The Gospel Goes Up to Eleven (John 3:26-36)

The film This is Spinal Tap follows the exploits of heavy metal group Spinal Tap.  The film is shot “mockumentary” style.  That is, it’s a comedy masquerading as a documentary, much like the television series “The Office.”  In my favorite scene, the interviewer speaks with Nigel (the band’s guitarist) about their amplifiers:

Nigel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and…

Interviewer: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

Nigel : Exactly.

Interviewer: Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Interviewer: I don’t know.

Nigel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Interviewer: Put it up to eleven.

Nigel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Interviewer: Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

Nigel: ……These go to eleven.

There was a time when John the Baptist faced a popularity contest.  Jesus’ other biographers tell us that John was originally a pastor’s kid, but later in life emerged from the wilderness smelling like Grizzly Adams and talking like Billy Graham.  His major achievements weren’t about himself.  They were about his cousin, Jesus.  But as Jesus’ popularity grew, John the Baptist’s popularity began to fade:

 John 3:26-36  26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness–look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”  27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.  28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.  30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Too often life becomes nothing more than a big popularity contest.  We fool ourselves into thinking ambition is the fuel for our achievement.  We live and die by our promotions and our accolades.  But John the Baptist wanted none of this.  His whole life was spent pointing toward someone else, someone far, far greater than he.  And it was of this person that John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”  At Tri-State Fellowship, our own High School ministry uses this verse as the basis for their name: “Amp,” short for “Amplify.”  Our students learn that John the Baptist offers a very different message than that of the world.  In a world that thrives on self-promotion, John the Baptist offers a message of self-denial.  In a world of self-satisfaction, John the Baptist offers a message of self-sacrifice.

The things our world offers—pleasure, wealth, satisfaction—these are all the things that beg—nay, scream—for our attention and our devotion.  But amidst all the clamor and noise, the gospel is even louder.  The gospel goes up to eleven.

John the Baptist continues to address his lingering supporters:

31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.  32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.  33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.  34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.  35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.  36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

John drives home that Jesus is far more significant than he could ever be.  And John—that is, John the author of this gospel—wants to include these statements for a strategic purpose.  John had been assembling his gospel in the city of Ephesus, a city where Jesus’ later followers knew only some of the basics they’d heard from John the Baptist (Acts 18:25).  John the author wanted to fulfill John the Baptist’s mission: to point people to something greater than the fragments of knowledge they possessed.

In our own world, we face many challenges.  Many things will compete for our attention.  The desire for achievement, the seduction of “celebrity.”  Other things will wound us deeply.  But the common thread in all of these things was simply this: they focus on ourselves.  On our best days, we like to think that our lives are vibrant, successful, full of life.  But John was onto something important: nothing is more damaging than self-absorption.

The world around me, the thoughts within me—these things are all ramped up to the level of a “ten.”  But the gospel goes up to eleven.

Are you listening?


What Are You Looking At? – John 1:19-34

Did you ever have a situation where someone was dressed in some sort of outlandish fashion and then when you starred at the person, they were offended? Last summer, I was waiting to make a left turn onto Garland Groh Boulevard coming out of the Centre at Hagerstown parking lot. That is really not a good idea, since you have to wait and wait for so much traffic to clear! To my right, a car pulled up alongside me to make a right turn. It was now in my direct line of vision to my right, and as I looked that way, I could not help but see the woman driver who had rainbow-colored hair. We both had our windows down, and she yelled at me in an angry voice, “What are you looking at?”  I was too stunned to answer!

Today’s passage features an eccentric character called John the Baptist. He is described in greater detail in Matthew 3:4-6 where it says, “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

This fellow was not a freak show for the sake of being eccentric. He was not hustling a crowd to sell them on any product of his own. It was clearly his preaching and message that drew the throngs of spiritually-starved people to him. Yes, living essentially in the wilderness made him an odd-looking fellow for sure. But his message had a ring of truth and relevance to it, and crowds began to gather and the word began to spread about him.

And the news of this John the Baptizer had come to the ears of the Jewish religious leadership in Jerusalem. They were accustomed to various false claimants of Messianic identity – for in that time, there was a heightened level of expectation of a prophetically-promised messiah figure who would, in that context, beat up the Romans and the enemies of Israel. Could this John be that guy? He had the look of (what we would term) an Old Testament prophet. Those historic figures were rather eccentric as well. So who was this latest fellow? Certainly the masses of the people liked him; and therefore the religious leadership faction from their Jerusalem headquarters sent out a delegation to investigate and interview John.

Now understand, these entrenched religious types were not excited about messianic figures who disrupted the status quo and threatened their leadership and lifestyles. They were the epitome of “peace at all costs” and “don’t change anything” types. But they were also not completely sure and unified about what the prophetic Scriptures actually taught relative to a coming Messiah. And so they begin to go through a list of the variant popular views in their query of John …

1. Are you the Messiah?  Answer: “I am not the Messiah.”

2. Are you Elijah? (Some people expected Elijah to come based upon a passage in Malachi.)  Answer: “I am not.”

3. Are you the Prophet? (Some people wrongly interpreted Deut. 18:15 as predicting a prophet to come before the Messiah.)  Answer: “No”

4. So who are you? Dude, we can’t go back to Jerusalem without an answer!  Answer: “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

So John does claim to be a fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah 40 … simply of one who would be a voice to point to the Messiah. He was not it … not the Messiah … not the light in the darkness. He was simply a bird dog pointing to Jesus, the Christ.

