This sermon was delivered at Lufkin UMC on December 8, 2013.
New International Version (NIV)
3 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[a]
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Every family has at least one.
A cousin, an uncle, and aunt, a grandma that just sticks out. You could come from a long line of fairly conventional people; your grandpa’s an accountant, your uncle’s a dentist, you’re brother’s an engineer, your aunt Sarah’s a teacher, etc. And then you have your Great Aunt Edna who’s an alpaca farmer just outside of Winnipeg, who in her downtime makes sculptures out of melted car parts, and you just have to tilt your head and say, “Where did she come from, and how did she get in our family?” I can think of few families in which this is an exception, and though the people may be different, there’s always at least one person who really fits like a square peg in a round hole.
John the Baptizer, or Johnny as I like to call him, came from a nice enough family, if we read from Luke’s account of the story. In fact, he has a really amazing story all on his own, one that tends to be overshadowed by his more famous cousin—even though at the time he was doing ministry, and for a long time afterwards, he was way more famous than Jesus.
His parents were both from priestly families: Zechariah, his dad, was a temple priest from the line of Abijah, one of the priests appointed by King David himself; his mother Elizabeth was from the family of Aaron, brother of Moses—a Levite. Zechariah and Elizabeth, heavily involved in the life of the temple, were about as good and close of a couple as you could get. They were well respected, and deemed righteous, good people on all accounts. However, there is a wrinkle in their story, one that people could focused on for the longest time. They had no children, nor could they conceive. For those who know, the trials, depression, and difficulty of wanting children but not being able to have any is bad enough—but imagine being public figures like they were, and everyone knowing your business! Life may have been good for Zechariah and Elizabeth, in many ways, but sometimes it wasn’t so great, at least when it comes to that area of life.
That is until this one day at the temple. During a routine worship service, it was Zechariah’s turn to go into the sanctuary and burn some incense. When he was there, he had a vision of an angel whose first words were—get this—“Don’t be afraid.” Repeat: angel. Out of nowhere. “Don’t be afraid.” (I’m sorry, angels? No matter how many times you tell us to do that, we’re still going to be afraid! We’re not used to seeing you!) The angel then tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth are going to have a son, and they’re going to name him John. Naturally, Zechariah didn’t believe this—I mean, being religious and being a priest is one thing, but getting your hopes up that you and your wife, after years and years of disappointment and despair, might actually have a child in the winter of your years? He wasn’t a fool. He may have been told by an angel of the Lord himself, but he wasn’t about to believe something as crazy as that. But that’s the funny thing about God; God does crazy things that nobody believes, and God does it a lot. Zechariah’s disbelief backfired, and the angel made Uncle Zechariah mute until the baby came. For which, I’m sure, Elizabeth was relieved to find. I’m sure many of the women in the congregation can agree that sometimes the best thing a man can do is be quiet.
So Cousin Johnny was born to Elizabeth, a woman who was thought unable to have kids. This is strange, but not entirely out of the realm of belief. God had done this kind of thing before, between Sarah, Rebekah, and Hannah of the Old Testament. It’s just kind of the thing that God does. Johnny was born, Zechariah could talk, and everyone lived happily as normal, godly family, right? … Not exactly.
You see, there was a caveat to this whole miraculous business. The angel made it clear that Johnny was to be set aside for God, just like the rest of his family, but even more so. He was to become a Nazirite, a special class of holy man, one that did not drink alcohol, kept kosher, and never cut his hair. He couldn’t even eat grapes! He could not go near a dead person, even a relative, and if he did, he had to cut off his hair, make a sacrifice, and start all over again. These are certain rules, rules in the Torah, rules that his parents as priests strictly followed. After years of strict religious upbringing like this, I don’t think it’s any surprise that he came out a little bit… off.
I’m being generous when I say he was “off.” By all accounts, Johnny had the appearance of a madman, a crazy person. He lived in the wilderness. He ate bugs. He wore camel hair. Least surprising perhaps, given that he was raised in the temple and that he was fore-ordained to be a holy man, was the fact that he was a preacher and evangelist, spreading the news of the coming Kingdom of God, and urging people to repent and be baptized. That in and of itself is not quite so crazy. Where it gets crazy is the way he does it.
We are in the midst of the season of Advent, the period of time before the day of Christmas in which we celebrate the birth of the Christ child. Advent, though, is not Christmas, no matter how much we might want it to be—and that’s the point. It’s the period of waiting for Christ to come. It’s a season of expectation and preparation, one that’s desperately needed in a world where patience is seldom rewarded, self-satisfaction is glamorized, and waiting is something we just can’t be bothered to do. We must wait, though it might seem crazy to do so. There are a thousand things we have to do—be it before Christmas, before the New Year, before whatever. But before the coming of Christ, we must wait, and prepare. In order to do this, we ought to take a look at Crazy Cousin Johnny the Baptizer, the Nazirite, the wilderness prophet and convicting proclaimer of the Kingdom of God, because he was the one who came to prepare the way for Christ.
