Cloud of Witnesses: John the Baptist

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on December 15, 2013)

Today our witness in the cloud of witnesses is John the Baptist.

And I know what some of you are thinking. You already are wondering why I am such a scrooge, why in the Christmas season I would choose a guy who focused on repentance and harsh stuff. Why in the world have repentance NOW? Can’t we just celebrate Christmas, for goodness sake?

Well let me tell you why. Our oldest daughter just got home from college. You remember college. Unsupervised college, what-happens-in-college-stays-in-college…so you better believe I am going to be talking about repentance until I see her in the front row crying her eyes out with remorse!

Ok not really. Here’s the real reason.

When the gospels tell us about Jesus, John the Baptist always plays a part.

I draw an important lesson from that. Coming to Jesus means we have to talk about repentance. We have to talk about disruption and change. Whether I like that or not is irrelevant. To experience Jesus as the Savior of the world requires looking at the ways I need healing, the ways I need saving, the ways I need…to change.

Go back a few decades, and churches talked a lot more often about repentance. Most services revolved around urging people to come to the front of the church and do healing work with God. For some that was deeply meaningful. For others it felt emotionally manipulative and created the image of an angry God who was never pleased with  people. So the pendulum has swung toward God’s love for us, and it has become much more difficult for us to talk about the ways we need to accept correction from God.

Since John the Baptist was the one to prepare the way for Jesus-since repentance was part of getting ready for the coming healing of Jesus-we have to figure out how to keep the pendulum from swinging too far in either direction.

How do you paint a picture of a guy who probably was really hard to be around? John was not exactly high on the likability scale.

The book of Luke tells us that from the beginning, John the Baptist was special. His parents were both descendants of priests, and had gone long years without being able to have a child. His father Zechariah got his special chance as a priest to enter the temple…and an angel visited. The angel isn’t just speaking of the miracle of having a baby when they were too old; the message is that this one will be a child of destiny.

Luke chapter 1 says “many will rejoice because of his birth…Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.” The angel says he will turn “the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous-to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” And this is all before he’s even born!

When he is born, it says in Luke 1:65, “The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things… ‘What then is this child going to be?’” And if that isn’t enough pressure to live up to, there’s the song his dad sings at his birth, after he had been unable to speak for months after seeing the angel. (Luke 1:73-75)

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Sometimes I like to think that the reason he lived in the desert and ate locusts and dressed funny was that he had a meltdown from trying to live into all these high expectations.

It’s like Justin Bieber or Lindsay Lohan or a lot of the child stars of our day-high expectations can make you a little crazy.

No, in all seriousness, it’s very clear that the people who knew John the Baptist understood him through Isaiah’s eyes. John was the preparer. He was the one to get things ready for God to move in power and act for justice. He was the lonely voice, calling in the wilderness, against the grain of society, telling people the challenging truth that God was on the move. It’s time to come to grips with our crookedness and make paths straight.

It’s like I said earlier; we seem to have this pendulum that swings between an angry God who can’t stand the sight of us, and a loving God who accepts us no matter what. But the bible doesn’t seem to put those as opposites. Even in Zechariah’s song that I just read, the tender mercy of God is right there with holiness and a call to purity and straight paths. The forgiveness of God is right there alongside our sins, and how else could it be? Forgiveness doesn’t make any sense without a wrong to forgive and make right.

The heart of what I’d like to do today is something I haven’t really tried to do on a Sunday morning before.

I do this sort of thing from time to time as I prepare for Sunday, but I’ve never tried to represent it on Sunday morning. We’ll see if it works. I’d like to work through the main teaching of John the Baptist in three of the gospels, comparing and contrasting them. We’ll start first with the Mark passage that Fairlight read earlier. Now, don’t worry that it’s small and that you can’t read it. What I want to do with this is a very visual sort of thing that doesn’t require you to be able to read it. But feel free to have your bibles open to these different passages.

So Mark is the most bare bones account of John’s ministry and the least offensive. All the central points are here: John is seen as Isaiah, as one calling in the desert and preparing the way. He calls people to repentance, and it says that everyone responded.

Sure, he’s a little odd-camel hair, locusts. But in Mark’s version, you could easily see him as a successful, well-liked leader. You could imagine him not being too controversial, with the general message of repentance and forgiveness, telling the world that someone even better is coming along after him.

Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 10.09.10 AM

Then there’s Matthew’s account. You can visually see that it’s a longer account, but everything that is in Mark is also in Matthew. The stuff in blue is paraphrased and the order shifts around, but it’s all there. In addition, Matthew adds a whole lot of stuff in red, and everything he adds is harsher. Let’s take a closer look at what Matthew adds.

“Who warned you, you bunch of snakes?” In Matthew, there is no way to avoid that John the Baptist was a controversial figure.  “You’re always saying ‘We’re Jews, we’re leaders, we’re good.’ But you should want to change your ways. It’s only God who makes Abraham’s children worth anything, and God can make something good out of even rocks. You’re gonna be judged. Don’t think your privilege puts you above reproach. It’s judgment time, and God is looking for good fruit. It’s judgment time, time to look for the chaff to be burned and the wheat that is worth keeping.”

One of the big enemies of true repentance is the presumption that I, by definition, am in a privileged position.

For the Jews, it was privilege as the chosen people. In our world, it might be the presumption that because we go to church, we’re ok. Or because we are kinder than most, give more than most, aren’t as bad as some…therefore we are ok. It could be our gender or our ethnicity or our wealth or our education that makes us think we are privileged, make us presume that God’s judgment would come much sooner to someone else.

Matthew’s account makes it clear that our presumption or our privilege do not hold up in the face of God’s coming judgment.

