Click HERE for an audio version of this message.
Transformers – more than meets the eye. Looks can be deceiving. Things are not always what they seem. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. These are just a few of the phrases that came to my mind as I thought about our theme for today. What the eye sees differs from what God decrees.
How does that apply to John the Baptizer? Well, John attracted a lot of eyes. To the naked eye he looked like what people thought the prophet Elijah must have looked like. The Bible says that Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him. Many were convinced that he was a prophet from God, which he was. This was especially exciting for God’s people because there had been a famine of the word of God. In other words, God had not sent a prophet to his people for hundreds of years. No one living at the time had seen or heard one.
John was a big deal. But how big of a deal was he? Luke tells us that they were all wondering in their hearts if John might be the Christ. They were expecting, hoping, praying that God would fulfill his promise and send the Messiah. To many, John looked like he might just be the one.
But what the eye sees differs from what God decrees. What had God decreed about John?
His father Zechariah prophesied about him, you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, because you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of God’s tender mercies, by which the Rising Sun from on high will visit us, to shine on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Jesus and the Gospel writers call him the voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” the one foretold by Isaiah the prophet.
John was a part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Messiah, but he was not the Messiah. And he humbly understood and accepted the role God had given him. He very clearly told the crowds who were wondering if he might be the Christ, I am not the Christ. He did all he could to divert the eyes of the people who were looking for the Messiah away from himself. He said, “I baptize you with water. But someone mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. If you think I’m great, wait until you see the real Prophet, the Messiah. He is so much greater than I am that I’m not worthy to perform the lowliest task of a servant for him. He may have reminded them that the Messiah was to be a prophet like Moses, one who did amazing miracles, but he, John, didn’t do any miracles. And John’s humble acceptance of his role continued when Jesus started to become more popular than he was and he responded by saying, he must become greater, I must become less.
To the human eye, John and his successful work of calling people to repentance and baptizing probably thousands looked so great that some thought he was the coming Messiah. But the decree of God was that he only prepare the way for the Messiah.
John really built up the one coming after him in the eyes of those who heard him. He would be infinitely greater than John. He would baptize people with the Holy Spirit and fire. He existed before John was born, in fact, from all eternity. He would clean out his threshing floor. He will gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. A clear reference to being the judge of all on the Last day, gathering believers to himself like wheat, but sending the unbelievers off like chaff to the unending fires of hell.
How would you picture someone who is described in that way? Maybe 6’ 6”, solid muscle, with a voice like James Earl Jones, and a strange glow of power surrounding him?
You can imagine the consternation of most when John pointed to Jesus and said, “there he is. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There’s the one I’ve been telling you about. The Messiah.”
What? That 30-year-old carpenter from Nazareth? He doesn’t look like someone who can baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He doesn’t look like a miracle worker who will one day judge the world. From Nazareth! Nathaniel said it, Nazareth, can anything good come from there? Just as Isaiah had foretold, He had no attractiveness and no majesty. When we saw him, nothing about his appearance made us desire him. He was despised and rejected by men… Like someone whom people cannot bear to look at, he was despised, and we thought nothing of him.
What did the eyes see when they looked at Jesus? A very ordinary man, a carpenter from Nazareth who had no power or wealth, no army, and very few followers. But what did God decree?
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. While he was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love. I am well pleased with you.”
God decreed that this 30-year-old carpenter from Nazareth was more than meets the eye. He is in fact Immanuel, God’s Son from all eternity. He is not just a man, but the perfect man, one with whom the father could be well pleased, one who had lived hi whole life without sin. And he made it clear that he was the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, by having the Holy Spirit descend on him, designating him, as anointing did in the Old Testament, as our Prophet, Priest and King and ordaining him for his public ministry. Soon he would begin preaching and teaching, performing amazing miracles, even raising the dead. After a few years he would look even less like the Messiah as he would be crowned with thorns and nailed to a cross. But again, God would decree that he is the Son whom he loves, with whom he is well pleased, by raising him from the dead on Easter.
None of this should surprise us. Our first reading for today shows us that even the great Prophet Samuel had to learn that what the eye sees often differs from what God decrees. Of all of Jesse’s sons, David looked like the least likely to be the one who would replace Saul as king. But God decreed that he was the one and Samuel anointed him.
It shouldn’t surprise us then that God still works this way. What does the eye see in baptism? Plain old ordinary water, and often a helpless, crying child. But what does God decree? He decrees, you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. Indeed, as many of you as were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. He decrees, do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him by this baptism into his death, so that just as he was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too would also walk in a new life. For if we have been united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united with him in the likeness of his resurrection. He decrees, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call.” He decrees, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the body but the guarantee of a good conscience before God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Wow! The eye sees simple water. But the ear hears the powerful word of God attached to the water, which makes baptism the washing of rebirth and the renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs in keeping with the hope of eternal life.
What the eye sees differs from what God decrees. The one who looked to the eye to be a lowly carpenter from Nazareth is decreed by God to be his beloved Son, our Savior, Immanuel, God with us. What looks like plain old water, when combined with God’s powerful word and promise, is decreed to be a means of grace, a washing of rebirth and renewal through which the Holy Spirit works to bring us to saving faith in Jesus. What we see in the mirror every day is a chief of sinners, but God decrees us a saint, robed in the righteousness of Jesus, washed not just by the water of Baptism, but through it, washed in the blood of Jesus his Son that has cleansed us from all our sins.
May we learn from Jesus’ baptism to always trust what God decrees more than what our eyes see. Only then will we get to see him as he really is, our glorious Lord and Savior.