Text: John 1:19-28
It wasn’t just a simple fact-finding mission when the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to John. By then, he had, for a little while, been baptizing with water for repentance and forgiveness of sins and preaching about the coming of the Messiah. Many people heard John’s preaching and believed. St. Matthew recorded that, “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and, they were baptized by John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” A lot of people were listening to John, and that made the powers-that-be in Jerusalem, namely, the high priest, nervous. So, a learned delegation of priests and Levites were sent to figure out what’s up with John.
This wasn’t just a simple fact-finding mission. It was a “get on board or get out” sort of situation. The delegation from Jerusalem wanted John to one of two things: either a) claim to be the Messiah (and, thus, make them the ones who found him); or, b) fall in line – as in, stop baptizing. John was faced with both flattery and threats, which were aimed at making him deny Christ. But, by God’s grace, St. John reports, “[John] confessed, and did not deny.” As with the Baptist, we, too are called to confess our faith in Christ. Though we often fail, by Christ’s faithfulness we are forgiven.
We heard a few weeks back at our first midweek service about the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth. In Malachi chapter 4, the last chapter of the Old Testament, God promised that He would send Elijah ahead of the Christ, to prepare His way by turning the hearts of fathers to their children and the disobedient to wisdom. While the priest Zechariah was ministering in the temple, Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his wife would bear a son, whose name was to be John, and who would be filled with the Holy Spirit. Their son would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah. He would, “make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” John did do this, by preaching the Law and Gospel, and by baptizing with water.
The secular historian Josephus tells us that the Baptist amassed a large following. Many people were hearing his words and being baptized in expectation of the Messiah. This large number made the chief priest nervous. So, he sent a delegation of trained men to shut John down. First, they tried by flattery. St. Luke tells us that everyone there was wondering if John was, indeed, the Messiah himself. The delegation from Jerusalem asked him, “Who are you?” John confessed, and did not deny; “I am not the Christ,” he said. That’s a shame. Had he claimed to be the Christ, the delegation would have gladly accepted him – what, with his large following, and they now becoming the ones who found the Messiah. They went on to offer John lesser titles, the position of Elijah and prophet. He simply says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
The delegation first tried to stop John by flattering him. If he claimed to be the Messiah, they would’ve taken it. But, if he claimed to be the Messiah, that would be denying Jesus. When flattery didn’t work, the gloves came off. They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” They mean, if John isn’t the Christ, or Elijah, or a prophet – then he better fall in line. Baptism and preaching belongs to the priests and Levites, not John. But, he would not be deterred. John confessed, “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.” John himself later explained why God sent him to baptize in the first place. He said, “for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
It wasn’t just a fact-finding mission when that delegation was sent to John. They were under orders to get him to stop or, otherwise, bend the knee. But, to do so would be to deny Christ. By God’s grace, John did not deny, but made a good confession of his faith. There are times (dare I say, many) where we have not fared so well. The devil brings to bear against us the same tactics he used against John. He uses flattery and threats to get us to deny the faith and, often, is sucessful. By flattery, I mean, all the things in the world that feel good that we would rather do than go to church or study God’s Word. Think about it. When we miss Church or Bible study – other than because of illness or mobility issues – most often it’s because we’re doing something “fun.” Family, sports, and sleeping, are all good things, but they can be and are used to get us away from God’s Word and Sacraments. A lot of the time we don’t think about that way, do we?
If the pleasures of the world don’t work, then the devil will use threats. Maybe the way we experience this most is by peer pressure. They always say not to talk religion at family gatherings; why? Well, fights. We don’t want fights, so we don’t talk about Jesus. Guess who wins there. It’s the same in the workplace. If you go out to eat and pray with your family, do you pray as you normally would or hushed? This is to say nothing of threats and actual physical violence that are used against our brothers and sisters all around the world. The devil uses worldly pleasures and threats to get us to deny our faith by action or omission, and we have done it.
St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “If we have died with [Christ], we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful— for He cannot deny Himself.” St. Paul reminded Timothy that, as we have been buried with Christ in Baptism, we also live with Him. And, though we live with Christ, since we are in the flesh, we remain sinners as well. By our sins, we act as if we were faithless. Thankfully, our faithlessness does not undo Christ’s faithfulness. Though we should fall to temptation and sin and fail to make the good confession, Christ remains faithful.
He was faithful throughout His whole course on earth. He remained faithful to God’s Word and Law at every point. He was tempted in every way as we are, yet remained steadfast. He was not swayed by flattery nor by threats of violence. Even before Pilate, who claimed authority to crucify or release Him, Jesus confessed His identity and mission. Jesus remained faithful even unto death and, by His death, secured for us salvation. In Baptism we have died with Christ, and now live with Him. Though we now live in Him, we remain in the flesh and are given to bouts of unfaithfulness. We often fail to live out and confess our faith beyond these walls. Nevertheless, He remains faithful – for He cannot deny Himself, or us. Today, we remember and give thanks for this. In His faithfulness, Jesus remembered His promise to save His people, even by becoming flesh for us in the manger. The Lord grant us the same grace as John the Baptist, that we also, when faced with temptation, would also be good witnesses of Him.