December 19, 2014

Advent II: Sinai’s Last Thunder

Saint John the Baptist preaching in the Wilderness, Mola

ADVENT IIC

  • Malachi 3:1-4
  • Luke 1:68-79
  • Philippians 1:3-11
  • Luke 3:1-6

Prayer of the Day
Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

* * *

Sinai’s Last Thunder (Luke 3:1-6)

What are we going to do with John the Baptist? John is one of the most vividly drawn characters in Scripture and each Advent we come face to face with him again. The four Gospels show us that Jesus’ public work began in the context of John’s ministry, and this text from Luke summarizes it well.

  • John lived in the wilderness.
  • John was a prophet to whom the Word of the Lord came.
  • Like the Hebrew prophets who came before him, John preached repentance, urging Israel to turn back to God.
  • John complemented his preaching with the prophetic action of baptism.
  • John came to fulfill God’s promise given through the prophet Isaiah — he came to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, who was about to arrive, bringing salvation to his people.

How should we approach today’s description of John the Baptist? One way would be to discuss the theological words in this Gospel lesson. Note the rich, profound concepts that are meaningful to our faith: the Word of God, the wilderness, baptism, repentance, the forgiveness of sins, God’s promises through the prophets, the coming of the Lord, God’s salvation. We could meditate on these rich words and concepts this morning.

Another way we could approach John would be to try and understand the historical context of his ministry. Luke seems especially interested in that — did you hear how he carefully fills in the historical details about people and places that formed the social, political, and religious context for John? We could talk about why he appeared in the wilderness and why he baptized in the Jordan River and what that would have symbolized for the Jewish people. We could discuss Israel’s relationship with the Romans who ruled over them at that time, the Jews’ continuing sense of being a people in exile, and how John was raised up to address that situation.

There are many ways to approach a text as rich as this one. Today, I’d like to look at it from a close and personal angle. You see, I have an idea that John the Baptist is not a person I would like very much. And I doubt that most of you would care for him either. I’m quite sure he would not be welcomed with enthusiasm in most of our churches today.

St.John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness, Meng

  • First of all, John was a hermit. He lived in the wilderness. He lived under a Nazirite vow which meant he didn’t do a lot of the things you and I consider normal. The Gospels say he dressed in unconventional clothes. He ate a funny diet. It’s likely his personal hygiene was not up to our standards. He looked rough and talked rough — and he didn’t smell so good. I doubt he was skilled in the social graces. He was an outsider and didn’t fit into polite company well.
  • Second, John was narrow-minded. No matter what subject you brought up, he wanted to talk about one thing: repentance.
  • Third, John didn’t mind his own business. Not only did he want to talk about repentance, he wanted you to repent! John wasn’t afraid to look you in the eye and tell you what was what. He wasn’t shy about challenging others about their lifestyles, their priorities, their spending habits, their entertainment choices, their religious practices. He was not concerned about winning friends. He believed God had called him to tell the plain truth bluntly and forcefully, and then tell people to get their act together.
  • Fourth, John didn’t put much stock in religious trappings. The Pharisees were the most conservative religious people in Israel in those days — and John called them snakes! If he came to visit us today, he would not likely be impressed with a beautiful church building, a full slate of good programs, and a group of people who were devoted to their church. He would start asking uncomfortable questions that go beyond the externals and focus on whether a person’s heart and life is right.
  • Fifth, John put people on the spot publicly. John’s ministry was not a quiet, private business. He called people to profess their repentance right out in the open, in public view. When he called you to turn your life around, he insisted that you had to do that in front of everyone. He said, if you’re serious, come down here into the river, take off your clothes, and I’ll baptize you and wash you clean like a newborn baby. Your mom and dad will know. Your friends and coworkers will know. Everyone will know. John didn’t care about embarrassing people. He believed so strongly in what he was doing that he thought that taking a public stand was worth any discomfort a person might feel.

