Among you stands one you do not know

December 17, 2017 (The Third Sunday of Advent)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Psalm 126 (Luke 1:46b-55)

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

 

1:6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

 

19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for 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. 24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. (John 1: 6-8, 19-28, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of hope, your word, spoken by the prophets, restores our faith and hope. Fill our hearts with the joy of your saving grace, that we may hold fast to your great goodness and in our lives, proclaim your justice to all the world. We make our prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

“Among you stands one you do not know” (John 1:26)

 

I wonder when it was that John realized that he was not the one.  Here we have this strange figure John the Baptist who appears in two Sundays of every season of Advent.  We must go through John the Baptist every year to get to Jesus.  It almost becomes a routine.  “Yea, yea, yea, we know the one crying out in the wilderness telling us to prepare for Jesus.  Check that Sunday off and now we can move on to the good stuff, we can move on to Jesus.”  We might not spend much time thinking about John the Baptist.  How many of you have John the Baptist ornament hanging on your Christmas tree?  Or how many of you sent out a Christmas card this year with John the Baptist on the front?  We have plenty of Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus.  Lots and lots of angels and shepherds and stars and even a bunch of the wise men, but John the Baptist is nowhere to be found among Christmas decorations.  He doesn’t make it into our nativity scenes.  But we come to church and we have two weeks focused on John the Baptist, before we get to Jesus.

 

Back in Biblical times, people thought John the Baptist was the One.  They thought he was the One whom they had waited for.   John the Baptist had an enormous following, larger than Jesus.  People flocked to hear this strong message of a strange man who wore camels’ hair and ate bugs and honey.  Many thought he was the Messiah.  A friend of mine made a comment that has stuck with me about John the Baptist.  My friend said that he thought people liked John the Baptist better than Jesus, and he thought that even today people would like John the Baptist better.  That just floored me – why would more people like this strange dressing, weird eating, harsh talking man better than kind, gentle, and loving Jesus?   Well my friend said that he thought that we really want is a Messiah who talks tough like John.  We want a Messiah who comes out ranting and raving against all those hypocrites.  We want a Messiah who calls people out.  Who calls them to be accountable for their behaviors especially their sins and tells them they will go straight to hell if they don’t get right with God.  In short, we want a Messiah who gives us a sense of control in our lives, our faith and our salvation. “We have heard the message and are now on the right path.”  John had a way of preaching that was black and white, right and wrong with no ambiguity or mystery.   John’s preaching focused on our waywardness and he challenges us to get right with God.  So as strange as it may seem, this way type of leadership, this way of thinking, resonates with many of us because we live by the mantra that if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and work hard enough, then we will succeed in life.[1]

 

So maybe my friend is right, if people thought John was the one who the prophet Isaiah was pointing toward, the one who God said was coming.  Then they must have thought John was the One.  Even King Herod thought John was the One, the Messiah.  Initially, even King Herod was more concerned about John than he was about meek and mild Jesus.  King Herod killed John because he believed that John was a bigger threat to his power than Jesus.  In fact, when King Herod first heard about Jesus he was afraid that John the Baptist had come back from the dead.

 

But John knew, he wasn’t the One.  Somehow, he knew, most likely he knew from early on maybe even in his mother Elizabeth’s womb he knew.  Remember he leapt for joy when the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus came to visit.  John must have known that he was one who came to bear witness, to his cousin Jesus, who was truly the One.

 

“Among you stands one you do not know.” 

 

John knew but he also realized that no one else knew.  He realized that people were looking in all the wrong places and for the wrong one as the Messiah.  They were looking in places of power and prestige.  They were looking for people with loud voices and who pointed fingers and told everyone to get right or else. The people were looking for a powerful hero with military might.  The people were not looking for a Messiah who would come more like a whisper, with a message of love, forgiveness and grace.  One who came as a helpless baby born in a manger.   Jesus is not what people expected because he was not what we want or what we hope for.  Instead of preaching that we have some control, Jesus tells us we are not in control.  Instead of letting us feel morally superior, Jesus tells us we are like lost sheep and in need of help.   Instead of helping us feel important and worthy, Jesus pays no attention to our worthiness.  In fact, the ones who we judge as unworthy, are the ones he came for the least, the last and the lost.

