THE PROPHET OF THE HIGHEST
And all the people, greatly expectant, were asking in their hearts, whether John might be the Messiah. John answered them all saying, "I baptize you with water, but the One is coming who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Luke 3:15-16
John the Baptizer made a good confession that day when he said, "…the coming One is mightier than I." It was quite a statement because John was no lightweight. According to Jesus, John was the greatest man ever to live, right up to our Lord's own coming.
No person ever had such divine fuss made about his birth. St. Luke reports that an angel appeared to Zechariah, John's father, and told him that though the couple was well beyond child-bearing age, his wife would bear a son. Nor would he be any ordinary child, but instead a great and mighty prophet of God who would prepare Israel to meet the now-arriving Messiah! Zechariah was told what to name him, and given a detailed account of the work that he would do. And it was the occasion of John's birth that inspired the Benedictus, the canticle that we still sing today to comfort ourselves in all that distresses us. (The Lutheran Hymnal ©1941 p.38)
John's life was special, too. From birth this theological prodigy was groomed for only one task: to call sinners to repentance, and to faith in the long-awaited Christ who would appear at any moment.
His work was also extraordinary. He was a charismatic preacher instructed by God to set up shop in the wilderness of the Jordan Valley, the most inhospitable and inaccessible place in the land, but however user-unfriendly the locale St. Luke reports that the people could not stay away. They came in record number from Jerusalem and all of Judea, and from every walk of life; and when they heard his message they believed it. They repudiated their old ways, they were baptized, pardoned of their crimes against heaven and showed forth the fruits of a repentant life.
But if John's life and ministry were singular so was his death. He ran afoul of Herod, the petty but powerful ruler, who imprisoned him and eventually handed him his head on a plate, and not even Jesus who knew of his situation intervened to save him, because this too was the plan of God who raises the dead!
That was John, the greatest man ever to live right up to the birth of our Lord, who would not be flattered by the Messianic hopes that people were pinning on Him. John understood who he was, but he understood even better who Jesus was. When people wanted to proclaim John the Savior he said this: "I baptize you with water, but the Coming One who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie."
It's an odd thing John says here about the sandals. It has been interpreted as a sign of his humility but that’s not what he was saying. For over a thousand years there was a custom in Israel that when a man was making a contract with another man he went to the city gates, gathered ten witnesses, took off his sandal and handed it to the other party as a sign that the deal was cemented. Boaz, the great great grandfather of David and distant ancestor of Jesus, did that in order to obtain a tract of land in a little town called Bethlehem: and with it to redeem a poor widow whom he loved, whose name was Ruth, and to make her his wife. When John stated that he was not worthy to untie the Lord's sandals he was saying that he was not capable of redeeming a single soul. Instead he points sinners of all ages to Jesus who, like His ancestor Boaz, loved us, redeemed us and made us His holy bride. He gave His sandal for us, only it was not that simple. In order to make sinners holy our Lord had to make the most wondrous transaction of all: God became man. It's no accident that we genuflect or reverently bow our heads at these words, "and became man." The Creator made Himself creature and subjected Himself to the Law; and by the cross He conquered sin, removed death's sting, and won eternal victory over the grave for us. John the Baptizer could not do this. We cannot do this for ourselves; nor can the many messiahs who are always promising to save us and to give us a better life.
Not even the church can do that. The most the church can do, and it is no small thing, is what John did. She preaches the word of God, and baptizes all who the Spirit calls and gathers. She daily washes us clean from the ongoing sins of the flesh, and nourishes us with the Lord's holy Flesh and Blood, making us One with Him. She also instructs and enables us to produce the fruits of repentance. There are many such fruits which we learn fully in the catechisms, but John focuses on one species: the good work of sharing this world's goods with those who have none. The church says to all of her sons: let him who has two coats give one to the person who has none. To God's people in public office and in positions of power she says: don't extort money from people, don't falsely accuse the innocent of wrong, and be content with your wages.
Though our circumstances are different from John's the lesson is the same: be generous. Take note of the need of others, and quietly take care of it because our needs have been generously met by the One who was baptized for us, in the blood of the cross. By His death, we are purified and made to shine like refined silver. Whatever we might look like to the world, or to the mirror, because of Jesus we are to be pure and blameless: the wheat of God separated from the chaff by the Messiah who gave His sandal for us. To Him alone be all might and glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.
~Rev. Dean Kavouras