“John the Baptist - The Herald”
December 23, 2012
When the fulfillment of all things arrives, he should be pointed to!
I. He Fulfills Longing - Luke 1:5-25
II. He Fulfills Scripture – Luke 1:57-80
III. He Points to the King – Malachi 4:5-6, John 1:19-34, John 3:25-30
The three Narnia movies made so far have been somewhat disappointing, and more so as they have gone along. But they have gotten some things right, and more than a few hints of the magic of C.S. Lewis have shown through. The second movie, Prince Caspian, for example, drifted far from the simple story Lewis told. But it did capture the tension of looking for Aslan in the midst of a changed world. The children from the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe arrive in a Narnia that is under siege, and in which the powers of Aslan seem to have vanished, so that he is only a myth or legend. Only Lucy continues to seek Aslan, and expect his help. And so she is the only one who catches glimpses of him as they travel through Narnia. One of these episodes occurs on the steep banks of a river where Peter led them expecting to find a bridge:
"Aslan? It's Aslan! It's Aslan over there! Can't you see? He's right . . . . there." "Do you see him now?" "I'm not crazy. He was there. He wants us to follow him." "I'm sure there are any number of lions in this wood, just like that bear." "I think I know Aslan when I see him." Lucy illustrates something we're going to learn today from the birth and life of John the Baptist: when the fullness of the promises begins to come, those who believe should point to him. The fullness of promise is not an event; he's a person. And when that person, Jesus, comes we should point to him as John the Baptist did.
As we have studied these babies of promise this Christmas season, looking at those whose births punctuated God's promises to his people, you may have noticed that there are two kinds of mothers. The first are those who are infertile, and who believe they cannot have a baby. Sarah, Abrahams wife, was one of these; so was Hannah, Elkanah's wife, who gave birth to the prophet Samuel.
The other kind is the mother who has no problem having a baby, but who is in a desperate situation which makes that baby something very special. Moses was born in such a situation, and he was rescued from the hands of the Egyptians so that God might show his power to rescue, then to redeem his people from slavery in Egypt, and ultimately to rescue us, in slavery to sin. In the same way Obed was born to Ruth, who was in a desperate situation of widowhood, poverty and childlessness, and who needed a redeemer to rescue her, so that she could give birth to this child of the promise.
In the Christmas story, we have one of each kind of mother. Elizabeth whose son John is the subject of our thinking today, was old and barren and felt she could not possibly have a son. But God is a God of unexpected rescue, and he sends her a son in today's texts.
Mary, on the other hand, whose child we will think about tomorrow night, was not even married, yet she like Ruth and like God's people in Egypt, represented a nation in desperate need of God's rescue, not only from the Romans, but as well, still, from the slavery of sin.
I. He Fulfills Longing - Luke 1:5-25
The account of John the Baptist begins in Luke 1. In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7But they had no child; Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. This childless couple yearns for the Lord to provide them a child, but they may now be past yearning.
Then one day while Zachariah is acting as priest before God's altar, an angel appears, the angel Gabriel, and says that Zacharias' prayer has been heard. But it's possible this prayer was not so much any longer a prayer for a child, as a prayer for rescue, a redeemer from sin and from the oppression under which God's people suffered. So Gabriel first promises a son, who should be named John, but then he makes promises which link this baby to promises of the Old Testament: And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.
So Zachariah is told this baby will be one who turns to people of Israel to God, who helps them prepare for the Lord to do what he has promised. The angels' words not only describe John the Baptist as a forerunner, and one who will point to Jesus, but explicitly describe him as working in the spirit and power of Elijah, quoting from the last book of the Old Testament to indicate the beginning of the fulfillment of God's age long promises.
Malachi chapter 4 looks forward to the great day of the Lord - and the Old Testament ends with these words: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
The key message any reader would glean from this account, and anyone witnessing that birth would have suspected, is that the time has come, that the day of the Lord was at hand, and that the fulfillment of God's promises was near.
John's arrival was like a trumpet sounding in the silent years, like a light breaking forth in darkness. It was like Lucy's glimpse of Aslan, and her desire to point others to him. But like Lucy's brother and sister, verses 18-20 show that Zechariah had trouble believing this; as a result he was told he'd be unable to speak until the baby was born. When he went home, his wife Elizabeth after all these long years was finally able to conceive. And she sees this as God's faithfulness to her; to rescue her from the reproach of childlessness.
