Waiting for the One who Stands Among Us (12/11/11)

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Dec 112011

Waiting for the One Who Stands Among Us – Rev. Jeff Chapman, 12/11/11

John 1:1-8, 19-28

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

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 1:1-8, 19-28, NRSV)

Most of us know what it’s like to have to wait expectantly for a very important message to arrive.

A high school senior rushes to the mailbox every afternoon.  She’s looking for that letter from the university admissions office telling her that she should make plans to be on campus next fall.

A job opens up, a job you really need, and you submit your resume and then sit for an interview.  Then you wait, you wait for the call to come and hope it will be good news.

The lab tests were supposed to be back sometime today and so you keep checking your voice mail every ten minutes, wondering if perhaps you missed the doctor’s call.

That first date seemed to go so wonderfully.  Surely he’ll call again.  Every time the phone rings you quickly check to see if it’s his number.

We all know what it’s like to wait expectantly.  What are you waiting for these days?  Most of us are waiting for something.  Some of us have been waiting for years.

Let me ask you, though, have you ever waited for something for 400 years?  Can you even imagine what that would be like?  I get impatient after four hours, much less four centuries!   This was the situation at the beginning of the 1st century inPalestine.  The Jewish people in those days had been waiting over 400 years for a message from God.  400 years!  As you can imagine, they were starting to get a bit edgy.

The four centuries immediately prior to the birth of Christ are often called the “silent years.”  You see, the last Old Testament prophet, a prophet named Malachi, brought a message from God to the people for the final time in about 435 B.C.  At that time, little did the people know that it would be nearly half a millennium before God would speak a fresh word to them again.

Just because God wasn’t speaking, however, does not mean that God was not at work.  He was.  During those years God was guiding and shaping human history to prepare for what was to come, much like a stage crew rearranges the set on a stage after the curtain has fallen so that when the curtain rises again the audience will behold an entirely new scene.[1]  And there was, believe me, a lot of work for the stage crew during those years.

In the 4th century B.C., the Greeks, under Alexander the Great, came into power in place of the Persians, shifting the balance of power from east to west.  Then, when Alexander died,Palestine was annexed byEgypt and suffered mightily under their rule.

Then, around 200 B.C., the Syrians rose to power andPalestinechanged hands yet again.  The Syrian king, a man named Antiochus, was one of the most vicious and violent persecutors of the Jews ever known.  Tens of thousands of people were killed during his reign and both the sacred priesthood and temple were desecrated.  It wasn’t until 63 B.C. whenPalestinefinally was liberated from the Syrians.  It was liberated, however, only to come immediately under the rule and authority of yet another occupying power,Rome.

Did you know thatPalestineis, in fact, the most fought over nation in the whole world, andJerusalemthe most captured city in all of history.  It has been pillaged, ravished, burned and destroyed 27 times (that we know of!).

I tell you all this because to fully understand the passage we just read, you first need to have a sense of the state of the Jewish people to whom these words were written at the beginning of the 1st century.  Most of us have never had to wait like these people had to wait.  And not just wait, but wait in desperation.  It was as if the empires of the world just took their turns kickingIsrael around.  And all the while, where was their God?

All they could do was wait for God to act!  All they could do was wait for God to save them.  And they waited because that’s what God had told them he was going to do.

Specifically, the Old Testament prophets spoke often of a Savior, a Messiah, who would come and inaugurate a Day of the Lord when God would finally act to set everything right again.  In particular, the prophet Isaiah spoke of one who would come to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives, give release from darkness to the prisoners, offer comfort for all who mourn, bring good news to the poor.[2]

The scriptures also had promised that the great prophet Elijah, who had been swept to heaven before he died[3], would return again and announce the arrival of this Day of the Lord.  Malachi 4:5-6, the last two verses in the Old Testament, promised that Elijah would show up just before the Messiah to prepare the people for his arrival.

Even Moses, all those years ago, had also promised that one day a Prophet would come, a prophet far greater than himself, a prophet who would stand between the people and God.  In Deuteronomy 18, Moses commanded this people, “Listen to this prophet when he comes because the words of God will be in his mouth.”[4]

All these promises and yet, century after century after century, no Prophet, no Elijah, no Messiah.  By the time of the beginning of the 1st century, the Jews were getting desperate.  They were looking anywhere for some glimmer of hope, some sign of God’s movement, some message, any message, from the Lord!

