A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison, Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, on third Sunday in Advent 2020
So, ‘there was a man sent from God, whose name was John,’ says the Gospel of John (1:6), This John, though, was not the one whose name is connected with this Gospel; this was the John who went around baptising people. And it’s this John – the baptiser – who tells us some things about Jesus Christ and Christian faith today.
And the first thing John tells us is not to fool ourselves into thinking we are the messiah. Neither you nor I is the one anointed by God (61:1) to liberate a people. Or, to give ‘messiah’ its more familiar title, from Greek, rather than Hebrew, neither you nor I are ‘the Christ’; because that’s what Christ means: the messiah, the one anointed by God to carry out a big rescue mission.
What’s the first thing John tells the representative priests and temple workers from Jerusalem who interrogate him about his identity? ‘I am not the messiah.’ (1:20) There’s no danger of John ever suffering from a messiah complex! Whatever John is, and for whatever reason he is baptising people, it’s not because he is claiming to be the yearned for messiah, the Christ, their liberator.
Now I don’t believe I’m the messiah, and I’m sure that you already know that I am not. I doubt of any of you believe that you are the messiah either. Few people have a messiah complex, but far more get messiahship thrust upon them. You know how easy it can be to put your faith in someone else, to see you through a situation, because they are gifted, or charismatic, or brave, or confident … or good looking? Well, here’s a reminder not to put all your faith in them because that’s just asking for disappointment.
John the Baptist, charismatic figure and inspiring preacher though he was, declined to have that messiahship thrust upon him when it belonged to someone else instead. His example tells us not to go trying to make other people into our messiahs, and certainly not to fool ourselves into thinking that we might be the answer to everyone’s prayers.
Then, the second thing John does, after he has put people right about his not the messiah, is to point to the person who is the messiah: ‘I baptise with water. Among you stands one who you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to tie the thongs of his sandal.’ (1:27) John reminds us that our Christian faith involves pointing away from ourselves in order to point to Jesus, who is the messiah, the Christ, the liberator, the saviour.
(Just as an aside, on this occasion John was talking to a group of the religious teachers called Pharisees. So, I wonder whether when John said, ‘among you stands one you do not know’, whether this implies that Jesus was thought to be, or practised as a Pharisee. Maybe Jesus was standing there with them at the time. It’s just a thought!)
So, as well as pointing away from ourselves, and how good we are – and we are sometimes – John urges us to point toward the one who is the messiah. For example, churches and church folk will still be doing lots of good things this Christmas: supplying food to those who need it, donating to charity, telephoning people make sure that they’re ok, doing shopping for others, and host of other good activities. But should people ask, “why are you doing this”, just as Pharisees once asked John, ‘why then are you baptising if you are … [not] the messiah?’ (1:24), don’t answer by pointing to the church, point to the messiah; point to Jesus the Christ, who is head of the Church. (Ephesians 1:22)
So, John reminds us that we are not the messiah, and nor are other people, even the ones we admire. He reminds us instead to point people towards the real messiah, Jesus the Christ. And the third thing that John reminds us concerning our faith, is to expect Jesus the messiah to turn up. Whatever else John meant or did not mean when he said, ‘among you stands one you do not know, the one who is coming after me,’ he really did mean that the messiah had arrived or was about to be revealed.
The messiah, the Christ, the liberator, the saviour has arrived. That’s the good news that we Christians share about Christmas every year; share about the birth of Jesus the Christ – that is, Jesus the Messiah! In a little town called Bethlehem – he arrived. At the river Jordan – he arrived. His teaching and his acts of power announced that the saviour, the liberator, the Christ, the messiah; the one who was bringing good news for the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives and prisoners, to those who mourn (61:1, 2) … had arrived. In his death and his resurrection, Jesus the Christ, the Saviour, the liberator and messiah, had arrived with what was needed for God’s world.
And in this Advent season, as we prepare to celebrate that arrival, we also make ourselves ready for the messiah to come once again; to finally, decisively, liberate our world from all that ails it. As John reminds us, that’s not our job, or our job title. That title belongs to Jesus the Christ – the Messiah, the one who has arrived, and whose coming we expect. Amen.