The crowds flocked to him. A good trek out from the big city, Jerusalem, perhaps a bit north of the Dead Sea. Low hills, scrub grass and desert shrubs – wilderness. His voice cried out there and many came. And, if we read about him in John’s gospel later on (ch.3), we’ll find that he looked like a desert dweller. Like the sort of guy you might find in some post-apocalyptic survival movie – eeking out dinner on bugs and wild honey and wearing animal skins, surviving off grid… Or perhaps we’d equate him more with that guy that stands outside of the mall or on the busy street corner with the sandwich board sign that says, “Repent! The end is near!” Or, to be reverent about it, we’d just recognize him for who he is – forerunner of the Messiah, prophet in that Old Testament way. And for both/all, perhaps we’d draw a bit of distance between him and us and think that we’re just nothing alike – he’s strange, he’s a prophet, he’s the Forerunner – and I’m… But nothing could be further from the truth.
In spite of John’s outward differences, this special messenger of God was a man with whom we have much in common. While his voice has been silenced here in time, the sound of his message is still being heard as Christians proclaim the message of repentance and grace through Christ. Through us too, the voice of the gospel still rings in the wilderness of our sin-darkened world. So, this morning let’s compare and consider our voice.
1. A faithful voice (vv. 19–22)
What kind of a voice is it that John presented and Christians still echo? A faithful voice. John’s is the voice of one crying out in the desert when there were plenty of well-educated, highly-theological voices proclaiming in synagogues and temple courts in shiny places like Jerusalem. John’s was a voice that marked a difference right away. And a voice that had to make a choice when those who spoke in the other places came calling. v.19-20, “Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.” Pause for a second – read, “When the ‘characteristically religious people’, the Jews, sent ‘religious leaders and religious way-of-life-directors’ priests and Levites – important people from important people – out to John, “He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely…”
Do you mark that? How exactly John words it? The religion guys come out to check out John, to put him to the test, so to speak (and they should have), and it’s not that he confessed, but that “he did not fail to…” Perhaps because John was not really any different than me or you. When people come and ask you what this is about here, or why you would spend time here on a Sunday, or what this Advent/Christmas thing is all about… There is certainly a temptation to “fail to confess” isn’t there? It could turn out awkward. Might be a trap. You could look like a dummy. We have fears about these kinds of things sometimes – illegitimate and very reasonable depending. Take a look at John and self-assess. “Repent!” John regularly said. Because he knew sin in himself and that it’s in me and you too. Do we fail? Do we deny? Do we hesitate? Do we run away? Repent…
And “freely confess.” For we and the world need to know what John said, “I am not the Christ.” In fact, thanks be to God that John faithfully voiced the Christ – God’s chosen one – as the focus. Thanks be to God that, without fear, he pointed us to the one anointed “to preach good news to the poor…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,” just as Isaiah prophesied. The Christ comes to free us from our sins. To set us free to confess his name, because the poor and the brokenhearted and those enslaved to sin need to hear of him. Just as John did then, we do now.
But perhaps still you might mark a difference here between us and John. When John freely confessed it was to say, “I’m not the Christ.” Because they wondered about John whether he was the world’s Savior. Yes, when your neighbor swings by for a cup of sugar, he’s never asked, “Oh, hey… Just wondering: possible you’re the long-promised Jewish Savior?” But that’s okay… Because it actually points up another characteristic of John’s voice and ours: you’re not the Savior of the world, and that’s totally the point! Ours is a humble voice.
2. A humble voice (vv. 23–27)
Humility’s important for relating to people, of course. There is a story of a bitterly cold night in Washington in the presidency of John F. Kennedy. A Secret Service agent stands in the Rose Garden outside the Oval Office. Kennedy opens the French doors and asks him to “come in and get warm.” The agent refuses. Ten minutes later, Kennedy arrives with a warm coat. “I want you to put this on. You’re not warm enough, I can tell,” he says. The agent obliges. Kennedy soon returns with two cups of hot chocolate. Coatless, he sits down with the agent outside and insists they drink it together…
We like that in an American president. Of course, we should. Our highest office was designed to be that thing… that any run of the mill American has the right to serve if they can win it – and then, to serve their fellow Americans – even in our highest office. John was important arguably more than you or me – “the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” John was the forerunner of the Savior of the world. That’s a pretty big deal. And yet, it is the most humble thing too. Important as it was, he was long-prophesied and called only to point the way, prepare the way, for Jesus…
And it’s good and right so to do… Here is not equals serving together. No, there’s an actual service to the greatest person ever going on here… John himself admitted he was not worthy to do the house-slave work – take off the shoes, sweep the floor, wipe the feet. And that’s not false modesty. We shouldn’t forget that it is as St. Paul said it today. As Christians we’re looking for “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We’re looking to the ride-the-clouds, glory and power, with an angel-army-arrival of the Master Jesus Christ. The one who has true, ultimate power, to whom the world will bow, like it or not. But with John we point out the one who exercised that power in the greatest humility by coming into this world as John was calling and serving with human disciples and bringing the Spirit’s work into hearts so that, by his call of faith, they would recognize the power of God’s love when he sacrificed his Son.
That’s humility – God descending to win human salvation – and it’s worthy of praise. Our voices, primed to faithfulness by Jesus’ forgiving love, daily need to keep John’s humility. We don’t point to our own holiness or power or prestige, but always and only we point others to the power of Jesus. We recognize that our spirit and life is in his hands, that we’re waiting for his coming, that he is faithful and will accomplish what he’s promised. And faithfully, humbly we say that others need his power too.
And, empowered by the Savior and feely confessing his name as most worthy of praise, we’ll be doing the same thing – the very same thing as John the Baptist.
3. A voice with a mission (vv. 6–8)
As we cry out in the wilderness of sin, we are, like John, a voice with a mission. John was sent directly “from God.” And you’ve heard in this season how God prophesied and then fulfilled his arrival, even chose his name. John was on a mission from God.
You’ve surely heard of a mission statement. Perhaps you’ve heard of people having their own, personal mission statement. Like Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, “To have fun in [my] journey through life and learn from [my] mistakes.” Or from CTL, “to give joy-filled glory to God in our worship, our nurture and our service in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, & to have every one of our members active in public worship, ongoing Christian Education, and in Christian witness and service.” A mission statement is just a word to live by – that defines you and guides you.
Do you have one? How about John’s mission as your own personal mission statement? Listen to it again, “[John] came as a witness to testify concerning [the] light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.” Isn’t God’s agenda for John actually the agenda every believer has too? You have come to this place, where you live and work and play, as a witness to the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. Your purpose as a believer in him is to “testify concerning that light” – to tell what is true: of how God showed his love by rescuing sinners from the darkness of sin through the sacrifice of his Son, of his powerful rule and promise-keeping way, and of his second coming. Your goal – that through you all people, anyone you might meet, might believe – come to trust, just like you, in the love and power of God’s Christ, Jesus. And to recap it – when someone asks or just in how you resolve to live, you show and say, “I, Insert your name here, am not the light of the world myself – far from it – I am a pastor, father, friend, worker, teammate, wife… but, really, “only a witness to the light.” Just like John…
In Advent, we prepare for this. And what better way to do it than to compare, ourselves with God’s messenger who came to do exactly this? Time and human death quieted his voice long, long ago, but that Voice Still Cries In The Wilderness. God’s Word carries it on and so do you when you faithfully confess, humbly praise, and carry out the mission God has given you by faith. Do so, just like John did, knowing that the Lord Jesus is coming soon and that, “He who calls you [to this service] is trustworthy, and he will in fact [accomplish it]” through you. Amen.