The Great "I Am"
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Today’s Gospel lesson is in some ways a repeat of what we heard in last week’s Gospel reading. Last week we heard about John the Baptist according to Gospel of Mark. Today, we hear about John the Baptist according to the Gospel of the apostle John.
Now John in today’s reading has left us a good example of something that literary professors call step-parallelism. While parallelism compares two people or things that have similar characteristics, step-parallelism uses this comparison to show that the second person or object has these characteristics in a way that is greater than our understanding. That is, we build up someone and then we show that a second someone is even greater.
In today’s lesson John the Baptist is described as an honest, faithful prophet who preached the words that the Holy Spirit gave him to preach. He was even prophesied about by Isaiah who some 700 years earlier wrote: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” John says of himself: “I am that voice.”
In his gospel the apostle makes it very clear that the Baptist is faithful, honest, driven, and fearless. That John the Baptist is a great man and a very real force of history. Now comes the step- parallelism. When John the Baptist had the opportunity to describe the One who came after him, He said: “I am not worthy to untie the strap of His sandal.”
Now we can easily make the case that John the Baptist was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. And yet, he says he’s not worthy to even bow down and untie the sandals of the One he was sent to reveal. The step-parallelism seen in our lesson says that John the Baptist is great, but he’s nothing when compared to the One who already stood among them.
You see, there’s one little three-letter word that describes the difference between John the Baptist and the One who followed him. That word is “NOT.” When the Jewish authorities came to investigate John, they asked, “Who are you?” He freely confessed, “I am not the Christ.” Those three words: “I am not,” are the great difference between him and the One who followed him.
The One who followed him would say, [John 8:58] “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” He would also say, [John 6:35] “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” [John 8:12] “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” [John 10:11] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” [John 11:25–26] “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” [John 14:6] “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The One who followed John is the One who spoke to Moses from the burning bush and said, [Exodus 3:14] “I AM WHO I AM.” The great prophet John the Baptist could proclaim the blessings, but the blessings became reality only in the One who followed him … the great “I AM. “
But the One who followed John did not come in the expected way. We expect important people to come in important ways. We expect servants. We expect wealth. Important people demand service and they get it. Nevertheless, this One who followed John … who was more important than John said, [Mark 10:45] “[I] came not to be served but to serve, and to give [My] life as a ransom for many.”
The One whose sandal John was not worthy to untie came to serve you. St. Paul certainly writes the same thing to the Philippians as God reveals though him: “He (Jesus) humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” That is, Jesus came to die for you. He came to ransom you. He came to earn eternal life for you and for all who live under the law.
The delegation that came from Jerusalem to check on John had its answers. The sad thing in today’s lesson is that the men in the delegation wanted to know who John was, but they didn’t want to hear his message or the One he spoke about. When John told them about the Greater One who was already in the crowd, right then standing among the people, they weren’t impressed. As far as they were concerned, no one in the crowd looked very Messianic.
The problem is that the men in the delegations had preconceived notions about the coming Messiah and His messenger. John didn’t measure up either. I’d say again but really, he’s first. He was the first not to be what the leaders of Israel expected. They were looking for the Messiah to reveal Himself in worldly glory and power.
They expected the Messiah’s messenger to be a reflection of that glory and power. This shaggy beard, camelhair coat wearing eccentric just did not fit their preconceived notion of the prophet of the Messiah. Their preconceived notions blinded them to the blessings that God wanted to give them through His servant John the Baptist.
John the Evangelist, his brother James, and all the other disciples of the Baptist would soon meet the Christ, but the men in these delegations would miss out. They passed up the opportunity of a lifetime because John the Baptist didn’t meet their expectations.
And the sad truth is nothing has changed in over two thousand years. We still let our expectations block or limit our relationship with God. We expect our religion to teach us how to get along with others even though thousands of years of human history show us that it can’t be done. We expect our religion to teach us how to lead an honorable life even though we have inherited the curse of sin from our parents.
We expect our religion to make us happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise. In short, we expect our religion to teach us how to live happy and prosperous lives here on this earth and how to earn our way into heaven when we leave this world. We conveniently forget or ignore that the Scriptures, the very word of the One true God, clearly teaches that this is impossible. It seems that we, in our heart of hearts, would rather pretend than repent and trust God to work His will in our lives.
You see, the salvation God earned for us is unexpected. That the true God, the Almighty Lord and creator of all things would pay the price of salvation for such rebellious people, simply makes no sense. Who would expect Him to then offer this gift of life to all … for free? Who would expect God to leave His throne of glory and take on human flesh and blood and live under the authority of the law?
Who would expect our Savior to hide His divinity in the womb of a virgin? Who would expect a savior that was so poor that even in His death He had to be laid in a borrowed tomb? Who would expect salvation to come from the blood of one stretched out on a cross? Who would expect this dead so called “author of this salvation” to rise from the dead or to ascend into heaven?
And yet this is the salvation promised in the Scriptures and provided for all by the One who followed John the Baptist, the One who is for you and for all the great “I AM.”
In His Name, Amen