There is often a desire to compare Cousin Johnny to other people. Most often, the two people he is compared to are Elijah and Jesus. There are many passages where people proclaim that John is Elijah; Luke says the Spirit of Elijah was given to him, and Jesus flat out says he’s Elijah in another passage. Consequently, many of his followers mistook him for Jesus as well, as the messiah, the deliverer. He and Jesus said many similar things, and the models of their ministry were somewhat similar. Honestly though, I don’t think this gives enough credit to Johnny as an individual. Yes, he might have been Elijah. No, he wasn’t the messiah. But he was a prophet, and a prophet in his own right. When he read the Nev’im, the writings of the prophets, he took Isaiah very seriously: And that’s just what he did. He wasn’t Elijah v2.0. He wasn’t a proto-Jesus either. He was the one who came to testify to the light in a world full of darkness.
It’s a funny thing, when you are in the dark for a long, long time, what happens to your eyes? They adjust. They make it so that the dark doesn’t seem so dark, that you can cope with an absence of light. So it was for the world before Christ came into the world. The people of the world had been stumbling around in darkness for so long, they just adjusted to it. They expected. While some people were convinced that there was a different way, a better way, it was hard to convince everybody that the world could be different. Pretty soon, nobody even had any concept of what the light would look like, or what it would do, or change.
Along came Crazy Johnny, who in a world of darkness, managed to bring into the world a flashlight. Nothing much, nothing huge, but even a little bit of light can make a big difference. A flashlight can reveal your surroundings, the landscape, the obstacles ahead. It reveals color, shape, size. It can uncover beauty, as well as reveal ugliness. It exposes the tricks that the darkness plays on our heads and gives us the truth. And, most importantly, if you look directly into the light after being in the dark for so long, it hurts.
Which is where the meat of the story of John the Baptizer lies. Yes, he appeared crazy, yes, he was a holy man, but where the rubber hit the road, what he said was like a blinding light in the eyes of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and religious folk of the day. He may have come from a temple family, but that doesn’t mean he showed any partiality to them, nor did he take it easy on them. In actuality, that’s where he was the most critical. He was there to testify to the light, to prepare a way for the Messiah to come, and that meant rattling a few cages. It meant shaking people out of their complacent self-righteousness, shine a flashlight on them, and show them that though in the dark they appear as normal and as righteous as can be, in the light they are nothing more than the children of snakes. Harsh? Yes. Necessary? Double yes. In fact, Jesus quoted the “brood of vipers” bit in his own ministry—which shows how much John got on their nerves.
In reality, John the Baptist should get on our nerves too. Crazy Cousin Johnny’s message is like the first few minutes of turning on the water in the shower in the middle of winter: shocking, yet cleansing. It reveals exactly how much dirt was there to begin with. It revealed to the people of his day that just because they were children of Abraham and belonged to the Jewish faith, that doesn’t mean a thing without fruit. In the same way, it should reveal to us today that just because we claim Christ as our savior, just because we go to church, and just because we love God, that’s not the same as bearing fruit. John calls us to bear fruit worthy of our repentance, to change our hearts and our lives in the light of Christ.
If John had a flashlight, Jesus had a stadium light. If we can’t stand the light of the one who came before to prepare the way, how are we going to manage when they turn on the big lights? While Christmas is the day we celebrate the joy of the world coming to us, the Light that is God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, John came first to prepare the way, to get the generator going, and make a path for Christ to come on into our lives. The question then for us is this: are you bearing fruit that is worthy of your repentance? Are you preparing for Christ to enter into the world? Are you praying for the joy of the Lord to come into your life? Are you present in the moment, with your family, with your community? Are you living generously, giving what you can for the good of all? Are you using the gifts God has given to you for the benefit of the mission of God? Are you serving the people that Christ called you to serve? Are you bearing witness to the light as John did, by loving people as Christ did? Are you living out the peace of Christ? Are you bearing goodwill to your fellow human beings, your neighbors, and all you encounter? Because that’s the fruit that John is talking about, and that’s what is worthy of your time, your energy, your repentance.
Johnny may be crazy, but he also has a point. Unless you change your heart, your mind, your spirit, you won’t be ready for the Son of God. The good news is, this is the time of year to set things right, to repent, and to share the light of Christ. It doesn’t matter what you have done in the past—God forgives, and God loves. What matters is what you do with the time that is given to you. So prepare the way for the Lord. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.