John the Baptist: Wild Thing!

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!

The Gospel Goes Up to Eleven (John 3:26-36)

The film This is Spinal Tap follows the exploits of heavy metal group Spinal Tap.  The film is shot “mockumentary” style.  That is, it’s a comedy masquerading as a documentary, much like the television series “The Office.”  In my favorite scene, the interviewer speaks with Nigel (the band’s guitarist) about their amplifiers:

Nigel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and…

Interviewer: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

Nigel : Exactly.

Interviewer: Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Interviewer: I don’t know.

Nigel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Interviewer: Put it up to eleven.

Nigel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Interviewer: Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

Nigel: ……These go to eleven.

There was a time when John the Baptist faced a popularity contest.  Jesus’ other biographers tell us that John was originally a pastor’s kid, but later in life emerged from the wilderness smelling like Grizzly Adams and talking like Billy Graham.  His major achievements weren’t about himself.  They were about his cousin, Jesus.  But as Jesus’ popularity grew, John the Baptist’s popularity began to fade:

 John 3:26-36  26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness–look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”  27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.  28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.  30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Too often life becomes nothing more than a big popularity contest.  We fool ourselves into thinking ambition is the fuel for our achievement.  We live and die by our promotions and our accolades.  But John the Baptist wanted none of this.  His whole life was spent pointing toward someone else, someone far, far greater than he.  And it was of this person that John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”  At Tri-State Fellowship, our own High School ministry uses this verse as the basis for their name: “Amp,” short for “Amplify.”  Our students learn that John the Baptist offers a very different message than that of the world.  In a world that thrives on self-promotion, John the Baptist offers a message of self-denial.  In a world of self-satisfaction, John the Baptist offers a message of self-sacrifice.

The things our world offers—pleasure, wealth, satisfaction—these are all the things that beg—nay, scream—for our attention and our devotion.  But amidst all the clamor and noise, the gospel is even louder.  The gospel goes up to eleven.

John the Baptist continues to address his lingering supporters:

31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.  32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.  33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.  34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.  35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.  36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

John drives home that Jesus is far more significant than he could ever be.  And John—that is, John the author of this gospel—wants to include these statements for a strategic purpose.  John had been assembling his gospel in the city of Ephesus, a city where Jesus’ later followers knew only some of the basics they’d heard from John the Baptist (Acts 18:25).  John the author wanted to fulfill John the Baptist’s mission: to point people to something greater than the fragments of knowledge they possessed.

In our own world, we face many challenges.  Many things will compete for our attention.  The desire for achievement, the seduction of “celebrity.”  Other things will wound us deeply.  But the common thread in all of these things was simply this: they focus on ourselves.  On our best days, we like to think that our lives are vibrant, successful, full of life.  But John was onto something important: nothing is more damaging than self-absorption.

The world around me, the thoughts within me—these things are all ramped up to the level of a “ten.”  But the gospel goes up to eleven.

Are you listening?

What Are You Looking At? – John 1:19-34

Did you ever have a situation where someone was dressed in some sort of outlandish fashion and then when you starred at the person, they were offended? Last summer, I was waiting to make a left turn onto Garland Groh Boulevard coming out of the Centre at Hagerstown parking lot. That is really not a good idea, since you have to wait and wait for so much traffic to clear! To my right, a car pulled up alongside me to make a right turn. It was now in my direct line of vision to my right, and as I looked that way, I could not help but see the woman driver who had rainbow-colored hair. We both had our windows down, and she yelled at me in an angry voice, “What are you looking at?”  I was too stunned to answer!

Today’s passage features an eccentric character called John the Baptist. He is described in greater detail in Matthew 3:4-6 where it says, “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. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

This fellow was not a freak show for the sake of being eccentric. He was not hustling a crowd to sell them on any product of his own. It was clearly his preaching and message that drew the throngs of spiritually-starved people to him. Yes, living essentially in the wilderness made him an odd-looking fellow for sure. But his message had a ring of truth and relevance to it, and crowds began to gather and the word began to spread about him.

And the news of this John the Baptizer had come to the ears of the Jewish religious leadership in Jerusalem. They were accustomed to various false claimants of Messianic identity – for in that time, there was a heightened level of expectation of a prophetically-promised messiah figure who would, in that context, beat up the Romans and the enemies of Israel. Could this John be that guy? He had the look of (what we would term) an Old Testament prophet. Those historic figures were rather eccentric as well. So who was this latest fellow? Certainly the masses of the people liked him; and therefore the religious leadership faction from their Jerusalem headquarters sent out a delegation to investigate and interview John.

Now understand, these entrenched religious types were not excited about messianic figures who disrupted the status quo and threatened their leadership and lifestyles. They were the epitome of “peace at all costs” and “don’t change anything” types. But they were also not completely sure and unified about what the prophetic Scriptures actually taught relative to a coming Messiah. And so they begin to go through a list of the variant popular views in their query of John …

1. Are you the Messiah?  Answer: “I am not the Messiah.”

2. Are you Elijah? (Some people expected Elijah to come based upon a passage in Malachi.)  Answer: “I am not.”

3. Are you the Prophet? (Some people wrongly interpreted Deut. 18:15 as predicting a prophet to come before the Messiah.)  Answer: “No”

4. So who are you? Dude, we can’t go back to Jerusalem without an answer!  Answer: “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

So John does claim to be a fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah 40 … simply of one who would be a voice to point to the Messiah. He was not it … not the Messiah … not the light in the darkness. He was simply a bird dog pointing to Jesus, the Christ.

