The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
People love to build themselves up and make themselves greater than what they really are. Everyone is guilty of it. It’s easy to identify when it comes to something like “stolen valor,” where somebody tries to pass themselves off as a Special Forces war hero. I’ve read of one guy who was an investigator for Naval Intelligence services, whose job was to investigate stolen valor cases. “There were 5,000 Navy Seals deployed to Vietnam. I’ve met all 30,000 of ‘em.” It’s easy to identify the stolen valor morons. They’re the ones doing all the bragging. The same can be said for superstar athletes. One famous coach put it best: “They care more about the name on the back of the jersey than the name on the front of the jersey.” “Me, me, me!”
But…like I said, everyone is guilty of trying to pass themselves off as greater than what they really are. Just think of the “life is wonderful/perfect” Christmas letters you get every year. High school class reunions are another good example. I’m pretty sure this is the whole reason Facebook exists. Everyone is a hero and a legend in their own eyes, and they want everyone else to see it that way too. This self-centered foolishness even trespasses into the life of the Church. Pastors and parishioners alike can be guilty of wanting themselves to be the center of worship and praise. “If it wasn’t for me, this place would fail.” Hmmm…the gates of will not prevail, but without you and your “greatness” the Church is doomed. I’m sorry, but the Church already has a Savior. We don’t need another one.
Of course, the pendulum swings to the other side too. When glory is on the menu, we elbow and fight to get to the front of the line. We want all the credit. We want everyone to know our name. And this is nothing new. The whole reason the Tower of Babel was constructed was so that “everyone will know our name.” However…when punishment is on the agenda, things change. Then we take no credit. We had “nothing” to do with it. “Everyone else was doing it…but not me. I don’t know anything about that. I was just minding my own business.” Confessions tend to be in short supply when the fear of punishment is staring you in the face.
Knowing what we know about all this, what are we to make of John the Baptist’s encounter with those sent by the powerful religious establishment in Jerusalem? The whole reason these guys are sent is because their bosses in Jerusalem aren’t happy. John is bad for business. Everyone is going out to him to be baptized. “Who are you? Are you the Christ? Are you the great prophet that Moses foretold? Are you Elijah? Surely you have a good reason for rocking the boat. This is what we’ve always done.” John answers with a series of “nots,” or as Scripture says, “He confessed and did not deny but confessed.” “I’m not. I’m not the Christ. I’m not the prophet. I’m not Elijah.” I know it says he confessed and did not deny, but this is a dead-ringer for denial. Why? Is John just trying to save his hide? Sure, he’s not the Christ, nor is he the Divine Prophet (Jesus). But…he is the new Elijah. Even Jesus will say this multiple times (ref. Matt 11:14; 17:12). Why so quick to “confess” who you’re not?
Perhaps a better question is: Why didn’t John speak up and take any credit? Here’s your chance to shine! Jesus Himself would later say that “no one born of woman is greater than John the Baptist” (ref. Matt 11:11). Here’s your chance to let these fools have it with both barrels…and John doesn’t do it. He doesn’t bristle up and snap back (like we would). “Do you know who I am?! Do you know what I was sent here to do?! Do you know who sent me?!” He doesn’t do it. He doesn’t even name-drop (like we would). “My daddy was the priest Zechariah. My daddy was your boss.” He doesn’t do any of it. Why?
The answer is found in the very words “he confessed and didn’t deny, but confessed.” Listen to his confession. “I am not….” These series of “I am nots” necessarily direct us to the One is; the “I am.” John isn’t seeking his own glory. He’s not seeking any credit (which is why this so often comes across as strange to our self-serving, glory-seeking ears). He’s not building himself up greater than what he really is, nor is he denying who he is, why he was sent, and what he was doing. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” As far as any sort of identification regarding himself, that’s it. He’s an anonymous voice.
Of course, this voice isn’t just any anonymous voice. This voice is proclaiming God’s Word. “Make straight the Way of the Lord.” The guys inquiring of John’s identity and intentions would certainly recognize those words, which is why they continue to press the matter. “Well…if you’re not the Christ, the Prophet, or Elijah, then by whose authority are you baptizing?” What gives you the right? Who do you think you are?
Listen to John’s response; his confession. “I baptize you with water, but the One coming after me…I’m not worthy to untie His sandals.” Did you catch that? John responds to the more in-depth identity question by directing all the attention to Christ. Understand: This isn’t a misdirection meant to throw off the dogs. This is confession, putting the focus on Christ. More than that, he is identifying himself, only he’s not doing so in the typical way that we children of Adam tend to do so. He’s not exalting himself and going on and on about himself. He’s not even drawing attention to himself. Rather, he’s identifying himself with Christ in relation to baptism. He sees and speaks of himself only in relation to Christ, and that Christ-centered relationship established through baptism. John is boldly confessing Christ and humbly exalting in Christ. All the focus is on Christ!
So what? At the end of the day, what does all this mean for us? Folks: Nothing has changed, even after all these centuries. This same Gospel voice is still called to proclaim and make straight the Way of the Lord; to put all the focus on and confess our adventing Christ. We confess; we don’t deny, but we confess the fact that we are not worthy to even stoop and untie His sandal. We’re not even worthy to be in His presence. The cold hard truth is that because of our sinfulness the only thing we deserve is present and eternal punishment. That’s not much to brag about, is it? Tax brackets, diplomas, particular skill sets, even good intentions…none of it matters when held up against the reality of sin. We confess. We don’t deny. We don’t sugar-coat. We don’t change the subject or try to distract with things that may give you a warm-and-fuzzy, but have nothing to do with Christ. We confess…and we give thanks.
We give thanks because our God and Lord has made us worthy, in spite of us; worthy to be called sons and daughters of the Most High. He has made us holy. We confess and give thanks for our relationship to Him; a relationship established in/through the waters of Holy Baptism; baptism into His all-redeeming death and resurrection. This is our proclamation. This is our confession. This is our boast. We boast in Christ the crucified. We are baptized children of God; baptized into His death and resurrection.
The rest of the world may not know us. No one may ever know our names. Our heavenly Father knows us. He knows the hairs on our head. He calls us by name. Our Lord Christ calls us to come to His holy table and “Take and eat. Take and drink, for the forgiveness of all your sins.” Think about that. Here is the greatest gift we can receive on this side of eternity; the gift of Christ Himself—freely given to us out His pure grace and mercy—and people still seek greatness and take great pride in their works, their “things” that moth and rust will ultimately destroy, their architecture, their wardrobe, their musical performance…themselves. Here is Christ, and people still seek to make a name for themselves. People still seek their own little slice of glory. They still try to take some of the credit, and pat themselves on the back, rather than rejoicing in the mark that Christ Himself put on their heads and hearts in Holy Baptism.
Here is Christ! My fellow baptized children of God (and that’s the only name that matters): Here is your glory! Here is your pride and joy! Here is where Christ brings heaven to earth. Here is where angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven gather to join us in praising Christ. We praise Christ because of what He has done for us in His death and resurrection. All our deadly sin was credited to Him. He willingly took it all into Himself. All His righteousness, in turn, He credited to us. We didn’t earn any of it. We certainly don’t deserve any of it. And yet…His righteousness is our righteousness; a free gift first given in baptism. We are His and He is ours, in and through baptism.
With all this in mind, it only makes sense that we end today by simply pointing to Christ and saying with all the company of heaven, “To God alone be all the glory, all the praise, and all the honor.”
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people.
Send Pastor Jason Zirbel an email.