Sermon by Martin Manuel from Ps. 126 and John 1:6-8, 19-28
Baptism, Jesus and Joy
We are in the midst of the Advent-Christmas season when, more than any other time of the year, joy is in the air—the joy we read about in Psalm 126:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. (Ps. 126:1-3)
Let’s sing about that joy in a popular Gospel song:
On YouTube at https://youtu.be/86_MXU76e0c.
The focus of our Gospel reading today, the third Sunday of Advent, is the ministry of John the Baptist. His message was a call to repentance—preparing for the coming of the Messiah. He proclaimed that the Messiah was about to be revealed to the world, and that he would transform the world by taking on its sin and by baptizing with the Spirit.
But what does John’s ministry of baptism have to do with joy? As we’ll see in this sermon, the answer is “everything”—for John the Baptist proclaimed the source of the true and lasting joy that Advent and Christmas proclaim.
“St. John the Baptist Baptizes the People” by Poussin
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
A messenger divinely appointed and sent
It is a special occasion when God sends a human messenger to our world. One such occasion occurred around A.D. 27 in the Roman Province of Judea. The apostle John wrote about that sending in his Gospel:
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (John 1:6-8)
It had been about 400 years since the prophet Malachi had shared this promise from God to Israel:
I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come (Malachi 3:1)
For 400 long years the Jews had suffered the oppressive rule of the Medo-Persians, then the Greeks and now the Romans. Throughout this time the Jews awaited the coming of their Messiah to his temple, which would begin the long-awaited new age of the Kingdom of God. Until the time of John the Baptist, that coming had not occurred.
Nevertheless, the anticipation grew during those 400 years. Think of a bride and groom awaiting their wedding! Think of a mother and father awaiting their child’s birth! These are times of great, anticipatory joy. In a similar way, the people of Israel were waiting, their anticipation growing, looking forward to the promised time of great joy.
Before our passage in the Gospel of John, introducing John the Baptist, we are told of one called “the Word,” who was with God and was God. He is said in John 1:9 to be the “true light” that shines in the darkness of this fallen world. John the Baptist was sent to witness to—to testify concerning—this special person, the Word, the Light.
Because of the Jew’s great national anticipation of deliverance, John the Baptist received a lot of attention as he baptized large numbers of people who went out to the Jordan River to hear him preach. This activity was noticed at the highest levels among the Jewish leadership. They wanted to know who he was and what his ministry was about. John 1:19-23 explains:
Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
The primary religious leaders of the Jews were the priests and a council of religious leaders called the Sanhedrin. From Jerusalem, where they worked, they sent representatives to investigate this intriguing new preacher, wanting to know if he was the one prophesied to come. King David, the prophet Daniel, and others had prophesied the coming of the Anointed One, the Messiah (Psalm 2:2; Daniel 9:25); the prophet Malachi had prophesied the coming of Elijah (Mal. 4:5); and Moses had prophesied the coming of “the Prophet” (Deut. 18:15). Jewish scholars considered that these three highly-anticipated historical figures would bring radical transformation to Israel, leading the people to faithfully fulfill their covenant as the people of God.
But John the Baptist made it clear that he was not one of these three. Instead he quoted Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 40:3) about one who would prepare for the coming of the Lord. Instead of pointing to himself, John pointed to Jesus, an even greater deliverer than the scholars anticipated.
Unveiling the all-time historical leader
A delegation of Pharisees sent to investigate questioned John: “Why do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (John 1:24-25). Typically, baptism was reserved for non-Jewish people who repented of their pagan practices and converted to the Jewish religion as proselytes. Surprisingly, instead of baptizing proselytes, John was baptizing large numbers of Jews. The Pharisees sensed that something highly unusual was taking place, but they could not figure out what it was. They thought it centered around John the Baptist, and hoped that he would tell them more about his reasons for baptizing such a large number of Jews. Apparently, they did not understand Isaiah’s statement about “the voice in the wilderness,” especially that it signaled the impending arrival—advent—of none other than Israel’s Lord himself.
“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:26-27)
John the Baptist was only immersing people into water after a confession of sin as evidence of repentance. Although that confession was significant and a good thing, it was not extraordinary. The far bigger matter was who already was present in the nation (incognito, as it were) and what he was about to do! John describes this individual as so special that he, John, was not worthy to do for him the most menial of servant-tasks—untie his sandals to wash his feet.
Simply put, this person was greater than anyone else on earth!
