The John the Baptist Window
This sermon is part of a Lenten midweek series on our sanctuary stained-glass windows.
Text: Isa. 40:3-8, Mal. 4:1-6, Matt. 3:1-17
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It must be a strange feeling to be at the center of a prophecy being fulfilled. While it’s true that we’re all bound up in the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning Christ redeeming the world from sin, it must be a completely different experience to know that a prophet uttered some word from the Lord about you specifically, centuries before your birth.
Imagine how John the Baptizer must have felt as he stood in the Jordan River, watching the multitudes of people streaming out of Jerusalem and the entire region of Judea, to be baptized by him. The words of Malachi must have been going through his head, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” As he heard their confession, waist deep in the water, and as he spoke absolution to them, restoring them, he must have heard in his head, “And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers…” He knew that there was a greater purpose to all this. Isaiah had spoken about him, “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” The Lord was coming. And whenever the Lord showed up, goodness was revealed and sin was exposed. The Lord’s light was too bright for good to be overlooked any longer; it was too bright for evil to remain hidden. It had exposed both good and bad in the Garden of Eden. It had shown the Law and lawlessness at Mt. Sinai. It revealed the sins of God’s people, and illuminated the promise of the Messiah, God in human flesh, who was coming. So John, as he had been appointed to do, as he had been blessed by God with the skills and personality and fortitude to do—John was preparing people to stand before God in the flesh. You can see it in our stained-glass window. There on John’s face the artist has done a masterful job showing the focus, the single-mindedness of that which he was born to do. And in the background we see one of the faithful, eyes up to heaven, thanking God that such a preacher had been sent, that the Elijah before the Messiah was finally here.
Not all were prepared though. “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” They had come for the spectacle of it all, to see this reed shaken by the wind, to hear this preacher that had become the fascination of all Jerusalem and Judea. They were not coming to be prepared to stand before God. As far as they were concerned, they had no need for such preparation. They said to themselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” Their bloodline and pedigree made them shoe-ins. They had no need of saving, thank you very much, desert preacher.
But John knew the prophecy about him and what he had been sent to preach: “A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.” And Malachi had said, “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch…Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet before [that] great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of the [fathers and children], lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” If their hearts would not be turned back to their heavenly Father, they would face a judgment of utter destruction that they would be unable to bear. So John called out to them too, in spite of their miscalculations about themselves and their own goodness: “You brood of vipers! Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
Perhaps because of this interaction between John and the Pharisees, we often think of John as a wild-eyed, fire-and-brimstone preacher. But if his only mode of speaking and preaching was calling people a brood of vipers and threatening chopping and burning, then those coming to actually confess their sins would have run away from him in despair and terror of conscience. Yes, he had sharp words of warning, sharp as an axe set to cut to down a tree, but those words were reserved for a select few, for those who needed it.
Our artists who made this window have captured a truer nature in John. The determined, peaceful face; the eyes focused on Jesus, the Mightier One who has come to do what John—and all of us—could not. And there’s another detail. It’s common in depictions of John the Baptist, but it’s easy to miss in our window until it’s pointed out; then you can’t help but look at it constantly. With one hand, John is baptizing. With the other, he’s holding a staff. But look closer. The staff is a cross. The horizontal beam of it is thin, just above the center of the background circle, right over that little red square in the middle. John the Baptizer is holding a cross as he baptizes the Lamb of God who has come to fulfill all righteousness—something Jesus would complete on His own cross.
That’s the whole point of repentance, what John the Baptist preached. That’s the whole point of being called away from sin, away from self-righteousness, away from all the things we do that we put our trust in. That’s the whole point, whether it’s preached by John or Peter or Paul or Jesus, or even me or any other preacher. The cross is why we repent; the cross is why we’re called to repent. Repentance is about so much more than shaping up and flying right. It’s not just about going through a different, better set of motions. Repentance is about changing—changing our behavior, yes, of course, by leaving behind those things that have come between us and God. But repentance is about changing more: changing our thoughts, our focus, our hope. It’s about changing where we put our trust. Repentance is about moving away from being just another viper in the brood, trusting in our wit or craftiness or strength or even our own goodness. Repentance is about recognizing that nothing is hidden from God’s light and then asking God Himself to take away all that’s been revealed in us as sin. Repentance means doing what John is doing in our window and holding the cross, holding it as if our life depended on it, because in all truthfulness, our life does depend on it, entirely.
Learn from John this Lent. Hold the cross. Look only at Jesus. It’s going to get tricky. The world will scream and dance for your attention. You’ll be tempted to navel gaze and look at what you’ve been doing right as you stand on the banks of the Jordan. But Lent calls to you again. Repent. Turn around. Look to Jesus. And know that in your Savior, every prophecy of salvation is being fulfilled. It’s being fulfilled about you. You are the One Jesus is fulfilling all righteousness for. The prophet Malachi has spoken about you, “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” In the name of Jesus, who has fulfilled all righteousness. Amen.