. He must become greater, we must become less. Because only He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Only He is the Groom willing to marry this particular bride. Only He can – and did – have a body worth sacrificing and blood worth shedding that could possibly make atonement for the sins of the world, for your sins. Only He can infuse water with forgiving power and make it something more than a powerful ceremony, but a Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
And without John, without pastors and teachers, without Christian parents, how would we know? We preach and baptize because we need this Savior. We preach and baptize because that’s how we share this Savior. “So that all might believe.” And be saved. Amen.