Luke 3.1-20, 7.18-35, Matthew 3.1-12, 11.1-19, 14.1-12, Mark 1.1-13, 6.14-29, John 1.19-37, 3.22-36
Let us prepare to listen to what God has to say through John the Baptist.
Advent brings a sense of holy expectation into our hearts and minds as we prepare the way for the Lord. We sense the coming of Christmas, a time when we remember the birth of the Christ child Jesus. In our story today a man named John rises to ministry in the nation of Israel. He is a prophet who calls the people to have a deep change in their hearts and lives. He teaches them a new way to live. He expects them to quiet themselves, and listen to this word from God.
When we go to school, our teachers expect us to quiet ourselves to listen to them. I was recently spending time at Park City Elementary School when a teacher spoke these words of preparation – Criss-Cross applesause with hands in your laps. And, then she spoke these words – Zip it, lock it, and put it in your pocket. All of the children responded quickly by complying to her request and finishing her phrases. The children knew immediately that they were about to hear something very important and they needed to pay attention.
Here in the third week of Advent our preparation for the coming of Christ draws our attention to the prophetic voice of the Holy Spirit who is bringing new life by motivating the people and casting vision of hope and promise in a dark period of Israel’s history. John the Baptist enters into his public ministry at a time when political leaders have lost their anointing for leadership, the prophetic voice has been silent, and the guidance of judges is lacking. Even the love for God in the religious leaders has grown cold.
Advent is a time of preparation and waiting. The first candle of Advent recalls the fulfillment of the Old Covenant promises. The second candle reminds us of the 400-year waiting period just prior to the conception of John the Baptist and the Incarnation of the God-man Jesus. The third candle of Advent points to the ministry of John the Baptist calling the people to deep change in the hearts and lives. The fourth candle points us to Christ Himself.
Our text today tells us about a man named John who was about to offer a special teaching to the crowds, tax collectors, soldiers, and even to a governmental official. John is about to speak to us so we have to pay close attention to his message. John explained to the people how they ought to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins – repentance – as well as changing how they lived and loved one another – fruit of repentance (Luke 3.3,8).
If you are following along in your children’s worship bulletin, you will find the answer to 3-down on your crossword puzzle is “repent” meaning to turn away from one’s sins (Sermons4Kids). In fact John says, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3.8). The fruit John is talking about is not an apple, orange, or banana! Repentance means turning away from one’s sins to live into the fruit of God’s Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithful, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5.22-23).
Across Israel’s history, God’s voice is heard small in times of deep change. Out of the quiet, turbulent experience of life comes a voice – a distant voice of one calling for deep change from every person. The prophet speaks, crying out for deep change of heart that is lived out with a change in life style. The central theme of Luke’s Gospel is surely the story of salvation history through prophetic proof and eyewitness accounts. The writing confirms the factual basis for faith that leads the lover of God to conviction of sin and assurance of salvation. There is no doubt that Luke’s Gospel and subsequent writing in the Acts of the Apostles serves to forward the Christian movement. The prophetic voice of John the Baptist legitimates the movement as a continuation of Israel’s history. But was he taken seriously as one who speaks on behalf of God himself?
What is a prophet? I recently read a refreshing article on the role of a prophet by Christian author John Eckhardt. Eckhardt writes about the role of the prophet across the Scriptures and points us to a number of purposes for this gift and the people who fulfill this role (Charisma, December 2015, 48-49). When you and I read the Scriptures we can be sure to note that prophets are encouragers who motivate the people and cast a vision of the future. When we reflect on the prophetic works, we can discover that they speak words about future possibilities, they sing praises to God, they preach about changing hearts and lives, they teach about the truth, and they give counsel to and about the needy. As we read the Word we can see how prophets across the Scriptures are needed most in times of transitions between what was and what will become of God’s people especially in times of despair, discouragement, and political unrest.
When we read God’s Word, prophets truly stretch us and challenge us in the area of faith. We can see how prophets are gifted to stretch our faith with the Word from God. God uses prophets to push us past our comfort levels and traditions that have gone stale. Prophets meddle in our business – they require us not only to think differently, but to act differently. Prophets cast vision by offering choices that both encourage deep change and warn about future outcomes for those who follow God and those who do not follow God. Prophets move people from the past into the present and onward toward the future filled with hope and promise of the Messianic Promises of Salvation. Prophets aim at guiding others through decisions about their future relationship with God. Prophets prepare the people to encounter God’s presence. Prophets bless the people, while warning them about impeding consequences for their actions. Surely, we can observe these qualities in the prophet John who was called the baptizer.
But what was it about John the Baptist that caused people to follow him and inspired the people to change? Was it his appearance? We know he wasn’t a sharp dressed man as he dressed in camel hair clothing (Mark 1.6). Was it his eating habits? We know he wasn’t much of a cook as he ate locust and wild honey (Mark 1.6). Was it his family of origin? We know his parents were elderly and lacked political influence (Luke 1.5-7). Was it his political favor with the local government officials? We know that he was imprisoned by Herod and then was soon thereafter beheaded (Luke 3.19-20, Matthew 14.1-12). Was it his secluded location? We know that John was preaching in the Judean countryside and at the Jordan River (Mark 1.4-5). Was it his religious favor? We have no record of him being apart of the Pharisee or Sadducee religious groups or functioning as a priest like his father Zechariah. Nothing really points to his success.
What was in John’s message that made it special? It seems that his message was the whole reason why the people were going to see John. Or was it that the Holy Spirit was anointing his message to be heard for the first time in many generations. The silence of 400 years marked the significance of John’s prophetic voice. Out of the silence John points the people not to a new religion but the reformation of their participation in their religion.
Who was John trying to reach with his message? In the third chapter and first verse of Luke’s Gospel Herod is in power and by the time we get to the end of our text John has been arrested by his political leader (Luke 3.1, 19-20). The second verse points to the religious order and reign of two prominent priests Annas and Caiaphas. John will call the crowds “a brood a vipers” but Jesus would use that term to refer to Pharisees (Matthew 23.33). John points out that being a descendent of Abraham was not the security the Israelites believed it to be (Luke 3.8-9). John was bringing a reformation to the religious practices of his day – not a new religion – that would impact those who held power over others: politicians, religious leaders, money managers, and military soldiers even everyday people in the crowd.
John’s cry for repentance was not a new message as across the passages of Scripture. Prophets have always called the people to return to love God and neighbor. And, John was no different. John required the people to repent with actions of love toward others and the symbolism of cleansing with water to mark this new behavior. John came not to discourage the people but to reinvigorate their lives. Luke’s Gospel points to the need to remove sin from the lives of the people in order for salvation to become real.
But with any reformation comes impure motives of the people. John calls the crowd “a brood of vipers” implying that their motives no doubt were impure. John desired a reconciliation in the hearts of the people to love their neighbors by providing for their needs. But John also desired the reform of any abusive practices in the handling of monies and the use of power.
John was a prophet who pointed to the coming Messiah. The way to the Messiah was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His aim was to help the people understand that they needed to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Practically speaking, John taught about managing possessions and money. He was quick to point out to the people their responsibility to share their abundance with those who have less than particularly clothing and food. He explained the value of proper treatment for those whom monies are collected. Tax collectors and soldiers were exhorted to not to steal or falsely accuse others but to become content with their pay. Ultimately, John’s aim was to point to the coming Messiah and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. John’s message was crucial to validate the Messianic message of Jesus. But John would not see the fulfillment of his message because corrupt political leader, Herod would have him thrown in jail beheaded for his preaching against his ungodly marriage.
Is there anyone we might know in more recent years who resembles John? There is a contemporary person who we can identify with who was a lot like John the baptizer. His name is John too. John Wesley was not unlike John the Baptist. Wesley was an evangelist who sought to preach to the multitudes a sermon of heart-warming repentance. Wesley message was similar to John the Baptist in that his aim was to bring about conviction in the hearts of the people that their lives might be changed to reflect the goodness of Christ.
