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John the Baptist Prepares the Way for Jesus

a sermon based upon Luke 3:2-23

When Jesus turned 30 years old, a voice was heard crying, out in the wilderness: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight." Clear a highway across the desert for our God!

John the Baptist appeared on the scene: a rough character, whose seemed to be almost as wild as the wilderness in which he preaches. (!) As the Gospel of Luke tells it: John associates the public ceremony of baptism with "repentance for the forgiveness of sins."It’s a public witness to a changed way of life, and the whole process by-passed the Temple hierarchy. No sacrifices were required; no priests were needed. There was no request for tithes, no rituals. Through baptism, John was setting up something new… an alternative way to get right with God, and to join a social movement.

Now, if it were up to me to send someone ahead of the Messiah to prepare the way of the Lord, I would be inclined to pick a strikingly handsome man or a lovely young woman –much like we see on the nightly news broadcasts… smartly-dressed and smooth-talking --who could serve as an ambassador of goodwill & diplomacy, who would in no way embarrass me or my cause.

But look what Jesus got... John the Baptist!

The Gospel of Matthew describes the Baptist as follows: "John wore a garment of camel hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey."(Matthew 3:4) I mean, get real: a grasshopper-eating wild-man dressed like Alley Oop?!… a cave-man Neanderthal preaching on the banks of the Jordan River?(!)

This is not what I would have expected from a Public Relations "advance" man.

Still --despite his un-orthodox approach and rude lifestyle --John’s ministry of baptizing folks (as a sign of repentance and assurance that their sins had been forgiven) had become the talk of the town. People were coming to John instead of going to the priests in the Temple to have their sins "washed away".

And when he saw the multitudes coming for baptism, John said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance!

"And do not presume to say to yourselves: ‘We have Abraham as our Father,’ for I tell you: God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham!

"Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire!"

Luke tells us that the people were in expectation, questioning in their hearts whether John (perhaps) was the Christ --the Messiah, the Anointed One from God--the long-awaited Deliverer/Yeshua!

He answered them:"I baptize you with water…[can I hear a ‘Hallelujah!’?]…but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. --I am not worthy to untie his sandals.--He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire! His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear the threshing floor! He will gather the wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire!"[Yeah! That’s what he’s gonna do!]

How tactless can you be?

I mean: if I were Jesus, and this Baptist was running around --calling people a "brood of vipers" (You sons of snakes!), talking crazy, looking wild, eating grass-hoppers --I would be concerned that I’d have to spend most of my time explaining the bizarre actions & rude words of my predecessor.How can Jesus’ ministry get any traction moving forward, if he has his wild cousin John the Baptist getting all the attention and setting the tone!?

Since John was making some pretty bizarre claims in Jesus’ name --making him out to be some kind of snake-chasing, axe-wielding, "grim reaper" harvester and potential arsonist!--Jesus will have his work cut out for him to change people’s minds.(!) It makes me wonder: Can anything good for the Gospel of God that Jesus has come to embody come from this bold Baptist movement?

Something I especially like about Luke’s account of John the Baptist is how he is more than just a fore-runner for Jesus; more than just an announcer... John is a preacher in his own right. Before Jesus appears on the scene (as we heard it in this morning’s Scripture reading), we get a whole sermon from John, with dramatic imagery and with very practical applications.

John’s sermon goes well beyond the monologue tirade that we have come to expect --you know, the stereotypical street-corner preacher who cries out: " Repent, you sinners! Turn... or burn!"--to an actual dialog with the crowd, who ask the very logical question: "What, then, should we do?"

If God has judged our society (as the Baptist’s whole movement seems to indicate) and found us entwined in sin like a brood of vipers--poisonous, quick to strike, ready to bite, all slick and slippery --and if warning has been given for us to "repent" (that is, to change our ways), how can we do that? Let’s get practical, John: What should we now do?

If the Baptist is right, and the woodcutter’s axe is even now lying at the base of our society’s "trees" --and we are soon to be judged as to whether we are bearing fruit that befits repentance,or whether we turn out to be barren branches (and thus, only good for fire-wood) --what can we do right now that will make a difference, before the woodcutter comes back from coffee-break?

If the Baptist is right--as he cries in the wilderness "Prepare ye the way of the Lord"... in order that "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" --then we’d better get doing it right now (Right?)--right here! (Right?) Start producing that fruit! Start straightening out those "crooked" places, and smoothing down our "rough" places. But what does that mean, John? All this talk is so poetic. What exactly should we do?

