Sermon: The Point of John the Baptist

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Luke chapter 3, beginning in verse 15. Luke 3, beginning in verse 15. We are picking up right where we left off last week. John was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old age. Even before his birth, the angel Gabriel proclaimed that John would have a mission – to turn the people back to God, to ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’

And last week, we saw John doing it. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and people flocked to waters of the Jordan. They heard the truth of the brokenness and rebellion and pledged themselves to trust in God and his mercy. John rebuked those with half-hearted repentance and summoned everyone to demonstrate their love of God by turning toward their neighbor in love.

After all of this, people began to wonder. Who is this John? Could he be the one we’ve been waiting for? Let’s listen to the Word of the Lord, but before we do, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

These are the very words of God from the book that we love:

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts whether John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch, because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, whom I love, with you I am well-pleased.”

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

Look with me at verse 15:

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts whether John might possibly be the Messiah.

Waiting expectantly. There was an eagerness in the people. In John, they sensed that something was happening, something was coming soon. Century upon century of waiting might finally come to an end. Could John be the one?

It says they were all wondering in their hearts whether John might possibly be the Messiah. What – or rather, who – the people were waiting expectantly for was the Messiah. The Hebrew word Meshiah – Messiah – as well as the greek word Christos – Christ – both mean anointed. Kings, Prophets, and Priests were all anointed – oil mixed with spices poured on their heads – and given a calling in service to God. In that sense, there had been many anointed – many ‘messiahs’ in Israel’s history. David, Solomon, Josiah, Hezekiah, Elisha, Ezekiel, Zerubbabel. But all of them fell short, all of them failed. But the promise that God made is that one day, the true anointed, the full, perfect, holy, complete anointed of God would come, THE messiah would come to lead and deliver God’s people. This Messiah would be holy and just, leading the people in the ways of God. Could John be the one?

Listen to his response: verses 16-17

John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

John is not the one. Was he filled with the Holy Spirit? Yes. Was he leading the people in the ways of God? Yes. Was he given a mission by God? Yes. Was he the Messiah? No.

Why? Well, I believe that the Holy Spirit had made it clear to John who he was in God’s plan and who he was not, but that’s not the reason John gives. He contrasts his work, his ministry, and that of the Messiah. The key difference is power.

verse 16:

I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John’s ministry belongs in Advent. It is part of a season of anticipation, of waiting, of longing. The messiah’s ministry belongs to fulfillment. John comes with the command – repent – and the promise – forgiveness, but John doesn’t make it happen. He only calls like a voice in the wilderness. When the Messiah comes, he will come with power – power not only to give the command, but to do it.

The key difference is power. The message is the same – repentance and forgiveness – but the power behind it is wholly different. The Messiah will not just promise forgiveness but accomplish forgiveness. He will not only call sinners to repentance, but speak the words that bring the dead to life. The ministry of John is to point ahead, to get everyone ready, for what the Messiah will do when he comes.

And John says the Messiah will come with his winnowing fork in hand. The metaphor is of threshing wheat – separating the good kernels from the worthless chaff. It is a metaphor of salvation and judgment – the Messiah will come to gather the wheat into his barns – those who belong to him, who trust in his promise – and to burn up the chaff – those who do not belong to him.

Is John the one? No, he says. His job is to point ahead to the coming of God’s anointed to bring salvation and judgment upon the earth.

Verse 18:

And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch, because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.

John’s message was received as good news. He was not the Messiah, but the Messiah was coming. And he would bring with him forgiveness and grace as well as set right all that was wrong. He would come with power. This was good news.

But John’s message was not always received well. For in the good news of forgiveness was the call to repent. And the call to repent includes naming the sins that need repenting of. And when John issued that call to Herod, there were consequences.

Herod the tetrach, known other places as Herod Antipas, was the ruler of the region of Galilee – the northern part of the land of Israel, where John, Jesus, and most of the disciples were from. This is not Herod ‘the Great’ of the Christmas story, but his son.