Wesleyan historian Bob Tuttle notes in his book entitled The Story of Evangelism that Wesley preached basically three kinds of sermon – prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying (Tuttle, 290-297). To those not yet awakened Wesley spoke of the coming wrath of death and hell. To those awakened but not yet converted he spoke of faith. To those converted he spoke of perfection or entire sanctification whereby the believer is urged to renounce all dependency on works righteousness. This process called sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit between conversion and death, and devoids believers of self-interest turning their hearts toward love of God and neighbor. Wesley’s message to the people of his day was aimed at the notion of producing fruit in keeping with repentance.
John Wesley’s Standard Sermon #14 entitled, “The Repentance of Believers” addresses just that issue (Kinghorn, Vol. 1, 231-245). Wesley explains that repentance is conviction of total sinfulness, guilt, and helplessness. Wesley instructs that sin remains in the believer but does not reign over them. Indeed, even those of us who have welcomed Christ into our hearts are not without the struggle of sin in our inward being. The particular sins that continue to prick our hearts as justified believers includes covetousness, pride, self-will, and anger to be sure. We may struggle with idolatry in the form of self-will, pride and love for the world.
Self-will battles against God’s will for dominance. Pride remains when we take credit for something that was not our work, particularly when it comes to God’s work within us! We may battle the desire of pleasure in the flesh with our eyes. We may seek after personal gain in earthly possessions. We may be tempted to put a husband, child, wife, or parent before God himself. We may seek to satisfy the lust of imagination with all sorts of appetites that assuage the soul. We may find it difficult to crush curiosity especially with the advertising of “new.”
Pride lures us into feels of self-importance. We may long for affirmation or approval from others all the while feeling fearful of being ignored or separated or shamed by others we long to be with. We may struggle with emotional addictions such as jealousy, controversy, and suspicion. In spite of our best efforts at being Christian we may experience feelings of hostility, bitterness, envy, hatred, ingratitude, revenge, and resentment. We may find ourselves coveting what others possess. There’s not a doubt that the flesh must find it’s way through the transformation process of repentance to find peace within.
To be sure Wesley cautions us that our love of the world clings to every word and action with slander, gossip, rumors, and even speaking evil of one another. It is essential that we set a guard over our mouth and lips to ensure this is minimized in our relationships. As much as we see ourselves as transformed Christians we are guilty of the sins of omissions and fail to live into those responsibilities that Christ requires of us. We lack love, reverence, and confidence toward God. We suffer flaws of all kinds particularly a lack of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
To be sure we are helpless. In whole or in part our victory over sin in our lives requires each one of us to confess that we are helpless to remove the sin we struggle with in our lives. We must understand that we cannot free ourselves in part or in whole. We can work in vain struggling to overcome these evil tendencies in our hearts. We ourselves can never overcome our sinful tendencies even as we live into our sanctification process. It is by faith alone in Christ’s redeeming blood that we have any hope of overcoming our fleshly tendencies of sinfulness.
Repentance points to the experience of sin remaining in our hearts. We can sense sin clinging to our words and actions. We sense our deserving punishment for how we have behaved in our attitudes, words and deeds. We are convicted that we are completely helpless in our sinful ways. We know our only resolve for our condition is in and through Christ Himself. Faith enables us to receive the power over sin and death. We receive a cleansed conscious. We welcome the intercession of the Advocate. We experience mercy and find grace to relieve our suffering. We accept the support we need from Christ Alone.
Through the process of justification our hearts are not fully relieved of our sinfulness. However, we are transformed into the image of God. We are given the same mind as Christ. We are born again with an inward change from darkness to light. Sin itself is weakened but not eradicated, and backsliding remains a possibility. Although our state of being is improved, the sinful roots of pride, self-will, anger, and love for the world remains present in our hearts. We may experience the deep conviction of our sinful condition, which points us in a greater measure of the true value of Christ’s atonement. We may learn that in our powerlessness over sin, we learn to depend on Christ by faith alone. Ultimately, repentance leads us to humility before God’s atoning work.
The invitation for us remains the same as it was with John. Today we zipped it, locked it, and put it in our pockets so we could hear God’s word for us from John the Baptist. His word was repent and believe this good news. We have the opportunity to change our hearts and lives to live in accordance with God’s provision in Jesus Christ to produce good fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Come to the waters of baptism and join me as we receive by faith the grace and mercy provided for us in Jesus the Christ. Amen.