Advent 2 is John the Baptist week. (Advent 3 would be as well, but that week typically gets taken up by the Children’s program.) And I think that both the Baptist and his message are a little tough for us to understand, although I think we are probably approaching the time and place where they shouldn’t be. They used to require imagination, but the sermon will attempt such imagination is becoming reality. My opening question for you would be: What might make you listen to a street preacher? For I think that is akin to what John is, except that he is wildly popular. That is the space you have to get into to understand the Baptist – where a street preacher is popular. This sermon attempts to paint that picture. It also attempts help us grasp that it isn’t the street preacher antics that make John unique, but the place and the message. Come ponder just what it might the way straight, to raise up the valleys and level the hills, to do so from the desert, to do so with a Word.
Recording Note: The Choice sounded great this morning and I got a good recording, so their piece is in the recording between the OT lesson and the Epistle.
The day was the feast day of the Nativity of John the Baptist. The Gospel text is Zechariah’s song which is what the Baptist’s father said after his tongue was loosed. And what a good portion of that song amounts to is a job description of a prophet. What this sermon does is compare that description with the modern popular conception of a prophet. It then moves on to why one of those is just as important for us today as it was for ancient Israel. It then ends with a recent example of prophetic work according to the Baptist’s model. The world would like us to dismiss or make silly the prophet, the biblical definition is our daily bread.
The normal way we talk about free and bound is in regards to sin. That comes under the doctrine of the keys. But in this sermon we are looking not at that doctrine, but at the bets we all place at the foundation of our lives. We all place some. Sometimes we might not know it, but they are there. What these two passages do is give us a glimpse of two foundations and how they bind and free us.
There are several applications, but today we were saying good-bye to a man and family that is off to study for the pastorate. We as a congregation were wishing them farewell and Godspeed. We were freeing them for this larger call as much as it pains us, but we along with the entire church were binding them to the Word. The plumb line that makes us free from sin and the crookedness of the world, binds us all to Christ. We might be separated in the World, but we are still one in Christ. The hymn at the end – The Church’s One Foundation – perfectly expresses this.
I attempted something in this sermon through a couple of methods that I think most people would say don’t. John the Baptist is an enigmatic figure. He was a huge deal to those in Jesus’ time. The whole “there is not one greater born of woman” phrase that Jesus employs. John had disciples that lasted long in to the first century. The apostles in Acts run into them as “ones who’ve had the baptism of John” but didn’t know about Jesus. Even in secular literature John gets more time. Josephus records the extent of the Baptist’s following which was enough to cause Herod to come after him. But in our day and for most of Christian history John is just an almost forgotten per-cursor. He would have liked that. “He must become greater, I must become less.” But preaching from John to me has renewed vitality. My intention was to create the picture of how we and those people streaming out to John are very close, probably closer than we have been for at least 500 years if not 2000. Want to hear more of that take a listen.
The pay-off is that the proclamation of John can be the direct proclamation to the people of God today. Not that it couldn’t have been 50 or 100 years ago, but I think, if I was successful with the first part, then the second part becomes one of those “ah-ha” type experiences. That is what was so powerful, combined with oh, and it applies to me in some very specific way.
So, my guess is this either “works” or you wonder what the heck I’m talking about. Either I was successful in casting “in those days” over today, or the proclamation falls on deaf ears.
With Christmas on the Sunday, some of the minor festival of the church year fall on a Sunday as well. This Sunday was the Nativity of John the Baptist. Hence some Advent Hymns and a biblical character who we normally see is December.
But read at the end of June one line of the text jumped out at me – “What then will this Child be?” Luke 1:66. That is what all the neighbors and kin of Zachariah and Elizabeth were saying about the events of John’s birth. And I thought isn’t that often the question at graduations (not to mention births). And that brought up the commencement speech of this year – “you are not special”.
The truth is that only one is special – Jesus Christ. But the only special one by our normal way of thinking has a different measuring stick – grace. You’re not special, but you are chosen. Chosen by grace to know salvation. To Walk in the ways of peace.
Who are you? That is an identity question. And it is interesting to me that a world that is constantly giving you something to “build your brand” around or upon there is little talk or understanding of identity.
Colin Cowherd – ESPN Radio announcer – is one of the most bracing and upfront announcers I’ve heard. Especially in sports where most coverage is “rah, rah” type. He’d hate this, or not have the vocabulary to understanding it, but he’s one of the best moralists on the air. But back to the point. Tebow keeps winning – and keeps making Colin’s almost daily rant look dumb. For the first four weeks of the Tebow run, Colin was all about how this can’t work and all the reasons it can’t. For an announcer who is usually so left brained logical it hurts, you could here the emotion. His accumulated logic and wisdom wasn’t working and he didn’t like it. If he could be wrong about this, what else could he be wrong about. But then he stumbled across a new line – “Tebow knows who he is; you can do a lot, even if you are limited, by knowing who you are.” He’s talking about identity.
