Big, Bad John
Jimmy Dean wrote a famous song about a misunderstood man who dies a hero's death. This Sunday centers on a man like that in the Bible. He is misunderstood and while not dying as a hero he did die as a martyr. He share's the name of Dean's character and he too is big and bad.
John the Baptist is too bad for the world's Christmas. There aren't any Christmas ornaments, cards, or specials featuring John the Baptist. You're never going to see a manger scene with a figurine of him. Baby Jesus fits in dreams of a white Christmas, being home for Christmas, and silver bells. Big, bad, loud, intense, John the Baptist is like a bull in a china manger scene; he muddies up the snow of a white Christmas; he frightens children all snug in their beds, and he's not a silver bell but a tolling one.
Big John the Baptist is too bad for the world's Christmas. His Spartan Spirit of picky camel hair shirts and grasshoppers for food is the direct opposite of the self-indulgent spirit of the world's Christmas. Christmas is a time for over: overeating, overdrinking, overspending. John is just plain over the top. He lives in the desert; he dresses uncomfortably and won't let anyone be comfortable with themselves.
But you want to know what really makes Big John the Baptist too bad for the world's Christmas? His unrelenting confession that Christmas is about Christ. To the world's pious religiosity that Christmas is about giving, helping others, or the end of war, big, bad, John roars, "It's about Christ!" To the world's sweet sentiment that Christmas is about or for children. Big, bad John thunders, "Christmas is about Christ and Christmas is for sinners." John the Baptist tears through the world's Christmas taking an ax to every tree that points to something other than Christ.
John is just too bad for the world's Christmas and he's too big for the Christmas box you and I try to put him in. We try to keep big, bad John the Baptist in a box labeled historical characters of the Christmas story. He's really no more important than the shepherds or the Wise men. What he did was important at that time, but he has nothing to say to us.
John is too big for such a box. The Bible doesn't say of the shepherds or Wiseman that they were sent from God. From the womb, like the prophet Jeremiah, the apostle Paul, and the Savior Jesus, John was set apart by God. No one thinks the preaching of Jeremiah, Paul, or Jesus only applied to the people alive to hear them, but that's the box we try to make big, bad John to fit in, but John just keeps busting out.
The Bible doesn't say that John came as a witness to testify concerning Christ so that the men living at that time might believe through him. The Bible says that John came as a witness "so that through him all men might believe." All means all. The ministry of John the Baptist is much bigger than the couple of years surrounding Jesus being revealed as the Christ. Big, bad John's ministry is for all men of all time.
But you know what really makes bad John too big for us? Not what he confesses, but how. He's too bad for the world because he relentlessly confesses Christmas is about Christ; he's too big for us because he confesses unrelentingly. The Holy Spirit emphasizes this in the text saying, "He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely." He relentlessly denied himself and confessed that Jesus was the Light, the Christ, the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world. That's too big for me. Big, bad John the Baptist was content to get ever smaller while Christ got ever bigger. He is a bigger man than I. He constantly pointed people who gladly would've made him the centerpiece away from himself to Jesus. Not me. Christmas is about me. If I'm ready, how I feel. Bad John was so big that he willingly lost his head to confess Jesus; I'm so small that I won't lose focus on myself to center on Jesus.
John the Baptist is too bad for the world's Christmas, too big for the Christmas box we want to put him in and too full of the Holy Spirit for us to identify with him at Christmas or any other time of year. He is too full of the Holy Spirit compared to us lukewarm, tepid, apathetic Christians and that makes John so big, bad and different to us that we want to keep him safely in a Christmas box that we only have to get out once a year.
The Bible specifically says that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother's womb. Yet people deny that his baptism gave the Holy Spirit. It all stems from last week's Gospel reading where John the Baptist said, "I baptize you with water, but Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." People think John is saying that his baptism was mere water, but consider this. 1) Jesus says (John 3:5) John's baptism is water and the Spirit. 2) Scripture shows John's baptism gave Jesus the Holy Spirit. 3) Last week's text said John's Baptism forgave sin. Sins can't be forgiven without the Holy Spirit. 4) This week's text says John's ministry was so all men might believe. No one can believe without the Holy Spirit.
