Summary: This Advent sermon looks at John the Baptist: The Man, The Mission, & The Message. God unexpectedly worked through John. He now chooses to work through us as witnesses. (Based loosely on "The Word Became Flesh" Advent series from Concordia Seminary, STL.)
Forensic scientists in England analyzed the venerated remains from a certain grave, a few years ago. The corpse of the individual being observed was male. He was no more than five feet tall, and he had a broken nose. He lived in the 4th Century AD. And, despite being dug up in Italy, he was originally from Turkey (though he wouldn’t have called it that, in those days).
Stories abound about this man from that grave. Stories like how he freed prisoners about to be executed, or how he appeared to the Emperor Constantine in a dream. There are tales of his com-passion for the poor and needy. Legend has it he destroyed temples of false gods, resulting in evil spirits fleeing with howls. But my favorite story—and this one is documented—was of the time he punched a heretic at the Council of Nicaea (which might explain the broken nose), and was thrown in jail for a few days to “cool off.” Any guess as to who this dug up, analyzed, legendary man was?
It was St. Nicholas. Santa Claus! Maybe you didn’t expect that. After all, our image of St. Nick is of a big, round fellow who is larger than life, not a small, brawling Turkish man. Oh, and we ex-pect him to be jolly; wouldn’t hurt a fly. He decks the halls with boughs of holly; he does not deck the jaws of heretical folly—and certainly not at a Church Council meeting! He’s a builder of toys and memories, not an exorcist and destroyer of temples. We expect the image of the large, cheerful man in a red jump suit, coming down the chimney (yet staying remarkably clean, despite the many soot-filled smokestacks he travels). We expect a man with a flowing white beard, whose diet consists of milk and cookies and Coca-Cola. We expect the picture of a rotund merry man hopping on his sleigh, flying away and shouting, “Merry Christmas to all! And to all a good night!”
That’s what we expect…but the thing is, expectations and reality often collide. In our everyday lives, expectations and reality collide. What we expect doesn’t always match what we get. Whether it’s expecting a jolly midnight deliveryman, only to find out that St. Nick’s naughty list was specific to 4th Century heretics. Or, if it’s expecting a special something you’ve been dropping not-so-subtle-hints about all year—only to get, “Oh…socks…No, they’re…great. So…practical. Thanks.” The fact is, in our lives expectations and reality often collide. And more often than not it ends in an awful mess.
The child stars who grow up portraying innocent characters on the Disney Channel becoming less than favorable role models. The political figures who make big promises, but only bring on more of the “same-old, same-old.” The friend who doesn’t come to your defense. The surgery that didn’t go exactly as planned. The spouse who suddenly questions the marriage vow. The parent who doesn’t follow through on a promise. The young man who quickly abandons his now-pregnant girlfriend. The phone call that shatters your world with devastating news. The list could go on. Expectations and reality collide in an awful mess all around us, and we’re left picking up the pieces of our lives. But we live in a sinful, fallen, broken world…so what did we expect?
But the message of Scripture that we join in week after week in worship is that God works un-expectedly. God works unexpectedly through the messes of this sinful, fallen, broken world. God works in unexpected ways. Through unexpected, unpleasant circumstances. Through unexpected, inconvenient scenarios. Through unexpected, unusual people. Which brings us to our Gospel read-ing for today: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John…”
John the Baptist was an unexpected, unusual person God used for His purposes. Sure, we hear of John the Baptist every year in Advent. We’re accustomed to it. We expect to hear about him. But at the time, he was unexpected. Granted, they should have expected him. They certainly anticipated someone who would come before the Messiah. From Scripture they knew to expect someone—another “Elijah,” as it were. Because along with that passage from Isaiah 40 this morning, about a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” in Malachi 4 God says more about this messenger. There, he says,“I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes…” So, that’s where that reference to Elijah comes from. They knew to expect someone…they just didn’t expect it to be John. They didn’t want it to be John!
They didn’t want it to be him, because, from his diet to his wardrobe, John’s behavior was unu-sual! From all appearances, there was nothing spectacular about this wild wilderness man, dressed in a coat of camel hair and eating locusts. On top of that, he challenged their worldview—his message wasn’t want they expected. What they expected was an inspiring, empowering message that they had finally found favor with God, and that Roman rule would soon come to an end. But instead, he points out their sin. What a downer! He proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And then, in Luke, when the people then come out to be baptized, he says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He was a little off-putting. He just wasn’t the man they expected God to send.