Okay, pop quiz: Was John’s baptism of human origin, or divine origin?
Take a minute and lock in your answer.
A little backstory…
Jesus’s mother (Mary) had a cousin named Elizabeth. She and her husband Zechariah were both “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” (Luke 1:6) Good people, though old, and without children.
Zechariah was a beloved Jewish priest, one of many. Every year, only once a year, and for just a few moments, a priest was selected to go into the inner-most room of the temple and burn incense as an offering to God. The priest to do this was chosen by casting lots (think: drawing straws, basically random chance), and this year, Zechariah was selected.
This was serious business. I heard one preacher explain that before entering this inner room, the priest would tie a rope around his waist. In case he was ceremonially unclean or he did something offensive while in there and was struck dead, the other priests could pull his body out. They wouldn’t dare go in after him, and they didn’t want to leave him in there until they could go in next year. And even then, they wouldn’t be able to touch him because then they would become ceremonially unclean.
While Zechariah was inside, he saw the angel Gabriel (the same angel that told Mary she would have a son) who told Zechariah:
“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.” (Luke 1: 13-17)
Zechariah’s response? “How can I be sure of this? I’m an old man, and my wife is well along in years.” So the angel told him that he’d remove Zachariah’s ability to speak until his son was born… and named John. When Zechariah came out of the temple, everyone could see that he had had a vision, though he couldn’t articulate it. He went home, and soon his wife became pregnant.
His wife (Elizabeth) had her son, and when it came time to name him, everyone wanted to name him after his father (who, by the way, still couldn’t speak). But Elizabeth wanted to name him John, even though everyone reminded her that no one in her family has that name. (Ah, the parenting advice of strangers. Some things never change.) Reluctantly, they agreed to ask Zechariah. Luke explains (1: 63-66) “He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.”
So this story was well-known among the Jewish community, and in fact, it spread throughout the country. Everyone knew of John’s spectacular birth story, and how God directly intervened.
Fast forward about 30 years.
John is doing his work, bringing people back to God and proclaiming that Jesus is the long-awaited and prophesied Messiah. He gets beheaded as the innocent victim of what amounts to a bar bet by a drunk King Herod. (Remember the Massacre of the Innocents? This “King Herod” was the son and heir of that “King Herod”. Like father, like son, I guess.)
Fast forward again.
Now, in the final week before His crucifixion, Jesus makes his way into Jerusalem and is spending every day teaching in the temple, calling more and more people to God and healing those with afflictions.
Catholics refer to this as “Holy Week”, the week before Easter. Something to think about: if you knew you were going to be murdered on Friday, would you spend the preceding weekdays telling people about God?
Matthew’s gospel (21: 23-27) records:
“Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you this authority?’
Jesus replied, ‘I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?’
They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’
So they answered Jesus, ‘We don’t know.’
Then he said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.'”
The answer: it was from God… and everyone knew it. Even the chief priests – who knew the story of Zechariah (a fellow chief priest) and his son. No doubt, some of the chief priests who were here when Jesus was teaching were also there when Zechariah came out of the temple, unable to speak. They knew, but they didn’t want to admit it.
John 12: 42-43 says it best “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God.”
Openly confessing belief in Jesus meant that they may lose some of their earthly position. “May”. They were afraid of possibly losing their jobs. They were afraid of what might happen. And rather than trusting in God, the turned away.
Standing right in front of them was God Himself, ready to reveal Himself to anyone who wanted to see. All they had to do was loosen their grip on the life they had grown to cherish, but they just. couldn’t. let. go.
And they knew it, but rather than admit it and ask for help, they lied and said, “we don’t know.” And Jesus said, “okay, I won’t force Myself into your life.” In fact, He says that all the time.
When we give up things for Lent, it’s not an atonement for our sins. (Jesus already picked up that check for us.) It’s a time to remind ourselves of what’s really important. To remind us that we can – and should – be free from the things in this world that turn our hearts away from God. He’s there, ready to receive us with a big, giant, loving hug. All we have to do is loosen our grip on the things of this world.
And if you’re having a hard time letting go? That’s okay, too. Just tell Him you’re struggling, ask Him for help, and keep your eyes open for a miracle. One’s coming for you.