Big, bad John is bursting with the Holy Spirit. He was in him from his mother's womb. He was so much in His baptism that not only did it forgive sinners their sins; it gave Jesus the Holy Spirit. John saying last week, "I baptize with water but Jesus with the Holy Spirit," is another way of John saying, "I'm not the light." No, John wasn't the light; Jesus was, but that didn't mean the Light of the world didn't reflect off John. Likewise, while John did not have the power to pour forth the Holy Spirit as Jesus would do on Pentecost, he did pour forth water which had the Holy Spirit. John used the word "baptize" as a figure of speech. Jesus did that when He spoke of His suffering for sins as "a baptism I have to be baptized with." So John says that as he applies water, that's what the Greek word baptizo means, so Jesus will apply the Holy Spirit.
Jesus not John applied the Holy Spirit on Pentecost because Jesus not John won the right for sinners to have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit would not land on sinners dead in their sins no more than the dove Noah sent out would land on dead floating carcasses. But when the Holy Spirit saw the perfect man Jesus standing in the Jordan. He could land on Him. Then Jesus as a Man does what no man, woman or child ever did before Him. Jesus, though true God, as a Man keeps all the laws of God. Not even big, bad John confessed perfectly like Jesus did. Not even big, bad John believed or taught the truth about God perfectly like the Man Jesus did.
John was big and bad enough to die for his faith, but even so, his death paid for no one's sins, not even his own. The death of the perfect Man Jesus was an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. He went to the cross bearing all the sins you can think of and even the ones you can't. Jesus went to the cross bearing the sins you can forgive yourself for and even the ones you can't. Jesus went to the cross bearing the sins you would like to forget and even the ones others won't let you forget.
Jesus' perfect life and perfect death as a man in place of all men won Him the right to pour out the forgiving, life-giving Spirit on all men. Jesus won the right for big, bad sinful John the Baptist to have the Spirit in the womb. Jesus gave it to John while he himself was still in Mother Mary's womb. How? By the special means of the voice of his mother greeting John's mother. John's ministry was full of the Holy Spirit; all his preaching, teaching, and baptizing had the Holy Spirit. But it took the perfect God/Man Jesus to apply Him to sinful mankind in the first place.
John is so big and bad to us because he overflows with the Holy Spirit that we lack. What else accounts for the fact that in the face of Jesus coming at Christmas we find ourselves so weak, timid, and downcast while John is so strong, bold, and confident? What else but a lack of the Spirit accounts for the fact that we have a barrenness, an emptiness, a wilderness in our hearts even though we're surrounded by food, drink, and people? What else but the Spirit gave John a heart overflowing with a confession of the coming Jesus even though he has little food, no drink, and no company?
We will never appreciate or have room for big, bad John without having the same Spirit he had. We can only get that Spirit from whom John did: Jesus. Mary's words to John's mother had the Spirit because Jesus was in Mary's womb. Where Jesus, the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is, there the Spirit is. Jesus is in your Baptism because Galatians 3 says you put Him on when you were baptized. Jesus is in your Absolution because Jesus says whoever hears me hears Him. Jesus is in your Communion because Jesus says it is His Body and Blood that you eat and drink.
So when you find yourself morbid, downcast and depressed in the face of the coming Jesus, when your find your heart a barren, empty wilderness in the face of Christmas coming, don't go to where the world tells you the Christmas spirit is: food, drink, family, friends, giving to others, helping unfortunate children. There's certainly nothing wrong with these things, but the Spirit of Christmas is not found in any of them.
You need to go where big, bad John points to get the same Spirit He has: to Jesus. Even in this present darkness, Jesus is the One who is Light. Even though you are no more than a frail, lone voice in the midst of a wilderness of error, Jesus is the One who comes to stand with you. Even though you are not worthy to untie His sandals, Jesus is the One who tied your sinful, wretched self to His back and carried you all the way to the cross, the grave, and back out again.
Big, bad John points you to what you need for Christmas: Jesus. You'll find Him in the gift marked Baptism, the one labeled Absolution, and the one marked Communion, all these packages have your name on them. All of them are to be opened before Christmas. All of them give you the same Spirit that made big, bad John what he was then and what he still is today. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Advent (20051211); John 1: 6-8, 19-28