John 1:6-8, 19-31
“Point to the Light”
December 14, 2008 - Third Sunday in Advent
My mother taught me that it’s not polite to point. John the Baptist made a career out of it. You might say his whole ministry was spent with his arm and finger extended, pointing away from himself and toward Jesus.
In verses 8 of our text, John the Gospel writer talks about John the Baptist’s pointing in terms of light. “He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.” That’s John’s story. He’s not the main act. He’s like whoever warmed up for Elvis Presley or Janis Joplin or Bob Dylan or Taylor Swift. The warm-up show is not the one you came to see. It’s only there to get you ready for the one about to take the stage.
John himself understood his role very well. In the next part of the text in verse 19 we see him confronted by priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem to find out who he is. Remember from last week that huge crowds were coming out to hear him and be baptized. Enough people came that Mark could say it was everyone in the whole region without exaggerating too much. So the Jewish leaders were curious. Who is this man? Has the Messiah arrived? A prophet?
From the get go, John knew who he was and his relation to the one to come. In verse 20, we hear him confess, and the Gospel writer adds that he “confessed freely,” “I am not the Messiah.” Unlike so many of us modern folk, John didn’t spend a lot of thought and energy worrying about who he was. As the rest of that conversation with the delegates from Jerusalem unfolds, John shows that he was most sure about who he was not.
“Are you Elijah?”
“I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
Well then, “Who are you?” they finally exclaimed with frustration in verse 22. “Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us.” “Who are you?”
So in verse 23 John identified his own little place in the Hebrew Scriptures. He was the answer to the prophecy found in Isaiah 40 verse 3, “the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” Not the Messiah, not any great figure of history or prophecy, not anyone in particular. Just a voice.
In verse 24, it’s Pharisees who want to know. Not priests this time, but the leading laymen, the most upright and righteous citizens want to know about John. “Why then do you baptize,” they asked, “if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet,” promised in Deuteronomy 18:15? Why does he listen to people confess their sins, then dunk them in muddy water unless John is really a special guy sent from God?
That’s just it. As verse 6 said, John was sent from God. But the whole point of what he did was a demonstration that he was not special. He was not the guy. Not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. Whatever is going on, whatever great thing God is doing, whatever the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven is all about, John knows this: he’s not the guy.
All John’s antics, the camel hair clothing, the diet of grasshoppers, the dunking of repentant sinners, were done not to draw attention to himself, but to point beyond himself. If John had been a dog, he’d have been a pointer. His whole purpose in life was to stand and point away from himself and toward the one who was to come.
So verses 26 and 27 are the heart and soul of John’s message, of what the voice crying in the wilderness was sent to cry, “I baptize 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.” John was just the opener. The star of the show was about to appear.
At one point, like many young children, I became fascinated with the performance of magic. I checked magic books out of the library and tried to practice card tricks and construct magic cardboard tubes out which to pull endless stretches of my mother’s scarves. I didn’t get very far, but along the way I learned one of the key principles of those who perform magical illusions. Much of what they do is aimed at directing your attention… to the wrong place.
All the flash and the drama and the amazing sets behind performers like David Copperfield or Criss Angel are there to keep your eyes focused in the wrong place, usually on the performer. He wants to you look at him, listen to him, focus where he directs you. Don’t think about wires or doors or hidden assistants anywhere else. Keep your eyes on him and your mind on his words. That’s how a magician manages to deceive your eyes and make you think you saw something that didn’t really happen. But the whole point of John’s performance was to make you look elsewhere, direct your eyes away from him, to direct you to, as he said, the one who was to come.
John who wrote this Gospel also directed attention away from himself. He wants us to see the one he’s writing about, not the writer. He doesn’t give his name as the author, and later on when he mentions his place in the story, it’s only as “the beloved disciple,” giving no indication he’s talking about himself. John the Gospel writer did what John the Baptist did. He pointed away from himself and pointed toward someone else. It was the calling of these two Johns, and it’s the calling of every John, of every man (and woman) to do the same, to point others to the light, to point others toward Jesus.
That’s why we are here as a church. We want to point people toward the light. As John writes in verse 9, we want them to see “the true light that gives light to everyone.” We want them, we want ourselves, to see Jesus and to focus on Him. That’s the point. That’s what we’re pointing toward. Jesus Christ as the center and focus of everything we do is what being Christian is all about.
In the history of Christian art, John the Baptist shows up all the time as a pointer toward Jesus. A painting by Bartolomé Murillo in the seventeenth century is typical. John stands to Jesus’ left, holding a long cross made of reeds, symbolizing his ascetic life. John is really more visible. He’s cloaked in red. But his right hand is uplifted and his finger is extended, pointing toward the figure cloaked in the purple of royalty and suffering. He’s pointing to Jesus.
In verse 29 of our text, John literally points his own disciples toward Jesus and away from himself. “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John has been baptizing everyone who came to him repenting of their sins. Mark told us last week that their sins were being forgiven as they were baptized. But now John wants his people to know that his work is only the beginning. His baptism and the forgiveness it brings is only temporary. They’ve all been waiting for someone greater, someone who would not offer merely forgiveness, but who would take away sin.
