The Messiah, Elijah, the Prophet and the Voice, John 1:19-28, prepared by Joe Ellis, Dec. 13, 2020
So here we encounter John the baptist. We meet him in John’s Gospel a few verses earlier with these words: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him all might believe.” It’s a mysterious introduction. Luke tells us that John the baptist will have the spirit and power of Elijah. Matthew and Mark tell us that he was dressed just like Elijah, wearing camel’s hair coat and a leather belt. John’s Gospel doesn’t give us those same hints. In fact, in John’s Gospel John says he is not Elijah. In John’s Gospel, we’re kind of in the same boat as those who are sent to check him out. We’re asking, “who are you?” That’s the question we’ll be asking John the Baptist today — ‘who are you?’
We get a few hints. Verse 19 says that some Jewish leaders sent some priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him exactly that question, “who are you?” I guess that poses another question for us. — who are they? Have you noticed that a question can change depending on who is asking it? Knowing something about who these priests will tell us a bit more about who John is. There were a lot of different types of priests in Jesus’ day. A few verses later the Gospel tells us that these priests “had been sent from the Pharisees.” It’s safe to assume that the crew talking to John are probably Pharisees. Growing up we’ve been told that the Pharisees are basically a bunch of legalists only concerned with keeping the law, going around punishing people who wipe their nose on the Sabbath. Its true that the Pharisees were concerned with keeping the law — but less because they enjoyed being a wet blanket. The kept the law for reasons we might not suspect. The dominant agenda of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day was as political as it was religious. They wanted freedom. They wanted liberty. They wanted to throw off the oppression of Rome. Keeping the law was their badge of courage. It was the sign of their loyalty to YHWH. Their commitment to the cause of their nation.
The Phraisees had heroes like Matthias ben Johanan. Matthias had started the famous jewish revolt that took place a couple hundred years earlier. The story goes that Jews were forced by some vile king to offer sacrifices to an idol. When the first Jew came forward to offer sacrifice, Matthias saw it and burned with wrath and zeal. He ran up, full of righteous anger, and killed that Jew on the spot. Then Matthias killed the king’s officer who’d been enforcing the sacrifice, then he tore down the altar. Instant hero. Those were the type of trading cards the kids of Pharisees would’ve carried around. I’ll trade you Simon Maccabaeus’ rookie card for yours of Phinehas with his bloody spear. The commercial would go like this: “Collect them all — Warriors for Israel — the trading cards — perhaps you too, young Pharisee, will take your stand against ungodly kings and their vile pagan practices.”
Now, the Pharisees sent some priests to vet John the Baptist. They were wondering, are you one of us? John the Baptist had been gathering a great crowd in the wilderness. He’d been immersing people into the Jordan river and having them come out onto the other side. He looked like he was reenacting the moment when Joshua led the Israelites out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land so they could drive out the pagans from the land. Is that what John the Baptist was doing? The Pharisees sent a delegate to find out what exactly He was doing. Are you one of us? Do you share our agenda? Do you want to drive these pagans from the land?
Their starting question seems straightforward: “Who are you?” John immediately confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” ‘“What then,” they ask, “Are you Elijah?” “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” So again they ask “who are you?”' John denies being the Messiah, Elijah, and the prophet. Think of these as different offices, different roles that God might provide his people to bring about the new era of Israel’s kingdom. Different heroes from the past to help the people in the present. Yet John says no to each, even though he probably knew that Gabriel had said he would have the spirit and power of Elijah. These denials give us a lot of information about John. If the Pharisees were asking if John the Baptist was on their side, his constant ‘no’ tells us a lot.
The Messiah, Elijah and the Prophet. There were lots of stories swirling about what sorts of figures might reappear when God restores the Kingdom of Israel. There were stories about a Messiah, an Elijah, and the prophet who’d come and help people obey Torah, hear from God, purify the temple, and overthrow the enemies of God’s people. The Pharisees must’ve had their own ideas of what they would do.
Let’s start with the Messiah — a common belief was that the Messiah would be the great king who would lead Israel into battle and overthrow the enemies of God’s people. Just like the great kings of the past, like David, and Josiah and Hezekiah, the Messiah would lead Israel into battle against their. This sort of messiah would be very useful to the Pharisees. John says, “I am not your messiah.”
What about Elijah? Elijah might be a close second. Elijah was expected to return and prepare the way of the Messiah. Which aspect of Elijah do you think would have attracted the Pharisees? Perhaps the Elijah who slaughtered the prophets of Baal after YHWH proved victorious on Mount Carmel. Perhaps the Pharisees would be attracted to the Elijah who went toe to toe with the crooked, vile and corrupt king Ahab, and stood up to him at every turn. Perhaps John would do the same. Are you Elijah? No, I am not your Elijah.
