19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to 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, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (John 1:19-28)
“They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”
So we come to the fourth Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord in the wilderness, baptizing with water and confessing that he is not the Christ, not the messiah, he offers no salvation, he merely points to it.
He is not the Christ, nor “The Prophet. The curious thing is that he says he isn’t Elijah either. It’s curious because Jesus says he is Elijah who is to come. This is more or less merely a side note. John is answering that he isn’t Elijah returned from heaven. Jesus means that he has come with the spirit of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, as the heart of the Father was to the Son.
John the Baptist is clear though, he is not the Christ, or the Prophet of whom the people were all waiting for, he was just a voice in the wilderness crying make straight the way of the Lord. He had come to straighten a crooked generation. He came to preach law, and point to the Christ, to the Lord, the Prophet.
He baptizes with water only. It wasn’t a strange thing in itself. The Jews knew various “Baptismal rites” they viewed them as purification rites that would be done before going to the temple, or after a menstrual cycle etc. They would baptize before dinner (Luke 11:38), which is to wash their face and hands, and then baptize all sorts of cooking and eating utensils including couches. As we learn in Mark 7.
The Pharisees knew that when the Messiah came he too would baptize, but his baptism would be different then all these other law driven baptisms of repentance. And John’s baptism seemed to be a little different. He was out in the wilderness preaching. People were coming from all over to receive his baptism, and to hear his preaching. It is said that all of Judea went out to see him, the whole country side. There was a real movement going on among the people gathering around John. Even the pagan Roman Soldiers were showing up to hear what he had to say. He tells them to be content with their pay.
This was the law. He didn’t lecture the soldiers on murder, because murder wasn’t their job. He didn’t tell them to quit because their profession was ungodly, because they had a godly vocation. And this he speaks to occupiers of his own land! To many this would sound like the words of a traitor. It would be a bitter pill to swallow. It would mean that they too should honor the work these soldiers do, and recognize it as legitimate. But it was also a warning to the soldiers not to engage in extortion and other such activities that led to a perversion of their vocation, and often made them cross the line from that of a Godly vocation to that of a thief and a murderer. As greed and envy do to each and every one of us. And with this the soldiers and others would know of the sins for which they needed to repent.
But the repentance of man would not be enough, a baptism with water was insufficient. It would perhaps make straight the way of the Lord, but it was not the Lord himself, the Christ the messiah. No, as John records the answer there is but a hint of the fuller answer that is found in the synoptics, But among you stands one whose sandal I am not worthy to untie. Among you stands the Messiah.
He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire as Matthew records his answer. Yes, he would be the one of whom Ezekiel wrote, who would sprinkle with clean water and cleanse you from all uncleanliness, from all your idolatry leading you to greed and envy. He will be the one to take your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. This would be you. Because he stands among you, even now.
Yes, John Prepared the way for the Lord. As the law prepares for the Gospel, as the Old Testament prepared for the New, as advent prepares for Christmas. And now he is come, Emanuel has come, God with us is here. John the Baptist was unworthy to untie his sandle, to wash the feet of his lord, the feet the prostitute would wash with her very own tears, and dry with her perfumed hair. The law did not make her worthy. Her own repentance could not make her worthy. But Jesus Christ would make her worthy with the forgiveness of sins, the forgiveness he has washed you in with his holy baptism, the forgiveness with which he washes the feet of your soul in daily forgiveness and Holy Communion. Yes, among you stands one who does what the law cannot. He forgives you your sins, and gives you eternal life, having fulfilled the law with his very own life, and defeated death with his.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.