John 1:24-34 | Second Sunday of Lent | February 24, 2013
This Sunday we begin a Lenten series on water. Notice the lovingly built waterfall cascading down our front steps. If you hold still you can hear water here in our sanctuary. Water is mentioned often in the Bible. Water was scarce at the times the Bible was written. Clean water was even harder to come by. Water was connected with life, with cleansing, with eternity.
In our scripture for today, the Pharisees sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to Bethany to question John and find out who he was. He must have been making enough of a scene to get noticed… enough of a stir to make them want to send out the powers that be to make sure he was following the religious rules…. enough of a splash that they wanted to see if he was for them or against them.
So the priests and the Levites, the religious elite, come ready with their questions. They want to know who John thinks he is.
“Who are you?”
“I am not the Messiah.”
Isn’t that a fascinating way to introduce yourself? I imagine meeting someone for the first time and saying,
“Hi. I’m Susan. Who are you?”
“Well, I’m not the Messiah.”
“So who are you? Are you Elijah?”
“Are you the prophet?”
“Well then, who are you?”
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of God.'”
Ever had one of those conversations with someone where you know you are both speaking English but you aren’t speaking the same language? The priests and the Levites keep trying. “Then why are you baptizing people if you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the prophet? Why are you doing this?” they ask him.
It is an excellent question.
“Why are you baptizing people if all you are is a voice calling people to a new way?”
“Because I am expecting someone soon… someone who I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal… someone greater than me. ”
I am an exaggerator. At least that is what everyone tells me. I prefer to think that I make creative use of the superlative. I often make use of the words: everyone, no one, never, always and constantly. I think of this tendency towards the superlative when I read this scripture as John introduces Jesus to us. He describes Jesus as someone so great he is not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. He calls him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John speaks this crazy sentence about how Jesus was born after him but ranks ahead of him because Jesus existed before him. What grand introductions he makes of Jesus. He makes creative use of the superlative.
The John we meet in the Book of John is so different from the John of the other gospels. He is not John the Baptist here…. just John. He is not the forerunner of Jesus. His baptism is not associated with the forgiveness of sins. He is not clothed in camel’s hair and leather. He denies being Elijah. His character is never developed in this story and he doesn’t die through imprisonment and execution at the adulterous hands of Herod. He walks on the stage and he walks off the stage. He has one job and that is to bear witness to Jesus… the one who came after him but existed before him. He doesn’t mention the chopping axe, the cleansing wind or the consuming fire. He simply says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Now that is a grand introduction.
Now while I am an exaggerator, I am also an incredibly practical soul. So when I started in pastoral ministry I understood baptism from a purely practical place. It was a symbol of someone saying yes to a journey of faith. It symbolized for me something that had already happened in a person’s life…. that decision to continue the work of Jesus. There was certainly nothing magical in the moment.
Early on in my ministry I was doing a membership class with Junior High youth and my superlative language was not on display. I have sat through too many conversations with people who have described the ways they felt manipulated into baptism and I wasn’t about to be added to the list of offenders. But my team teacher took me on that morning in front of the class. She challenged me on my lack of expectation about what might happen in that water.
John went out to the Jordan River and began baptizing people with an expectation of what would happen. Sure, they came to him to be baptized because they had already made some kind of decision but John had higher expectations for them. “There is one coming who is greater than I and he will take away the sin of the world.” That is a superlative expectation.
If you have been baptized, I invite you to think back on it. What did it mean for you? I was baptized in the fifth grade in Hutchinson, Kansas. Six of us were baptized that day. I was number six. I waited in the hallway that morning, filled with anticipation. I remember afterward feeling wet and cold and a bit surprised that I didn’t feel completely different. And yet, I did feel like a true part of the community that nurtured me and loved me. Most of all, I felt a calling to be true to the decision I had made there in front of that community. I felt a commitment to love God and to love my neighbor. My baptism means so much more to me today than it did on the day it happened.
What I have learned is that my baptism… my commitment grows stronger every day. It is like the quote at the top of the bulletin today. This quote comes from Sara Miles who wrote Take This Bread. She says, “Conversion isn’t after all, a moment: It’s a process, and it keeps happening…”
John showed up at the water with an expectation of what would happen when the one who came after him but existed before him would show up in the lives of the people. That is exactly what we are called to do. We are called to witness to the Christ. We are called to provide the water and then step back with grand expectations of what can happen in the lives of others.
John walks onto the stage and he testifies about what he saw and experienced. He said, “I was out here baptizing when someone came along and the Spirit descended from heaven like a dove and rested on him. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. I just do the water. This one provides the Spirit.”
You and I, we are just the voice. We are the ones who provide the water. And we are the ones who get to witness what happens. We see it all the time… those God moments. They surround us. There are so many of them happening that sometimes I just want to weep with gratitude for being allowed to witness them.
Friends, I invite you to the water this Lent. I invite you to come with high expectations for what you might witness as the fire of heaven comes down and rests on us.