TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
An Advent sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-28
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
December 13, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
As the pastor of First Baptist Church, it is my privilege to give folks tours of our church from time to time. Our church brochure states that free tours of the church are available upon request. Those interested in a tour are encouraged to call the church office to schedule one. Sometimes people actually take us up on that. I have given tours to church groups who have come to downtown Lynchburg specifically for the purpose of touring our church building. And of course, when we are not in the midst of a raging pandemic, the annual “Historic Downtown Church Christmas Tour” sponsored by Interfaith Outreach gives additional opportunities to show off the church building to good advantage. Giving tours of the church is one of the fun parts of my job…
Other tours have been more spontaneous on how they came to be. For example, I once gave an impromptu tour to a photography class from E. C. Glass High School. The class just happened to be downtown on an assignment when the teacher spotted me outside and asked if the students could come in and photograph our sanctuary. I naturally obliged them. Other people on occasion drop in rather randomly to ask if they can see the church. Whenever possible, I do my best to accommodate them.
One of the things that I focus on is the beautiful stained glass that adorns the sanctuary. I’ve spent some time researching the images and figures in the windows in order to explain and interpret their symbolism. I see this as an opportunity to teach about the Christian faith in a different and vivid way to some that have perhaps only given it scant attention before.
The central figure that dominates the large stained glass window behind me is that of Jesus as “The Light of the World.” It’s an interpretation of Revelation 3:20, which says “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in…”While Jesus is standing at the door and knocking, he is holding a lamp. Underneath is a reference to John 8:12, which says “I am the Light of the World.” At the top of the window are five small images. The one at the top is Christ as the Lamb of God. The other symbols going in a counter-clockwise direction are the four evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. On either side of Jesus are two angels. I used to ask the question of tour groups as to how many angels are named in the Bible. But I have learned not to do that anymore…
[Side bar here: For the record, there are only two angels mentioned in the Bible: Gabriel and Michael. The additional books contained in the Catholic Bible mentions a third angel by name, Raphael. But some folks would occasionally ask, “What about Lucifer? He is a fallen angel, but he is also named in the Bible…” I have had to gently suggest to them that such an idea is not from the Bible. The only place
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in the Bible that the name “Lucifer” appears is in Isaiah 14:12. It is in the middle of a prophetic oracle that the prophet gives denouncing the Babylonian Empire and declaring that God was going to destroy them. The common idea that Lucifer is a fallen angel that led a rebellion against God in heaven is not to be found in the Bible. Instead, it has its origin is from Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Those are great and influential works of literature. They are certainly worthy of your time to read and study—but they do not carry the same authority as the scriptures. After a few weird exchanges concerning Lucifer with a couple of tour guests over the years, I’ve decided to no longer ask that question…]
As best as I can tell, there are not any images of John the Baptist in our sanctuary. What would an image of John the Baptist look like, you might ask. That’s a fair question…How would you know an image of John the Baptist when you see it?
Normally an image of John the Baptist is dressed in camel skins with a leather belt. That is how the gospel of Luke describes John’s clothes.1 And usually he is carrying a basin of water. This is a symbol of baptism, as three of the four gospels mention that John baptized Jesus when he came down to the Jordan River. But…seeing as how this is a Baptist church which believes that immersion is the way of biblical baptism, I guess it would not do to have a figure carrying a baptismal basin in a Baptist church…now would it?
The earliest images of John the Baptist in the Eastern Orthodox Church depict John the Baptist with angel wings. (No—really!) As you know, John the Baptist is the messenger who would announce the coming of God’s Son into the world to the people. And the New Testament Greek word for “messenger” is the same word that is used for “angel.” That word is aggelōs. So to symbolize his function as the messenger to announce Christ’s imminent arrival—I guess—John the Baptist is depicted as having angel wings in those earliest images.
The ministry of John the Baptist is told in all four of the gospels. Matthew, Mark and especially Luke, go to great lengths to tell us something of John’s background and where he came from. They also give us what we know of his preaching and of his ministry among the people. By contrast, the gospel of John really does not tell us very much about John the Baptist’s origins. It begins in verse six of today’s text, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” That’s it. That’s all the background about John the Baptist that we get…
Then a few verses later, we read that some of the religious bigwigs in Jerusalem sent a group to investigate what John the Baptist was doing there at the Jordan River. They do not seem to have known much about John either, aside from the rumors and gossip. All they knew is that there was this guy down by the Jordan River, preaching the need for repentance and baptizing them as a sign of their intention to live changed lives. They also knew that he was attracting large crowds out in the wilderness.
1 Luke 3:4.
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But he had not been officially approved to do these things. So they sent a delegation on a fact finding mission to see for themselves and to find out what was going on…
The interrogation begins in verse 19. There the group from Jerusalem asks, “Who are you?” (No niceties or cordial conversation to start off with—they got straight to the point…) John confessed to them, “I am not the Messiah.” Then they asked him a couple of other questions to try to establish his identity. John was obviously exhibiting the power of God in his life and in his ministry, but it was unlike anything that they had ever seen before. And so they were confused…
“If you are not the Messiah, then are you Elijah?” they asked.
“Are you ‘The Prophet’?”
“Then who are you? Give us something that we can take back to our superiors in Jerusalem. Tell us who you are.”
