If you missed church yesterday, you really blew it! Instead of a video to precede the message, the worship team went into a riff session on the old rock and roll song “Wild Thing.” But, I started by saying that, no, I’m not the Wild Thing. In fact, I’m rather domesticated. I often say that I’m the most boring person I know or that you know. I often go many consecutive months at a time without ever leaving the Washington/Franklin Counties area.
No, the song was an introduction to our character of the day, John the Baptist. He really was a “wild thing.”
In the most recent edition of Christianity Today magazine, there was a very good article by a writer named Fleming Rutledge. She writes:
It would be hard to say which is more alien to our contemporary ideas of getting ready for Christmas, the season of Advent or the figure of John the Baptist—the man who greeted the Pharisees and Sadducees by calling them a “brood of vipers.” How would you like to get that on a Christmas card?
This unlovable figure is very much out of sync with our times, yet he is one of the foremost figures of Advent … Like John the Baptist, Advent is out of phase with its time, with our time. It encroaches upon us in an uncomfortable way, making us feel somewhat uneasy with its stubborn resistance to Christmas cheer. To be sure, we have done a pretty good job of domesticating Advent, and I am by no means above this sort of thing myself. Every year, I used to buy Advent calendars for my children with cute little doors that open and show cute little pictures. I have yet to find an Advent calendar that has a picture of John the Baptist. We really don’t know exactly what to do with him; he doesn’t fit into anything.
So what are we to make of this eccentric character? Why is the guy so weird? Why is he such a Wild Thing?
We should first review his background and birth story. As with our other characters of this seasonal series, it is a bit unusual. He was born to godly parents Zachariah and Elizabeth who were at an advanced age, having had no children. Zachariah was a priest, and upon the once-in-a-lifetime occasion of his duty to light the incense in the Temple, he is confronted there by the angel Gabriel. There he receives news of the coming birth of a son to be named John, who will serve God in the spirit of Elijah. Struggling to believe this, Zachariah is stricken with an inability to talk until the child comes. Upon exiting the Holy Place, the people immediately see that something unusual has happened. He likely was not only not able to talk, but also not able to hear (as people were making signs TO him). Ultimately, John was born.
This incredible birth to these folks was more than just a … “Wow, I guess they weren’t too old for children after all.” No, that a baby boy came into this home was nothing less than a miracle that was recognized by everyone in a tight-knit community.
The tradition of that time was for a son to be named after the father, so it was a great surprise to the people in the community that Elizabeth said the baby’s name was to be John. The people did not believe her, likely because she was a mere woman in that time and culture. But Zechariah affirmed the name in obedience to God. Immediately he was able to talk, and he breaks out in praise of God.
In our central text today in Matthew’s gospel, we recall that this gospel account was written primarily for a Jewish audience, proving to them that Jesus was the promised messianic king. Thus, we immediately see a list of genealogies that affirm his rights to this position. It is followed by the story of Joseph, the wise men, the anger of Herod, and the escape to Egypt for a season.
And then, turning from chapter 2 to chapter 3, a period of 25 years or more has elapsed. And Matthew dives into the preaching of John the Baptist. In fact, though only two of the gospels give details of the story of the incarnation, all four gospels give great detail and prominence to the coming and the ministry of John …
MT 3:1-3 … In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ “
This is a quote from Isaiah 40:1-3 … a passage that would be familiar to scripturally-attuned Jews of that time… Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God…”
The preaching of John the Baptist should also have aroused in their thinking another prophetic passage from some four centuries before their time. Malachi 3:1 … “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.
What is the primary verb you hear in these passages? It is “prepare.” Let me tell give you an illustration from where I grew up in northwest New Jersey and in the Lehigh Valley.
We are very familiar with speed strips / rumble strips, as they are common now on many highways—often on the edges and center lines, if not completely crossing the roadway. I remember the first place I ever experienced them as a youngster.
As you would go east through the Lehigh Valley on Route 22, going from Allentown and through Bethlehem and approaching Easton, just before getting to the Delaware River there was a very sharp turn in the highway. It went a complete 180 degrees and was called by locals “Cemetery Curve.” (This was a dual meaning. It curled around a cemetery and through a series of hills, though named also for the many accidents that occurred there.) After miles of high-speed straight-aways, this curve would catch people by surprise – especially truckers whose loads would shift – and there were regular accidents not unlike what we see about every 15 minutes now on 81.
