Saturday, 10 October 2020

Sermon on John the Baptist - Luke 3:1-16

"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
 make straight paths for him.
 Every valley shall be filled in,
 every mountain and hill made low.
 The crooked roads shall become straight,
 the rough ways smooth.
 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, 
“Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Before I start talking about John the Baptist today, I want you to have two images in your head. Imagine a door fixed on a hinge, the whole door swings around that hinge, and imagine you can open it fully one way, and then swing it right round 180 degrees until it's open the other way. John the Baptist is like that hinge for the whole Bible, as you swing it right round from the Old Testament to the New. Or think of a running river with a bridge arching over it, joining the two banks together. John the Baptist is like that bridge.

John the Baptist is an almost unique figure in the Bible in that way, because more than anyone else he connects the world of the Old Testament and Covenant with the people of Israel, and the New Testament and Covenant with the whole world. John appears solely in the New Testament, in the Gospels, but he is an Old Testament prophet, last of a long line going back a thousand years. At the same time John the Baptist, was just a prophet, he was not the Saviour himself, but one who pointed to Christ.     

In the Old Testament God spoke to his people through a long-line of prophets, men and women filled with the Holy Spirit who spoke the truth to their people with God's own insight. These men and women taught, they warned, they begged and they raged, depending on what was needed in different times and places. They were particularly called to speak in defence of the poor, and the vulnerable, the widows and the orphans. They rang out in condemnation of unjust societies that allowed the poor to be exploited, and declared that even the most diligent religious rituals were worthless in the eyes of God unless there was justice and compassion, for the poor and the weak. They warned God's People not to turn away from the God who created the whole Universe and brought their people out of Egypt, warned them not to worship the false gods of the neighbouring peoples, whose worship included the human sacrifice of children, and women being forced to act as prostitutes in the temples. They called God's People to loving and faithful devotion to God and his Law, rather than seeking glory in power and military might.

Now at that time the people of Israel were a small people surrounded by these huge powerful Empires - Egypt, Babylonia, Persia - huge Empires, and they were like this little boat tossing and turning in a great political storm. But the prophets did not just talk about what was happening then, they looked far into the future, and saw at time when God would come in person to his people, and when he would reveal his salvation to all peoples, and begin the process of gathering all peoples in to worship him in peace and brotherhood. In the Old Testament you get snatches of this vision here and there, spread throughout the prophets, and then things go quiet.

The Old Testament ends with the words of the Prophet Malachi, who brings God's words promising that the "Surely the day is coming [...] for those who honour my name, when the Sun of Righteousness will rise will rise with healing in its wings", and very finally "See, I will send the Prophet Elijah to you before that great and terrible day of the Lord comes". And then silence. And for an awfully long time, for 400 years, there were no more prophets who came to the people of God with God's word, there were no more visions of the coming Messiah, God's Saviour.

But then John came.  And once again there was a prophet in Israel, speaking with the power of the Holy Spirit. Always the Holy Spirit had called the Prophets to challenge the people of their time, particularly those holding wealth and power. By John's time that meant the power of the Temple Priesthood, who held great authority in Israel working with the Roman Authorities; and the Pharisees, who were recognised as the experts in Jewish Law in the synagogues and communities. Just like the prophet Amos and others, we see John challenging the people not to trust merely in their blood descent as Jews, but warning them that it is faithfulness to God's message and will that is what makes them a chosen people, Abraham's children. This message is repeated many times in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the teaching of our Lord Jesus. 

When he is asked about what this means John is equally clear, and echoing the line of Prophets before him, going back a thousand years: those with lots of possessions must make sure others have what they need as well, those in positions of legal and financial authority must not use it to exploit the people beneath them, and those with physical or military power must not take advantage of the weak. John lived out that message through his simple lifestyle, deliberately avoiding the temptations of wealth and power, and living out in the wilderness where he would be free to speak God's truth without having power over anyone.

And John also takes up the other great theme of the Prophets, the coming Messiah. The "one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." But this is no longer a vision of the distant future, it is now 5 minutes to midnight and the Messiah is coming now! "I baptize you with water, [...] he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit!" In other words some of those same people who John baptised with water would be baptised with the Holy Spirit in their own lifetimes. And so it was.

Apart from the Lord Jesus himself, his life and death, and resurrection, only 2 other people and one event in the New Testament were prophecied in the Old Testament. That was the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, and the coming of John the Baptist. Because it was his important role to swing open the door, from the Old Testament into the New Testament. Because once he began his teaching the time was almost ready for Jesus Christ to appear. John the Baptist was honest, dedicated and brave. He abandoned all luxury and ordinary life, and physically left behind civilisation to go out into the Wilderness and call the people out to repent. He feared nobody, and he spoke the same to ordinary people, to leaders and authorities like the Pharisees and Priests, and to the King himself, even though speaking honestly to the King cost him his life. But he was not the Messiah.