5. So what’s with all this baptism stuff you’ve got going on?  Answer: John explains that his water baptism (wherein people confessed sins and identified themselves with his message of repentance and expectation) was a mere physical event … whereas the greater one who would come after him would baptize in a greater way with the Spirit.

The actual revelation of the identity of this greater person happened the very next day. As Jesus appeared before John, the Spirit revealed to John that Jesus was the one to come – the Messiah, the Lamb of God (anticipating the sacrifice of Christ), the Eternal One, the baptizer with the Spirit, the Son of God. John and Jesus were relatives through their mothers, though it is clear from this passage that before that moment, John had no idea that Christ was the Messiah … and perhaps they did not even know each other.

So what are you looking at?  We should be looking at Jesus, which is our purpose in this series – to look at Jesus and to see him as “God Up Close.”  Too often we get caught up in looking at certain preachers who currently seem to be all the craze, or ministries that have the great crowds assembling, or studying what communicative techniques best reach our culture … when we should rather be looking at Jesus.

John 1:19-34  John the Baptist and His Testimony

John the Baptist Denies Being the Messiah

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”

21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

26 “I baptize withwater,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

John Testifies About Jesus

29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

God’s Plan Tied Together – Malachi 4:1-6 / Luke 1:5-17

The founding of the colony at Jamestown, Virginia was a long time ago – 406 years to be exact. We think of that as a substantial hunk of time, and it is. And that is the amount of time that passed between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament.

Yet the story from Genesis to Revelation is one grand story of God’s work. We even speak of it in our children’s ministry curriculum at TSF as “God’s Big Story.”  It is God’s masterpiece – it is THE BIG PICTURE. And we fit into that story as his workmanship … his ambassadors to a lost world.

What might not be immediately evident in today’s two Scripture passages is that, though there are 400 years between them, the story line itself has essentially no gap. The reading in Malachi chapter 4 is the end of the Old Testament. The reading in Luke chapter 1 is actually on the flip side of the page in terms of the working out of God’s plan. Malachi ends with the promise of the return of Elijah before the great day of the Lord, and Luke says that John the Baptist is the coming and fulfillment of that prophecy.

In the previous chapter 3 of Malachi, just prior to today’s reading, the prophet wrote,  14 You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? 15 But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.’”

We have all had that feeling sometimes, right? … the sense that those who do wrong get away with things while good people suffer injustice. But the next several verses remind the readers that God is really good at record keeping, and in the end, the following happens …..

4:1 “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

Malachi says that in a final day, there will be a just judgment – of fire upon those who are evil, and of light and life upon those who are the righteous. The picture presented here is of cattle who have been penned up, and then when set free, they really do run and jump for joy!

And verse four brings back to our memory so much of what we emphasized in the writings from our Deuteronomy series this past spring – that God honors his covenant and blesses those who are obedient to remember and observe. “Remember” is a word that was used 18 times in contexts of exhortation in Deuteronomy.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

The concept of the “day of the Lord” is a bit complicated. This is the time when the Messiah does come – as Christ did, accomplishing salvation through the cross – though every aspect of the final judgment of evil and sin has not yet been fully realized. But the sunrise of this entire period was heralded by the coming and ministry of John the Baptist …

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold – Luke 1:5-17

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

So John the Baptist is sent as a sort of “warm-up” act for the coming of Jesus. His ministry was recognized by masses of people as unique, and it set up a fresh expectation of God stepping into time to fulfill his covenant promises to the nation of Israel; and we know now that the plan of God through the work of Christ was truly universal – touching us as well.

God has a master plan. It is not about just the Old Testament and the covenant people of Israel. It is not just about the Christian church. It is about how God has redeemed a lost creation of mankind back to himself through the work of Christ on the cross. The Old Testament looked forward to it – presenting the background and the need. The New Testament finishes the story by telling how it was fulfilled in Christ, and how that message is one for us to preach until such time as God returns to make an end of his entire earthly work.

In a way, it might be said that we fit into that story book somewhere in the next to last chapter. And we have a lot of history and obligations to understand and put into practice in our world. We have obligations to live in a way that we are in right relationship with God. But our obligations extend beyond ourselves – most particularly to be passing along this truth to the rising generations behind us … in our homes first, then in the church, and finally to the rest of the world. We need to understand where we (personally, and as a church) fit into God’s plan, not how do we get God to fit into our vision.

All of this story was passed down to us … over thousands of years of people transmitting it – some at the cost of their very lives. We now carry the baton, but it must be passed off as well to those who will run after us (pending God’s return). How are you involved generationally in that transfer?