Even the leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, have to repent. The repentance is definitely there in Mark, but it’s so much stronger in Matthew. It’s not just for the “bad” people-it’s for the spiritual leaders as well.

Here’s a key: John the Baptist is preparing the way for the coming one, for Jesus, for the Messiah. God will bring salvation. And when we place ourselves in the place of presumption, in the place of privilege, we assume that salvation will only bring good for us. Salvation will rescue us from the bad and the evil, take care of injustice and oppression, and release us.

That of course means that inherent within salvation is judgment.

To be saved from evil and injustice and oppression means all of those things must be judged and defeated. When we presume we are in the privileged position, we think of salvation (the good part) coming to us and judgment (the bad part) going to somebody else. John the Baptist forces us to face our own privilege and presumption and realize WE might have things within us which need to be judged, for which we must repent in order for salvation and healing and good to come.

How does this mesh with the identity series earlier this fall? I would integrate them like this: our worth and identity as people comes from the unchangeable fact that we are created and loved by God. Our actions do not erase God’s love. Yet that doesn’t mean our actions don’t matter. Some things we do hurt ourselves and hurt those around us, and those actions are ones for which we need to repent. We ought never doubt or question God’s love for us, nor should we doubt that there are things we do that God’s love wants to transform…for our good, and for the good of those around us.

I love the line, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” This is no cheap, words-only “I’m sorry” that we are called to. Repentance is an acknowledgement of the wrong we have done, the wrong we do, and a commitment to change our course of action, allowing God’s fruit to be birthed in us. I also love the red addition at the end; this makes it clear we cannot assume that judgment and the need for repentance ended with John the Baptist. Jesus brings them as well.

Ok, let’s put all of Matthew’s account of John’s teaching back up on the screen 

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Then let’s add Luke’s account next to it. You can see Luke is longer still. Just as Matthew had everything Mark did (with some paraphrases and rearranging), Luke has everything Matthew has as well…and a whole lot of additions in red.

Before we look at these additions in more detail, I want to draw your attention to one small change that I find significant, here in green. Where Matthew singles out the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, Luke broadens it greatly to the whole crowd, to everyone. Everyone gets called a bunch of snakes. No one should presume they are privileged.

But let’s look at the first of the big changes. At the beginning is something typical of Luke, who always seems to try and set the scene with historical references. Not terribly significant, just sort of interesting to see that he adds this. The next addition is more significant.

As we’ve already seen with Mark and Matthew, John is portrayed as fulfilling the prophet Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 40 verse 3. Luke is the only one to take the Isaiah quotation further. Luke adds verses 4 and 5 from Isaiah 40 as well. Not only that, but Luke paraphrases Isaiah a bit as well, emphasizing how big and broad and universal and all-encompassing God’s work will be. Every valley, every mountain…and ALL people will see God’s salvation.

No one-not even Gentiles, outsiders-no one will be exempt from God’s salvation. And, since salvation always brings judgment in order to make things right, no one will be exempt from the need to see their own failings, and call out in repentance for healing and salvation as well.

Then comes the most practical and helpful addition of them all. 

What does repentance look like? It looks like Micah’s words from last week: “Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Repentance is for everyone in every kind of situation. It’s taking action to help those whom you are able to help. It’s keeping your power in check. Repentance requires us to look at our relationships and our jobs and our positions of power and our attitudes and recognize where things need to change, to conform more to what God is like.

I love that Luke recounts some specifics. If you have stuff to share with those in need, than you should share it. That’s how you prepare for God’s salvation-you recognize where you haven’t been generous and take actions to change it. I love that hated tax collectors can find, through repentance, a way to do their job that still fits in with God’s salvation: don’t take more than you are required to do, just do your job with integrity instead of selfishness.

I love that preparing for God’s salvation means repenting of the ways we use power to harm others. That’s obviously the background to the soldiers here. It must have been “normal” for soldiers to extort money and falsely accuse, so repentance and preparing for salvation means saying no to what’s normal and following God’s path.

I love that even our attitudes are challenged by the coming of the Messiah and God’s salvation. “Be content with your pay.” Not just “don’t steal”, but find ways to be content with what you receive.

By giving these specifics, the need for repentance and for salvation reach out and touch us all.

All of us can find something which challenges us, pushes us to deeper levels of generosity and justice and ethics. None of us, not even those of us in the “outcast” categories like the tax collectors and soldiers were, none of us are UNABLE to find salvation through repentance.

As we “wait expectantly” for the coming Messiah, we are in good company with all those out in the wilderness with John. As we wait expectantly, John the Baptist teaches us that waiting means to examine ourselves and not presume that we are privileged, that we have a “get out of jail free” card no matter what we do.

As we wait expectantly for the coming one who will bring God’s justice and mercy and love and healing and salvation…we recognize that part of the journey is allowing God to bring to light things within us that need change and transformation. We don’t have a locust-eating man in the wilderness any longer to go to, one who can explain to us what we need to do.

But we have something better! We have the Holy Spirit. We have the present Christ.

“What should we do then?”

How do we bear fruit in keeping with repentance? Walk humbly with God and recognize none of us are perfect, none of us are immune to selfishness or oppression or taking advantage or ungrateful attitudes or any of a host of other ways we fall short of God’s character.

There is no salvation without repentance. There is no forgiveness without acknowledging our wrong and our sin. Rather than that causing fear, we can remember that John the Baptist’s message of repentance is how every gospel introduces us to Jesus. That means that the good news always begins with the message of repentance.

Hope, healing, and forgiveness are coming through Christ! Prepare the way…which means being willing to walk the road of repentance. In open worship, invite God to examine you and bring conviction about what might need repentance today.

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