Weirdos and Witnesses
Scriptures: John 1:19-34, Matthew 3:1-10
Before I read our second scripture, I want to show you some famous
paintings of John the Baptist. I think many of us carry around an image of John the Baptist that is more influenced by the gospel of Matthew than the gospel of John. Here is a Byzantine style portrait of John the Baptist by a 14th century painter named Jacopo Casentino [Slide 1]. This John the Baptist looks sort of Neanderthal, like a specimen in a museum of natural history. The second is a more famous picture of John the Baptist by the 16th century painter El Greco [Slide 2]. This John looks downright melancholy. You might not run away from him, but you would certainly want to get him in for therapy. The third painting [Slide 3] comes from a 19th century painter named Alexander Cabanel. His John looks just plain crazy.
All of these paintings take their inspiration from our first
scripture reading. Matthew says, "Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey." In each of these paintings there is a suggestion of camel's hair and mental derangement. Then Matthew gives us a sample of John's preaching. John calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers and tells them they are about to be cut down like a barren fruit tree. You can see why in some in these paintings John looks not only weird but angry.
But now I invite you to follow along as I read the portrait
of John the Baptist from the gospel of John. [Read John 1:19-34 with accompanying slides]
Did you notice how different this picture of John is from Matthew's
gospel? I am not saying that Matthew is wrong, but John's gospel wants us to see a different side of John the Baptist. In John's gospel there is no mention of John the Baptist wearing strange clothes or eating insects. In John's gospel he does not call the Jewish leaders "a brood of vipers." He does not denounce them or threaten them with judgment. There is no shouting, no hellfire and brimstone. Instead he seems almost humble. When asked, "Who are you?" he says, "Look, I am not the Messiah, I am not Elijah, I am not even one of the great prophets. I am just someone sent to tell people about the coming of the Lord." His sole claim to fame is that he points people to Jesus.
So what might John the Baptist look like today? Well if we
picture him like in the gospel of Matthew, he might look like this. [Slide 4] But if we pictured him the way he is pictured in the gospel of John, he might look like this [Slide 5] or this [Slide 6] or this [Slide 7]. In John's gospel John the Baptist is humble and approachable, the kind of person you might invite over for dinner and not have to serve locusts. [Blank]
It is striking to me that in John's gospel John the Baptist
emphasizes who he is not. He is not the Messiah; he is not the Savior of the world.
There is nothing more dangerous than people who think of
themselves as the savior of the world. I wonder how many of you remember Jim Jones. [Slide 8] For those who don't, Jim Jones was the pastor of a church in San Francisco known as the People's Temple. He built the People's Temple from almost nothing into a huge multi-cultural congregation of over 5000 members. At first he called himself a messenger of God. But gradually, as the People's Temple got bigger, he replaced faith in God with faith in Jim Jones. A former member of his church said, "In 1973 he actually came out and said he wanted to be called Father, and he wanted us to pray to him" (Mel White, Deceived, p. 57). He also began referring to himself as the Messiah.
Those of you who remember Jim Jones know how the story ends.
In 1978 he led a group of over 900 people to establish a utopian community, a kind of agricultural commune, in the jungles of Guyana. It was called Jonestown. On Nov. 17, 1978 a U. S. Congressman from San Francisco name Leo Ryan led a team to Jonestown to investigate reports of abuse. During the visit a number of Temple members asked to leave with the Congressman, but when they reached the airstrip for their return flight to the United States, they were ambushed by Jim Jones' guards, who killed Congressman Ryan and four others. The next day, Nov. 18, 1978, Jones ordered everyone in Jonestown to drink a cup of cyanide-laced grape juice. 918 people died, including 276 children. [Slide 9: Blank]
That is the extreme of the Messiah complex, but there are
many smaller examples-people who think they have the answer to all the world's problems. People like that are usually insufferable. They already know what everyone needs to do. It is not a matter of listening to people; it is a matter of convincing them or coercing them.
But John the Baptist did not come to be the Savior of the
world; he came to be a witness to the Savior. That point is made repeatedly in John, chapter 1: [Slide 10]
V. 7: "He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him."
V. 8: "He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light."
V. 15: "John testified to him and cried out, 'This was he of whom I said, He who comes after me ranks ahead of me, because he was before me.'"
V. 29: "The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, 'Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'"
John does not pretend to be anyone's savior; his job is to point people to Jesus.
But notice the humility with which John approaches that
task: verses 31-34. [Slide 11] John says,
"I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."
Notice how John does not claims to know all the answers. He says, "I
didn't know who the Savior was myself until God pointed him out to me." To be a witness you don't need to have all the answers. All you need to know is what God has done for you. That's what we see in John the Baptist. In John's gospel John does not come on the scene telling everyone else what is wrong with them. He does not come with a megaphone on a street corner telling people to repent. He shares what God has done for him. He shares the Good News of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
So what might John the Baptist look like today? Not this: [Slide 12]
an angry preacher pointing at you accusingly, but this: [Slide 13] children dressing up for a Christmas pageant to share the story of Jesus' birth. Not this: [Slide 14] and old style street evangelist, but this: [Slide 15] a congregation celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Not this: [Slide 16], but this: [Slide 17] cooking for a dinner at church that might include people from Praisealujah. I can guarantee that inviting people to a meal will be a better witness for Jesus than yelling at them through a megaphone. Even Jesus thought so.
To be a witness you need not be crazy, only caring. To be a
witness you need not be weird, only willing-willing to share the story of what God has done in your life. Being a witness is not about calling attention to yourself. It's about calling attention to Jesus, who unlike us is the real Savior.