This Herod was little better than his father. He convinced his brother’s wife, Herodias, to leave his brother and be married to him. John rebukes him for this clear and blatant sin as well as, it says, all the other evil things he had done.

Herod’s response was not remorse, but to throw John into prison.

At this point, the public ministry of John ends in the Gospel of Luke. John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, now lies in a cell. The one who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah is locked in prison.

We are left at this moment, right where we started, waiting expectantly for the Messiah as John’s ministry comes to a close.

But then, verse 21:

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, whom I love, with you I am well-pleased.”

The Messiah has come: the one the people waited for – the one John pointed to – has come. The one we celebrate and long for this Advent season has come – Jesus.

Luke introduces him almost casually in this passage, as just one among the many others who had come to be baptized. But something is different. Even before the Spirit descends and the voice proclaims the identity of this man, something is different.

The baptism of John is a baptism of repentance. It was a proclamation of sinners that they would turn from their sin and walk with God. Jesus had no need to repent. As all of the Bible unanimously declares, Jesus never sinned. There was never a breach in his relationship with God caused by disobedience. There was no need for Jesus to be baptized in the Jordan with the rest of these sinners.

But he does. And at the very outset of the ministry of God’s anointed, we see that he identifies with sinners. Jesus declares his solidarity, his oneness with sinners by being baptized in the Jordan, even though he himself didn’t need it.

Already in his baptism, we see Jesus as the one who would take the place of another, the one who would take the step, who would be covered in the water, who would be buried in the place of another. Already, we get a glimpse of the Messiah who would come as the Savior of the world.

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.And a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, whom I love, with you I am well-pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism concludes with an anointing and a declaration.Let there be no more doubts about who John was waiting for. The Spirit descends upon Jesus, calling, anointing, commissioning him for his ministry. The Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus, filling him with the very Holy Spirit and power that John said would come with the Messiah’s ministry.

The Holy Spirit descends, visibly declaring that Jesus is the Messiah.

But then a voice, You are my son, whom I love, with you I am well-pleased. A declaration at the outset of his ministry – Jesus is beloved, Jesus’ life pleases the Father, Jesus is God’s own son.

Christians hear in this declaration that Jesus is the unique Son of God – fully God and fully human – the Second person of the Trinity, eternal God. And we are right to do so. But those gathered at the banks of the Jordan would have also heard, “This man is the Messiah.” Echoing words from the psalms and the prophet Isaiah, the Father’s declaration over Jesus would have told the people that the wait was over.

The Messiah had come. John was right. The promised savior and king has come for us.

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts whether John might possibly be the Messiah.

Could John be the one? He’s not. But he was never meant to be. The advent we have be listening to the words of John, but we are not meant to end there. Each of the gospels begins with the story of John but the gospel is not about John, it’s about Jesus.

John was only ever meant to point us forward, point us to the one we wait for in this season – to Jesus, the Messiah.

To Jesus, who came with power not only to promise forgiveness but to accomplish it through his life, death, and resurrection.

To Jesus, who already at his baptism identified with sinners and took their place.

To Jesus, who was anointed with the Spirit and declared as God’s Son.

To Jesus, the savior and king of the world.

John was called to point to the Messiah. Perhaps John’s task is not that different from our own. We are not the Messiah. It’s not our job to save the world, save the church, or even save the soul of our neighbor. Only Jesus can do that. We are to point to the Messiah. Maybe like John, people will listen, wonder, and be amazed to see Jesus. Maybe our lives, like John’s will fade into the background as Jesus takes center stage. But maybe that’s okay.

We, like John, are called to point to Jesus. We don’t need to be the Messiah, because the world already has one. Our job, by our life and in our words, is to let people know that the Messiah has come, that Christ was born, lived, died, and rose again for us and for our salvation.

The good news of the Christmas season is the birth of the Messiah. The wait is over and God himself has come in the flesh to keep his covenant and rescue his people. Our job is simply to point to the Savior.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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