This morning, I’d like to look at the preaching of John the Baptist.
I think he was probably an uncomfortable person to be around, dressed in strange clothes and eating strange foods.
And he had an uncomfortable message.
But he didn’t care—he had only one thing to do—prepare the way of the Lord
He was especially hard on those who thought they had a special relationship with God. Don’t be over confident. Don’t think that your status as Jews is enough. Don’t think your claim to being religious is enough. Don’t think getting baptized by me is enough.
Your life needs to show that you’ve been changed radically by your experience. A tree is known by its fruit.
We don’t find preaching like John’s in the world today. The popular message is, “God loves you. He wants you to be successful. He wants you to live in a big house. He wants you to be prosperous.” Some of today’s most celebrated preachers have congregations that meet in former sports stadiums that are filled multiple times every Sunday with tens of thousands of fans, and have their smiling face on books lining the shelves of Barnes and Noble and Borders. It’s a feel good religion that tells people what they want to hear.
That wasn’t John’s message. John’s message was a condemnation of lazy, self-satisfied, self-centered religion.
I think John had a lot in common with a prophetic preacher of the mid-20th century, the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer railed against the easy religion of his day—a religion that preached a message he called, “cheap grace.”
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. …
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost.
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
John’s message is tough. It is hard. It afflicts the comfortable. It warns against taking God for granted and becoming complacent.
But it isn’t so hard a message that it discourages those who are truly seeking.
It isn’t so hard a message that it drives away those who are weary.
To them it is as if John says, “It isn’t that hard. Just be real. You don’t have to sell everything you have. You don’t have to throw away your life as you know it. Just let your faith bear fruit—right here; right where you are.
Listen to what he says,
11… He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.
13And [to the tax collectors he said], Exact no more than that which is appointed you.
14And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.
It’s a pretty simple message—but one that was rarely heard in his day, when the religious scholars argued about the silliest of things. How far can you walk on the Sabbath? What kinds of clothes should you wear? How should you wash your hands to be ritually pure?
John cut through the piety and religiosity of the professional sacred class and offered hope to the common person.
What’s religion? It’s giving to the naked and the hungry.
It’s doing your job—even as a tax collector—in a way that you can feel good about. Treating people decently. Not taking advantage of them.
For a soldier, it means being a professional in keeping the peace, not grumbling about the kinds of things soldiers usually grumble about, not bullying people. Being decent.
It was a practical message of practical spirituality. Not complex—but it was like water in the desert to people who had been turned off by so much of what passed for religion.
And they were left wondering, Is this the one? Is this the anointed one of God? Is this the promised one we’ve waited for so long?
And John said, no. Not at all. You can’t compare me with him. I can’t even untie his shoes. Here’s how it’s put in a paraphrase called The Message:
“I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”
It’s as if John was saying, “I’m not him … but I’ve done my job if I’ve just left you hungering for him.”
These weeks before Christmas, this season of Advent, is a season of preparation. It’s a time that should shake us up. Shake us out of our complacency. It should lead us to turn away from the things of the world, and what it values, and what it wants to seek the things of heaven. It should lead us to change our lives and stop thinking of ourselves to instead think of others. But most of all, it should leave us hungering for Jesus.
John represents the law and the prophets, the whole witness of the Old Testament, all that prefigured Jesus and prophesied of Jesus and that was meant to prepare the way for Jesus. His message wasn’t the final word, just as the law and the prophets were not God’s final word. It was a necessary message, a divine message, a revealed message, and to many a welcome message. But his message wasn’t the final word.
So be careful. Yes, take the warning to heart. Yes, let your lives show that what you do is consistent with what you are. Don’t rest content in your religiosity and your piety and your pedigree.
But neither should you think that reforming your lives is the ultimate thing that can happen in your life.
You still need Jesus.
You still need the Gospel.
You still need the baby in the manger. You still need the fire he alone can breathe into the stubble of your life. You need not a reformed earth where people are made nice but a new Jerusalem where people are made new.
John’s message is a message of preparation. And I want you to hear it. So that you are ready to open your hearts to Jesus, who is the way and the truth and the life.
That’s the tragedy of the world’s way of celebrating Christmas. They push to get stuff around the tree, but they stop there. They need to now push all that stuff out of the way so that they can gaze into the manger with unobstructed view. For this is what it is about. This is the one John preached. This is the one that John told us to prepare for: The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Recognize him. Accept him. Follow him. Learn from him. Stay with him. And let your lives then show that you have been with him.