Verses 30 and 31 explain that preparing for Jesus to come and take away sin was John’s whole purpose. “This is the one I meant,” says verse 30. And in verse 31, “the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed.” John came to show the world Jesus. He had no other mission.
You and I in Valley Covenant Church have no other mission than to show the world Jesus. We are here to point to him in word, in song, in lifestyle and in acts of love. We come like the people came first to John, as sinners who need forgiveness. John points us and then we point others to the One who takes away sin.
Jesus took away sin by dying on the Cross and rising again. In words from Isaiah 53:7, He was “led like a lamb to the slaughter,” because of our sins, because of all that we’ve done wrong. That’s why John called Jesus the Lamb of God. He was given the spiritual insight to see that Jesus would become the sacrificial Lamb for the sins of His people.
So John is also often pictured in Christian art with a lamb, reminding us of how he pointed to Jesus, identifying Him as the saving Lamb of God. In a vivid, even gruesome crucifixion scene on the altarpiece in Isenheim, Germany, the sixteenth century painter Grünewald shows John the Baptist to the left of Jesus on the Cross. A lamb with the reed cross is at his feet. John’s dressed in red again. The light is shining brightly on him, while Jesus and the Cross are dark. Yet in the light on John we see a long, dramatic finger extended, directing us away from him, pointing to Jesus, pointing to the Lamb who died for our sins.
Here is the Jesus to whom John was pointing. Here is the Jesus we want to point out to the world. It’s very good to tell people that Jesus loves them. It’s very, very good to do acts of kindness in Jesus’ name. But the point is to point, to point like John did to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Love and kindness might just call attention to ourselves, make others think what nice people we are. But we want people to know that we don’t have answers for them. We can’t solve their problems. Don’t focus on us. Focus on Jesus and receive His forgiveness and salvation.
It’s easy to forget and to put the focus back on ourselves. The gospel writer recognizes that temptation in the Baptist when verse 20 emphasizes about John that, “He did not fail to confess” that he was not the Messiah. It’s easy to fail, to think that you or I have answers that people need, that we know how to straighten people out, whether it’s our spouse or child or a friend at school. But, like John, we are not the Messiah. We are not Jesus. We’re here to point to him.
Even in Advent, as Christmas approaches, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation that this season is about ourselves. In thinking of spiritual preparation for Christmas, we want to make ourselves ready for the best possible personal experience of Christmas joy and excitement. Advent is a time for doing things that will make December 25 happier and better for me because I’ve done them. Do you see the danger in that way of thinking? A season that’s supposed to be all about pointing us to Jesus transforms into another form of our contemporary disease of narcissism. It becomes all about us.
Our self-centered illness shows up even in that art which shows John pointing to Jesus. There’s a wonderfully beautiful painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the 15th century. It’s a gorgeously ornate scene showing the adoration of the Christ Child by the magi and a whole crowd of others. And John the Baptist appears at the bottom, in the foreground, with that same right finger uplifted and extended, pointing toward the Baby.
Yet Ghirlandaio himself did not quite get the point of John’s pointing. For almost directly above, framed by two bars of John’s cross, is a face that is not looking at Jesus. He’s looking out at us who are viewing the painting. It’s a self-portrait. That’s Ghirlandaio’s face. The artist painted himself, staring out to see how you and I like his art. He’s missed his own point.
You and I don’t want to be like Ghirlandaio. There is so much to see in his wonderful painting of Jesus’ birth, so much joy, so much beauty. That’s because there is so much joy and beauty to be found in the subject, in Christ Himself, the precious Lamb who takes away our sins and gives us forgiveness and eternal life. There is so much joy in Christmas because it is all about Jesus, all about the One who is the greatest. The way into that joy is to forget ourselves and to point to Him, to point to the light that He brings into the world. We find joy as we point away from ourselves and point toward His light.
Our friend Mary who is now with the Lord grew up in Golden, Colorado. She was the daughter of a miner. Her parents died when she was a teenager, leaving her to raise the other three children of the family by herself. But Mary remembered her father and remembered his experience of joy in a story that stayed with her all her life.
She would go with the women and children to meet her father at the mine after work was over. They gathered at the mouth of the shaft and waited for their men to appear, riding the mine car up and out. It would be quiet, everyone listening. Then faintly they would hear the miners coming, joking and laughing. But as they neared the top, one of the men would point up at the first glimmer of daylight and the laughter stopped. Then they started singing. That’s how Mary remembered her father, pointing at the light and singing for joy as he rose up into it.
That’s what we want to be about this morning, this Advent, this Christmas in the year to come: pointing at the light and rising up into it, singing for joy. If you don’t yet know Christ as your light, as your Savior, we would like to point you to Him here in this fellowship. We want you to be able to share the joy of having your sins forgiven and taken away in Jesus. We would like to help you discover just what Christmas really is all about, that the light of God really did come to you in this Baby we celebrate.
For the rest of us, we want to become better pointers. In your bulletin this morning you find a list of suggestions for how you might share the light of Christ, pointing them to Jesus in this time before Christmas. Please use these as little or as much as the Holy Spirit leads you. But please take time to think about how you can be like John, how you can point those around you to Jesus. And in your pointing, may you rise into His joy, the joy eternal.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj