Sermon Series: John the Baptizer

October 11th, 2011

4 Week Series

Week 1: Preparing the Way

Luke 1:5-25, 57-66

A man walked into a store seeking a product with which he thought he was familiar. He went to the appropriate section of the market, looked high and low, but could not spot the desired item. He inquired of a clerk, who immediately plucked the item from the very shelf where the man had been searching. Why couldn’t the man see it himself? Because the packaging had been changed, that’s why. It did not have the “look” he had been expecting.

That is precisely what happened when the long-anticipated Messiah arrived. The people did not recognize the Messiah because he did not have the “look” they had been expecting. What was needed was someone who would come ahead of the Messiah to point out differences between what they were expecting and what God was sending. That was the role played by John the Baptizer. And that is the role the season of Advent may play for us, preparing us to recognize the One whom God is sending.

People had been conditioned to expect a royal figure, a David-like figure who would be a kingly sort and a warrior who would lead them into battle, defeat the Romans, and who would assume the throne and restore Israel to her once and former glory. What they were being sent was a lowly humble baby, born in a manger, who would walk among them and tell stories to them; who would give them a glimpse of the Father; and who would tell them that the kingdom of God was already present among them and in them. No wonder they needed someone to prepare them, correct their theology, and show them a new paradigm.

Who was John? How would readers of the scriptures today know that they should pay attention to John? How should the people in John’s day have known that they should pay attention to him? The answers to these questions are all wrapped up in the story of John’s birth. It happened like this:

Zechariah and Elizabeth were of advanced years, but had no children. They had wanted children, but Elizabeth remained barren. Their life was not completely without fulfillment, for Zechariah was a priest serving the Lord. Once while serving at the temple, he was selected to burn the incense in the sanctuary. While alone in the Lord’s presence, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and announced that his longing would be answered. He and Elizabeth would have a son.

Zechariah doubted the angel, pointing out that they were old, well beyond childbearing years. The angel seemed insulted that the divine word would be disputed, and told Zechariah that he would not be able to speak until these things had come to pass.

When Zechariah came out of the sanctuary, it was clear that something had happened to him. He had a dazed look and could not speak. When his duties ended, he and Elizabeth went home, and sure enough, Elizabeth was soon with child.

When their baby was born and it was time to circumcise and name him, everyone assumed the boy would be named after his father. But Elizabeth said, “No. His name is John.” Zechariah’s people argued with her, until Zechariah signaled for a writing tablet and spelled out, “His name is John.” With that, his tongue was loosed, and Zechariah explained all that the angel had said.

The student of the scripture will recognize immediately that John is someone special. John is a special messenger sent from God. The people in John’s day should have recognized the signs as well.

The first sign that invites our attention is the sign of people who are old and childless giving birth. In Genesis 12, we meet Abraham and Sarah, a childless couple advanced in years, who in chapter 21, give birth to Isaac; and the nation of Israel has its beginning. First Samuel opens with Hannah and Elkanah, a childless couple advanced in years, giving birth to Samuel, who becomes the new prophet of the Lord God, the one who will anoint Saul and later David to be Israel’s first two kings. Luke begins his story with Zechariah and Elizabeth, a childless couple advanced in years, giving birth to John, who would prepare the way for the Lord. Each time we find in the scriptures a childless couple advanced in years giving birth, we can be sure God is at work. Pay attention, for God is breaking into history.

The second sign that should make us sit up and take notice is a new name being introduced into the story line. In Bible times, the firstborn male child would often be given the father’s name. That would be the expectation especially when the child was long awaited, arriving after all hope had been abandoned that there would be any children. Therefore, when Abraham and Sarah finally had a child, one would not have expected the child to be named Isaac. When Elkanah and Hannah finally had a child, one would not have expected the child to be named Samuel. When Zechariah and Elizabeth finally had a child, one would not have expected the child to be named John. The introduction of a new name into the story line is a sign that God is at work and that we are to pay attention.

John bears watching. Pay attention to this one. God is breaking into history. John’s role is to pave the way for the One who is coming. God is breaking into history in the person of John to give the people a “heads up” so they will recognize the One God is sending to them, even the Savior of the world. This is Advent, a season of preparation. Even God is making preparations.

In the remaining three weeks of Advent, we will examine John’s preaching, trying to discern the nature of the One who is to come so that we will not miss him.

Week 2: Out of the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6

On the first Sunday of Advent, with the illustration of a man looking for a particular item in the store and being unable to locate it because it was not packaged in the way he was expecting, we discovered that if one is looking for the wrong thing, one may not recognize the right thing. If we are to recognize the Savior when he comes into our lives, it behooves us to be prepared. That was precisely the message of John the Baptizer as he stepped out of the wilderness.

John was a sight to behold. From the moment the angel of the Lord had informed Zechariah that he was going to have a son, John was dedicated to the Lord. In his special role, John would not cut his hair, he would live in the wild, he would eat off the land and dress with whatever he could find to wear. Accordingly, when John stepped out of the wilderness he was wearing some sort of garment made from a camel skin, he was unshorn and unshaven, and remnants of his “natural” diet (wild honey and bits of locust parts) lingered in his beard. It was not a pretty sight, but in those days it did inform those who saw John that he was a holy man of God.

In addition to John having been the firstborn child of aging parents and having been given a name new to the story, stepping out of the wilderness is something of a biblical sign that we are to sit up and take notice. When Moses arrived in Egypt to free God’s people, he was stepping out of the wilderness. When Jesus began his ministry of teaching and healing, he stepped out of the wilderness (after facing temptations). Here we see John stepping out of the wilderness to begin his ministry of preaching and baptizing. We are to pay attention, for God is at work here.

John was sent into the world to prepare the way for the One who is coming. He would do that by challenging the status quo. At the outset we are told that there were powers to be challenged. Note the opening verses of today’s text. Luke tells us that there were powers both political and religious. There were political rulers such as Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Herod’s brother Philip, and Lysanias. And there were religious powers, notably Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests. There are those who would claim that the only reason Luke listed all these names is to help us pinpoint the exact time John stepped out of the wilderness. Whereas it is true that naming those who were in power was a way of recording time, two or three names should have sufficed if that was all Luke had in mind. But no, Luke lists seven names. I think the reason he did so was to impress us with the formidable powers that John and later Jesus would face.

To this day, there are political powers without and religious powers within that must be challenged. Prayer in schools has fallen by the wayside. Religious symbols in public places are disappearing. And all the while, the media is making sordid behavior look commonplace.

Within the church we face powers that would limit our effectiveness as Christian witnesses. There is complacency. People are so comfortable with the way things are that they do not see any reason to challenge them. We hear the detractors saying, “It can’t be done.” Others will say, “But we’ve always done it this way.” Still, others will counsel, “Don’t rock the boat.” There are also those who narrowly interpret the gospel and would restrict others’ freedom of thought.

John stepped out of the wilderness to challenge great and powerful persons and institutions, and in doing so, provided us with a model of courage. “Speak the truth,” John would tell us, “and when you do, stand up straight and tall, shout out your message no matter what the consequences.” John would say, “When you speak the truth, never whisper, never let your head hang low, and never mumble.” Note that when John stepped out of the wilderness to be an agent of change, he did not choose as his weapon a sword, but rather the word. Never underestimate the power of the spoken word.

Learn from John, and note further that the scriptures invite us to speak out, indeed, command us to speak out. The scriptures invite us to choose our words carefully, for our words may comfort, heal, soothe, work for justice, bring peace. To be sure, our actions are crucial to an effective witness. Our example is a powerful teacher. Still, a word inviting a neighbor to church may change a life. A word spoken in someone’s defense may right an injustice. A word about Jesus may save a soul.

In the face of awesome power, armed with no weapon other than the spoken word, John began to preach. He reached back into scripture and singled out a word from the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Translation? “Get ready. The One who is to come is almost here.” We must be ready. We must make straight the paths of our lives. The roughest places in our lives are to be made smooth. We are to prepare for the arrival of the One who is to come by cleaning up our act.

You and I are up against powerful influences. There are those who would oppress and lead many astray. Lest we lose heart, let us pay attention to John the Baptizer, who would step out of the wilderness, and with nothing more than the spoken word would seek to set people on the straight and narrow. Let us prepare for the One who is coming by making smooth the rough places in our lives.

Week 3: The Things That Matter

Luke 3:7-14

John was the firstborn child of parents who were “getting on in years,” as Luke so delicately put it. The name “John” was introduced as a new name in the story line. John stepped out of the wilderness to begin his ministry of preaching and baptizing. All of these signs tell us that God is at work. We can surely learn some lessons here.

John would prepare the way for the One who is coming by preaching. After suggesting that all persons would do well to put their lives in order, smooth out the rough places, walk the straight and narrow, John quickly focused on what was wrong with the religious establishment of his day.

John had about as much tact as he had grooming. We discover in today’s text that when the people, his congregation if you will, had gathered at the river, he looked them in the eye for a long moment and then said in a loud voice, “You snakes!” Well, what Luke writes is that John said, “You brood of vipers!” Either way, it’s not a sermon introduction designed to win converts. The amazing thing to me is that John got to preach the rest of his sermon. I’m surprised that anyone stayed around to hear what else he had to say. Perhaps they stayed because like so many people in our pews today they were certain he was speaking about someone else.

What followed was John’s claim that the religious establishment was wrongly functioning on the basis of position and family or ancestry. John implied that God cares very little about hierarchy. God is not impressed with position or rank. What interests God, said John, is whether or not you are faithfully doing what you are supposed to be doing. If you are a bishop that means nothing unless you are being the very best bishop you can be. If you are a pastor, you are called to be the very best pastor you can be. If you are a lay leader or a caretaker of church property, it means doing your very best at your assigned task. People who rest on their laurels or pull rank to demonstrate their power or get their way hold no sway in the kingdom. God loves each one of us and when the judgment comes it is not based on position but on faithfulness.

Power and position don’t work and neither does family heritage. John was confronting people who believed they were closer to God because they came from a people who had once been close to God. It doesn’t work that way. Once you come of age you cannot ride on the strength of a former generation. We should probably breathe a sigh of relief over that. Whereas it might be nice to be blessed by someone’s earlier accomplishment, it is good to hear John say that, the psalmist’s lament aside, the sins of the father (or the virtues of the father) are not necessarily visited on children’s children. That’s not how it works. Each generation must stand on its own. We must claim responsibility for our own words and for our own actions. John preached that neither position nor ancestry matter in the kingdom. God’s mercy belongs to all people. No one arbitrarily has an edge.

John preached that the kingdom of God is at hand. We should waste no time making ready. It’s not about what your people did in the past; it’s about what we are doing in the present time. Once John’s audience understood that they would stand or fall on their own merits, they raised the question, “What are we to do?”

We may not rest on our laurels. It will not do to simply go through the motions of being religious. It will not do to blame someone else. We should ask, as John’s congregation asked, “What are we to do?”

John said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Of course, this isn’t just about coats and food. It’s about a spirit of generosity, about caring and sharing and compassion. This is about looking around and being aware of the needs of others, looking at ourselves and noting the manifold ways we have been blessed, and then sharing what we have. John told his audience that they were to be a generous people.

To the tax collectors in the congregation, John said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Of course this isn’t only about tax collecting. This is for everyone. John was telling anyone who would listen that we are to be honest in all our dealings. Honesty, trustworthiness, truthfulness are demanded by God. This is to be the way of God’s people.

To the soldiers in the congregation, John said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Of course, this isn’t just for soldiers. This is for everyone. We are to treat others fairly and we are to be content with what God has given us. We are not to envy what others have. Do not steal what belongs to others. Be fair; be content.

The word is clear. John stepped out of the wilderness with a message from God. It is a message for people who think they are religious. Do not rely on position. Do not rely on family or ancestry. Do not rely on the past. Prepare yourself to greet the One who is coming by living in this present day, as God would have you live. Be generous, be honest, be fair, be content with what you have and with the role God has given you to play. May we be the kind of persons God would have us be and thereby be prepared when the One who is coming gets here.

Week 4: Someone Greater Is Coming

Luke 3:15-18

All the signs tell us that John the Baptizer is to be watched. God is at work in him. God is breaking into history. However, although John was sent by God, John is not the main attraction. He is the forerunner. He is the one who comes to prepare the way for the One who is coming. John is the one who will preach a message designed to prepare people to recognize and greet the Messiah when he shall appear. John preached a sermon that, if a title had to be printed in a worship folder, would have been called, “Someone Greater Is Coming.”

John’s audience, which seemed so attentive at first, turned out not to be paying attention at all. In the Fourth Gospel (John 1:19-28), we find the Jews sending messengers to John asking, “Who are you?” Isn’t that rich? John was the messenger sent by God and the Jews were sending messengers asking John who he was. Had they been paying attention they would have remembered the words of Isaiah, who said, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ ” (Isaiah 40:3). John was only echoing their own prophet.

John was the messenger who cried out in the wilderness, telling them to prepare the way for the Lord. And they sent messengers asking, “Who are you anyway? Are you the one for whom we have been waiting? Are you the Messiah?” John, with just a hint of mirth in his eyes said, “No,” as if to say, “Guess again.” “No,” said John. “I am not the one for whom you have been waiting. Someone greater is coming; I am not even good enough to bend down and untie his sandals.” So, if we were to contrast John with the one who is coming, how do they differ? How is Jesus greater than John?

For one thing, John would baptize with water. He would invite people into the river, and would splash water on them as if to rinse off some of the dirt from the past. But Jesus would baptize with the Spirit and with fire. The fire, like a refiner’s fire, would burn away every blemish and would purify. This cleansing would not be superficial, but would clean through and through. It would be as if we had never sinned. And Jesus’ baptism would bring the gift of the Spirit, God present with us to guide us and comfort us. Truly, Jesus is Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.”

A second contrast hinges on the manner of John and Jesus. John stepped out of the wilderness and in a loud voice said, “Repent!” This sounded a lot like, “Repent, or else.” John would seem to be trying to frighten or badger people into the kingdom. Jesus would take us by the hand and gently lead us into the kingdom. Jesus would be like a shepherd whose sheep know his voice and would follow when he gently calls, “Come, come.”

In the third place, John was going to change the world by speaking to the individual, washing clean the individual, preparing the individual to greet the one who is coming. Although Jesus came offering people a personal relationship with the Father, he also offered them something more. He offered fellowship one with another. Jesus knew that salvation is not only an individual thing, but a social thing as well. He surrounds us with a supporting group “the church” where we can worship together, encourage one another, and pray for one another. Jesus would even call nations to be accountable for their faithfulness. Whole nations are to fall on their knees and become followers of him. Jesus would send people out to make disciples of all people, seeming to make us responsible for the welfare of one another.

A fourth difference in the way of John versus Jesus has to do with John’s demand for repentance now. Jesus realized that great results do not often come suddenly. Reaching goals may take time, lots of time. The immediate question, as the apostle Paul would later clarify, is not, “Are you saved?” as so many ask today; but rather, “Are you being saved?” John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist societies, would never have asked, “Are you perfect?” But he did ask, “Are you going on to perfection?” What matters, Jesus would say, is whether you are a better person today than you were a year ago, or last week, or yesterday. Perfection is elusive. Salvation is a process. Do not worry so much about your flaws, but do ask if you are making progress.

Luke, as illustrated in John’s preaching, wants you to expect the right things. Our expectations always color what we see. If we enter the hospital with some condition, but expect that everything will be just fine, our chances of everything coming out just fine are increased tenfold. When, as a college student, I sold shirts in a department store, everyone who came through the door looked like a customer. When I became a store detective, everyone who came through the door looked like a thief. What you expect makes a difference.

Whether you expect to meet the Christ this season or think that none of this makes any difference and that this is all just one more “ho-hum” tour through the seasons of the church year, you are correct. John was expecting the One who is coming. John was begging us to expect the One who is coming.

Do you expect to discover the Christ in fresh new ways in your life as these days of Advent give way to the celebration of the nativity? If so, you won’t be disappointed. You will know that someone greater has come. May his peace be yours.

Adapted from The Abingdon Preaching Annual © 2005 Abingdon Press

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