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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."