The higher baptism
What caused John the Baptist to think so highly of this person? He explained later, probably to his followers, as we read in John 1:31-34:
I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I 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.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
“John the Baptist baptizes Jesus” by Gustave Dore
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
John the Baptist was sent by someone, he does not say who, and this someone told him to baptize and proclaim to those who came that the great revealing—the advent of the promised Messiah—was about to take place. As John was baptizing Jesus, an amazing sight occurred that John witnessed: the Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove and lit upon Jesus! Just as the sender had told John, this unusual sight would pinpoint for him who this person he had baptized actually was: none other than the Son of God, who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit.
Some Christian groups teach that the higher baptism is done by the Holy Spirit and comes as a “second blessing” after baptism in water, which signifies conversion and receiving of the Holy Spirit. This passage in John, and the related passages in the other Gospels, teach that Jesus is the one who baptizes with the Spirit. The Pentecost miracle described in the book of Acts confirms this teaching. Let’s consider what that baptism does.
The joy of advent
John the Baptist prophesied about the outcome of his experience and encounter with Jesus, noting that Jesus would fulfill the promise of the outpouring—the baptism—of the Holy Spirit upon humanity. We read prophecies about this outpouring in Joel 2:28-29, Jer. 24:7; 11:19; 36:25-27 and 37:14. These prophecies describe a time of cleansing of the people by sprinkling—another type of baptism—that refreshes them as the Spirit of God renews their minds. Radical repentance moves them to turn away from idolatry to God with all their hearts. Motivated to want to obey God’s law of love, they come to know the God they profess.
The fulfillment of these prophecies began at Pentecost in Jerusalem with the followers of Jesus, and continued from there, sweeping through the world. The process takes time—millennia of human experience—and is still progressing today, like an ever-expanding flood. Those overtaken by this out-pouring believe in Jesus and trust in his promises, living with an underlying hope that the purpose of the Father through the Son and in the Spirit will be accomplished.
Faith and hope then spark in them a deep sense of joy in the midst of their still-broken present lives. It is the joy of anticipating the promised future. This joy is not our doing, but the outcome of Christ in us, preceded by our own repentance and baptism.
The song, Joy, that we heard as we began this sermon, poetically expresses this process. The singers acknowledge their brokenness as only a repentant heart would. Nonetheless they see beauty in their brokenness. Why? Because they are experiencing the marvelous exchange of God’s love and forgiveness for the pain that is the consequence of sin. At the same time, they recognize the seeming contradiction of being free, yet being captured by the Lord—in knowing the Lord they know what it is to be truly free. Consequently they experience joy instead of mourning.
As individuals, we now have joy to mollify the relentless sorrow, pain and brokenness of this world. It is a joy that resides down deep in the soul where nothing can dislodge it. We are confident knowing that, eventually, we will experience the fullness of our Lord’s joy.
I would like to conclude by sharing my own story of joy [speaker, substitute your own story here]. I was baptized at 21. At the time, I was a rather confused and troubled young man. Sensing a call from God, I had abandoned the ways of my past. So much changed about me that I found myself at odds with many of my friends and family members. Most of this was a result of my misunderstanding of God and what he expected of me, but the result was that I became sad, lonely and depressed. But God is gracious! Immediately after my baptism in which I confessed faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior, I experienced a period of about a week of sheer ecstatic joy. When the week passed, I resumed a more normal temperament, but no longer was I sad, lonely, and depressed. To this day, I don’t know how to explain it except to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit gave me a gift—a down payment, so to speak—of joy and I can truthfully say that this joy has never left me.
Despite temptations, sins, disappointments, big mistakes, setbacks, obvious failures, personal illness, loss of loved ones, and many times of sorrow, anguish, and despair, deep down the joy remains. I wake up every day reminded that Jesus Christ is my Savior, and that gives me security. Despite the miserable state of world conditions and even conditions of people close to me, I continue to have hope for a better future. I know that my God is right, and there is no other way, so I can live in confidence, continuing to grow in knowing him.
I relish enjoyable times and blessings, but the joy I experience is not the result of something good happening in my life—it’s deeper than that. It is not the result of anything I have or have gained—it’s deeper than that. The joy I experience comes from outside me, but resides within me. It is with me in measure, but always there. No, I don’t have it in full, but I know who gives it, and his name is Jesus. It’s a fruit of his Spirit in my life. Without Jesus, I would be simply an older version of who I was at 21 before my repentance, baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit through my precious, wonderful Lord! Amen.