 

Among you stands one you do not know. 

 

Let that simple statement sink in.  One commentator says that “There is more gospel and Advent mystery packed into this little line than we realize.  After all, if the Son of the living God is on this earth, if the Word of God through whom all things were made, and everything exists was walking around on the soil of his own creation, wouldn’t common sense tell you that everyone should be able to know exactly who he was at a glance?”[2]

 

But the people of Jesus day and time didn’t know, and we still don’t.  We still look for Jesus in places of power and prestige.  We still look for people with loud, boisterous voices who command large crowds of followers.  We still want a Messiah who will point fingers and tell them that they are going to hell.  We want a Messiah who will look at us and tell us how “good” and faithful we are and who will reward us for our goodness.

 

Among you stands one you do not know. 

 

God’s way of sending the Messiah was to have this messenger, this witness of John the Baptist prepares the way and point toward Jesus.  God’s way for the Messiah was that salvation “would come through quiet strength, gentle humility, the servant heart.”[3]  Not typical qualities we look for in a leader.  We want powerful strength, obvious confidence, and unquestioned authority.  But Jesus’ way, God’s way, is not our way.

 

Among you stands one you do not know.

 

I wonder if we would know Jesus today if he was standing among us.

 

A minister tells the story about a Nativity Set that she and her husband received as a wedding gift.  It was a beautiful hand painted manger scene and they took extra care of it year after year.   They always put it up in their living room on the mantle, the most prominent place in the house.

 

Several years ago, they moved and when it was time to decorate for Christmas, she unpacked the Nativity Set that she took extra care to pack each year, to her horror and dismay, she could not find the baby Jesus.  She looked and looked and could not find him.  He was gone.

 

So, for several years they put up the Nativity Set with an empty manger. They tried to replace him, but they could not find a suitable baby Jesus that fit with the other figures.  So, the cradle remained empty.

 

Then last year just after Thanksgiving as they were once again unpacking the Christmas decorations getting ready to decorate the house.  She noticed at the bottom of the box were many broken ornaments, that they could no use because they could no longer hang on the tree, but were much too special and sentimental to throw them away— she saw it— the baby Jesus.  There he was, the baby Jesus, lying down in the bottom of the box amid all these broken ornaments.  She said finding the baby Jesus that day was a revelation for her, “That’s where baby Jesus had been all that time, at the bottom of the box, with the fragile and the broken ones that didn’t make the cut.  And finding him there I realized he was never lost at all.”[4]

 

Among you stands one you do not know. 

 

I believe that Jesus was called to live on the margins of society, far away from the halls of power and the focus of most people’s attention.  I believe that he was most at home with the fragile, broken people who did not make the cut.  He came to the blind and the deaf, the lepers and the prostitutes, all the ones at the bottom of the cultural box, the least, the last and the lost.

 

Among you stands one you do not know. 

 

I believe we don’t know him because we are too busy following the loud voices, the flashy, and the pretty people.  We are too busy following the crowds.  Jesus will not be found there.  He will be found in the prisons and the homeless shelters.  He will be found wandering the street looking for food.  He will be found in nursing homes and hospitals.  He will be found in lonely hearts and broken bodies and lost souls.  He will be found with sinners and outcasts who know they need saving.  Jesus is found with the vulnerable, the ones who know they are not in control, the ones who treasure God’s grace given not because we earn it only because God freely gives it— the greatest gift ever given.

 

Among you stands one you do not know. 

 

Let us pray: Great God giver of all gifts, give us eyes to see, hearts to love, and will to follow – your Son Jesus Christ. Amen

[1] These are the thoughts of Rev. Robert Montgomery, First Presbyterian Church, Pulaski, TN 12-4-2008 Lewisburg Lectionary Group.

[2] Reverend Scott Hoezee,

[3] Reverend Scott Hoezee,

[4] Presbyterian Outlook, Dec. 8/15, 2008, Reverend Agnes Norfleet, p.23