Let’s take a deep breath and open our hearts, mind, soul and spirit to receive the message that God has for us this morning. Let’s focus our thoughts on the mystic presence of the Holy One. Let us pray: Lord God, Lord Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit, please let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Strength, our Rock and our Redeemer. In Jesus’ name, amen.
About 400 years before the appearance of John the Baptist, the Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” So, John the Baptist comes, telling us to examine the lives we lead, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." John the Baptist appears in all four Gospels at precisely the same moment: just before the adult Jesus enters the Gospel narrative. In all four Gospels, John prepares the way for Jesus, the Messiah; the living water and present-tense figure of the Holy Spirit that comes from God. Both water and spirit are rivers that flow through us and are necessary for real life. So today, let’s imagine ourselves standing with the crowds coming out to the river Jordan for baptism by John. And if we put ourselves in the shoes of those who came out to hear John, we hear him preparing us for the arrival of Jesus by directing our look (1) back to the record of Israel's hope for redemption; (2) back to the evidence of our
own broken relationship with God. Yet John, as the last and greatest prophet of the Old Testament, also prepares us by helping us look (3) forward to the One who is coming after him. It had been over 400 years since God had sent a prophet to Israel, so John the Baptist prepares us for Jesus, who is the Joy, Hope, Peace, and Love, as well as the grace, mercy, forgiveness and salvation that we seek through Messiah Jesus.
In Luke 1: verses 13-17, we read; "the angel Gabriel said to John’s father, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. "And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or liquor; and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother's womb. And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Gabriel speaks of joy, gladness and rejoicing at the birth of John. To get an idea of both what the prophet Elijah and John looked like, let’s go back to the 7th and 8th verses of the first chapter of 2nd Kings, where we read, "What kind of man was he who came up to meet you
and spoke…to you?" And they answered him, "He was a hairy man with a leather girdle bound about his loins." And he said, "It is Elijah the Tishbite!" Elijah, which means “the Lord is God,” walked on water, called down God’s fire from heaven, raised the dead, and went up to heaven in a chariot of fire without dying: This illustrates the spirit and power of Elijah that John the Baptist would have and represent.
So, John the Baptist comes: He comes not only dressed and looking like Elijah, but he also comes in the spirit and power of Elijah as well. John recalls Israel's hope that God will send a prophet, perhaps Elijah himself, "before the great and terrible day of the Lord…The Lord will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents." This prophecy is of a fire that burns like an oven and reduces the arrogant, the hateful sinners and evildoers to ashes. The Elijah figure, that is…John, will warn people and turn them back from sin and evil. Of course, such a prophet's appearance is frightening, but also hopeful. It means that soon the wicked will no longer prosper. Instead, the meek shall inherit the earth. Peace will come. Soon, God will establish a King for Israel like the one described in Isaiah 11 and Psalm 72. And John appears to do the advance work for such a person, the person of the Messiah, in the person of Jesus Christ.
Today, just as in ancient time, John calls each of us to Repentance. John preaches a one-sentence sermon that Jesus will also preach: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." The "Kingdom" is that time and place where God's name is properly worshipped, and God's will is perfectly done. It is that time and place where, as it is stated in Isaiah 65, "the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them." This scripture tells us that whatever else the heavenly kingdom is, it is definitely OUR world turned upside down.
Peace and repentance. Repentance and peace. They go together. Just as we read that the lion will lay down with the lamb; peace comes to our hearts and our core-essence, as we repent and ask for forgiveness. That’s why both John and Jesus said to the ancients and to us; "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." The arrival of John the Baptist at such a time and place calls for repentance. Today's scripture implies not so much a feeling of regret as of a call to action, change and re-direction, or even Metanoia, which in the Greek means, "a 180 degree turning around, or a turning back" from sinful ways. And again remember, that “sin” or in the Greek, “Hamartia”, is a missing of the mark, not necessarily some big and horrible thing.
The crowds coming to John are challenged by him to own up to the fact that they have broken with God, broken faith with God, broken away from God, and broken the bonds that tied them to God. Those of the ancient time, and maybe we too, are broken people; broken in the sense of our sin, or the missing of the mark of our goals; and even the struggle we have within ourselves over WHAT, and WHO, will rule in our lives. And that house divided against itself will not stand, and great will be its destruction. Again, we hear John saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
Time is short, so we must bear fruit that is worthy of repentance. We must joyfully love each other, joyously forgive each other, and have faith, hope and trust in each other. And, in REALLY HEARING the message of John, we can be assured that the teeth of the Gospel have not been knocked out. The radical and transforming power of God Almighty to pick us up, dust us off and wipe our slates clean, and turn us back to God, has not been muzzled, or silenced or muted. Even if we, as modern and postmodern people, may be offended by John’s message; even if we are angered and turned off by the message that John brings to us, we must as Christians hear it, because there ARE people in this church, and in this community, and in this world, who are desperate to hear that God wants, expects, and most importantly, has made possible, repentance, salvation and forgiveness, as
well as joy, hope, peace and love. God loves you! I think that today’s message could also be entitled, “Repentance and Stones.” For just a moment, let's again put ourselves into the shoes of those who went out to the River Jordan to hear John. Author Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that, “Self-appointed prophets, [such as John the Baptist], tend to plant themselves right in your way so you have to cross over to the other side of the street to avoid them. [Remember the hare krishna’s?] They get in your face and dare you to ignore them. (But) John the Baptist planted himself right (out) in the middle of nowhere. He set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there, (maybe) borrowing the neighbor’s donkey or setting off on foot with enough water for the journey, which led down lonely trails that were infested with bandits (The route goes where the Good Samaritan story took place). To hear John the Baptist preach you had to trek off into the blazing hot desert, cross unrelenting hills of thick sand, and make your way past Qumran, and down to the River Jordan, a thousand feet below sea level, and far away from any city. (And) For all your efforts, you would be met with John’s brand of fire and brimstone preaching.
And this was his message (Pretend that I’m John the Baptist speaking!): “You bunch of snakes!” “You brood of vipers!” “Who warned
you to flee from the wrath to come?” (What a way to start a sermon!!) “What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think that a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your LIFE that’s got to change, not your skin! If your life changes, people will be able to tell! You’ll bear good fruit! And don’t think that you can pull rank because you are a descendant of Abraham!! God can, from these stones, make children of Abraham. What matters is your life! Is your life green, lush, and bearing good fruit? Because if it isn’t, if it’s deadwood, then it will ALL be gathered up and thrown into unquenchable fire!”
It’s a tough message, isn’t it? Yet, the crowds in ancient times came many miles out into the desert to hear it. People from all over braved the elements and came out into the desert to hear John preach. You couldn’t hear that message at First Christian Church in Jerusalem, so they came out to hear John preach repentance, and be baptized, and turn their lives around! You know, today would be a good day to act on the message of John the Baptist: Repent, and know the joy of the risen Christ, the One whose birth we’re preparing for, the One who brings joy, hope, peace and love to everyone, in every time and in every place. Are you ready? Then come, Lord Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Let us pray
Rev. Jan Ekstedt MDiv.
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