I’m not sure which school for aspiring politicians John the Baptist had attended, but he sure had a lot to learn about how to grab the limelight. We can imagine him participating in a modern election and being questioned by journalists at a press conference:
“So, John, are you the one we’ve been waiting for, the one who will defend our nation from terrorists and keep our streets safe from crime?”
“I am not”.
“Oh. Well, then, are you the one who who’ll solve the problem of poverty, who will make our society prosperous again, and do away with excessive taxation?”
“I am not”.
“Ah” (awkward silence). “Well, are you the one who will bring our nation back to traditional values? Are you the one who’ll remind us that we’re a Christian country, and enforce Christian standards in government?”
“I am not”.
“Well, John, what exactly are you planning to do if we vote for you?”
“Voting for me isn’t important. I’m the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’. He’s the one you really should be voting for; I’m just here to point you to him. He’s so much greater than me that I’m not even worthy to kneel down and tie his shoes for him”.
“Ah. So where’s his press conference, then?”
Now you might think this is a far-fetched comparison; after all, John was a prophet and a preacher, not a politician. But the truth is, that distinction would have been lost on the Old Testament prophets. They lived in a world in which religion and politics were completely intertwined, and they regularly meddled with issues like caring for the poor and needy, and trusting in God rather than wise foreign policy.
The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent, which we used last Sunday, goes like this:
Almighty God, who sent your servant John the Baptist to prepare your people to welcome the Messiah, inspire us, the ministers and stewards of your truth, to turn our disobedient hearts to you, that when the Christ shall come again to be our judge, we may stand with confidence before his glory; who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Notice the royal language in that Collect: ‘to prepare your people to welcome the Messiah… when the Christ shall come to be our judge’. ‘Messiah’ is a Hebrew word, ‘Christ’ is Greek, but they both mean the same thing: ‘the anointed one’. It was the custom to anoint kings with olive oil at their coronations as a sign of God’s power coming down on them to equip them for their role, so in a sense every king of Israel was a ‘messiah’. But like us, the Israelites got tired of crooked politicians who only ruled for their own benefit; they looked back to what they saw as the golden age, when David had been their king; they longed for the day when God would send them another king like him, who would rule in righteousness and justice, care for the poor and needy, defend Israel from their enemies, and truly set up the Kingdom of God on earth. This king would truly be ‘the Messiah’.
What were their expectations around his coming? It would be a day when the nations of the world would turn to the God of Israel and come streaming to Jerusalem to learn to live by his laws – a day when nations would beat their swords into ploughshares and there would be no more studying the arts of war – a day when the lion would lie down with the lamb – in other words, natural enemies, like Israel and Assyria, would be reconciled and live together in peace. Israel would be free from tyrants, the land would enjoy peace and prosperity, and orphans and widows and marginalized people would be safe under the Lord’s just and loving rule.
It would also be a year of Jubilee. The Torah says quite clearly that every fiftieth year, there is to be a Year of Jubilee in Israel: all debts are to be forgiven, all slaves set free, and – most importantly – all land is to revert to its original owners. The goal of this was to prevent one family accumulating great wealth at the expense of another; when God originally distributed the land, he did it equally, and every fifty years, it was to become equal again. Of course, you can guess that those who were at the top of the power structures in Israel did not like this law, and in fact there is no evidence that it was ever followed. But it was right there in the Law of Moses, and the prophets reminded people of it regularly. It was right there in our Old Testament reading for this morning. Let me remind you of it:
‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn’ (Isaiah 61:1-2).
Did you hear it? ‘To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. That’s the year of Jubilee, the year when the captives are to be set free and the oppressed are to be liberated.
It was an attractive and compelling vision; who wouldn’t vote for a politician who promised all that! No wonder the crowds were so excited when John the Baptist announced, ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand’! The easiest way to get followers in the time of Jesus was to start using this kind of language. It was such a tempting way to gain power; you can be sure that if someone in those days was asked, ‘Are you the Messiah?” it would be rather unusual for them to say, “No”!
Even today, of course, there is no shortage of Messianic candidates for political office, people who are sure they’re on a mission from God to save the world. Our politicians tend to use Messianic language at election time, and we have Messianic expectations of them. In fact, it would be hard to get elected these days without using that kind of language. Just think about the kind of things that were said when Barack Obama was elected as the first black president of the United States; King Arthur himself couldn’t have measured up to that set of expectations! And even in our quieter Canadian political climate, aspiring governments on left and right constantly imply that if we vote for them, Camelot is just around the corner, but if we vote for their opponents, it’s the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!