Then one day a rumor circulates that strange things are happening out in the desert, out on the east side of the Jordan River where the landscape was untamed and barren.  Word had it that there was a crazy man out there living on bugs and honey, preaching a message of repentance, and dunking people in the river.

Cautiously optimistic, people began to ask themselves, “Could this be the one?  Could this be the sign?  Could this wild man be the one we have been waiting for all these years?”

Immediately, a delegation of officials was formed to go and check it out.  They found this man right where people said he would be.  At once, they asked him, “Who are you?  Are you the Messiah?  Are the Christ we have been waiting for?”

“No,” John readily confessed to them, “I’m not the Messiah.”

“Then, are you Elijah?  You’re dressed like Elijah.  Are you him?”

“No”, John said, “I’m not Elijah.”

“Then you must be the Prophet that Moses spoke of.  Is that who you are?”

“No,” John said again, “I’m not him either.”

“Okay, we give up.  We’re tired of guessing.  Why don’t you just tell us who you are?  We can’t go back into town unless we can tell people who you are.”

John then says to them, essentially, “You’re right to look for me in the ancient scriptures.  You’re just looking in the wrong place.  You need to look in Isaiah, in Isaiah 40 to be exact.  I am the one Isaiah talks about there.  I am the one Isaiah said would come.  I am “the Voice”.  I am the one calling in the desert, proclaiming a message that the Lord is, in fact, very close by.”

Now understand, these religious leaders did not need to go back and look up Isaiah 40.  They knew the prophesy, knew it by heart.  They knew how years before God had promised through Isaiah that immediately before the Messiah came to set everything right again, a messenger would be sent to announce his arrival.  At once, they knew, or should have known, who John was claiming to be.

Many of us have had the experience of waiting for an ambulance to arrive.  Somebody you know, maybe even yourself, is hurt or sick and in desperate need of medical attention.  So you call 911.  And then you wait.  How many of you have had this experience?

I don’t know if there is an waiting more anxious than waiting for an ambulance to arrive.  Every minute seems like an hour.  And all the while, what is the one sound you are desperately straining to hear?  A siren.  All you want to hear is that siren.  Because when you hear it, you know that help is in the neighborhood.[5]

John is the siren, blaring out across the land that help is near at hand.  But John, and he makes absolutely clear, is just the siren.  Nothing more.

Imagine waiting with a dying loved one for an ambulance to arrive and you are relieved to hear the siren but then the ambulance never shows up.  The siren keeps blaring, on and on and on, but nobody ever comes to help.  How awful would that be?  That’s John’s point.  The siren in and of itself is useless.  The only purpose it serves is to prepare people for what is about to happen.  If all you’ve got is a siren, you’ve got nothing.  A false alarm is what you’ve got.

This is John’s stark reminder to us that Christ alone is our hope.  The church is not our hope.  Preachers and teachers and prophets are not our hope.  Our good works and sincere efforts are not our hope.  Not even the Bible itself, ultimately, is our hope.  We only have one hope.  Our only hope is the One who is to come, the one who has come, the one who is coming into the world.  John was extraordinarily careful to make this point clear.  He was only a messenger.

But what exactly was his message?  Well, to find that out let’s go back to the beginning of our reading today, back to verses 6-8.

There we are reminded that when God sent a messenger to announce his coming, he sent a man who was named John.  Now the name “John”, as you may know, literally means “the Lord is gracious.”  That’s very important.  Imagine if God had sent a man to announce the coming of the Messiah whose name literally meant, “The Lord is very ticked off”, or “The Lord has had it up to here with you.”  That would prepare the people for a whole different sort of Messiah, wouldn’t it?  Thankfully, God chose a man whose name hinted at the fact that the Messiah was about to come with grace.  Part of John’s message was wrapped up in his very name.

Verse 7 reveals more about John’s message when it tells us that John came as “a witness to that light.”  The light of course is the light of the eternal Word spoken of in the previous verses, the Word who was not only with God, but was and is God.  The Word through whom all things have been made.  The Word in whom there is life that is the light of all people, light that shines in even the blackest night.

Later in the passage we hear John say, “This One who is coming is, in fact, so brilliant, so great, so high above me, that I am not even fit to untie his sandals.”  In those days, that was really saying something.  You see, there was a saying back then that went, “Every service which a slave performs for his master, a disciple will perform for his teacher, except to untie his sandal strap.”[6]  There was, in other words, literally no more lowly a task a person could do in those days than to untie the sandals of another.  John says that he is not worthy to do even that humble task for this one who is to come.

John goes on and proclaims to the people in the desert that day that this Messiah is not only coming but, he says in verse 16, is actually standing here among us.  He’s here.  He’s in our midst.  That may have literally have been the case for in the following verses we read that it was the very next day when Jesus himself stepped out of the crowd for John to baptize him.

John’s message, therefore, was the following.  The long-awaited Messiah has come.  He’s close.  I am the siren telling you that help in the neighborhood.  So be ready.  Because he comes in grace.  He comes to save.  He comes to set all things right.  “Be ready,” John says elsewhere, “Be ready and repent.”  It was this message to which John came to bear witness.

Now, that word witness we read here is the Greek word marturia.  It’s where we get our English word martyr.  What we’re being told here, therefore, is that John is a martyr.

A martyr, as you know, is one who gives his or her life for a message, a cause, of great worth.  The soldiers of the American Revolution, for instance, were martyrs for the message of democracy.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a martyr for the message of civil rights and racial equality.

Others, though they weren’t killed for their message, still dedicate their lives to their message.  Mother Theresa was a martyr for the message of compassion to the poor.  Steve Jobs was a martyr for the message of technology.  David Letterman has been a martyr for the message of comedy.  You are a martyr for that to which you dedicate your life.

John was a martyr for, gave his life for, the message that the Light of the World had come into the world for the salvation of humankind.  This was the entire purpose of his life.  He existed for one reason and one reason alone, to announce to the world that One was coming, that One was already in our midst, who came to put an end to all darkness.

Make no mistake, there is no greater, no weightier, no more enduring message to which a person can give his or her life.  For again, Christ is the hope of the world.  He is the only hope of the world.  He is the only one who can set all things right again.  He is the only one who can bring peace.  He is the only one who has absolute power over evil and death.  He is the only one.

John can’t say it enough times.  “Don’t look to me!”, he insists.  “I’m nothing.  I’m just the siren.  Look, instead, to the One who is to come.  I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes!”  At another point John famously declared, “He must become greater; I must become less.”[7]

I have a friend who is also a pastor.  One day years ago we were talking about what it is like to stand up before the church and, week after week, bear witness to the message of Christ.  He told me that after he preaches he’s aware that people go outside on the patio for coffee and many of them talk about his sermon.  He confessed that sometimes he even overhears what people are saying.  Some pastors, you know, plant hidden microphones in the hallways and flower pots around the church.  It’s an interesting idea.

Anyway, he told me that he overhears all sorts of comments, some easier to hear than others.  Sometimes he’ll overhear somebody say something like, “That was a wonderful message today.  What a great preacher we have!”  He admitted to me that, naturally, he enjoys hearing comments like that. Everybody likes to know that they’ve done a good job.

But then he told me that every once in while he’ll overhear somebody say something like this, “That was a wonderful message today.  What a great God we have.”

It’s been years since I had this conversation.  Still, I will never forget his point.  It’s a point that I have tried to keep in mind every time I step before you to share with you the message of the Gospel.  I understand that some of you will leave impressed with this particular preacher.  I also know that some of you live unimpressed with this particular preacher.  Either way, however, my prayer is that you will leave mightily impressed with Jesus.

Again, our hope is not in preachers, or churches, or books, or good works, or religion, or any other good thing we have before us.  Our only hope is in Christ.  Only Christ is the light of the world.  That was John’s message in the dark and anxious world into which he was sent.  It must also be our message in the equally dark and anxious world into which we are sent.

You do understand, don’t you, that most people these days don’t know much about Elijah, or think much about prophets.  Lots of people, in fact, rarely even consider the fact that God has promised to one day announce the coming of a Messiah.  That does not mean, however, that those same people aren’t looking for one.  Most people won’t put it in those words, of course.  They may not even know the word Messiah.  Still, that’s what all of us are looking for.  That’s what God created us to look for.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “God has set eternity in the hearts of people; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”  Every person you will ever meet was created with a deep spiritual thirst which can only be quenched by the saving grace and love of God.  God made us with this thirst.  God made us with this deep desire for him so that we would come to him.  God made us to live with him, to depend upon him, to enjoy from him all the blessings of life.  Next time you go to the grocery store, look at the person next to you in line.  I don’t care who it is, that person was created with a deep thirst for God that can only be quenched by God.

The problem in our world – and this is the same problem John faced in his world – is that so many people are trying to quench this thirst but are trying in vain because they are drinking from every other fountain than the fountain that flows from heaven.

No matter what we’re told by Madison Avenue this Christmas, material things will never quench our thirst.  Financial security will not quench our thirst.  Sex and romance, even with the ones we love, will not quench our thirst.  Status or success will not quench our thirst.  Food and drink will not quench our thirst.  Pleasure will not quench our thirst.

Religion will not quench our thirst.  The church cannot, on its own, quench our thirst.  The Bible, in and of itself, will not quench our thirst.  Not even people can quench our thirst.  Your wife, your husband, your kids, your parents, your best friends, none of them ultimately can quench the thirst in your soul that God put there for him.  Only God, only Christ can satisfy.

Jesus once told a very thirsty woman he met one day, “If you drink the water I give you, then you will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give you will become in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”[8] St. Augustine summed it up when he once famously prayed, “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you.”

As your pastor, let me tell you what I pray for.  I’ll close with this.

Let me tell you what I pray for when I pray for you, the people of this church.  It’s the same prayer I pray for my own wife and children.  It’s the same prayer I pray for myself.  This is my fervent prayer, “Father, help us see that our deep thirst is for you and for you alone.  Christ, help us see that you are the one for whom we are waiting.  Spirit, help us trust that you are the only one who can fully and forever satisfy.”

That is my prayer.  For myself.  For my family.  For my church.  For my world.



The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application


~ What are you waiting for in your life right now?  Is it easy or hard for you to wait?


~ Is there something you believe God promised you/us that he would do that you are still waiting for God to do?


~ Read again John 1:1-8, 19-29.  There’s a lot here.  What initially sticks out to you?


~ How is Christ a light to the world?  What exactly does he illuminate?


~ Why do you think God sent a messenger to announce the Messiah before he came?  Why not just show up unannounced?


~ The word “witness” we read here in verse 8 is where we get the word “martyr.”  What’s the connection?


~ Why do you think that John was so insistent, telling others that he absolutely was not the Messiah?


~ Who or what do you turn to in an effort to quench the deep thirst in you that only God, in Christ, can ultimately quench?  Why do you turn there?


~ Could your life be used (perhaps it already has been used!) to point the way to Jesus?  How so?



Further Scripture Readings for the Week: 

Monday:          Malachi 4:1-6 – To be continued…

Tuesday:          Matthew 5:14-17 – You are the light!

Wednesday:     Isaiah 61:1-11 – The Year of the Lord!

Thursday:        John 3:22-36 – I must become less

Friday:             John 4:1-26 – The thirst quencher

Saturday:         In preparation for tomorrow, read Luke 1:26-55

[1] I’m stealing some words and ideas here from an excellent article by Ray C. Stedman called, “The 400 Years Between the Old and New Testaments.”  This article provides fantastic insight in how God worked in the centuries before Christ to prepare the way for Christ.  Well worth the read.  Find it at http://www.templemount.org/0240.html

[2] See Isaiah 61:1-2.  Note that it is the passage that Jesus quotes in Luke 4:18-19 when, at the outset of his public ministry, he stands in theNazareth synagogue one day to proclaim that, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  The people didn’t take it well.  In fact, they tried to throw him off a cliff.

[3] See II Kings 2:11.

[4] A summary and paraphrase of Deuteronomy 18:14-22.

[5] I’m indebted to N.T. Wright for the idea of this illustration.  John for Everyone, Part 1, (Louisville:Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 9.

[6] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 51.

[7] John 3:30.

[8] John 4:14.