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 Temple of God – the one place on earth where the Lord God himself was said to dwell among his people.  Here and only here could sacrifices be offered to him.  And here too was where the major religious festivals like Passover, Pentecost, and the Day of Atonement had to be celebrated.  Since we live in a different age and with a different understanding of God’s presence, it’s hard for us to get into their mindset; but suffice it to say that it’s impossible for us to overestimate just how important the Temple of the Lord was to the faithful in, say, A.D. 28 or so, when John the Baptist began his ministry.

 

            And this Temple, I’ll remind you, was the second Temple to grace the sacred ridge of Mount Moriah.  The first had been built during the glorious reign of King Solomon.  Those were the good days.  Under Solomon the nation had prospered immensely.  Gold was so plentiful that silver lost its value. And because times were booming, no expense had been spared to make the Lord’s Temple the greatest monument to his glory imaginable. The best stone was brought from quarries nearly a hundred miles away; the finest, whitest marble was used; the cedar wood for which Lebanon was famed was imported for all the roof beams; and gold was used to cover the tops of all the pillars and columns.  It was truly a sight to behold – a building befitting the Lord who dwelt there.

 

            But sadly, that Temple had been destroyed after it stood for about four centuries.  Due to the people’s persistent disobedience and idolatry, and their perverse refusal to repent despite having many prophets warn them of the dire consequences of continuing in their path of rebellion, the Lord caused them to come under foreign domination.  A huge army surrounded the city and laid siege to it. And when it was over, Jerusalem was sacked and burned, the Temple was leveled, its priceless objects and adornments were stolen, and the few survivors were taken away in chains to a country far away where they languished for seventy years.

 

            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 Judah was reborn.  And one of the first things the people did upon their return was to rebuild a Temple in Jerusalem so they could worship and offer sacrifices to the Lord who had watched over them in their exile and who had brought them back to the Promised Land just as he said he would.

 

            The trouble with this new Temple, though, was that it was little more than a crummy shack compared to what the first had been.  Whereas the first was built by Solomon at the highpoint of his kingdom, this one was built by poor refugees who could barely afford to feed themselves. Certainly they did the best they could; but there’s no escaping the fact that the final result was a pathetic eyesore compared to what had once stood in the same place.  Old timers who remembered seeing the first Temple wept openly at the sight of the second. But understand that despite its humble appearance, it worked just fine as a temple.  The sacrifices were offered there.  There the religious festivals were observed.  And there the prayers of the nation ascended to the Lord – and they continued to do so for about five hundred years, right up until the time of Christ.  And perhaps it could be said that the humble appearance of the second Temple served as an unspoken warning to the people:  a warning about how the glory of God and his gracious presence could be lost to them again through their disobedience and unfaithfulness.

 

            But that was changing.  About ten years before the birth of Christ, King Herod the Great began an ambitious project to give the second Temple a major renovation.  An evil, paranoid, and self-absorbed man, he did it not because he was faithful to the Lord; but mostly to win the support of the religious leaders who in turn could influence the people in his favor.  So he annexed properties surrounding the Temple, significantly adding to its grounds.  And there he built lavish courts and colonnades, and a wide array of offices, quarters, dormitories, and other support buildings for the priests and their staffs.  And of course he worked on the main Temple itself.  Mind you, they didn’t take the old building down, they simply added to it.  They masked its crumbling, second rate limestone with a layer of marble, and over the front entrance they built a gigantic pillared façade that was about three times as wide as the Temple behind it.  It created the impression that there was a whole lot more there than there really was.

 

            By the time John began his ministry, the Temple upgrade project had been going on for over forty years.  You see, Herod the Great’s successors also saw the wisdom of keeping the priests and religious leaders if not on their side exactly, at least not openly antagonistic to them.  I mean if you can’t win someone’s heart, you can at least buy their cooperation.  This strategy served the Herod family well.  And so, over the years, the Temple and its surrounding complex grew step by step larger, grander, and more ornate.  But still hidden deep within its center, and now largely forgotten, was the five hundred year old humble eyesore that was the dwelling place of the Lord Most High.

 

            And let me suggest that the way the Temple had become, a shabby core that once reminded the people of their sin and its consequences now overlaid by layers of projects that substantially improved the outward appearance, that’s not a bad illustration of the spiritual condition of the people at that time.  Consider those who were the spiritual leaders and trendsetters. On one hand you had the Sadducees. They were the liberal-minded progressives of the day.  They didn’t take God’s Word very seriously.  They were quite open to allowing the culture and philosophy of the Greek world – along with its very lax view of morality – to infiltrate and usurp their teachings.  So they were pretty soft on God’s Law.  But they did like the ritual and pageantry of the Lord’s worship because it elevated them in the eyes of the people.  So in that sense they were all about the show of religious devotion, even if in their hearts they didn’t really believe much of it.  It’s important to note also that they also liked the business end of things – and the practice of religion in Jerusalem was big business.  And unfortunately under the Sadducees, who made up the vast majority of the priests, scribes, and religious authorities, it became a very corrupt business.

 

            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 Jerusalem.

 

            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 Jordan River.  He chooses this spot because this is where some fourteen hundred years earlier God’s people had crossed, coming out of their wilderness wandering to begin the conquest of the Promised Land.  This is where the Lord himself had miraculously made a way through the flood swollen river to allow them to begin to receive their inheritance.  And so by choosing this place John is making a statement.  He’s saying we need to start over.  Somewhere along the way we lost our sense of direction.  We lost our focus on what’s most important.  We’ve forgotten who and what we are.  And everything about John’s outward appearance says this too.  His rough clothing and ascetic lifestyle are displays of what true repentance is supposed to look like.  He wears on the outside what the repentant heart is supposed to feel within:  the discomfort of genuine contrition and sorrow over sin.

 

            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 Jordan to receive the sure sign of God’s forgiveness.

 

            Of course, John’s activities were not looked upon kindly by those in charge of religious affairs in Jerusalem.  Who was this upstart?  Who did he think he was?  And who gave him the authority to do what he was doing?  It mattered a great deal to them because John’s activities were cutting into both the revenue and the political and spiritual clout of the religious leaders on both sides.  They had to stop him.  And to do that, they needed to discredit him in the eyes of the people – that is to say, they needed to make him look bad.

 

            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!