And the Voice Says. . .
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 11, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 1: 19-28
Isaiah 40: 6-11
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”g 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,h nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
So as we continue our journey through the Gospel of John, we leave behind what most people consider to be the prologue and start into the narrative of Jesus. . . finally, because it was tough to preach the prologue. It seemed like it would have been better with a chalk board, teacher style , going through the introduction and talking through the key terms of the chapter. I'm not sure how well word descriptions work without the visual of seeing them too. Vocabulary is important, but like they say the dictionary ain't got a whole lot of plot. . . So now we get to start in with the story, but not really the story, this John Evangelist isn't much of a story teller, like his other three counterparts are, but at least we now get a character from the story--John the Baptist. But in John's Gospel unlike the other three JTB isn't doing anything, he's just talking. . . . go figure.
I know last week I asked everyone to try, as we go through this gospel to try to clear our heads of all the outside stuff, but here a week later I already want to break that rule. Mostly because here we have John the Baptist, and he's a major character, actually doing stuff in the other gospels. And the thing he is most famous for doing is actually baptizing Jesus. All of the other gospels depict that event, and today is the day in the church calendar that celebrates that event. But John, the evangelist John doesn't. We don't get much about who this John is, except that he was sent by God, his name is John, and he wasn't the light, but simply sent to preach about the light. We get all that in the prologue.
Now, think for just a moment. You have a book, a gospel, with John's name on it, and then the first person it talks about is a John. . . what would you think and assume, coming on this the first time. . . especially in the Bible, where the tradition is to lump all people with the same name as the same person. . . especially John's, where you have a gospel, three letters, and Revelation written by John. . . and here is a John, and there is an apostle John, and there is debate all over the place as to exactly who John, the gospel writer is exactly. . . . right, so maybe this Gospel includes the writer as this character. We wouldn't know who this was if it wasn't for its context else where. Maybe this isn't John the Baptist, who baptized and was the cousin of Jesus, maybe it's the Evangelist talking about himself. . . perhaps, but then we look deeper at our reading for today, and it turns out that this John has been baptizing, it doesn't say he baptized Jesus, but he has been baptizing. . . and in this encounter, some Jewish leaders come to John and they ask him, Who are you? Why do you do what you do? And it is John's answer that is the only specific thing about John the Baptist that John's gospel includes. It doesn't include John Baptizing Jesus, nor his death at the hands of Herod. . . just here with this question. . . Who are you John the Baptist? Are you Elijah, are you the prophet?
It would seem like identities are important in John's Gospel... or at least the questions are asked quite often. Who is this, who is that? but it really seems that no answers are often given save one. The answer to the identity questions that keep coming up in this gospel is always Jesus, it would seem that no one else is as important to figure out. The gospel writer seems to hide in mystery, and we talk more later about who he may just be. . . and though the disciples are named and some of the characters are named all signs seem to point to Jesus. . . and Jesus talks about himself quite often throughout this gospels, whereas in the others he rarely does. And so all these Jewish leaders come to John and they ask him, who are you? and John answers by saying who he isn't. . . I am not the Messiah. . . and so they go further . . . Are you Elijah? that Old Testament Prophet whose body was whisked away, to come again another time. No I am not Elijah. Are you the Prophet? No. . . and the Priests and Levites get angry, and they spill the beans a little bit, saying, tell us because the people who sent us want to know. . . there is an admission there. . . its not just them who want to know but more, there are some unnamed people interested in finding out more information here. There is something more going on here than just innocent questions. . . and then John gives his answer, quoting the prophet Isaiah directly, and even giving Isaiah credit for the phrase: I am "the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the paths."
It is a famous line. All the gospels include it when describing John the Baptist. It is a perfect description of a prophet. Because prophets are often all alone. They are the only ones proclaiming their message, and often a prophetic message is one that alienates the messenger. They are a lone voice, and a voice that most people do not want to hear because the message typically challenges the status quo. Prophets do that, they speak the message of God, and the message of God is critical of the world. . . thus the need for the message. So here is John out, a voice crying in the wilderness, in the typical traditional mode, and it has caused enough of a stir that people, powerful people in Jerusalem have come asking questions. Who are you, what are you doing. . . and remember John's message is to Repent, for the kingdom is near, repent for the Messiah is coming, or in this case, I baptize with water, but the one who is coming after me is much much more.
This morning we read in the Old Testament Lesson, what the voice crying in the wilderness from Isaiah said when it spoke. I want to take a deeper look at that now because this is what I want us to think about, what John is evoking when he says he is a voice crying in the wilderness, because it is a message of promise from God, and it puts Jesus into perspective, for that is what John the Baptist is about.
40 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;a
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,b
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has directed the spirit of the Lord,
or as his counselor has instructed him?
14 Whom did he consult for his enlightenment,
and who taught him the path of justice?
Who taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
15 Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as dust on the scales;
see, he takes up the isles like fine dust.
16 Lebanon would not provide fuel enough,
nor are its animals enough for a burnt offering.
17 All the nations are as nothing before him;
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
18 To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
19 An idol? —A workman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold,
and casts for it silver chains.
20 As a gift one chooses mulberry woodc
—wood that will not rot—
then seeks out a skilled artisan
to set up an image that will not topple.
21 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23 who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
25 To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
It is quite a message, and John brings all this up when he alludes to Isaiah. I teach English, as you all know, and I love poetry, my favorite device in poetry is called an allusion. It is when you mention or quote from another work, the idea is that you bring all of that other work into your own by mentioning it. There is always the danger that the people reading the work won’t know what the allusion is or misinterpret it. . . that is always a possibility, and it seems to be the case with Jesus, too. . . which is why he says so often, “Those who have ears to hear.” An allusion is what John does here so masterfully, and I mean the Gospel Writer John. He brings all of this into context and then has John the Baptist say who Jesus is. He doesn't show the Baptism scene, he just describes it, and does so after making this allusion. We know exactly what Isaiah’s voice crying in the wilderness says, is John the Baptists message the same. See for yourself, He says in the next passage:
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”i
Yes identity is important in John's Gospel, and John wastes no time in declaring exactly and definitively exactly who Jesus is. Identity is important, why, because last week we talked about believing and receiving. John wants to create a picture right off the bat to let us all know exactly what that means.
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 1:19-28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Is 40:1-31). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 1:29-34). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.