1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In the ancient world, a Rabbi could ask a disciple to do a lot of things. He could ask you to fetch water for him. He could demand that you carry a burden for him. You might have to cook his breakfast. It was part of the honor and respect a student paid to a teacher at the time. But there were limits. A Rabbi could not ask a disciple to untie his laces or carry his shoes. In a day and age before modern sewer systems, shoes were considered especially dirty. That was a task for a slave. A disciple was above that.
Did you hear what John the Baptist said here? He was not worthy to untie the laces of the one who came after him. He was beneath a slave status. In the Roman world, you did not get much lower than that. John said that he was lower than that.
I attended a boarding Lutheran high school. We drew students from all over the country, including the son of a former LCMS district president who became my good friend. I visited his house once over spring break. My friend’s grandfather was aged and failing, but his mom, who was a nurse, and his father, the former district president, had kept the grandfather at home. One day as we were heading out the door to explore my friend’s city, I encountered his father coming out of the grandfather’s room. With rubber gloves and an unmistakable odor, it became very clear what he had just been doing for the old man. I remember my stomach turning a little and being shocked that a man of his station would do that. I was young and had never been in that situation before.
As we come to the annual observance of the Incarnation of Christ, John the Baptist reminds us of just how much Christmas means. John is so much lower than the one who comes. That One baptizes with the Spirit. John merely splashes water. Jesus tells us that John was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. And yet, that One who is so much greater than us comes to share our full humanity, with all its frailty and brokenness. I have no right to claim any connection to Him. He has given me not only His favor but included Himself in my very humanity. He came to bear even the physical burdens of pain, suffering, humiliation, and death. Now, when I see the suffering of a fellow human being, I am reminded that Christ shares that too. Our loving embrace, service, even sandal-carrying drudgery, is different. It is a holy thing, not beneath me but a sacred task. Jesus once needed this and, in placing this man or woman in front of me, Jesus asks this humble servant to serve Him still.