Summary: Christmas Sermon - Which Jesus do you want for Christmas
I have a secret to tell you. I’ve picked out a present for my wife, Linda. I am getting her a beautiful 2 caret diamond ring in a platinum setting. It looks great! I admit that it isn’t exactly what she asked for, but I searched and searched on-line and just couldn’t find anywhere where I could get a fake dishwasher.
Whenever I read this passage about John the Baptist, I can’t help but think of that children’s book by P.D. Eastman. You know the one that I am talking about. It’s called “Are You my Mother?” and is about a little bird who hatches while mom is off looking for worms. The baby goes from animal to animal asking “Are you my mother?”. Instead in this passage we have John asking Jesus, “Are you the one?”.
On first reading it seems that John doubts that Jesus is the promised Messiah and is seeking reassurance. In a way, that seems understandable. John was in the infamous Macherus prison and probably understood that he would soon be executed. The New Testament account indicates that John was imprisoned because of his opposition to the marriage of Herod and Herodias. Herodias had been married to Herod’s brother, but both Herodias and Herod had divorced their spouses so that they could marry each other. The end of that story is the whole dance of the seven veils thing with Herodias’ daughter Salome, leading to John’s beheading.
Let’s take a step back. Who was this Baptizer anyway. We actually are introduced to John before he is born. Do you remember the story in the beginning of Luke? A pregnant Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who happens to be pregnant with John. John, from the womb, recognizes that Mary carries the Messiah and leaps for joy.
While one might expect that these two young men who are the same age, who are relatives, and who both possess a deep faith and commitment to piety would have had other contacts with each other, but we hear nothing of that. Maybe they did spend time with each other, but the next encounter that is recorded for us is at Jesus’ baptism. That was last week’s story. You will recall God’s voice saying “This is my beloved Son” and God’s Spirit descending on Jesus. John was a witness to that.
In the mean time, John was of in the wilderness somewhere wearing Camel Hair (sounds itchy to me) and eating locusts and honey. He was also proclaiming a baptism of repentance and had a substantial following. We know that the disciples of John the Baptist continued as a distinct group even well after the beginnings of the early church. We even read about John in histories of the time, totally apart from his relationship with Jesus.
In particular, the historian Josephus gives us more of the story about John. Judea was under the control of the Romans. The Romans had installed Herod’s father in his office. It was that Herod, using Rome’s money who rebuilt the Jewish Temple. He also built a Roman military garrison overlooking the Temple so that no insurrection could begin there. The priests at the sacred Temple were viewed by John as collaborators with Rome because they were required to swear that they had no king but Caesar in order to be allowed to serve. The Romans even kept possession of the priests’ robes at the garrison so that they could make sure that only acceptable priests could serve. Think of the contrast represented by John. No priestly robes, just camel hair. No temple, just the desert. John made clear that it was far better to worship humbly than to have all the trappings of religion while bound to do Rome’s bidding.
John saw his people as subjugated, not just politically, but spiritually as well. He wanted to restore the Jewish faith, and in the process prepare the way for the Messiah. John’s baptism was an outward demonstration of an inward purification. It was for those who had committed in their hearts to be the people of God, not just in name, but in life-changing reality. In baptism, they were ceremonially cleansing themselves from the external corruption of their day-to-day world.
Jesus is certainly correct when he says that John was no “reed blowing in the wind.” John was a man of strong conviction and fully prepared to die for that conviction. How could he be questioning if Jesus is the Messiah? I don’t that that was really his question.
Something that is little understood is that Jews of the first century were deeply conflicted about the nature of the Messiah. There were some passages that were clearly messianic and pointed toward the establishment of new Kingdom of God. But, other passages pointed toward a Messiah who would suffer for others. How could both happen? Some saw the kingly passages as referring to the Messiah and the suffering passages as referring to the righteous remnant of the people of Israel. Others actually thought that there would be two Messiahs. The kingly Messiah was called Messiah ben David while the sufferer was called Messiah ben Joseph. I think that John’s question was not so much “Are you the Messiah?” but “What sort of Messiah are you?”. “Are you the kind of Messiah who will overthrow the Romans and set me free? Are you the one that I am looking for? Are you the one whom I need?”