7 “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? Did you go out to see a a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’ 11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women … no one (is) greater than John the Baptist; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than (John)… For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Matthew 11:7-15 (Selections)
There once was a man who made the best buggy-whips in the world. His buggy-whips were so beautiful and well made that he made them long after all the other buggy-whip makers had gone out of business. Eventually, he, too, went out of business, because the automobile replaced the horse and buggy, and buggy-whips were no longer needed.
John the Baptist is like the man who made buggy-whips. He is one of the most famous heroes in the New Testament, but John is not a New Testament prophet. He is the last of the Old Testament prophets who pointed to the coming of the Messiah, and to the arrival of the Messiah; but, unlike us, John was never a disciple of the Messiah.
According to Jesus, John was the prophet about whom Isaiah had spoken, who would prepare the way of the Lord, and make his paths strait. (Matthew 11:10; Isaiah 40:3) According to Jesus, John was Elijah, about whom Malachi had spoken, who would come before the great and terrible day of the Lord, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers. (Matthew 11:14; Malachi 4:5-6) According to Jesus no one born of a woman was greater than John, but the one who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John. (Matthew 11:11)
What made John so great in his day?
1. John was a powerful preacher who refused to compromise his message.
John preached a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. According to the Rabbis who lived in the time of John, repentance consisted of at least three things: 1) confession of sin, 2) a renunciation of sin, and 3) a change of behavior.
People came out to John from all Judea and from Jerusalem to be baptized by him in the River Jordan. Even some of the Pharisees and Sadducees came out to be baptized by John. When he saw them he said:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, 9 and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
In the time of John and before, some of the Rabbis taught that when the kingdom of God arrived in power, not even one child of Abraham, that is, not even one Jew would be left outside. John taught that every Jew, even the most religious, would be judged not on the basis of his or her ancestry, but on the basis of his or her life.
John made no exceptions, not even for the titular Jewish “king,” Herod Antipas. (Herod was Tetrarch under Caesar Luke 3:1)
John rebuked Herod for marrying his half-brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. According to Jewish Law, Herodias was still the wife of Philip. That meant that she was not just Herod’s wife, but also the Herod’s sister-in-law. That is just the beginning. Herodias was also the daughter Herod’s older, half-brother, Aristob-u-lus. That means Herodias was Herod’s wife, and Herod’s sister-in-law, and Herod’s niece. And what about Salome—whom history tells us was the daughter of Herodias? Under the Jewish law she was Herod’s grandniece, and Herod’s niece, and also Herod’s stepdaughter. The New Testament also indicates that Herod had an unhealthy fascination with her. All this was a travesty under the Law of Moses, and John the Baptist simply could not ignore it. He called out Herod and Herodias, and urged them to repent.
Jesus said that John was Elijah who was to come. I wonder if Herod ever made the same comparison. Herod’s ancestor, the evil King Ahab, once saw Elijah and said, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” And Elijah responded, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house. (1st Kings 18:17)
2. John was a practical preacher who taught people how to live a new life.
The multitudes that came out to be baptized by John asked him what they should do differently. John answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” This is a powerful saying. Just last week a member of this congregation made a high risked loan because she remembered this saying. Tax collectors were a hard case. They asked, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Likewise, soldiers came out to be baptized, and they also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14)
I think it is interesting that John did not ask tax collectors to stop collecting taxes. Nor did he ask soldiers to lay down their arms. He said that it was enough for them to do what they did honestly, and fairly, and mercifully.
St. Luke records that John the Baptist preached a three part message: 1) he preached human repentance and divine forgiveness, 2) he preached stewardship, and 3) he preached the arrival of Jesus Christ!
Jesus was all about forgiveness and grace, but Jesus also had a lot to say about stewardship. Sixteen of his thirty-eight parables are concerned with how to handle money and possessions. The Synoptic Gospels contain c. 2,900 verses. Roughly one in ten, deals directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers c. 500 verses on prayer, and less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.
A lot of people tell me that they believe the Bible from cover to cover. The Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, teaches the tithe; and Jesus approved it, when he said that the doctors of the law should tithe mint, and dill, and cumin without neglecting the weightier matters of the law like justice, mercy, and faith. (Matthew 23:23) Therefore it surprises me that, according to a very respected polling organization, only 9 percent of American Christians tithe, giving 10 percent or more of their income to God. Taken as a whole we American Christians give only about 2.5 percent of our disposable income to the church, or some other charitable organization. God wants us to be a V8 and we are hitting on two cylinders. That means we are functioning at ¼ capacity. What might we accomplish if we listened to the prophet Malachi through whom God said, “Bring the full tithes into the store house, and thereby put me to the test, and see if I do not open the windows of heaven and pour down an abundant blessing upon you.” (Malachi 3:10)
3. John was modest. He knew his place in the world: he knew he was the one who came to announce the arrival of the Messiah, but he knew he was not the Messiah.
The text of the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel declares that when the disciples of the Pharisees asked John if he was the Christ, “He confessed, he did not deny but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” And when they asked him if he was Elijah, he said, “I am not.”