It would be easy to gloss over these questions and answers and not consider their importance. Let’s take a few moments to unpack them…
They ask John, “Are you Elijah?” Now Elijah was considered to be one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. He was a national hero in the eyes of the people. You remember that it was Elijah that challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to a contest to see whose god could rain fire down from heaven. It was Elijah that prayed and, in answer to his prayer, God did not bring rain to the land for three long years. It was Elijah who stood up to the wicked king Ahab and his equally wicked wife Jezebel and condemned them for their unrighteous ways and their idolatry.
In the last verses of the Old Testament, Malachi 4:5-6, God speaks through that prophet that Elijah will return as a sign of the last days. He writes, “See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers…” On the basis of that passage, it was commonly believed that Elijah would return as a sign that the coming of the Messiah was close at hand. But John tells them that he is not Elijah come back from the dead…
Next, the group from Jerusalem asks, “Are you The Prophet?” This is a reference to a rather obscure passage from the book of Deuteronomy.2 In that verse, Moses is giving some instructions to the people of Israel concerning how they are to live once they enter the Promised Land. And in that address, he tells them, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” The people took that to mean that God was going to raise up someone who would be known as The Prophet. And this person was going to be a new Moses for the people. The Prophet would deliver them out of the bondage of slavery, just as Moses had let the people
2 Deuteronomy 18:15.
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of Israel out of Egypt. He would lead the people into freedom once more; and he would also speak with authority on behalf of God to the people. And John answers their question by telling them that he is not The Prophet either…
Their guesses as to John’s identity had all been wrong. So, perhaps with frustration rising in their voices, they demand that John tell them who he is. They ask, “Who are you then? What do you say about yourself?” John answers in classic fashion. He really does not answer their question. Instead, he quotes from Isaiah 40: 3, which says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” He goes on to say in verse 26, “Among you stands one who you do not know, the One who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie his shoes…” Apparently Jesus himself was standing in the crowd observing this exchange between John and the delegation from Jerusalem. He was standing right there in their midst—and these religious professionals did not even recognize him…
In the verses following today’s text, John sees Jesus and points him out to the crowd by saying, “Look, here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!…I testify that this is the Son of God!” it is said that this was the day following the exchange between John and the Pharisees from Jerusalem. One wonders if they were present that day to witness John’s declaration…I wonder what they thought about it if they did…
It seems to me that the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist was a somewhat complicated one. On the one hand, today’s scripture indicates that John understood himself to be the one who would introduce Jesus to the people. He knew that it was his God-given responsibility to identify Jesus as God’s own Son in the flesh. He knew his place and he knew who Jesus was. And he made that abundantly clear to anyone who would listen to him.
But there is something else going on here. After John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, the Bible tells us that Jesus began his public ministry. He began traveling all through the towns of Galilee healing, and working miracles, and teaching about the arrival of the Kingdom of God in their midst. So the question might be asked, “What happened to John? What did John do after this encounter with Jesus and after baptizing him and pointing out to the crowd that he was the son of God?”
I find it strange that the scriptures seem to indicate that John continued his same ministry by the Jordan River. After identifying Jesus as the Son of God, John did not suddenly stop what he was doing. He apparently continued to preach the message of repentance in view of the coming Kingdom of God. And he apparently continued to draw crowds to hear him preach the message that God had given him. And he apparently continued to baptize his followers.3 All the while Jesus was gathering his disciples and preaching to the crowds that followed him, John continued to do the same.
Matthew 11 and Luke 7 indicate a crisis point in their relationship after John was imprisoned by the authorities. The scriptures tell us that John sent some of his disciples to speak with Jesus. And he
3 See John 3:23ff.
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asked them to inquire of Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come…or should we expect someone else?” John seemed to be so sure of Jesus’ identity earlier when they were at the Jordan River. Now he is entertaining some doubts. He is thinking that perhaps he was mistaken back then…
Jesus response to these disciples of John was this. He said, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of me.”
We do not know why these doubts had crept into John’s mind. I have a hunch that the actions that Jesus displayed up to that point in his public ministry did not match what he had always been taught that the Messiah would do when he arrived. The Messiah was thought to be a political and military leader that would drive out the oppressors. He would fight to free the Jewish people from the domination of the Romans and once more establish the nation of Israel as a political entity. They would be liberated and, once their enemies had been vanquished, then they would live in peace and harmony under the dynasty established by God through the house of David.
But Jesus refused all that. He did not do any of it. That was not his mission. That was not his goal. He declared that “My kingdom is not of this world.” He was not going to supernaturally raise an army to defeat the Romans. Instead the kingdom that he was bringing was to be a kingdom of the heart…a kingdom of the Spirit. And the gospels record that whenever the crowd tried to take him by force to make him king, Jesus refused their offer. He was just not that kind of king…
Advent is a time when we expectantly await the arrival of the Son of God in our midst. But as the scriptures that we have looked at today t ell us, sometimes we do not see him when he arrives. John told the delegation from Jerusalem that Jesus was right there standing among them by the Jordan River—and yet they did not recognize him as such. They did not see the Son of God in the very middle of the people. John saw and recognized Jesus at first, but later he had some nagging doubts as to whether or not Jesus really was who he had initially thought he was.
What about you this season? How are you expecting to meet the coming Christ this Christmas? His arrival is sure and it is soon—but he may not look like who we might think he will look like. How will you see him? Will you recognize him in the ones who need your help…in the ones who are lonely…in the ones who are struggling in the midst of this COVID pandemic? Keep your eyes wide. Be sensitive to the Spirit. And follow his lead as we watch and wait…
And to God alone be the glory! Amen.
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER