A sermon by Patrick H. Wrisley
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.
Gaudete Sunday, Joy Sunday, seems an odd day to have a profile snapshot of John the Baptizer but the framers of the lectionary knew what they were doing. This morning, we are going to look at the relationship between John the Baptizer and joy, look at what joy is, and then see how we can apply it to our own pandemically roiled lives.
Now think with me a moment of John the Baptizer. Is he the type of guy you would want to invite to your Christmas party? What’s our world’s prima facia opinion on John? Would he be considered the life of the party or perceived as a major Debbie-downer? The Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – paint an entirely different picture of John the Baptizer in their gospel Stories than does John the Evangelist’s gospel.
In John the Evangelist’s Story, the Baptizer is not so abrasive, abrupt or antagonistic as in the other gospel accounts. John the Baptist is not running around yelling at people, “You brood of vipers” or “Who warned you of the wrath to come!?” He does not demand people to repent or face the consequences of a vengeful God. John the Baptizer in John the Evangelist’s gospel is portrayed in a different way. He simply shows up on the scene.
The confrontations begin when skeptical religious officials from Jerusalem cajole a bunch priests and Levites, i.e., those who helped out around the Temple as their social responsibility, to go check out John the Baptizer and see what he’s up to down by the riverside. They pepper the Baptizer with four questions: Twice they ask him, “Who are you?” Then they ask if he is Elijah. Then they ask if he is the great prophet along the lines of a new Moses come to lead the people out of slavery. Finally, they ask him what’s all this baptizing going on; what it’s all about?
We get the feeling that John is minding his own business when a group of agitators come from the capital and start stirring things up. The Baptizer does everything he can to point away from himself and John fails to succumb to the temptation of stepping into the limelight. Without hesitation, he declares –
I am not the Messiah.
I am not the great prophet Elijah who has come back.
I am not the neo-prototype super prophet like our father Moses.
I am a voice that comes from a very humble, unpretentious man who serves on God’s Advance Team to help the people in their preparations for the Coming One.
I am the one who is getting the road straightened out, prepping the highway from the east to become smoother and easier to navigate for the coming king who will lead us out of our bondage, brokenness and Divine alienation.
I am the one who comes to the children of God, like a wet-nurse, to give you food to strengthen your weak soul and spirit and ensures you are all cleaned up for when your momma arrives.
I am the one who is to identify the One who is already standing in this very group of people who will bring redemption to Israel!
I am the one who is bringing great news, joyous news – not heavy, bad or lugubrious news that you better get ready or else!
John the Evangelist portrays John the Baptizer in a diametrically different way than the other gospel writers do. John’s word in the fourth gospel are words that inspire hope, excitement, and generates joy! Why do I say that? Look with me at verse 23: John is quoting the Hebrew prophet Isaiah from Isaiah 40.3 when he says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!” You might look at me and say, “Well, so what?” Go ahead and ask me together! “Well, so what?”
I’m glad you asked! You see, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that for the most part, many of us don’t know our Bibles very well. As a result, we miss the fact that the words John the Baptizer quotes from the prophet Isaiah are very important words. You see, the Hebrew Book of Isaiah has three major movements to it. In the first movement, there is the condemnation of people because they have forsaken the Lord God and there will be consequences for those actions. The second movement in Isaiah’s Story is that because of the peoples’ rejection of God, they will be taken into exile by a foreign occupier. The third movement in Isaiah’s Story occurs in Isaiah 40 which speaks of God’s running to the people of Israel and wants to bring them back home victoriously. It’s a movement in Isaiah’s Story that reminds Israel that God is not done with them yet and that indeed, God himself will be coming to redeem and liberate his beloved. Hear the first words from Isaiah 40 and dare to tell me these words would not elicit incredible joy within you and the nation:
1Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Are these bad news words? No! They are joyous words! They remind us that God, in the midst of the turmoil of enslavement and exile that there is a joyous, deeply rooted hope and expectation that God is present and God comes to rescue. It’s as though the Baptizer were standing on the walls of Jerusalem pointing East saying, “Look, brothers and sisters! Here comes the Lord God himself over the brow of the Mount of Olives! Make his way straight!”
Beloved, it’s important not to confuse joy with happiness. Our happiness is determined by external circumstances. If something good happens to us, we’re happy. If not, we’re sad. Joy is different. Joy is an attitude a person has and a way a person lives life. Joy is a seat that one takes and observes the world and life with the mindset, “The storms of my life are severe, painful, and scary but in the midst of my pain, in the midst of my anxious fear, I have abiding joy that I am not left alone and that God is with me come hell or high water.
Come COVID or cancer –
Come divorce or separation –
Come layoffs or dismissals –
Come failing grades or disrupted social routines –
Come economic downturns or political upheaval –
Regardless of whatever befalls me in a way that demeans, dehumanizes, or delegitimizes me, I know that I know that I know that, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 8, nothing can separate me, you, any of us from the passionate love of God in Jesus Christ! This is what John the Baptist is trying to get us to remember today. This is what joy is! This is why we have our joy!
Humor me just a little. I am going to start singing and I want you to join in with me. This is a reminder from our teachers at Happy Land.
I have the joy, joy, joy, joy
Down in my heart (where?)
Down in my heart (where?)
Down in my heart!
I have the joy, joy, joy, joy, joy
Down in my heart, (where?)
Down in my heart to stay!
And with that, Amen!
© 2020 Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min., Senior Pastor and Teaching Elder, First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.