Multitudinous warning signs prior to the curve proved to be insufficient. Finally, to provide a warning, rumble strips of grooved pavement were used. I remember the first time going over them. It made a terribly frightening sound, causing you to ease up immediately. They were there as a preparation for what was to come – to educate you that there was an appropriate way to negotiate that turn.
Likewise, the Old Testament was full of signs and information that a coming Messiah would be arriving upon the scene someday. Preceding this momentous time would be someone, who, in the spirit of Elijah, would prepare the way for the coming of Israel’s king. This person was John the Baptist.
The idea of “preparation” is a major teaching point of Matthew chapter 3. But, prepared in what way?
The message of John was of repentance and baptism (identification) – it was a message of spiritual preparation. It was a message saying – “You’re not okay with God simply because of who you are (the Jewish people – the Sons of Abraham). To be okay with God, there needs to be a repentance from sin and an identification with God’s truth and God’s program (an identification evidenced by baptism).
What is repentance? By definition, it means to agree with God about the nature of sin (to see it from the same perspective He sees it) and a commitment to walk in the opposite direction (which is the proof, or fruit of a genuine repentance).
You know of the most famous Peanuts comic strip, the ongoing saga of Lucy and Charlie Brown practicing football. Lucy would hold the ball for Charlie’s placekicking and then Charlie would attempt to kick the ball. But every time Lucy had ever held the ball for Charlie, he would approach the ball and kick with all his might. At the precise moment of the point of no return, Lucy would pick up the ball and Charlie’s momentum would send him through the air and land him on his back.
One of these comic stories had Lucy holding the ball, but Charlie Brown would not run up and kick it. Lucy begged him to kick the ball. But Charlie Brown said, “Every time I try to kick the ball you remove it and I fall on my back.” They went back and forth for the longest time and finally Lucy broke down in tears and admitted, “Charlie Brown, I have been so terrible to you over the years, picking up the football like I have. I have played so many cruel tricks on you, but I’ve seen the error of my ways! I’ve seen the hurt look in your eyes when I’ve deceived you. I’ve been wrong, so wrong. Won’t you give a poor, penitent girl another chance?”
Charlie Brown was moved by her display of grief and responded to her, “Of course, I’ll give you another chance.” He stepped back as she held the ball, and he ran. At the last moment, Lucy picked up the ball and Charlie Brown fell flat on his back. Lucy’s last words were, “Recognizing your faults and actually changing your ways are two different things, Charlie Brown!”
The change part is the hard part, but the necessary part. Saying you are sorry is one thing, but living a different way is another. My favorite college professor Dr. McGahey always said, “Nobody was ever saved being just sorry for their sins.”
Repentance leads to change because of a new heart condition.
And John’s message was one of repentance AND baptism.
As always, when we talk about baptism, the key word is “identification.”
We choose identification all the time. Perhaps in our culture it is an identification with a sports team, a school, a club or organization. Sometimes, the things we identify with may be counter-cultural. In fact, identifying with Christ is exactly that. In a world that is going the wrong way and is under the control of the kingdom of darkness, identifying with God – with Jesus Christ – is always going to be counter-cultural.
It was that way for the Jewish people before the coming of Christ. It is that way for Vice President Pence, or Tim Tebow. It is true where you work out in the world … or go to school. It has always been this way, and always will be, until the day God makes all things new upon the return of Jesus Christ.
Going back to our primary text in Matthew 3, look at verse 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.
My question for the title today: Why is this guy so weird and such a wild thing? Along with the power of his words, it is because even his appearance was a “rumble strip” pointer to Christ. For anyone who had a heart to know the truth, and who knew the Scriptures of the O.T., they would be led to understand that this man was the prophesied forerunner – the one who would point to the Messiah. For example, look at this passage that begins the book of 2 Kings …
2KI 1:1 – After Ahab’s death, Moab rebelled against Israel. 2 Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.”
2KI 1:3 – But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Go up and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, `Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?’ 4 Therefore this is what the LORD says: `You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!’ ” So Elijah went.
2KI 1:5 – When the messengers returned to the king, he asked them, “Why have you come back?”
