Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28 W 3rd Sunday in Advent
Who Are You?
In the name of him who is the Light
of the world, dear friends in Christ: For
God’s people living at the beginning of the first century, the center of the
religious and spiritual world was the city of Jerusalem. And within that city, the central focus of
the faith was on the holy
But sadly, that
But then an amazing thing
happened. Just as the Lord had foretold
through Isaiah and others, a new empire arose.
And the new emperor issued a decree that allowed all people who had been
displaced and resettled by the former regime to return to their native
countries and reestablish themselves. So
it happened that the nation of
The trouble with this new
But that was changing. About ten years before the birth of Christ,
King Herod the Great began an ambitious project to give the second
By the time John began his ministry,
And let me suggest that the way the
Then you had the minority party of Pharisees. These were the religious conservatives – fanatically so. And where the Sadducees made a show of religious devotion through the ceremonies of worship, the Pharisees showed their piety by an outwardly strict and rigid devotion to the Law of Moses. They were legalist of the first order, always obsessing over the many ways the Lord’s commands might be broken, and coming up with rules and practices designed to prevent someone from even getting close to a transgression. Their understanding of the Law was very literal and wooden. They were devoted to the letter of the Law without any of the spirit of love that was intended to be behind it. But by making sin more about outward behavior than a condition of the heart, they fooled themselves and others into believing that they were truly righteous before God.
And so what I’d have you see is that
both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were in their own ways all about the
show. The Sadducee priests with great
pomp and ceremony offered sacrifices to a God they mostly didn’t believe in for
sins they didn’t think were sins. They
did it because it made them look good and stay wealthy. The Pharisees believed in the Lord, to be
sure; but they also believed that they weren’t sinners in his eyes. And if you’re not a sinner, you don’t need
to offer sacrifices—except, of course, to fulfill the Law’s demands. So they went through the motions of sacrifice
because they had to in order to be obedient, not because they imagined they had
any sins to be atoned for. It was all
about the show – a show that only served to hide what was really inside and
underneath. And so it’s kind of strange;
though the Pharisees and Sadducees were polar opposites who disagreed about
almost everything, they ended up in about the same place: a focus on outward appearance rather than the
true substance of godly faith. It was
all about the show. The only thing they agreed
on was that this show could only take place in
And now along comes John the Baptist
– and he’s starting a show of his own, not way up in the noble heights of
Jerusalem where the unpleasant truth is masked behind white marble and fancy
façades, and behind outward displays of religious piety of one kind or
another. No, John launches his ministry
way down deep in the desert wasteland on the bank of the
And his message resonates with the
people – the people who for too long have been caught in the crossfire of
arguments between the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Up until now they’ve leaned this way or that depending on who made the
best case or put on the finest show; but if you leaned too far in either
direction you realized there was a problem.
On both ends of the spectrum there was something phony that was only
made up to look good. It wasn’t real,
and many of the people knew it. But John
offered something different, something that started with an honest look at sin
in the heart, which is where true worship of the Lord must always begin. And so they came to John. They came to him by the thousands. They left behind the phony glitz and glimmer of
the holy city, and repenting of their sins they were baptized in the
Of course, John’s activities were
not looked upon kindly by those in charge of religious affairs in
So they send their delegations down to unmask the imposter. They grill him with questions: “Who are you?” “Are the promised Christ?” “Are you the prophet who was to come?” “Are you Elijah?” Their intent is to prove that John is really a nobody, that he has no credentials or authority, and that he is therefore, a fake. The trouble is that John readily agrees that he’s nobody important. In this way he disarms their meant to be embarrassing questions. “I never pretended to be or said I was any of those people”. You can’t unmask someone who isn’t wearing one.
“Well then, who are you?” they ask in exasperation. “I am no one. I’m just a voice in the wilderness calling people to repent.” It’s a great answer because it’s exactly opposite of what they are: people who think they are someone and who are failing in the most important part of their job, which is to call people to repentance. But the answer, as good as it is, also leaves John open to a second attack. “Okay, if you really are no one, like you say, what gives you right to baptize?” Now they think they’ve got him. They think he’ll have to admit that he has no authority – and if no authority then what he’s doing has no merit at all. But again, John’s answer is right on the mark: “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.” You see, what he’s doing is claiming nothing for himself and giving all honor and authority to Christ the Lord. He’s saying that his ministry is all about him, not me. Again, it’s the opposite of what they do. They claim to have God’s authority to be what they are and do what they do, but what they really want is for the credit and honor to go themselves. They are the ones putting on the masks and making a show.
But their question remains a good one for each of us to consider. Let me ask, who are you? How do you define yourself? How would you identify yourself especially in a religious or spiritual sense? More to the point, how do you want to be perceived by others? Who do you want them to think you are? Indeed, in what ways have you worked to create impression that you’re more pious, or humble, or spiritual, or faithful, or righteous than you really are? What masks have you been wearing? What kind of shows have you been putting on?
Today, through both his message and his example, John calls us back to reality. He calls us to see ourselves as God does: as nothing more than undeserving sinners who desperately need a Savior. And he calls us to repent – and especially to repent of imaging that we’ve ever been anything else.
May God give us the grace and the will to do so. And once again receiving his forgiveness in Christ Jesus our Savior, may he grant us a new beginning equipped with the spiritual insight and wisdom never to forget who we are. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!