So, what do you do with people like that? Strong personalities who separate themselves from the way you and other normal people live, who are narrow and negative and severe; who don’t mind their own business but freely speak their opinions and judgments to you and even about you? How do you deal with people who don’t simply accept the way you are but who constantly challenge you to change? Who put you on the spot and embarrass you in front of your friends?

This was John the Baptist: and I will be honest with you, he makes me uncomfortable. All his talk about sin and repentance, all his warnings about a God of judgment and the wrath to come, his refusal to accept any excuses from anyone, his rough appearance and uncouth ways, his direct way of confronting people, and his demand that even the most respectable people humble themselves and go down to the river and be baptized — all these things get under my skin and make me want to avoid him.

There is, of course, one positive characteristic that I love about John: he had a strong hope in Christ and when the time came he consistently pointed people away from himself to Jesus.

But what about all this other stuff? Why did he have to break onto the scene like a bull in a china shop, upsetting everything, the way he did?

I think there is a clear theological answer to that: John was God’s last prophet to Israel under the covenant with Moses. John was the final peal of thunder from Mt. Sinai. John was the last in a long line of strange men and women who followed God’s unique calling to put themselves outside of mainstream Jewish religion in order that they might get the nation’s attention and call the people of Israel back to God. They called Israel back to the Law and back to the covenant they had entered into under Moses when they received the Ten Commandments and all of God’s laws.

John was the man who was standing at the edge of the cliff, holding up a sign saying, “Stop! Turn around!” He warned Israel that they couldn’t go any farther in the direction they were going without plunging off the mountain to certain death.

Now, if that’s your job, you can’t be subtle about it. You have to get people’s attention. You have to speak directly and confrontationally. You can’t beat around the bush. You have to speak the truth plainly, simply, and without any waffling. There is no time to debate, no time to sit around and analyze what’s happening. People are about to plunge to their destruction off a cliff, and you have to warn them. You have to point them to another way that will lead to life and not death.

And that is what John the Baptist was all about.

* * *

And that, my friends, is what Advent is all about.

Advent is the time when God is shouting at us, “Stop!” It is the season in which he points us to his Law so that we will pause, consider our ways, and turn in fresh faith to put our hope in his promises.

We have turned Advent into something else. We’ve made it simply about preparing for Christmas. That certainly is part of it, but it’s not the whole message of this season. Traditionally, Advent has been a penitential season, like Lent. It’s a time for self-examination. It’s a time for confession of sins. It’s a time to humble ourselves and be honest with ourselves and recognize that, in many ways, we’re a mess and our families are a mess, and our churches are a mess, and the nations are a mess, and our world is a mess.

Advent is a time to recognize that unless God saves us we will not be saved.

That is why it has been traditional practice for people to fast during Advent, just as they do during Lent. In worship, it has been traditional for churches not to sing the “Gloria” during Advent. Advent liturgies and hymns tend to be somber and stark, like the November landscape here in the northern lands. The colors of Advent are dark blue and deep purple like the days that are growing darker as we move into winter. We read from the prophets and meet people like John the Baptist, who hold up God’s Law like a mirror to our lives and tell us where we are falling short.

I remember watching a football game on TV when I was eight years old. It was between the Minnesota Vikings and the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers had the ball down near their own goal line and their quarterback threw a pass that was complete at about the 30-yard line. When the Vikings defensive back tackled the receiver, he stripped the ball from his arms, causing a fumble. Vikings linebacker Jim Marshall swooped in and picked up the ball and started running toward the goal line.

One problem: he was running the wrong way! His teammates chased him down the field, yelling at him. His other teammates on the sidelines did the same. But Marshall was so exuberant about retrieving the fumble and having a clear field in front of him that he just kept running and running and running. He ran for 66 yards, and as he went into the end zone he flung the ball up into the air and out of bounds. It was only as he began to go toward his bench that a teammate finally caught up with him and gave him the bad news: he had gone the wrong way and scored points for the other team.