II. He Fulfills Scripture – Luke 1:57-80
Luke then goes on to describe the visit of the angel Gabriel to the other mother, to Mary, but in verses 57-80 he comes back to the birth of this baby. When that time came, Elizabeth give birth to the promised son; her neighbors and relatives rejoiced with her. But when they came to circumcise him, she gave him the name John. They said 'no one in the family has that name!'. So they asked Zechariah and he wrote 'His name is John.' This act of faithfulness on Zechariah's part was what it took to restore his speech. He had, I'm convinced, been composing his song for months, preparing for this moment.
But he does not, immediately, speak about his son. Verse 68: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old. He's speaking of fulfillment of the promises to David. But he was not of David's line, nor was Elizabeth. The son she had given birth to was not the fulfillment of these promises.
Verse 71: that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; 72to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. God's people had been oppressed for centuries, by Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and most recently by the Romans. They longed for rescue.
But only in verse 76 does Zechariah speak about his newborn son: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, 78because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
John will not only fulfill Malachi's prophecies, but also Isaiah's: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain."
Clearly Zachariah has been given prophetic insight into the life of his own child, and he sees that he is one who will go before the Lord to make known the salvation that God was preparing in Jesus. And specifically salvation in the forgiveness of sins because of God's mercy and because of the light of Jesus that is coming into the darkness and into the shadow of death to bring peace.
What are we seeing? Zechariah prophetically confirms that the Messiah will come from the line of David, and provide salvation through forgiveness of sins. Zechariah expected political rescue from the hand of Israel's enemies, but he expected more. And he expected his son to be the one who would reveal that rescue, would prepare the way, go before the Messiah, announce his coming and turn the hearts of the people to the rescue work to come. John would be the one who would point to Jesus. In the same way Lucy was to be the one who would point her brothers and sister to Aslan.
The movie differs from the book at this key point; in the movie the others never get to see him at all, but in the book, after Lucy encounters Aslan, she must persuade her brothers and Susan to follow her following him. And gradually they begin to see the one she is pointing to. First Edmund: "Look," he said in great excitement, "Look, what's that shadow crawling down in front of us." "It's His shadow," said Lucy. "I do believe you're right," said Edmund. "I can't think how I didn't see it before. But where is he?" "With His shadow, of course. Can't you see him." "Well, I thought I did, for a moment."
Later Edmund sees Aslan clearly, and Peter starts to see his shadow. Last is Susan, who has been most vocal against following the unseen: "Lucy," said Susan in a very small voice. "Yes," said Lucy. "I see him now. I'm sorry."
III. He Points to the King – Malachi 4:5-6, John 1:19-34, John 3:25-30
So Lucy is the one who points others to Aslan. And John's mission would be to point others to Jesus. He was not the Messiah. He was the one who was sent before him to prepare way, to turn people's hearts toward him, and to declare that he was coming and that he had in fact arrived. Looking at his ministry in the Gospels, we find that is exactly what he did. John 1 tells us that "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light." And later in the chapter, after John has begun his ministry of baptism, he is asked "Who are you?" and he says “I am not the Christ.” So they ask him “Are you Elijah?” “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” “No.” So they said to him, “We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
His answer is straight out of Isaiah 40, the same chapter his father alluded to in Luke 1. By the way, when John says that he is not Elijah, he is being correct. It is clear from scripture, including the Scriptures we already read, that they should have been expecting not Elijah, but one who would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. John was Elijah in that sense, as Jesus will later affirm.
So, as John was baptizing in the Jordan he saw Jesus coming to him, recognized him as the one he had been waiting to point to and said “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
Notice John's key affirmation "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." This is, again, something he had already heard in the record of his father's prophecy, that he, John, would go before the Lord to point at the one who would come from heaven to bring forgiveness of sins and salvation. We shouldn't be surprised that John affirms this, nor that he repeats himself. The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples and he looked to Jesus as he walked by and said "Behold, the lamb of God."
John's role, which he fully embraced, was to prepare the way, to point to one who would be Redeemer and Savior, the fulfillment of all God's promises. In the same way, we are to be people who point to Jesus. Like Lucy in Narnia, we who believe in to see him must also be those who point others toward him.
I think of the example of Tim Tebow, who it seems has sincerely and consistently pointed to Jesus. Whether he's winning games in almost miraculous fashion, as he did last year with the Denver Broncos, or losing and being injured, and being maligned in the press, as he has this year with the New York Jets, he still points to Jesus as his source of comfort strength and blessing. Whether it's taking a knee to pray, or pointing his finger to the sky, or painting a Bible verse under his eyes, or speaking to the press, he tries to display Jesus, the center of his life. He wants others to know Jesus and his blessing.
