What this sermon attempts to do is recreate the experience of John the Baptist. For a long time I don’t think this was really possible. We were too comfortable. But today, maybe we can start to hear John. Today we might just be able to listen to a Word in the wilderness.
In Last week’s message we pondered What is an Epiphany answering that a Biblical Epiphany was seeing God. Following the Star is not just about a mental change or even a change of habit, but it is about meeting God. The question then becomes how does this happen? The texts of the season answer that for us. This message ponder’s Luke’s unique portrayal of the baptism of Jesus which is one that cares little about the actual baptism but instead pairs it down to the simplest presentation- The Word of the Father and the Presence of the Spirit. How do we see God? In the Inspired Word.
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.
John the Baptist is always an interesting week (or two if you follow the lectionary. Due to the kids program on Advent 4 we usually move Advent 4 which is Mary’s week up). Luke incudes Isaiah’s words about the work of the forerunner which I can’t help but hear in the strains of Handel. Every valley shall be exalted, and the mountains and hills made plain. You see this work in how rough John is “You brood of vipers! Who warned you.” Bringing the mountains of our pride low. But you also see John building up. When the tax collectors and soldiers, hated and excluded members of society respond to his calls to baptism and ask “what do we do?”, John’s answer is not give up you immoral jobs but do them honorably and without corruption. The Word of God that came to John in the desert leveled and built up. The Word of God still does that today. It calls us to repent. It levels our grand visions and petty desires, and it builds us up through the fruits of repentance into the people of God.
That might be the general story of John, but the way Luke tells it is masterful. This sermon attempts to give Luke his due specifically looking at how he situates John. I’m hoping that the analogies to the world we live in are plain. If they are not, the sermon doesn’t work. But it is just that juxtaposition of the prophet John so clear, and the social reality that Luke brings home. And that gives rise to the hope of the Word of God in the wilderness.
Music Note: I left in the Hymn of Day. Lutheran Service Book 345, Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding. Of all the John the Baptist Hymns, and he has many, this one interestingly comes at his preaching from a direct hearer’s standpoint. John’s prophetic clearness and immediacy is thrilling, progresses through startling and then moves on to expectation and praise. It moves from bringing down our mountains to filling up the valleys.
On the Christian calendar, this 1st Sunday after Epiphany is given over the Baptism of Jesus by John. We are reading from the Gospel of Luke this year, and Luke’s account is unique. First, the actual baptism is short, just two verses. Second, what captures the attention and imagination is John the Baptist’s phrase – “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. It seems pretty clear from the text that John was thinking of fire in terms of judgment. And that is a valid scriptural use or allusion of fire. But, there is a second use as well, that of the refiner’s fire. (Mal 3:2) And given Luke’s use of the Spirit and fire in Acts at Pentecost (Acts 2:3), it is that second usage that Jesus’ baptism points toward – a purification that does not consume.
Jesus, standing in those Jordan waters, stood with us and for us. He underwent the baptism of the Spirit and fire in the first sense. On the cross Christ received the fire of the wrath at sin for us. As a consequence, when we receive His baptism, we are not consumed but purified. The Spirit is placed within us which then kindles our hearts with faith and reforms our wills to follow the will of God best expressed in His law. Jesus’ baptism, Christian baptism, is full of power.
Now our adversary will try his best to deny that and get us to think it not so, but this is the thing about baptism. It is a promise of God – Father, Son and Spirit – all present at Jesus’ baptism where he set out on this course of standing for us. God’s promises are true. We just need to grab them with faith. The same faith that is kindled by the Spirit. It might not be an exciting emotional experience. We might not even remember it. But baptism is God’s promise. Our faith rests not our anything in us, but on what God is pleased with. God is please with His son, who underwent and commanded baptism.