What a terrible feeling Jim Marshall must have had at that moment! He was out there, playing the game, doing his job and thinking he was doing it well. He couldn’t hear the voices all around him telling him he was going the wrong way. He just kept running and running and running until it was too late.

Don’t keep running and running and running during Advent, this season before Christmas. It is entirely possible you might be running in the wrong direction. Stop for a moment and look at where you are on the field. Listen closely. Is God trying to say something to you? Is he trying to point you in another direction?

May God give us grace to hear his Word of grace and repentance this Advent season. Amen.

Comments

  1. petrushka1611 says:

    I have much to learn about Advent, but this has helped. Thank you.

  2. “Don’t keep running and running and running during Advent, the season before Christmas. It is entirely possible you might be running in the wrong direction. Stop for a moment and look at where you are on the field. Listen closely. Is God trying to say something to you? Is he trying to point you in another direction”

    Yikes! 7 am here, and that bit REALLY woke me up! Thank you sir. (My first thoughts of the day often revolve around lust and greed, then there’s brief flashes throughout the day when I snap out of it for a few moments, and then…oh, brother. )

  3. Could we not simply drop dead to the Law and relax into the reality of Immanuel–God with us, and that NOW?

    T

    • +1

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

      I think it’s good at times to remember where we come from and what we’d be without God’s grace. Plus, it helps us to see God’s grace behind the scenes even in the Law bits. Also, having such seasons keeps us from being antinomian or falling into a mindset similar to the heretic Marcion.

      And I think legalism is always a danger for religious folks. Seeing the harshness of Sinai and its Prophets keeps us from slipping into the mindset of the heretic Pelagius. Heck, there was a move in one of the mainline denominations a few years back (I won’t say which one, lest I get us off track; John the Baptist I ain’t) to de-heretic-ize Pelagius. And I can understand why. There were times when I didn’t fully understand the dangers of that kind of faith practice. The Law can beat us out of that.

      As St. Paul saith, “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.'” One of the main functions of the Law is to remind us how terrible a thing it is to be under it!

  4. What does that mean? Thank you

  5. Marcus Johnson says:

    This is my first year really trying to find a coherent message in the Common Lectionary (i.e., the scripture at the top of this post). I can see how the passages from Malachi and Luke fit together under the story of John the Baptist; can anyone explain a little how the Phillippians passage fits in? Just curious…

    • All of the texts concern the sanctification/purification of the people of God so that they will be prepared for the Day of the Lord.

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

      The key that ties it together is in v10: “so that you may be . . . pure and blameless for the day of Christ

      The goal of all three was getting ready for the “Day of the Lord”

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

        ack… Robert F. Beat me to it… by 3 hours says the timer… I must have had the page stale for a while lol

  6. This shows why we never see John the Baptist on any Christmas cards. Can you imagine the caption: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” That doesn’t go well with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (Andy Williams, R.I.P.)

  7. One thing about John the Baptist that I find very cool is that he really struggled with doubt. Knowing about his past struggles with doubt is like a light in the darkness for me and it gives me hope. It tells me, and all of us here that we’re not alone. But think about it…he sees all these miracles, baptizes God, and then he’s in a prison cell asking, “are you the one we’re waiting for or should we wait for someone else…?”

    I would think that would encourage most of us here! :-)

    • John’s message was one of a messiah who would put the axe to the roots. It was an oration of fire. Then along comes Jesus, ministering in the backwaters of Galilee, away from the centers of power, not in Herod’s face. And when Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 back to John, he omits the parts about the day of vengeance, freeing of captives, and things that would resemble John’s ways of speaking truth to power. No wonder John had his doubts.
      When Jesus refers to John in Matt. 12 as the greatest “among those born of women”, his implication is that there’s another way to be born, a different path to justice, a path God has revealed to not many wise or powerful people.
      (By the way, is there anyone in the NT after John who calls out a political leader for their personal morality?)
      And when He says “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence”, whatever that means, you know He’s saying it’s not going to be an easy transition, even for John!