“I Baptize With Water”

John 1:19-34

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / January 22, 2006


            As I consider our fast approaching federal election, and as I consider the text before us, I note at least one similarity: the use of heralds. I am pleased to report that, even in our high-tech society, I did not receive any phone calls or emails from individuals seeking my vote. Instead, candidates who wanted my vote sent heralds to knock on my door.


            In ancient days, before there were cell phones, email, and text messaging, dignitaries sent heralds before them, to announce their coming and to prepare the way for them. John the Baptist was such a person—appointed by God to prepare the way for the King of Israel.


            My understanding is that a herald typically traveled with such an impressive caravan and was adorned in such extravagant apparel that when they descended upon a town the herald was often mistakenly thought to be the king himself.


            John the Baptist found himself in a similar situation in that the religious leaders of the day wondered whether John might be the Messiah foretold long ago by the prophets. It is curious that such an inquiry would be made since there was nothing outwardly attractive about John the Baptist. He did not dress in robes of silk, but rather, Mark’s Gospel tells us that John “was clothed with camel’s hair” (Mk. 1:6). John, who was crudely dressed, also had an unusual diet, noted by Mark as consisting of “locusts and wild honey” (Mk. 1:7).


            What was it then? What prompted the religious leaders to seek John out and to ask him if he was ‘the Christ’? Was it John’s ability to endear people? Certainly not! Do you remember John’s sermon introduction, recorded by Luke? John the Baptist begins his sermon with the words, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Lk. 3:7). It is a good thing John the Baptist was not candidating for an election!


            John’s clothing was crude, his diet was strange, and his message was harsh . . . and yet, there was something about this man that caused others to wonder if this might be the promised king, the Messiah.


            In responding to this inquiry, John the Baptist demonstrates for our edification a number of things. First, in John the Baptist, we see the marks of a true messenger of God. Secondly, we hear from John the marks of the true message from God. And thirdly, as we survey John the Baptist’s ministry approach elsewhere, we note the urgency of making the true message known.


            First, let us note the marks of a true messenger. Immediately, we should be struck by the genuine humility of John the Baptist. There is no pretense with John, but rather, we find a crudely dressed man who goes to great length to establish his inferiority.


            While our society challenges us to establish our credentials, John the Baptist, by contrast, seeks to minimize his credentials in order that he might better magnify the credentials of the One he represents.


John is asked directly, “What do you say about yourself?” (Jn. 1:22)—in other words, ‘What’s on your resume?’ John’s answer is a simple one: “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord’” (1:23).


John’s message is consistently, “Don’t pay attention to me; pay attention to the One who comes after me—He is your Messiah . . . It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (1:27).


Some of you are aware that, in the ancient world, the act of untying the sandal of another was the work of a slave. And yet, John the Baptist insists that the One He represents is of such great significance that he is not worthy of even being His slave. Again, it is not as if John the Baptist is a meek, or gentle, soul. No(!)—this is one who boldly challenges religious hypocrisy; this is the one who unequivocally warns of coming judgment.


On the one hand, John was quite bold in preaching God’s message, but on the other hand, he was extremely humble when talking about his own relative importance. John's message is constantly, "I am not", "I am not", "I am not"(Lk. 3:16; Jn. 1:20, 21), while Jesus' message is "I am He", “I am He” (Jn. 4:26, 8:58).


In addition to being genuinely humble, we note John’s emphasis on Christ as a mark of a true messenger.  As Charles Spurgeon has said, “The true messenger calls upon men, to see Jesus.”


At first glance this seems very basic, but you would be surprised how many preachers place their emphasis elsewhere. You might be surprised how many preachers place their emphasis on the forms and styles of religion, you might be surprised how many focus upon the strategies of religion, and you might be surprised how many focus upon social reform without any real emphasis being placed upon the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.


A good herald never forgets the one whom he is representing. I give the campaign volunteers who came to my door a lot of credit—they did not talk about themselves, nor did they give me their particular viewpoints—everything they said centred on the one whom they represented. So it was with John the Baptist.


If you would like to be a messenger for Christ, you do not need a theological degree nor do you need ordination credentials. What you need is to be marked by genuine humility as you bring others a message centred upon the life of Jesus Christ.


What then, is the content of this message? What constitutes, if you will, the true message?


John the Baptist explains, very simply, who Jesus is, and what Jesus has come to do—and he does this, in part, by comparison.


John begins by saying, “I baptize with water” (1:26) and goes on to say that Jesus “baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (1:33).


Water baptism is important. John was appointed by God to baptize with water (1:33). Water baptism is one of two sacraments commanded by Jesus for His covenant people (Mt. 28:19). I am thrilled to have the privilege of baptizing others. And yet, John the Baptist understands that water baptism is not the point. John understands that water baptism is merely representative of the baptism Jesus provides. While water baptism serves to symbolically unite us to God, it is the spiritual baptism of Jesus that serves to functionally unite us with God. This is why John continually insists on pointing to Jesus, explaining that it is Jesus, not him, who possesses the ability to baptize us with “the Holy Spirit”.


Connected to the message of baptism by the Holy Spirit is John’s declaration: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29).


The true message thus far, delivered by the true messenger, is that Jesus has come into the world to remove our sins and to baptize us with the Holy Spirit.


Admittedly, these are bold claims, and so John the Baptist testifies of his personal encounter with God declaring, “I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (1:34). The religious leaders of the day were correct in their belief that “only God can forgive sins” (Mk. 2:7), and that is why the true message must always connect who Jesus is with what He came to do.


Christianity has much to offer—I reckon that our views of peace, justice, and mercy could transform this world if we were given the chance. And yet, what we have recorded in Scripture are not John the Baptist’s corrective exhortations for Herod and his temporal government, but rather, the message preserved for our benefit is that in Jesus, the Son of God, we can have all our sins forgiven.


Friends, this is the true message that has been entrusted to us. First, we must believe it, and taste for ourselves the benefits of following Jesus. And then, having believed the message for ourselves, we must learn from John the Baptist’s example the urgency of sharing this message with others.


We see John’s urgency in Luke’s Gospel, where he says, “the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk. 3:9).


It’s tough to miss what is at stake here. This is not some ‘take it or leave it’ philosophy. John is not talking about choosing an item from the worldview buffet. This is a matter of life and death. This is the difference between happiness and horror.


If we, as a congregation, do not take seriously the urgent need to share the message of Christ, we miss one of the prime reasons for our gathering. In large measure, the gathering of God’s people is intended to be instructional, and motivational, in helping us as the messengers of God to go into the world with the message of God. This task is not for a select few, but to all who bear the name ‘Christian’.


The message, as outlined by John the Baptist, is a simple one. We need our sins dealt with. And thankfully, two thousand years ago, God sent His Son into the world in order to solve our sin problem.


Water baptism reminds us of this. Water baptism reminds us of our need to be made clean. Inherent in the message of the water baptism is the message that we need more than this water—we need Christ, the Son of God, the Lamb of God to take away our sins.


We should be greatly encouraged by the definitive nature of John’s declaration. John the Baptist did not say, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who might take away the sin of the world’. He did not say, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who can potentially take away the sin of the world’. No, John says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29).


Our gathering today is a celebration of that great truth. It is in this gathering where we should seek to apply that truth to ourselves. And, it is in this gathering where we should renew our resolve to take this truth to the world. Amen.