Summary: John the Baptist was an unexpected person bringing an unexpected message at an unexpected time. A communion sermon for Advent.
Every one of us has certain expectations at Christmas. We expect to buy gifts and we expect to receive gifts. We expect the lights and the colors and the sights and the sounds of the season. We expect to eat a lot! We expect long lines in the department stores, and apparently this year more than ever, we expect to avoid those lines by ordering on-line and having it delivered to our home or office. We expect to be rushed from event to event, from party to party, from school play to church social. We expect to see family and friends. There is much about Christmas that is expected.
What we don’t like are the unexpected twists and turns of life that come our way, especially during the holiday season. The unexpected causes us stress, and we have enough stress with or without the holidays. You know what those unexpected twists are…an unexpected job loss, an unexpected death, an unexpected illness, and sometimes, even an unexpected house guest. Each of those is stressful enough, but when added at holiday time, the anxiety is compounded, and sometimes exponentially.
We expect, too, when we come to church at Christmas that we’re going to hear something about the Christmas story. It is quite unexpected to be reading and hearing about John the Baptist at Christmas! God did some pretty unexpected things that first Christmas—like coming into the world as an infant! But, God has always done the unexpected, and John the Baptist is an example. Besides, this is Advent, and I remind us that Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ, and John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare for the coming of Christ. God used an unexpected time, and an unexpected person, and an unexpected message to speak His revelation.
It was an unexpected time. Luke sets it in the context of the political and religious climate of the first century ancient near east. Israel was under the hand of oppressive leadership, both politically and religiously. Luke, ever the historian, notes Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, and Herod and his brother Philip as the political leaders, and Annas and Caiaphas as the high priests—who would be considered the religious leaders. Additionally, the prophets (who were God’s spokespersons) hadn’t spoken in over 400 years. Everyone expected that God didn’t care. Yet, when it was least expected, Luke tells us “it was at this time a message came from God…”
There was also an unexpected person. This message, Luke tells us, came to John, the son of Zechariah. We call him John the Baptist. It was quite unexpected that God would use this strange man who lived out in the desert and had a crazy wardrobe of camel hair, and had a steady diet of locusts and wild honey. No, we would expect that God would use the religious leaders, or even the political leaders of the day. Don’t they speak for God? Ha! We can’t always assume that God will use the religious leaders to do His bidding. This passage…this event…challenges me. After all, I’m considered a religious leader. It forces me to ask, “What am I doing with what God has entrusted to me?” And, we say we live in a Christian nation (debatable, I know), but seriously, we can’t ever expect our political leaders to speak for God. We can pray for them. We can hope they’ll be in tune to God’s will, that they’ll embody some kind of spirituality, but this passage reminds me that God chose a crazy man from the backside of the desert to deliver his message to a hurting, longing world.
There was an unexpected message, and that was “The King is coming!” It was a call to get ready, and there was some pretty specific instruction as to how that was to look: repentance and baptism. Well, what was unexpected about that? After all, these were not foreign concepts to first century folks. The Old Testament has many examples of people turning from sin and God forgiving them. One of the most prominent examples the Jewish people knew of was that of David’s repentance when Samuel confronted him concerning his sin with Bathsheba. David said, “I have sinned against the Lord!” But, Samuel said, “Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you.” Zacchaeus, in Luke 19, is an example of a Jewish person who repented. After his encounter with Jesus, he gave away half his wealth and paid back up to four times that which he had cheated from others. I’m not sure whether you realize it or not, but that’s a lot of money!
Likewise, these Jewish people would be well familiar with the idea of baptism, for you see, Gentile converts who came to the Jewish faith had to be baptized to be considered Jewish. They were baptized into the faith. But, baptism was for Gentiles. The unexpected twist was John was preaching baptism to Jewish folk. They needed to be baptized? Now, that was unexpected! It was an unexpected person in an unexpected time preaching an unexpected message. There are a couple of implications we can draw from this passage.