2KI 1:6 – “A man came to meet us,” they replied. “And he said to us, `Go back to the king who sent you and tell him, “This is what the LORD says: Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending men to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!” ‘ “
2KI 1:7 – The king asked them, “What kind of man was it who came to meet you and told you this?”
2KI 1:8 – They replied, “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.”
And indeed, many people in Israel did find John to be an interesting character, with characteristics that were a throwback to Elijah. They would not have understood precisely who he was and what his mission entailed, but it says in Matthew 3:5-6 … 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.
There absolutely was a messianic hope and expectation at this time of history. With Roman rule, many in Israel longed for a messiah, and varied characters claimed to be such. But John’s message was unique in that it was a spiritual one, rather than mere political zealotry or governmentally subversive rants. His message was popular with the common folk, and he drew the attention of the religious leadership who also went out to check out this wilderness eccentric, not that they had any interest in a spiritual message …
Matthew 3:7 – 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.
You can imagine that this preaching did not make him popular with the leadership. And again, though we see the advent season as a time of joy and peace, the work of Christ – though bringing peace and restoration of a lost race back to the heavenly Father – was a work that would cause great upset to the systems of the world.
Matthew 3:11 – “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with 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.”
But the ministry of John was not to draw attention to himself. He was the rumble strip to point away to another to come after him, and that is Jesus, who comes to be baptized by John …
MT 3:13 – Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
MT 3:15 – Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
MT 3:16 – As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
So what do we take away from this story of the Wild Thing – John the Baptist?
First, we see the primacy of the story of the coming of Christ and the centrality of the incarnation in the larger context of Scripture. It reminds us of the great plan of God, and of the great blessing we have to be a part of this grace – coming to us in a second-hand fashion through the ultimate rejection of Christ by the Jewish nation, the postponement of the earthly kingdom, and the subsequent spread of the Gospel to all peoples and nations.
And most importantly, we also take away these same timeless truths: of preparation by repentance / identification … being mindful of another coming of the same Lord Jesus Christ.
There is a tendency to not be prepared, to be impressed with the wrong things – the busy things of this material world. And there is no other season where this is more fully evident than the advent season.
In the midst of our abundance, it is easy to be distracted by the pursuits of joy and happiness in the material world. We embrace our comforts. We have “First-World Problems” … like complaining this Christmas (seen all over the news) that the tips on Hershey Kisses are missing! And in the busy distraction of this sort of abundance, we might fail to look back at the coming of an infant Savior. And even more, in our comforts, we might fail to look forward to the next coming of that risen Savior.
It is incredibly easy to forget Christ’s next coming and the need for his arrival to set straight a terribly fallen world. Even with a partial government shut-down and crashing equities markets, we have comfortable lives in the big picture of things.
It is not so comforting in many other places. China, this last week, has cracked down on churches in that country in a big way. One of our own partner ministries in Central Asia is facing the hostilities of governmental intervention and ridiculous demands. Around the world, Christians are persecuted, some even enslaved by the most evil people on the planet. I suspect that these brothers and sisters in the Lord are more anxiously anticipating a coming of Christ than are we in America.
Indeed, the New Testament has “rumble strips” that foretell another coming and encourage preparation and identification. For example, to a persecuted and oppressed people of the first century, Peter wrote his first letter … 1PE 1:3 – Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
1PE 1:13 – Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
Do you see the big ideas there in Peter’s exhortation? He is speaking of repentance through holy living, enduring in faith through identification with Christ. And this remains our need in the same church age as Peter, though 2,000 years later. We demonstrate our preparation through repentance and identification …
REPENTANCE – seeing our sin, our human condition, as God sees it … and doing what the Scriptures say to do … to confess our sins and be right with God and with others.
IDENTIFICATION – We wear our team uniform, even in the context of rejection and being despised. This Christmas thing / Jesus thing / faith thing / church thing, it is not just an accoutrement of life – something that is an add-on for a Sunday here and there, or even once per week, every Sunday. It is rather the 24/7 defining thing about who we are – our identification.
And when we are identified with Christ, we might have a bit of an “eccentric John the Baptist, weird, wild thing” look to the world around us. Well, so be it! And I call you to it! There is nothing more significant that you can do with your life and your family’s lives than to be fully invested in the work of Jesus Christ through His body, the Church. It is why Jesus came, and why he will come again. This is the essence of life and light. This is the application of the Christmas season!