Sunday, December 5, 2010

December 5, 2010

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' " 4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989
Parades are inevitable; they are part of our culture. When it comes time to celebrate it is mandatory that we form a line and everybody gets to see the show as it marches by. I’ve watched a lot of parades, and been in a few. Parades are fun; the floats are elaborate, sometimes tacky. The uniforms and marching bands are entertaining. Best of all are the balloon characters!
There is, however, one character you will never see in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade or the Christmas Rose Bowl parade - You will never see a John the Baptist balloon figure!
He probably doesn’t show up at many holiday parties either.
One author characterized John as the kind of Advent guest that forces you to wonder either what in the world is wrong with HIM or what in the world is wrong with YOU.[1]
John the Baptist was many things –
· Exciting – the crowds followed
· Entertaining – people love a good show
· Eccentric – loved the camel-hair suit (but, John, eating locusts?)
· Enigmatic – hard to figure out his style why he lambasted both the spiritual and political leaders of his day…but most of all John was just plain…
If there’s one thing that is certain about John’s message, it’s that to whomever he speaks, John is requiring change, metanoia. Metanoia is the Greek word translated “repentance” in our text. It’s much more than just feeling sorry for what you’ve done in the past – it is a turning away from that past. Everything is affected…all you think, all you love, all you want and don’t want – everything! [2]
Everything about John’s preaching was about “repentance”. His was an unsettling message; he was an unsettling man. He is the epitome of (supposedly) what a preacher must be – he brought comfort to the afflicted, and affliction to the “comfortable”!
Now, the Pharisees were the comfortable – the “fat cats” of society. And this begs the question before the house…and I so move it…
Why Were They There?
Of course the “they” includes two different groups…the general populace as well as the religious rulers. Why did people go to John? In our Wednesday conversation this week our group explored three possibilities:
1. There were those who were Curious – many people understood their need of being forgiven, and this would have been the main reason common folk followed after John. It was typical for an Israelite to be looking for the Messiah. John’s preaching was announcing the coming of Messiah’s kingdom. People believed!
2. There were those who were Critical – of course this would include unbelievers of the common class, but mostly here we see the Pharisees who rejected John’s message outright.
They were educated in the Scriptures enough to understand that John was quoting Isaiah and other prophets, but John’s message of repentance had “Pharisees” written all over it, and it ruffled their feathers!
Some of them got it, and eventually changed (Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea to name a few). But the more critical were those who were looking for an opportunity to discredit John (the same thing they later tried to do to Jesus). One preacher offered a graphic word picture of the response of John to the Pharisees who approached him:
Of course, like all preachers, John didn't get through to everybody. Some who came to the Jordan with no intention of getting taken in by this man stuck to that determination pretty fiercely. The religious leaders provided John the opportunity to cut loose with his strongest language. "Sneaky snakes!" John fairly howled! "Somebody set the field on fire and out slithered you all! Well, I'm here to tell you that the days of resting on your laurels are over. Don't whip out your Members Only temple gold card – your theological credentials cut no ice with me! Don't tell me about your spiritual lineage or that you are Abraham's children because if God wanted more children of Abraham, he'd turn the stones into a whole bunch of them. But that's just the problem, isn't it? Your hearts are as dead as stone already. God wants living trees producing juicy spiritual fruit. If I were you, I'd get serious about that because I'm here to lay the groundwork and clear a path for Somebody big and strong who is coming any minute now. He's coming with a very sharp axe in his hand and he will chop down and burn to ashes dead trees like you all!"[3]
The religious professionals got dressed down like a ten year old boy whose father just caught him smoking behind the barn. John pulled no punches. As a 21st century “religious professional” I make it my business to read this passage often enough to keep a good perspective on what God thinks about religious professionals!
Some were curious, some critical, and…
3. Everybody was Cautious – This group would include both of the two previous groups…everybody. In fact, it includes us. The ones who submitted to John’s call to repent were obviously cautious for their souls; they wanted to be right with God.
But, those who outright rejected John’s call to repent…they also knew that they stood in need of God’s forgiveness. We are born, as St. Augustine wrote, with a God-shaped hole on the inside; we cannot be at rest until that is filled – and it cannot be filled with anything but a right relationship with God.
So that is the main reason why they were there…they were cautious, worried about their souls…and that spawns a larger question which the truth begs:

If That’s Why They Were There…Why Are We Here?
And an even more important corollary…
How Will We Go Away From Here? What Decisions Will We Make Today?
The answers are pretty much the same for this century as for twenty centuries ago….some will resist God and some will submit. We came here today curious and nervous, or critical and negative…but deep-down inside we all showed-up cautious, knowing that inner, eternal part of us (that part which defines who we are, and how we will spend eternity), needs attention – needs to have a right relationship with God to fill the void inside….that emptiness, without God, hurts – and we know that only God can heal that emptiness!
John told all who would listen what to do – metanoia (repent). That’s an inside job…has nothing to do with outward appearances, what people think of you, or even whether you’re a Methodist, Baptist or Episcopalian. It has to do with whether you will submit to God as God; will you take yourself off the throne and give Him glory? Repentance is knowing – and acknowledging with your life – who is God….and who is NOT God. Here are the only two choices before you…
Choice #1: Resist like a Pharisee
The chief resistance is a refusal to change – or more accurately, to let God change you. The Pharisees had no intention of humbling themselves to change things so that the poor would not be so poor, or the powerless would not be so helpless; they liked the status quo. They resisted the Spirit of God, and thereby distorted God’s mission to serve their institution. To them, their institution, the temple and all that power, was more important than God. That was the main reason John told them their “status” as Abraham’s descendants meant nothing.
Bottom line…if you won’t humble yourself to God, if He doesn’t come first in everything….no matter how uncomfortable it may be to make the changes He requires…you’re not worshiping God, you’re worshiping yourself.
Choice #2: Submit to His Baptism
If metanoia is an inside job, this is the outside – this is what people will see. This baptism – of becoming part of the visible church – is humbling. When you join the church you are asked if you repent – metanoia; if you will turn your back on your previous life like it is a corpse to be buried and left that way.
You are asked to promise to give financially, give your service, pray, worship faithfully and be God’s witness in this world by the way you live and in your relationships with others.
Now, God, and every human being with the common sense of a turnip know you cannot keep every one of those promises perfectly – some you can, but you will mess up, and there will be more “metanoia” in your future. But the point is that it is a beginning point. Baptism is a dip in the cold water of reality; living-out that baptism is a daily journey that stretches out into eternity, day-by-day!
That means there will be changes along the way; the churchy word is transformation. And that is different than reformation. To have re-formation is to rearrange some things, like dusting the furniture….you stop smoking, drinking, and all the other bad habits (except the ones you really enjoy, and can get away with if nobody’s looking). Trans-formation is when God changes you.
John Wesley had mega doses of reformation – he worked so hard to be right with God. He studied languages, theology….served as a missionary and preacher. He did all he could; yet it took a humbling moment at Aldersgate one winter night to teach him that it was God who did the transforming, not Wesley. It warmed his heart – a strange experience for a methodical, hard-working zealot of reformation!
You and I are here today because we care for our souls. The transformation of God is available…we must simply submit….inside-out. And that’s how he changes you…from the inside-out…you will feel it, and others will see it.
C.S. Lewis once said, Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.[4]
That’s why they were there – and that’s why you’re here, to make an infinite, eternally-important choice
In the name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit
[1] Scott Hoezee, The Center for Excellence in Preaching,
[2] See Ben Witherington, Asbury Theological SeminaryWilmore, Kentucky on
[3] Scott Hoezee, The Center for Excellence in Preaching,

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