Why did John deny being Elijah when Jesus said that John was Elijah? Perhaps John denied being Elijah, because John he did not want people to think that “the great and terrible day of the LORD,” predicted by the Prophet Malachi was already upon them. John regarded that terrible day as still future, as did the author of the 4th Gospel. (See Note 1)
When John denied that he was Elijah, the delegation from Jerusalem continued to press John about his identity, saying, “What do you say about yourself?” John responded:
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:23)
Then 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 whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:24-27)
Then the very next day, John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said:
29 “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me …this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ ” (See Note 2) John 1:29-34 (Selections)
Before Jesus stepped on the stage, John had been a burning and shinning light, and people were content to bask in his light (John 5:35); but Jesus was the true light that enlightens everyone. (John 1:5) Once John had pointed to Jesus the Messiah, John’s own luster started to fade.
In John 4 we read that even the disciples of John saw his departing glory. They came to him and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, is now baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered:
“No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can bear witness that I said, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.” He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
What is true of Jesus and John is true of Jesus and us. He must increase, but we must decrease. Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it; but whoever looses his life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35) Jesus said, “Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24) There are three choices in every situation the church faces: My way, your way, and God’s way. When we seek God’s way, together, we produce much fruit. He must increase, but we must decrease.
4. John had moments of doubt.
St. Luke tells us that to all the evil things that Herod had done, he added this to them: He shut John up in prison. (Luke 3:20)
When John was in Herod’s dungeon—a dark and dismal place, he sent a delegation of his disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are you him who is to come or should we look for another?” In that hour Jesus did many remarkable things. Then he answered them:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:21-22)
Some people think that faith means never knowing doubt. They think that faith means always being on top, and believing that the absolute best will come out of every situation. The truth is that faith often means living with doubt, and continuing to do the thing that God has called us to do, day after day, and year after year, long after the novelty and adventure has worn off. One of the most important texts of scripture declares, “Let us not grow weary in doing well!” (Galatians 6:9)
You all know the name of Mother Teresa. She worked for many years in the slums of Calcutta to comfort the dying. When asked how she hoped to help so many, she responded, “One at a time.” After the death of Mother Teresa, they found her journals, in which she expressed her struggle before God. She said that she never really received the revelation and comfort of God, which she sought. Some critics immediately said, “That proves it! If God did not reveal himself to mother Teresa, then there can be no God!” I say, “That proves it! If mother Teresa can continue to work year, after year, relying on nothing but her faith, long after the novelty and adventure has worn off, then there must be a God, for no one can manufacture faith like that, it must be a gift.” As apostle says: “faith is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)
I once asked Bishop Wayne Burkette what he hoped to achieve in life. He said, “I hope to attain the place where I can say of God what Job said of God, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.’” (Job 13:15) That is always the goal of faith.
5. John finished his course.
According to Matthew and Mark, John rotted away in Herod’s dungeon until the day that Salome, Herod’s grandniece, niece, and stepdaughter danced before Herod and his guest. Salome was so impressive that Herod impetuously offered her anything she wanted, even to half his kingdom. She asked her mother, Herodias, what she should ask for. Herodias said, “Ask for the head of John the Baptist.” She did. Herod hated to do it, because he was fascinated by John, but he was afraid to back down in front of his guests, so he ordered it done. Salome received the grizzly gift on a platter, and she took it to her mother.
Of course, that was not the end of the story. John haunted Herod’s dreams for the rest of his life, and when Herod heard about Jesus, and all the wonders that he performed, he feared that Jesus was John come back to life. (Luke 9:9)
He was one of many. Perhaps you remember the question of Jesus to his disciples: “Who do men say that I am?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, and other say Elijah, or one of the prophets.” And then he asked, “And who do you say that I am?” And Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:16) As great a light as John was, the difference in John and Jesus is the difference between night and day. John was the herald, but Jesus was the king. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus died for our sins, and rose again to give us a future and a hope of eternal life in the kingdom of God.
Jesus once compared himself with John saying:
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Matthew 11:18-19
What does that mean? It means if you don’t like John, chances are you won’t like Jesus, and if you like John, chances are you will like Jesus.
Note 1: When the Revelation of St. John the Divine was written, the prophet of Revelation was still looking for the arrival of Elijah. Many scholars identify Elijah with one of the prophets who appear in the last days, who prophesies, and stop the rain, and who are killed, and then lie in the streets of Jerusalem for three days, before being taken up into heaven themselves. (Revelation 11)
Note 2: John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Mark’s gospel, John baptizes Jesus without objection. In Matthew, John objects, saying that he ought to be baptized by Jesus. Jesus says that he is submitting to the Baptism of John so that all righteousness might be fulfilled. Righteousness is the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship. If Jesus is going to take our place on the cross he takes his place with us in baptism. John gives a second reason for Jesus’ submitting to the baptism of John. John himself says that he came baptizing that Jesus might be revealed to Israel. In Matthew and in John we are presented with two good reasons why a sinless Christ would submit to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.