“Since then your Majesty and your Lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” [i]
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saint’s Church, Wittenberg, in 1517, he sparked the Protestant Reformation right across Europe. On the 500th anniversary of that momentous event, in 2017, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a statement.
“The Reformation was a process of both renewal and division amongst Christians in Europe. In this Reformation Anniversary year, many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed. Amongst much else these would include clear proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible to all in their own language and the recognition of the calling of lay people to serve God in the world and in the church. Many will also remember the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love.”
The persecutions and killings especially against the Reformers was indeed lamentable and must be repudiated unequivocally. To kill or maim in the name of Christ can never, ever be justified. However, I do not share our beloved Archbishop’s view that the Reformation damaged the unity of the Church. Far from it, the Reformation ensured the unity of the Church rested where it should have always been. Those who laid the foundation for a reformed Church of England, men like Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and more than 300 other Bishops, clergy and laity were martyred. The refused to recant, insisting Christian unity rests in Christ alone, in Scripture alone, in grace alone and in faith alone. That is why in this anniversary year the words of the great Puritan reformer, Richard Baxter are timely,
“Alas! can we think that the reformation is wrought, when we cast out a few ceremonies, and changed some vestures, and gestures, and forms! Oh no, sirs’! it is the converting and saving of souls that is our business. That is the chiefest part of reformation, that doth most good, and tendeth most to the salvation of the people.” (Richard Baxter)
Dr Chris Wright spoke recently in Cairo Cathedral on the Reformation. He reminds us ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda.’ “The church must be continually under reformation, renewed by the Bible.” (Chris Wright) That is why I would like us to consider the brief ministry of John the Baptist. John may be considered both the last reformer and martyr of the Hebrew church and the first of the Christian church. Unlike many leaders today, John was not interested in unity with the Pharisees. He was not afraid to speak truth to power. He knew that true unity is based on truth not compromise. That “friendship with the world is enmity with God.” (James 4:4). John prepared the way for Jesus. He is a model for us too. We can observe:
To be faithful we must recognise who we are not.
To be fulfilled we must know who we are.
To be fruitful we must lead people to Jesus.
1. To be faithful we must recognise who we are not
“Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” (John 1:19-21)
John the Baptist drew large crowds out into the desert.
His preaching was contemporary and controversial.
Not surprisingly, he found himself on the radar of the religious authorities in Jerusalem. They sent a delegation to interrogate him. John was an enigma. “Who are you?” they asked. John responded by vigorously telling them who he was not. His reply in the Greek is most emphatic. John’s day was one of great Messianic expectation. Everyone was looking for the promised Messiah, and people began to speculate that perhaps John was the Messiah. “I am not,” he insisted. Whatever John was, he was certainly not the Christ. Well, “Are you Elijah?” they asked. That is not such a dumb question as it may sound. The prophet Malachi predicted that an Elijah figure would precede the coming of the Messiah.
“See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5).
Perhaps John was Elijah. After all, his appearance was similar. His message was similar. Elijah did not die. Was this Elijah returned? “I am not,” replies John. “Then are you the great Prophet?” Deuteronomy 18.15-19 speaks of a great prophet like Moses who would come and restore Israel.
This promise was understood to refer to a special end-times prophet. Again John insists emphatically, “No”. As a true witness, John recognized who he was not. His three-fold denial makes his witness clear.
The increasing bluntness of John’s answers cannot be missed. John seems to have had a dislike for even answering questions about himself. He recognized who he was not. But what about us? If we are going to be faithful servants, we must recognize who we are not. We must not get in the way of Jesus.
“Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” (John 13:16).
In case there was any doubt, Jesus repeats himself a little later. In John 15, Jesus reminds them,
“Remember what I told you: ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20)
Humility is not thinking less about yourself, it is thinking about yourself less. Pride is the greatest impediment to faithful service. How often are your sentences phrased as questions and how often as answers? How often are they giving orders instead of offering help? How often about yourself and how much about others. To be faithful servants we must recognise who we are not. John knew who he was not, do we?
2. To be a fulfilled we must know who we are
“Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” : John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ” (John 1:22-23)
Not content with John’s denials, they question him further, “If you are not any of these people, then who are you?” What is your role? What do you have to say about yourself? Show us your resume. But John did not flash his CV. He did not flatter himself or build his own name. He did not attempt to appear important. John knew who he was, because he knew his destiny from the Scriptures. “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness…” John knew his calling and purpose. To be a voice for God’s message. Think about it, a voice is temporary. The sound is fleeting. And that is John’s view of himself.