Well, frankly, if you can set aside for a moment the frightening images of snakes and fire and the winnowing fork and the axe at the root of the trees… and listen to the rest of John’s sermon in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, it sounds just like something that Jesus could have said:

The multitudes asked him, "What then shall we do?"And John answered them: "He who has two coats, let him share with the one who has none; and he who has food… do likewise." Sharing what we have claimed for ourselves with those people who have need of it right now.Oh, I know, some folks in the crowd listening to John might think: I’m saving that extra food for later, you know… or because we like to keep our options open, I need that second coat. The Baptist sounds a lot like Jesus when he says: "He who has two coats, let him share with the one who has none; and he who has food… do likewise. "Sharing is caring in a practical, helpful manner.

And then there were the tax collectors, who had come to John to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins…

Tax-collectors who worked for the Roman Empire, or for King Herod,or for the Temple in Jerusalem –collecting tolls on the roads, tariffs on merchandise, tithes for the Temple authorities, taxes for the government (like an Israeli I.R.S. agent or a Michigan state Treasury official) –also came to John to be baptized. They asked him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And John told them: "Collect no more than is appointed you."

John is advising the tax collectors to not oppress the people financially--"collect only what was due". No extra charges were to be added to someone’s bill as a profit to them (just because they could,under Roman police powers;and it was common knowledge); no usurious interest charges, no under-the-table bribery, no skimming off the top a little for oneself… No! Collect only what was required by the governors. (!) Could these officials contain their greed!?If so, wouldn’t that be a great step for social well-being? Imagine: a trustworthy official… dedicated to serving the common good instead of feathering one’s nest, increasing one’s personal profit and furthering their partisan politics… "Collect no more than is appointed you," says John the Baptist to the tax collectors.

Some soldiers were there –Roman Legionnaires, perhaps, or King Herod’s militia; maybe they were Temple guards sent to check up on the Baptist movement…The soldiers asked John, "And we, what should we do?"

John advised them to be content with their wages,and not to oppress the people with threats of violence."Rob no one by violence, or by false accusation," he said, "and be content with your wages." If police forces and military troops are armed and trained to keep the peace, that is legitimate;they have earned their pay. But if they swagger and bully (because they have the authority), if they make demands with threat of force,if they extort and intimidate (because they are armed), if they take without paying for it, rape the girls and women they encounter, beat up poor men and kill for sport…those police and military forces must repent: must change!

It seems to me that in our haste to get to that mystical moment of Jesus’ baptism–when the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him likea dove, and a voice was heard to say: "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well-pleased"–we tend to speed right past John’s sermon.

By focusing so much on the Sacrament of Baptism, we often overlook the ethical dimension of the Baptist’s preaching. Namely: (1) Sharing is caring in a very practical way. (2) Using one’s social authority to serve the common good instead of feathering one’s own nest and serving oneself, would be a big step toward saving the world. And (3) intentional self-control on the part of people who are armed, or who have been given "police powers"--so as not to threaten violence, nor to make false allegations and accusations –would bring down the high anxiety and fear that so many vulnerable people feel toward people in power. Those are three very practical proposals from John the Baptist that sound perfectly suited to Jesus’ Gospel.

So, after hearing what the Baptist said in his sermon, what does John’s baptism ceremony mean!? I think it means that you’ve committed yourself to a radical new way of living, with a new set of values that will often conflict with "business as usual" in a brood-of-vipers society like theirs (or, like ours!).

Contain our self-interest!? Let go some of our grasping, our greed, our desire to have power-over-others? To begin to share, and to serve! (!) Be content with the wages we have agreed to? Don’t fiddle and fudge with our tax returns; simply pay what we owe!? Collect only what we are due, without adding a margin of profit? C’mon, John; get real! These are not today’s business ethics. You won’t get rich and powerful with ideas like that!

In John’s preaching, the act of baptism is clearly not the final act in a process of conversion, but the first step on a new path that is called "the way of the Lord."

Following repentance --and the granting of God’s grace and forgiveness and spiritual help in the journey that baptism represents--we come up from the water of our baptism to live radically new lives that include radical acts of self-less-ness in obedience to God.

Luke, through this sermon by John the Baptist, warns us from the beginning of his Gospel that there is a radical new ordering of things inherent in following the Way of the Lord.

