Sunday, December 14, 2008
Reflecting the LIght
John 1:6-8, 19-28
John the Baptist was quite a character. If you were walking along the street today minding your own business and a man dressed in a coat made out of camel’s hair, eating wild honey and locusts came towards you, you couldn’t be blamed for wanting to cross over to the other side and out of the way of this tramp / hippie!
How deceptive appearances can sometimes be. John the Baptist was unique and perhaps a little out of the ordinary in what he looked like and what he ate. But what really mattered was what he said and what he did. He had a very important message given to him by God; in fact verse 6 tells us that John was sent by God as a witness to testify concerning the light.
The light is of course referring to the Lord Jesus, the Light of the World and it was John’s duty to tell everyone that Jesus was here, the King had come. I don’t know about you, but when I see the word “testify”, it conjures up an image of a courtroom, with someone standing in the dock giving evidence, (or maybe that’s just because I’ve read too many John Grisham books!) But that is sort of what John is doing, he is standing up, not in a courtroom, but in the Judean wilderness and he is testifying, he is proclaiming the truth of Jesus’ arrival as the promised Saviour.
"[In December 1952] a toxic mix of dense fog and sooty black coal smoke killed thousands of Londoners in four days. It remains the deadliest environmental episode in recorded history."
Here is what happened:
As the smoke coming out of London's chimneys mixed with natural fog, the air turned colder. Londoners heaped more coal on their fires, making more smoke. Soon it was so dark some said they couldn't see their feet. By Sunday, December 7, visibility fell to one foot. Roads were littered with abandoned cars. Midday concerts were cancelled due to total darkness. Archivists at the British Museum found smog lurking in the book stacks. Cattle in the city's Smithfield market were killed and thrown away before they could be slaughtered and sold—their lungs were black.
Funeral director Stan Cribb remembers the moment he saw the first gray wisps: "You had this swirling, like somebody had set a load of car tires on fire."
London's killer fog is a metaphor of the spiritual world into which Jesus came: a malevolent, sinister, deadly darkness covered the world when the Word "made his dwelling among us." (1)
Despite what he looked like, and despite where he was, John had really good news. It was the most important news the world had ever heard; the Saviour, the Deliverer of God’s people was coming …
Notice how John was very quick to make sure that he wasn’t the one being noticed. As far as he was concerned, he was just the messenger and he wanted people not to take any notice of him, but rather the message that he was giving and who the message was about, the Lord Jesus. As we read in verse 8:
He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The light is Christ and John is only (I say only but it’s a very important task) the reflector of the light. As one writer puts it, “John testifies concerning the Christ like the moon testifies concerning the sun.” You know how the Moon has no light of its own to give, but we see it lit up in the night sky because it is reflecting the light of the Sun? (2) Well that is a picture of the relationship between John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus.
So then the first part of our reading shows the purpose of John the Baptist’s ministry, to focus everyone’s attention on Jesus, the Light of the world. In the next section we see John actually in the wilderness, Baptising people in the river Jordan (v.28). The religious authorities had got to hear about John, so they send a posse of priests and Levites to check him out. Some rumours had probably filtered their way back to Jerusalem that this John character was a bit out of the ordinary, some people thought that he might even be the Messiah – John would have been horrified at such a suggestion and that is the first thing that the religious men ask him. He replies very clearly “I am not the Christ” (v.20). So next they ask him, “Are you Elijah?” This is a bit strange don’t you think? But these guys knew their Scriptures, and they knew that the prophet Malachi, in chapter 4 of the book that bears his name said that Elijah (who was one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets) would come to herald the arrival of the Lord (v.5). Of course John wasn’t Elijah, but he was a great prophet like Elijah, and he was indeed proclaiming the arrival of the Lord. But he was playing a bit of a game with this inquisitive bunch of religious men so he leads them to question him further by saying “No”. So next they ask him, “Are you the prophet”. By this they meant THE prophet (in capital letters), in other words, the Messiah. Of course, John said no to this question also.
You can see that the priests and Levites are getting exasperated, so then they just say “Who are you? Give us an answer that we can take back to those who sent us”.
So then quoting from Isaiah, he says:
“I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (v.23)
So then, they understand that John is saying that he is in fact the forerunner of the Christ, he has come to prepare the way for His coming. But he is saying more too, he is also implying strongly to the visitors that the religious authorities which they represent must make the road straight so that the Lord can come into their hearts and lives and those of the people. No longer must they place obstacles of a thousand-and-one rules and regulations for holiness for people to follow. It was not about what people do, it was rather about being forgiven, something that can only be achieved through faith and by God’s grace (3).
The image that John conjures up is one of a King returning to part of his realm. They must make the way clear for Him to return and they must remove all the obstacles that would hinder people coming to Him in repentance and faith.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of being invited to the official opening of an extension to a school not too far from here, at which the President would be performing the ceremony. As you would expect, there was a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air as we awaited her arrival. There was a long wide red carpet laid out for her, with lovely flower arrangements lining the pathway into the school. There were many Gardai and important looking people milling around, awaiting the arrival of the Presidential car and entourage. Now I am always one to arrive early whenever I can, and this occasion was no exception. I was feeling quite pleased with myself at being able to get a car parking space right next to the entrance gate, and thought nothing more of it, since I was one of the first to arrive. There I was sitting on the front row in the school hall, with several hundred people present and then it happened. You know how when you are in a public place, whether it be the theatre, a bus station or the airport and an announcement comes over the loud speaker “would the owner of car registration number …” and you think to yourself what eejit left their car there! Well this was about to happen to me. A rather flustered and hurried lady got up onto the stage and said, “would the owner of a dark red Honda Civic, with the registration number 97 C blah blah blah please move their car, as it is blocking the Presidents entry into the school.” Needless to say I went an even darker red than the car and rather sheepishly made my way through a dozen rows of tutting, head-shaking guests to remove the offending obstacle …
Now making way for the President is one thing, but what about making way for the Lord Jesus? John was preparing the way for the Lord by baptising, which is washing the people in the river. At that time, baptising was only performed by priests as an initiation rite for gentiles, (that is non-Jews), who were converting to Judaism. But here John was saying that the Jews, God’s people themselves were not clean, and they needed to be washed of their sins. Naturally the religious men took him up on this, to which John replied:
“I baptise with water … but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (v.26-27)
So John, by washing the people in the water of the river Jordan was saying that what he did was only a sign. It was Jesus who would do the real cleansing work on people’s hearts. And so it is with Baptism today, it is only an outward sign of an inward action of God upon the hearts of all who put their faith and trust in Him.
And what about us? What if any obstacles are there in our lives hindering our relationship with God? Let us ask Him to remove them. Let us ask Him to level the mountains of our pride and lift up the valleys of our doubts and fears and let us in true and humble repentance and faith come to Him who left the glory of Heaven and gave His life for us ...
(1) Preachingtoday.com, National Public Radio, "All Things Considered," (12-10-02)
(2) William Hendriksen, John, p.77, Banner of Truth
(3) Ephesians 2:8