So the first thing John the Baptist wants us to know is this: “there’s only one Messiah, and I’m not him”. The writer of the fourth gospel is very clever about how he uses language, and this is a good example. In this Gospel, Jesus is always saying, “I am”. “I am the Good Shepherd”, “I am the Light of the World”, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”, “Before Abraham was, I am”. People who were familiar with the Jewish scriptures would have seen the significance of this right away; in the Old Testament, the name of God is ‘Yahweh’, or traditionally ‘Jehovah’, which means, “I am”.
But in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the only one who uses this language; he’s the only one who can say, “I am the Messiah”. Everyone else says, “I am not”. John the Baptist says, “I am not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet”. The only one who is qualified to be the true Messiah is Jesus.
That’s why Jesus used that Old Testament reading from Isaiah as his text in his first sermon in Nazareth. Do you remember it? Luke tells us that he stood up in the synagogue in his hometown, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him, and he read these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21).
In other words, he is the one who can truly say he has come to change the world.
Back in the 1970s Bruce Cockburn wrote a song called ‘Laughter’. One of the verses went like this:
Let’s hear a laugh for the man of the world
who thinks he can make things work.
Tried to build the New Jerusalem
and ended up with New York.
The ‘man of the world’ has always done that – tried to build the Messianic Kingdom without the true Messiah – tried to build the Kingdom of justice and peace by using injustice and war. The true Messiah is too demanding, so we need to find someone else who’ll do the job in his place, someone who won’t demand that we sell our possessions and give to the poor, or love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. But it’s a very rare leader who has the courage to say, “No, I’m not the one. Let me point you to the true Messiah, the one you really need to be following; his way is the only way that’s really going to change the world’.
We Christians are called to follow the example of John the Baptist: to insist that there is only one Messiah, and it’s not us or any other earthly leader; it’s Jesus. John was not the Messiah: he was a witness, and a voice. Look at what he says about himself in today’s gospel reading; quoting from Isaiah 40, he says,
I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ (John 1:23).
Earlier on in the chapter we read,
(John) came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:7-9).
John was a voice crying out in the wilderness, and he was a witness to testify to the light of the world, Jesus himself.
So we go back to our collect for last Sunday: ‘Almighty God, who sent your servant John the Baptist to prepare your people to welcome the Messiah’. That’s what we’re being called to do this Advent, and every Advent: to welcome the true Messiah. We do this in three ways.
First, we refuse to listen to false Messiahs who propose alternative ways to find peace and happiness. The truth is that war and politics won’t solve the problems of the world. Those problems will only be solved by love in action, and that’s not a political program, it’s a program of transformation that asks every one of us to change our hearts toward God and our neighbours. That’s what Jesus taught us.
At this time of year we are bombarded by the voices of economic messiahs telling us to buy, buy, buy, because that’s the way to be happy. But it’s our role as Christians to say ‘no’ to this enormous commercial hoopla. This is not the way Jesus taught us! How did we get the idea that the way to celebrate the birth of the one who told us to sell our possessions and give to the poor was to go out and participate in an annual festival of extravagance and greed?
So we refuse to listen to these false Messiahs. Secondly, we give our obedience to the true Messiah, Jesus. By his life and teaching, he has shone a brilliant light into the darkness of the world. Our role as his followers is to let that light transform us, because the same Jesus who said “I am the light of the world” also said to his followers “You are the light of the world”. He taught us to quit concentrating on things, and to seek first the Kingdom of God instead. He taught us to forgive those who sin against us, love our enemies and pray for them. He taught us to live simple lives with only a few possessions, and to give generously to the needy. He taught us to speak the truth, keep our promises, love God with all our hearts and be a neighbour to all in need. This is the program for us disciples of Jesus. To become a Christian is to enrol in a school of discipleship. The gospels, and especially the Sermon on the Mount, give us the curriculum. Do you think there’s enough there for us to work on? I think there is!
So we refuse to listen to false Messiahs, and we give our obedience to the true Messiah. Lastly, like John the Baptist, we give our witness about Jesus to others.
He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:7-9).
My witness to you today is that the only way I can make sense of life in this crazy world is to follow Jesus. In his words and his example, I find the light of God. And so I want to share his story with others and encourage them to come to his light as well. That’s my role as a disciple of Jesus. Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people”. The first part, ‘follow me’, leads inevitably to the second part, fishing for people; it’s an integral part of being a follower of Jesus.
I am not the Messiah, neither are you, and neither is the Church. The only Messiah is Jesus. So let’s give our allegiance to him, live by his light, and spread it to others. Amen.