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Sermon for Ordinary 25

Sermon Advent 2

Luke 3: v 1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’ NRSV

I am looking at John the Baptist this week from Luke 1-6, and I have to careful because it would be very easy to look at John the Baptist and start talking about what he said about ethics in his sermon from verse 7-18, but Sam is going to speak about that week and I can’t leave him with nothing to talk about. So this week I am going to try and stick to these first six verses, and I am just like a fore runner to prepare you for the stuff which Sam will preach next week!

In that same way we should see John the Baptist as a fore runner, to prepare people for Jesus. This does not mean that John the Baptist is unimportant, in fact he is very important. I wonder if you have ever considered that two of the Gospels don’t mention Christmas at all? I was listening to somebody speaking on the news about how he had written a book about a child called Sam who wanted to get rid of Christmas. Well you can get rid of Christmas if you want, it isn’t vital to have the Christmas story at all. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t mention it, John’s Gospel doesn’t mention it. However you cannot get rid of John the Baptist, all four Gospels record the story of John the Baptist. He is important.

In fact Josephus the Jewish historian (37-100AD) writing sixty years later referred to John the Baptist when he wrote that John
‘Exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism…. when others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed  Antiquities 18,117-18

So Josephus confirms that John was a teacher who called people do two things

  • To live by high social ethical standards
  • To be baptised with a baptism of repentance

Telling people that they had to be baptised was dramatic stuff. At the time if you were a Gentile who wanted to become a Jew then you had to be immersed in water, a baptism. However John doesn’t just baptise Gentiles, he calls to baptism the children of Abraham also, demanding that they as Jews submit to something which had been devised for pagans. Imagine that you were a good Jew, one of God’s chosen people and you heard John the Baptist telling you that you had to repent and be baptised ! Can you imagine how you would have felt?

John’s preaching was a message of repentance for all people, there were no exceptions. He told people that the world was broken and that they needed to acknowledge their need of a Saviour.

This is significant for us to hear because so many people will tell us that we don’t need God we can do it all ourselves. The Christian position is that we agree with John the Baptist, we are not good enough in ourselves we need to repent. On our own humanity is no getting better, there is a darkness in the universe, which is a part of each one of us and without the light of Christ there is ultimately only darkness. There is no march towards perfection by humanity.

Christians are sometimes criticised as being people who make out they are better than others. This is really unfair, whilst obviously there are people who think that they are better than others and some of them might be Christians, it is actually the complete opposite of the Christian message. John tells us that the world cannot save itself, humanity is incapable of pulling itself out of the pit without the help of God. Different parts of Christianity will disagree about how much we are incapable of saving ourselves.

  • Some say we cannot even by ourselves stand up in the pit, God needs to lift us up, a very protestant idea - it is all grace.
  • Others think that that we can reach half way to grasp the hand of God to pull us out, a more Roman Catholic idea - works. 

However all are agreed that we all need to start with the message of John the Baptist that we must first of all recognise our own darkness, our own sin and seek God in repentance.

For many people the word repentance has negative overtones, it brings to mind guilt and threats of God wanting to punish us. People have been told by churches that they have to repent from a whole range of things, sometimes just for enjoying themselves or being the way that God made them. Once there was a whole Christian movement which believed that pop music was something Christians should repent ove and it is little more than manipulation. True repentance means that we are realistic about our own failings, Christians should never be ‘holier than thou’ there is no place for it. Repentance has often been spoken of as a turning around, a turning away and there are some things which Christians should speak out against and seek to avoid, the influence of materialsim, exploitation of the poor, or the plundering of the worlds resources. Sadly we are often very introspective and that is where the guilt and exploitation starts. A positive way of thinking about repentance is choosing to walk with God in his direction. Think of that lovely verse in Micah 6:8

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

The point about the passage from Luke today is that God wants us to walk with him. God is not just concerned with powerful people, or influencial people. God wants ordinary people  

Look at how the passage about John this morning begins

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

There are seven great authority figures mentioned, but the word of God does not come to the seven powerful ones, it comes instead to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. This is a man who lives in the wilderness but I wonder have you ever considered that this wasn’t John on a holiday or even a spiritual retreat.

If you remember John was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth the cousin of Mary the mother of Jesus. In Luke Chapter 1 we are told about the amazing birth of John and his father Zechariah speak some powerful words about his son John which include

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

The Chapter concludes with verse 80 which says

The child (John the Baptist) grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

John was not an occasional visitor to the wilderness, this was his life. If you wanted to send him a  Christmas card it would be addressed

'John the Baptist, The Desert'

Think of this the most significant action of God in the cosmos was taking place in a desert.

Translate all of this into modern day life and what do we learn.

There is as much darkness now as there ever was. When you world leaders who are murderers like Putin and the Saudi Prince at the G20, both in positions of great power and influence you realise that nothing has really changed that much since the days of Herod. Yemen, Syria, the plight of Christians killed for their faith. You soon realise that left to our own devices we are not on the march to perfection. It matters not whether we are led politically by a Trump, a Macron or Merkel of a May, there is no human solution to our darkness. The start of change can only occur in each one of us as we begin with repentance and as John says by acknowledging our own desperate need to walk with God in his way.

If we want change which lasts then it will not be political change, or economic change, with Brexit or without Brexit. Out of our materialistic culture it is interesting that many people do want to consider more deeply the nature of world in which we live. There is desire by many to go beyond the superficial life which we are often encouraged to think about, feeding our craving for consumerism.

Professor Hawking said that the great threat to human life was artificial intelligence. Well I am sure robots can be very dangerous but I think that the greatest threat to human life is rather artificial humanity. This is when we deny that we are spiritual beings, created in the image of God, when we deny our spiritual need of God and imagine that we are just material beings, sufficient in ourselves, then we reduce the value of human life and we are artificial humans.

The Prophet Isaiah said

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Of course very many people have not seen that great light. John  called people to a Baptism of Repentance’. That meant that they recognised that they could not fix themselves, they needed God. If John the Baptist were alive today he would be calling people back to recognise that we need his ‘baptism of repentance’ because we need for people to see that light in our time.

There is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder ca. 1520 – 1569  of the Preaching of St. John. If you look at it you can see that the audience is very diverse. You will see all manner of workers and peasants, people of different classes and of course there are people from different natuions present too. Bruegel wanted to emphasize that the message which John the Baptist preacehd was meant for all. There is an interesting technique which the artist has used which is to paint in such a way that you are placed as if you were there at the time and listened to the words of John. You and I are called to that Baptism of Repentance to walk that walk with God in the light of his way.

May we all choose this Advent to walk with God, each one of us and the many people who will come through our church doors over the festive season. May we all hear afresh the call of John to walk with God and come to the joy of knowing God’s light

John the Baptist