John the Baptist, by the way, had great crowds of followers. Not just in today’s story, when Jesus comes to be baptized, but long after his death. Luke writes in his second volume, in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles,that when St. Paul stopped in Ephesus (in about the year 50), he found a little gathering of disciples. He met with them, talked with them, and they explained to Paul that they were followers of John, the Baptizer. Similarly, St. Paul met (in Corinth, Greece) a North African preacher whose first sermon in the church was about "John, the Christ of God. " On both occasions, the Apostle Paul straightened them out on that little detail –Jesus was the Christ, not John; Jesus was the Messiah, John was just his baptizer. The point is, John the Baptist had a great core of followers throughout Jesus’ lifetime and well beyond! ("Baptists" are no new thing in the church!They’ve been alongside Jesus since the start.)

In his Gospel, Luke foreshadowed Jesus’ own life-story by introducing John first. He tells of John the Baptist’s birth to the old priest Zecharias & his wife Elizabeth .It was almost as much of a miracle as Jesus’ own birth (a few months later) to Mary & Joseph.

Luke reports that Jesus & John were cousins--their mothers being "kin-folk". Young Mary spent the first three months of her pregnancy with old aunt Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John at that very time. Thus Jesus & John were very close in age, both about 30 years old when today’s story takes place. To understand Jesus we need to know John, for Jesus came to John to be baptized. He heard John preach. He was influenced by John. Their lives ran parallel... even to final execution by King Herod!

The first sermon Jesus ever preached followed John’s pattern: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Same sermon. In fact, all the Gospels agree that Jesus did not even begin his preaching ministry until after John was shut up in prison! It’s as though the silencing of that great man said to Jesus: "Now it’s your turn. You continue what John has begun."

They were so much alike that Herod Antipas, who was the one who beheaded the Baptist (after a drunken dinner party and a promise to his favorite dancing girl), when he heard about Jesus,concluded: "It’s John the Baptist come back to life! "It’s actually what many people were saying about Jesus. It was an easy mistake, because they were so close, so much alike!

But in another regard, Jesus was nothing like what the Baptist’s followers expected. "I baptize you with water," John said, "but one is coming, who is mightier than I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!" Uh-oh!

It’s one thing for our society to be called "slippery sons-of-snakes" –a brood of vipers, slithering down to the river to escape the wrath that is coming, like animals fleeing a forest fire... Yes, it’s one thing to be singled out as "fruitless" in an orchard, where the woodcutter’s axe is lying at the ready, preparing to cut out barren branches to use as firewood...But it’s another thing altogether to be about to face the Holy Spirit coming as fire! (Now, it’s God’s fire, not hell-fire! But the metaphor is just as frightening.) Fire is a purifier, to be sure; but you don’t go through it without getting burned! Fire hurts. If John is right, we will carry scars from this next one! If John the Baptist seems a little mad, then you’d better watch out how crazy the next one must be!

Imagine the people’s surprise, then, when... who should appear, but Jesus. No axe-wielding arsonist! A simple carpenter from Nazareth. Gentle enough for a dove to land on his shoulder. Jesus, a roost for the Holy Spirit! And the voice of God, coming from heaven not as thunder, but with a cooing sound: "This is my beloved Son!"

This tenderness isn’t what the Baptist had led them to expect. Many in the crowd didn’t believe it: Not Jesus! He’s too ordinary,too humble,too gentle... And I suspect many of the Baptist’s followers still don’t believe it, because they find it easier to believe in an angry God than in a loving God…a judging, condemning, separating God, rather than a loving, forgiving, all-embracing God. (John the Baptist’s followers are still preaching about the "fear of the Lord" and escaping Hell-fire, and awaiting Jesus’ "second coming".)

They seem to forget that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized --if it was meant to clear him of sin, for we all agree that he was sinless. Jesus had nothing to repent of, nothing to turn away from! He could have just stayed on the banks of the Jordan and supervised. Jesus could’ve said, "Thank you, John, for all your preparations. I’ll take over now." But that’s not Jesus’ way.

He gets in the mud with us. He slips in among the snakes. He, who had every right to stand apart,comes to us, takes the plunge right alongside us, shares our pain, our grief, and even death. That’s His way! That’s the Way of the Lord. That’s our way, too, as we follow Jesus’ Gospel… He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life… and we choose to be His disciples, not John the Baptist’s.


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