5. So what’s with all this baptism stuff you’ve got going on?  Answer: John explains that his water baptism (wherein people confessed sins and identified themselves with his message of repentance and expectation) was a mere physical event … whereas the greater one who would come after him would baptize in a greater way with the Spirit.

The actual revelation of the identity of this greater person happened the very next day. As Jesus appeared before John, the Spirit revealed to John that Jesus was the one to come – the Messiah, the Lamb of God (anticipating the sacrifice of Christ), the Eternal One, the baptizer with the Spirit, the Son of God. John and Jesus were relatives through their mothers, though it is clear from this passage that before that moment, John had no idea that Christ was the Messiah … and perhaps they did not even know each other.

So what are you looking at?  We should be looking at Jesus, which is our purpose in this series – to look at Jesus and to see him as “God Up Close.”  Too often we get caught up in looking at certain preachers who currently seem to be all the craze, or ministries that have the great crowds assembling, or studying what communicative techniques best reach our culture … when we should rather be looking at Jesus.

John 1:19-34  John the Baptist and His Testimony

John the Baptist Denies Being the Messiah

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”

21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

26 “I baptize withwater,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

John Testifies About Jesus

29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

God’s Plan Tied Together – Malachi 4:1-6 / Luke 1:5-17

The founding of the colony at Jamestown, Virginia was a long time ago – 406 years to be exact. We think of that as a substantial hunk of time, and it is. And that is the amount of time that passed between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament.

Yet the story from Genesis to Revelation is one grand story of God’s work. We even speak of it in our children’s ministry curriculum at TSF as “God’s Big Story.”  It is God’s masterpiece – it is THE BIG PICTURE. And we fit into that story as his workmanship … his ambassadors to a lost world.

What might not be immediately evident in today’s two Scripture passages is that, though there are 400 years between them, the story line itself has essentially no gap. The reading in Malachi chapter 4 is the end of the Old Testament. The reading in Luke chapter 1 is actually on the flip side of the page in terms of the working out of God’s plan. Malachi ends with the promise of the return of Elijah before the great day of the Lord, and Luke says that John the Baptist is the coming and fulfillment of that prophecy.

In the previous chapter 3 of Malachi, just prior to today’s reading, the prophet wrote,  14 You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? 15 But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.’”

We have all had that feeling sometimes, right? … the sense that those who do wrong get away with things while good people suffer injustice. But the next several verses remind the readers that God is really good at record keeping, and in the end, the following happens …..

4:1 “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

Malachi says that in a final day, there will be a just judgment – of fire upon those who are evil, and of light and life upon those who are the righteous. The picture presented here is of cattle who have been penned up, and then when set free, they really do run and jump for joy!

And verse four brings back to our memory so much of what we emphasized in the writings from our Deuteronomy series this past spring – that God honors his covenant and blesses those who are obedient to remember and observe. “Remember” is a word that was used 18 times in contexts of exhortation in Deuteronomy.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

The concept of the “day of the Lord” is a bit complicated. This is the time when the Messiah does come – as Christ did, accomplishing salvation through the cross – though every aspect of the final judgment of evil and sin has not yet been fully realized. But the sunrise of this entire period was heralded by the coming and ministry of John the Baptist …

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold – Luke 1:5-17

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

So John the Baptist is sent as a sort of “warm-up” act for the coming of Jesus. His ministry was recognized by masses of people as unique, and it set up a fresh expectation of God stepping into time to fulfill his covenant promises to the nation of Israel; and we know now that the plan of God through the work of Christ was truly universal – touching us as well.

God has a master plan. It is not about just the Old Testament and the covenant people of Israel. It is not just about the Christian church. It is about how God has redeemed a lost creation of mankind back to himself through the work of Christ on the cross. The Old Testament looked forward to it – presenting the background and the need. The New Testament finishes the story by telling how it was fulfilled in Christ, and how that message is one for us to preach until such time as God returns to make an end of his entire earthly work.

In a way, it might be said that we fit into that story book somewhere in the next to last chapter. And we have a lot of history and obligations to understand and put into practice in our world. We have obligations to live in a way that we are in right relationship with God. But our obligations extend beyond ourselves – most particularly to be passing along this truth to the rising generations behind us … in our homes first, then in the church, and finally to the rest of the world. We need to understand where we (personally, and as a church) fit into God’s plan, not how do we get God to fit into our vision.

All of this story was passed down to us … over thousands of years of people transmitting it – some at the cost of their very lives. We now carry the baton, but it must be passed off as well to those who will run after us (pending God’s return). How are you involved generationally in that transfer?