If not Elijah, perhaps the prophet. And who was the prophet supposed to be? To find out you’ll need to go back to Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses is preparing the people to enter the Promised Land. God said to Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” A prophet like Moses. Perhaps when the people had been exiled, the dupes of another nation, when the people had fallen into idolatry, God promised he’d send another Prophet like Moses who would speak the Words of God. Perhaps this would be a prophet like Moses in the way he threw off the slavery of Pharaoh. Perhaps this would be a prophet like Moses who would lead them out of slavery and into a new time where they would be free from humiliating yoke of ungodly rulers. Perhaps this would be a prophet like Moses who would lead them to reclaim their land and worship their God with purity and honour. Maybe, the Pharisees wondered, this is why John is taking people through the Jordan River. Yet John says, “I am not the prophet.”
John does not fit into any of the caricatures of people who might advance their religious and political agenda. “So, John,” we ask alongside the Pharisees, who are you?”
He gives us a clear answer — “I am the voice.”
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” We meet the voice John is talking about in Isaiah 40. This passage that comes right after chapter 39 where Isaiah prophesies to King Hezekiah that his people are about to be carried away, they’ll be exiles in the foreign land of Babylon. Devastating news. Their life as they new it will be permanently turned upside down. They will be humiliated and subjected to the worst of ungodly rulers. This is God’s devastating will. Yet after the people had long been in this desolation, Isaiah 40 sounds like a drink of cold water for a parched and thirsty people. You probably know how the chapter begins — “Comfort, O comfort my people,” Says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term and her penalty is paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Words like a cool, refreshing drink of water. Then Isaiah says, “A voice cries out.” This voice is John’s answer to the question “Who are you?” John says I am the voice in Isaiah crying out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low’ the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places made smooth. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth fo the Lord has spoken.” This Christmas, I’m longing to hear this voice. A voice announcing that after a long, long, season of bleak darkness, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
Listen to Isaiah, The Voice continues to speak. The Voice names the reality that people are like grass, ephemeral, weak, and vulnerable. To us weak and vulnerable creatures, The Voice is given a commanded to speak. The command goes like this: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” This Christmas I am longing to hear This Voice. I am so longing to hear the Voice to cry out, “Here is your God.”
The Voice in Isaiah continues, “See the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd’ he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This Christmas, how I long to hear This Voice announce the coming of God, to gather His tired, bruised, and warn out people into His arms, and gently lead us into greener pastures.
John says, I am not the Messiah, the Elijah, or the Prophet. In our culture we have our voices that sound like messiahs, Elijahs and prophets — I don’t long to hear any of those voices. Not one little bit. Those voices are not the light our people need. Those voices will not be light for a people dwelling in darkness. This Christmas we need to hear the Voice of the one Crying in the Desert, “Here is your God!” This Christmas we need to hear that the Lord, our God is coming. This Christmas we need to hear that our God is coming and will ruling with the strength of His might.
Come! Come Lord Jesus. We can’t stand the wait. Your people are in turmoil here. We, your people, are dwelling in darkness. We are at each others throats. We are grown men escorted out of the bank because we won’t wear a mask. We are scared teenage girls standing up to intimidating men, asking them to wear a mask before we can sell them their coffee. We are crying out in the streets demanding for the truth to be unmasked. We are devastated that our family, friends and neighbours could so thoughtlessly endanger others with their ignorance. We are indignant to be thought ignorant and demand that it is the other who is ignorant. We are terrified of each other. We publish cartoons in the newspaper of a masked woman telling someone not wearing a mask they'd do best to suffocate themselves. We feel comfort at the other proved horrifically wrong. We are terrified that a virus, or threat of a virus, could bring economies, governments, families and churches to their knees. We are terrified at the idea of the government, or someone, taking control and turning us into their puppets. We are those who will be fined one million dollars if we leave our homes. We are public officials trying to impossibly balance liberty with public health. We are old men dying alone in the hospital. We are overworked and burnt out health care workers wondering when people will start taking the virus seriously. We are people who doubt those overworked healthcare workers exist. We are harassed and tired parents. We are parents fearing for our immunocompromised children. We are childless and barren couples. We are bankrupt and broken. We have lost our job. We stare vacantly out the window. We are friendless. We are grieving. We have psychotic breaks with reality. We are worried all the time. We have too suddenly said goodbye to our one true love. We have buried our children. Our loved ones are dying. And… we are one together in this darkness. Though we are so different, we are one together in this darkness. And in all this miserable darkness we so long to hear The Voice break into this dark advent season crying out “Comfort! Comfort! Comfort!” So, please, Lord God, do not underestimate how deeply your people long to hear The Voice cry out with beautiful strength: “Do not fear! Do not fear!” Send Your Voice into this world for all to hear those beautiful Words; “Do not fear! Here is your God! He comes! He is coming, just hold on! He will gather you tenderly into His arms and He will lead you into green pastures.” Christ come! Your people are in rough shape here in this darkness.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
Reflect on this next song. It leads us from the most trite Christmas wishes down to our deepest prayers — how will this song lead you to pray?