Prophets were God's messengers, filled with his Holy Spirit, but they were just messengers, delivering God's words, they were never God himself, they could only point people to repent and turn to God. But at last John the Baptist is fulfilling the words of Scripture, "prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for our God [...] and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed". These words are clear, it is God himself who is coming, and it is Jesus Christ who came. He is not just a messenger, or a servant, a man who has been given the words of God, he is God himself, come as a Man among Men.

Now Jesus often sounds like a prophet, he fulfills all the functions that a Prophet fulfills, but he is also a High Priest, who represents us to God the Father, and he is the infinite Sacrifice himself, that covers over and washes away all our sins, and he is the Rabbi, the teacher who guides us in God's own ways. He is all this and more because he is the only Son of the Father, God himself. A prophet is someone who speaks the words God has given him and points to God outside himself, whereas Jesus Christ points to himself. Across the Gospels he forgives sins, and heals, and fulfills the prophecies of the coming of God, all in his own name. John the Baptist knows this, and he knows the difference.

John was a brave man, eventually his brave and honest speech got him arrested, and thrown in prison by King Herod. His preaching and teaching abruptly cut short, John must have been near despair. Was he wrong about his calling from God? Had God abandoned him? And he sends messengers to Jesus, asking him if he is the Messiah? Or has John made a terrible mistake? And Jesus answers them saying, "Go back and tell John what you have seen: The blind can see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor. In other words, Jesus is also fulfilling prophecy, the greater prophecies of the Messiah, and through Jesus Christ the Kingdom of God is becoming a reality in the world wherever he goes.

And once that starts it does not stop. They killed Jesus to prevent the Good News he was spreading, but through his death and resurrection he brought the forgiveness of sins and the start of a glorious new life for all people. They could not stop him. And God's Holy Spirit and Kingdom continue to spread among all those who give their hearts to God in Jesus Christ, and today there are more than 2 billion Christians in the world. After John there were no more prophets like John or all the prophets who came before him, who pointed into the future, to the coming of God's Messiah. Because Jesus came, and that changes everything. Every time we have Communion, and particularly every Easter we say, Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. Since Pentecost, recorded in the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is present with us. 

So we do still look to the future when God will be All-in-All, but we also look to the past when Jesus walked on earth, and we know in the present that God's Holy Spirit is among all of us. The prophets until John glimpsed into the distant future and "saw only like a reflection in a cloudy mirror", but through Jesus walking among us we have seen God "face to face". That is why Jesus said, "among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he". We are the Kingdom of God if we have faith in Jesus Christ, and so welcome the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Then we have the power to be greater than John the Baptist. How is that possible? 

Well, John was a prophet, and that means he called for justice. And Justice is always important, justice is one of the great themes of the Bible, and the cry for justice rightly continues today, here in this country and many countries across the world. But the wisdom of the Gospels is that Justice alone can be brittle and hard. If Justice just means one person demanding something from another, the wrong may be real, and the demand entirely correct and right, but if that is the only focus you can get trapped in a destructive cycle of grievances. You get societies like Northern Ireland or Israel-Palestine where both sides have lists of wrongs going back centuries, and people can never agree on how the wrongs can be righted. If we only call for justice, it will slip through our hands again and again. It is love and forgiveness and sacrifice for one another that creates the space to leave pain behind and heal wounds, and so create a true, living justice which lasts. That is why when the Messiah finally came, he did not come as a stern Judge, but as a loving Servant. 

But how can we love our neighbours, and our enemies, and everyone in-between, sometimes it can feel like that is just piling on a burden we cannot bear. The answer is we cannot do these things through our own power, but because God became Man, we as men and women can join in and draw on God's own infinite love and forgiveness for our neighbour, and our enemy and the whole world. Not through our own strength, but by his power, and that is a depth of love that cannot be exhausted.

Jesus is the Christ, the most Mighty One, and we know this because he made himself the least and most humble, even to death on a cross, but that did not defeat him. Jesus is unique among leaders because everything he taught, he did himself first, and that makes him worth following. John could teach about justice, but he could not bring justice. Jesus Christ taught about God's love, forgiveness and sacrifice, and he lived it, and he showed it. And because he is God, through his own death and resurrection he brings us the power to join in God's love and forgiveness and sacrifice; which is the meaning of God's Kingdom on Earth.    

John at the end of his life sent men to Jesus to ask, "‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" That's a good question, but we know the answer. Yes, Jesus is the Christ, and we know this because he did not just point to the future Kingdom of God, he brings the Kingdom that is spreading to this day, and we can be a part of, because he is the King, now and forever. One we can all rely on.

Amen.

0 comments:

Post a comment