The world pummels us with appeals to base our identity in titles and positions. Or it entices us and bullies us to forming an identity around cool, or traditions or the right way. What Colin stumbled across, what Tebow and his coach should be recognized for, is that they didn’t listen to the siren calls – “you’ve got to have this type of quarterback/team”. The two groups that came to the Baptist are asking those identity questions. And John confesses. He holds on two the only thing he has – the Word of God – I am the voice calling in the wilderness. He revealed the hidden Word, the hidden savior. He witnessed to the light.
We as Christians know our identities. We are children of God. We are the redeemed of Israel. And like the Baptist we have been sent into the world to reveal the hidden Lord. And all we’ve got is the Word – a simple confession.
[FYI, I wish I had a picture of this, but the hymn captured is our Children’s Choir. If you hear a voice getting a little louder at certain time, one of the Choristers was right behind the Advent wreath. He decided it would be interesting to see if he could blow the candle out while singing. One of those please stop, because if you succeed I will bust a gut laughing and I know I’m supposed to discipline at that moment.]
A book published in 2005 called Soul Searching, followed up in 2009 with Souls in Transition, coined a phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). The writers polled and interviewed thousands of Americans between the ages of 13 – 18 and then followed up with the 18 – 25 year olds. The results are a clear diagnoses of too much of the teaching within the church. The teachings of the church received by this cohort were: 1) a squishy system of right and wrong (moralistic), 2) making you feel better about yourself (therapeutic) and 3) don’t worry because the dues ex machina will make everything ok but only when you really need it, no personal messing with your life (deism). MTD is at the same time extremely adaptable and potent, and thin gruel. It also bears little resemblance to the God incarnated and revealed in Jesus Christ.
Kathleen Norris, writing about the annunciation, Mary’s visit by the angel Gabriel which we looked at in Bible Class recently, comments – “Modern believers tend to trust in therapy more than in mystery, a fact that tends to manifest itself in worship that employs the bland speech of pop psychology and self-help rather than language resonant with poetic meaning…the mystery of worship, which is God’s presence and our response to it, does not work [on demand].”
It is that presence of God that is really missing in MTD. The presence of God is something holy. It is the potential for salvation. It is the Baptist cry of repent. MTD and much of modern Protestantism has taken that word repent to a logical conclusion. If I say the right words, if I am truly sorry for these sins, God will wipe them away. That is true, but it misses parts of the word. There is a cloud of words used for repent in the new testament. They all have mental and emotional parts, but they all stem from words that mean turn: turn around, walk a different way, change yourself inside out. MTD never really asks you to change, to walk a different way. It seeks to comfort you as you are. That is spiritual death. It never asks you to change because it can’t, because you never meet a holy God – just that God from the machine that clears up messy spaces.
The God we find in a manger isn’t clean. He isn’t life’s janitor. Instead He came down to be a part of this ongoing mess. This ongoing mess we call life too often robs us of our ability to turn. It robs us of our eyes to see wonder and our ears to hear the angel’s “holy, holy, holy.” We end up like Zachariah being told about John the Baptist’s birth asking – “How do I know this is true?” instead of Mary’s simple wonder, “How can this be?” Mary’s knowing it was true and marveling at the message. Instead of that MTD god we keep at a distance, Christ came to us. And He comes to us with an offer – turn, see, hear, marvel at the works of God. The question of Christmas is if our hearts are virgin enough to say yes to what we can’t understand. Can we say yes to a God that is not at a distance, but all to close and knows our messy parts? Can we say yes to a God that offers salvation, and not just therapy?
The middle two weeks of advent are the weeks of John the Baptist. He’s a forgotten figure in modern Christianity. He doesn’t seem to have much meaning or purpose. We continue to read the stories of the patriarchs. We will talk about the OT prophets. We will give due to the apotles. The later church fathers will also be discusses. John the Baptist, who Jesus declares to be the greatest born of woman, gets left out.
One really good reason is that he more or less gets subsumed under Christ. The life and mission of Jesus overwhelm John who doesn’t leave any writings outside of the voice captured in the gospels. But that doesn’t account for it alone. I think it has more to do with the baptist’s message. It is a sparse and clear proclamation -repent, be baptized and bring forth the fruits of repentance. It is a message that Jesus picks up (Mark 1:14-15).
So much of life is spent finding the middle way. And that is usually the course of wisdom. Stay away from the extremes. Find the middle path through the mess. Just that in regards to truth, finding the middle way leaves you with nothing. God’s grace is not found by splitting the difference with the Baptist. I’ll admit I sin, but living the life or repentance seems extreme. Why this thing called baptism? Isn’t there something grander or more meaningful? The middle way would seem to ask for more than baptism as a sign and seal. In Luke even John seems to have questions. John has not followed the middle way, but things aren’t looking like he expected. He asks Jesus, “are you the one?”
And Jesus doesn’t apologize for the form of grace or the proclamation one bit. In fact he turns to the crowds and asks what did they come to see? They all came to see a prophet. They recognized a truth in John (and in Jesus) that was not just natural wisdom. And that recognition requires more than a middle way response. If you came to see a prophet, and the prophet says God’s grace is here, in water and word, in a crucified peasant, then we should align ourselves with that grace.
It is a great question to many people who come to churches. What did you come to see? If you came to see anything other than the presant grace of God, you’ve got the wrong purpose. Ask youself, what did you come to see? Does the answer require you to make changes?