The message was more important than the messenger. John pointed people to Jesus, to lead people to Jesus, to introduce people to Jesus. And like John, that is our role too. John knew who he was. Do you know who you are? John knew his role from the Scriptures. Do you know yours? In Romans 12 Paul urges us to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought. There’s a reason we should not be arrogant.
“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” (Romans 12:3-8)
John was called to be a prophet to lead people to Jesus. What have you been called to be? We have each been called to serve in different ways in a local church. God has entrusted to us gifts and abilities for one purpose – to lead people to Jesus. To lead children to Jesus. To lead teenagers to Jesus. To lead students to Jesus. To lead singles to Jesus. To lead marrieds to Jesus. To lead yuppies to Jesus. To lead seniors to Jesus. To be faithful we must recognise who we are not. To be fulfilled we must know who we are.
3. To be a fruitful we simply lead people to Jesus
“Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. (John 1:25-26)
John was not afraid to tell these religious leaders they did not know God personally. The Son of God walked among them and they did not recognise him. Do you? There are at three things John tells them about Jesus.
3.1 John Proclaimed Jesus’ Greatness: A Majestic Lord
“He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie… This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” (John 1:27, 30)
Loosening another’s sandal was the most menial of tasks. Only the lowest slaves would loosen sandals. Even disciples were not asked to loosen the sandals of their teachers, yet John says, “I am unworthy to do the single most humbling task—loosen His sandals.” John stresses the one task that rabbinic Judaism taught was too menial for the disciple, and John emphasizes that he is unworthy to perform this humbling task. “I am unworthy to untie his sandals.” Why? Because of Jesus’ greatness. In simple reverence John conveys the profound truth that Jesus is the eternal, pre-existent one. Sometimes we can be over-familiar with Jesus. If John was unworthy to until the sandals of Jesus then… reverence is appropriate.
Jesus – before us as Creator, beneath us as Saviour, with us as friend, above us as Lord. John spoke of Jesus’ greatness. Jesus: the Majestic Lord.
3.2 John Predicted Jesus’ Sacrifice: The Lamb of God
“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
The imagery of the sacrificial lamb is tied closely to the Passover of the Old Testament and to Messianic prophecies such as Isaiah 53 which tell of the Suffering Servant. John’s hearers would have been in no doubt what John meant by this designation. The reason John was not worthy, the reason we are not worthy, is because our sin, like John’s, separates us from God. That is why Jesus came to die. To die as the ransom sacrifice, to bear our sin, to take away the sin of the entire world. Your sin. My sin. The sin that separates our family, our friends, even our enemies, from God also. When John says the Lamb of God “takes away” the sin of the world, it means that he gets rid of it. The sin is removed. It is pardoned. When we become a child of God, our sins are taken away. They are removed. They are pardoned. John’s message was,
Unambiguous – “Look, the Lamb of God.”
Unequivocal – “who takes away the sin.”
Universal – “of the world.”
“Look” said John. He pointed people to their Saviour. John spoke of Jesus’ greatness: the majestic Lord. John predicted Jesus’ sacrifice: the Lamb of God.
3.3 John Pronounced Jesus’ Deity: God’s Chosen One
“I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” (John 1:32-34)
John’s public testimony climaxes in his identification of Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus is the Son of God. He is divine. He is fully human yet fully God. He is the Chosen One, sent by God. He is the One who was with God and who is God. John testified to what he had seen. What he had experienced. That is all God expects of us. To tell others of what God has done for us, what God is doing in us, and what God will do in and through them too.
John proclaimed Jesus’ greatness. John predicted Jesus’ sacrifice. John pronounced Jesus’ deity.
A father and his small son were walking down the street past a construction site for a new skyscraper. Glancing up, they saw men at work on the high storey building. “What are those little boys doing up there?” asked the son. “Those are not boys, they are grown men,” replied the father. After a pause, the boy pondered, “I guess when they reach heaven there won’t be anything left of them.” The nearer we come to Jesus, the less others will see of us and the more they see of Him. That is what we learn from John the Baptist. To be a faithful we must recognise who we are not. But, to be fulfilled we must know who we are in Christ. And, above all, to be fruitful all we have to do is lead people to Jesus and let him do the rest. To His praise and glory. Amen.
With grateful thanks to Jerry Shirley and Devin Hudson, Charles Swindoll and Warren Wersbie for ideas and content used in this sermon.
[i] Martin Luther’s reply to the Diet of Worms, April 18, 1521