Christmas is over, the presents are unwrapped, even the leftovers have been eaten. Which means the start of a new year is almost upon us. (I know for some the new year is almost a month away!) Now’s when we start looking forward to what’s to come isn’t it? It’s a time when people make predictions about what 2014 will hold. We’re told what to look out for in fashion, technology, politics and finance. And there’s all sorts of ads and articles telling us what TV shows, or movies, to watch out for in 2014.
But this is also the time when we dream about what the new year will look like for us personally, isn’t it? We start thinking about our New Year’s resolutions, about exercising more, or saving more, or learning to play an instrument. And now’s when we start dreaming about the good times that are ahead of us. We look forward to new jobs, new courses, and new subjects. We might have a wedding to look forward to, or an exciting holiday later in the year. We tell ourselves that this year will be better than the last. We focus on all that we hope the future will bring.
As we come to John’s gospel, this is exactly what the Jews were busy doing. They were dreaming about a better future. They were looking forward to a time when God would restore their nation. When they would be free of foreign oppression. When a true King would sit on the throne. When the Temple would be filled with the glory of God once more. They were busy looking forward to the time when Israel would be proud and powerful again. And so they kept their eyes open, looking for anyone who might make these things happen for them.
Then a promising candidate emerged. They heard stories about a strange man causing all sorts of commotion out in the Judean countryside. There’d been mysterious, miraculous circumstances surrounding his birth. Now, crowds were flocking into the dessert to hear his message. And he was doing all sorts of strange things like baptizing people. So, not unexpectedly, the ‘Jews’, most likely the Sanhedrin, the ruling council in Jerusalem, decided to check him out. They sent out an official delegation of priests and Levites to discover just who this John character was.
The delegation tracks him down near the Jordan, and they ask him, ‘Who are you?’ It’s clear from verse 20 that John knows they’re not asking what his name is. They’re really asking, ‘Are you the Messiah? Are you the promised anointed one? Are you the king, the leader we’ve been looking for?’ But straight away, John denies it. In fact verse 20 tells us he denied it emphatically! He confessed to the truth. He denied their claims, but instead confessed – ‘I am not the Messiah!’
It must’ve been disappointing for the group, but they don’t give up hope just yet. ‘Are you Elijah then?’ they ask. If you remember 2 Kings 2, Elijah hadn’t died but had been taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Years later the prophet Malachi wrote;
Mal. 4:5 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.
They inquisitors want to know, if John’s not the Messiah, is he Elijah returned from heaven? Later on Jesus did make a connection between Elijah and John. Not that John was the returned, or reincarnated Elijah. But that he was Elijah’s spiritual successor. Perhaps at this point in time John didn’t realise that. Or perhaps he was too humble to accept this title for himself. So when they ask ‘Are you Elijah?’ he denies it. ‘Sorry guys, I’m not him either.’
Undeterred, they try again. Elijah and the Messiah aren’t the only one’s they’ve been looking forward to. There hadn’t been a prophet in Israel for centuries. And more than any old prophet, the Jews were waiting for the rise of a prophet like Moses. So they ask John, ‘Well, what about the prophet then?’ Again he says no.
By now the group’s in a bit of a pickle. They’ve been sent to find out who John is. But so far all they’ve discovered is who he isn’t! They can’t go back empty handed! So at last they ask, ‘Well who do you think you are then?
John replies, ‘I’m nothing but a voice.’ Which just happens to be one of the TV shows I’m looking forward to in 2014. It’s that singing show where the judges sit with their backs to the contestants. They don’t know what they look like. All that matters is the voice. John says the same is true of him! It’s not who he is that’s important! He’s just:
23“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
Here’s their answer. He’s just the warm-up act, sent on ahead to prepare the people for the real deal.
It seems among the delegation where some Pharisees. These were guys dedicated to obeying the Law, or at least their interpretation of the Law. They were the guardians of what was right and wrong. It’s clear they’re not satisfied with John’s answer. If he’s not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet, what gives him the right to baptize people? It’s not that baptism was anything new. It was sometimes done when people converted to Judaism. But John’s calling all people, even those already Jews, to be baptised! They want to know what gives him the gall to do this.
Did you notice what John does when he answers this new question? He begins by saying, ‘I baptize with water.’ But then he jumps straight to the authority of Jesus. John’s doing exactly what he just said his mission was. He’s preparing the way for Jesus, he’s pointing people to the real Messiah. Forget about what gives John the authority to baptize. The one he’s been sent to prepare the people for, is in fact already here! He’s the one with real authority and power! He’s so important that John isn’t even fit to untie his sandals. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of taking someone else’s shoes off. It’s something I do a fair bit, for Micah and Joshua’s! It’s not a fun job! The same was true in the first century. In fact, it was a job reserved for slaves. And not just any slave, it was only for the lowest of the low, for the bottom slave on the totem pole. But John says he’s not even worthy to do that!
Throughout this encounter John’s a great example of true humility. He could have yielded to temptation and said yes to any of those questions. He could have claimed to be somebody, to be important. He could have talked up his credentials and his commission from God. But he refuses to take any glory, or any honour for himself. Instead he continually points people to Jesus. What if this year we tried to do the same? To not seek our own glory, but instead unashamedly promoted Christ? If we sought to be a voice crying in the wilderness, calling people to prepare their hearts for the living God? What would it take for you to follow John’s lead?
If there’s a great encouragement for us in this passage there’s also a great warning. Did you notice the real tragedy in this passage? The delegation had been sent out to discover who John was. He told them he’s just a voice, sent to prepare people for the real deal. And there in verse 26 he said:
Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me;
The real tragedy is the one they’d been looking for was there in their midst! It’s like a scene from a romantic comedy movie, where the main characters keep missing each other. Where one turns up just after the other has left. Verse 29 says the very next day Jesus was there by the Jordan! If only they’d asked John to point him out! The problem was they were fixed on their dreams and vision of what the future would look like. So they missed one of the great, big, obvious signs of God’s Kingdom. They missed the point of what John was saying – the King is here! You might say they missed the point of Christmas. As Chris reminded us on Christmas day, ‘Emmanuel’ means God with us. They failed to see, because they were so caught up in their own dreams.
As we prepare and plan for the year to come, let’s not loose sight of this great truth. That Christ came, but that he continues to dwell among us. He’s present in and among his people. He’s present in and among the church. And he’s present in us, through his Spirit. What if rather than fixing our eyes on our own dreams for this year, we focused on what God desires from us instead? What if this year we lives as though Christ was really among us? What if we tried to live more like Christ? What if we tried to live in a way that honours the King? Let’s seek to be more like Christ this year. What if this year we proclaim Christ is here, just as John did? That way we can be sure we have a happy new year.