And each of us has the opportunity to point others to God. This may be as simple as asking someone how you can pray for them, or as profound as telling them the good news about Jesus. It could be meeting needs for shelter and for food, which we've been trying to do this week as part of Family Promise.
It could be pursuing rescue, as we saw last week when we talked about human trafficking. Or it could be giving quiet comfort for those hurting or doubting, as so many were after last week's tragedy. In each case we have a need, an obligation, to point to others to Jesus. John said we are not the light; Jesus is the true light who came into the world to rescue, save the people from sin.
So what I'm saying today is very simple. Be like John, the baby of promise, whose role was forerunner and pointer: Say 'behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.' Say 'let me tell you about Jesus who can rescue you from this doubt, this despair, this distress, this distraction, this sinful world, and your sinful self.' John was a trumpet, a herald, sounding forth the good news of salvation coming in Jesus. Now we should be trumpets, sounding the good news, sounding the note clearly that God has come to rescue his people, to be redeemer, to be king and to be God-with-us.
We see this truth profoundly in the last episode of John's life. John 3:25-30 Now a discussion about purification arose between some of John’s disciples and the Jews. 26And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29The one 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 complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
"I'm not the Messiah; I am the one sent before the Messiah to make him known." "I'm not the bridegroom; I'm the friend of the bridegroom who rejoices when the bridegroom comes to rescue and redeem his bride. And he speaks most profoundly to us and for us in verse 30: therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase but I must decrease. As I've said often, this is the model for our lives. It may take our whole lives to fully embrace it, but we can never give up: Jesus must increase we must decrease. He must have more and more, greater and greater control and influence and impact in our lives, and we must have less and less self and selfishness and sin in our lives.
Twenty five years ago some of us knew I guy named Lyle Johnson, who was at that time the youth pastor and worship leader at Clear Lake Bible Church. He wrote some great songs, some of which he put on an album called Sail Away - you can still get it online. And one of those songs, called 'More of Thee' captures, I think, a key to the imitation of John the Baptist. We need to have more of him in our lives by giving all of ourselves to him:
More of Thee, Oh, my Father I need more of Thee. It's so clear to me, that I need more of Thee, more of Thee. Fill me; I'm so hungry and so thirsty. Feed me, Oh, dear Jesus, I need more of Thee, more of Thee. And in my time of desperate need, hear me, Lord, as I plead for more of Thee; I need more of Thee" And a little later he says "I'm empty; I am nothing unless You fill me; It's all vanity, God, unless You control me. So more of me, Now I give You Spirit more of me; No - no, all of me Nothing less, take all of me; Only then will I know, divine contentment deep in my soul, For I'll have more of Thee; Oh, Lord, more of Thee; I need more of Thee; I need more - more of Thee"
So what have we said? God is sending these babies to punctuate the fulfillment of his promises. John is an exclamation point! He points to Jesus, he prepares the way, he says there is the Lamb of God, and he says he must increase.
This needs to be our message at Christmas as well, that Jesus has come as the sacrifice to take away the sins of the world, and that he must increase. There is nothing we can do to rescue people, at best we can only sound the call of Christ into their lives. But Jesus is the one who saves, he is the fulfillment of God's promises, and as redeemer, as king and as Emanuel, God with us he has come and we point to him.
As I said, the movies don't do complete justice to C S. Lewis' magic. But sometimes they capture a little of it, as in the scene where Lucy finally sees: "Aslan. I knew it was you. The whole time I knew it. But the others didn't believe me." "And why would that stop you from coming to me?" "I'm sorry, I was too scared to come alone. . . Why wouldn't you show yourself. Why couldn't you come roaring in and save us like last time?" "Things never happen the same way twice, dear one." "If I'd have come earlier, would everyone who died . . .could I have stopped that?" "We can never know what would have happened, Lucy . . . .But what will happen is another matter entirely." "You'll help." "Of course, as will you." "Oh, well I wish I was braver." "If you were any braver you'd be a lionness. . . Now, I think your friends have slept long enough, don't you."
And then the lion roars, announcing his arrival. The angels sing, the heavenly host announced the arrival of Jesus. John proclaims. The father gives testimony from the cloud. The earth trembles at his sacrifice and rejoices at his resurrection. And some day another trumpet will sound, announcing that he is coming again. But in the mean-time, we are his heralds, after the model of John the Baptist saying "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." and "I must decrease - he must increase."