The text for today’s sermon is taken from Luke 1:57-80 and Acts 13:13-26.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Welcome, my friends, to Christmas in July? Anyway, welcome to what seems to be lessons and hymns that are totally out of the place for the summer season – as today, of all days, is set aside to celebrate John the Baptist. Yes, six months before Christmas, we’re getting a foretaste of what is to come, but then six-months before Christmas is the right time, as John was born six months before Jesus.
We know John the Baptist to be the voice crying in the wilderness, urging people to prepare the way for the Lord. But it’s easy for us to forget who John really was and the impact he had on the people.
Josephus, an early Christian historian, summed up the man by what most people of his time thought of him. He says that John was a good man, who exhorted the Jews to piety towards God and to justice towards one another, as he invited them to be baptized in the Jordan.
It is in the Gospel of St. Mark that John is described as a man who lives like a hermit in the desert, eating weird things and dressing oddly. People are drawn to him and his baptism of repentance. And Mark proclaims him to be a prophet, even though there had not been a real one for a few hundred years. Mark calls him a messenger, with a message that had not heard since the return from the exile. And above all, Mark claims him to be the fore-runner of Jesus.
John, in his gospel, barely mentions John. He is there early in the gospel, baptizing, and bearing witness to the identity of Jesus. But John makes it clear that the Baptist knows that he is not the Messiah, or Elijah, and or the ‘prophet like Moses’ that a lot of people believed him to be. Except for that the Baptist has no further part in the Gospel of St. John.
It is in the Gospel of St. Matthew that the Baptist gets a complete makeover. He gives John the same message as Jesus, almost in the same words. The message is: the Kingdom of God is very near, so change your world view and your attitude, and live lives worthy of what God is about to do in the world. Yet, John is much more focused on vengeance and judgment from God than Jesus ever was. With fiery words, John is a hell-fire and brimstone preacher, with a type of charisma that draws ordinary people to him, but frightens the religious establishment. In Matthew Jesus acknowledges John and his work as Jesus proclaims that there is no human being greater than the Baptist, but that the least of the little ones in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.
St. Luke, on the other hand, sees John the Baptist as a saint of the old order, as a bridge to the new one, and as the starting point for the much greater witness of God in Jesus Christ. In Luke, John the Baptist’s message is similar to that to Jesus as he urges people: to share the food and drink you have; to collect no more than is due; to not oppress others; to be content with your lot in life and your pay; and to be baptized in the Jordan. Of course, Jesus’ message is much bigger. It is a universal message that goes beyond Israel to include all people, and it predicts a universal baptism for all, not in the River Jordan but in the Holy Spirit.
We may think that John the Baptist did baptisms much as we do in the church now. He didn’t. He gathered people on the far bank of the Jordan, and led them through the waters, across the Jordan and into the promised-land, to claim it as their own. It was a king of land-rights procession, that didn’t sit well with the Roman Empire that occupied the territory. So, John’s ritual cleansing was as much a political act of resistance against the Empire as it was a religious one. Maybe if John were born today, we would identify him as the voice coming out of the tent cities of the occupy movement. For John was a very political figure who, in many ways, was a real inventor of rituals with a political sting in them!
But then, the message of Jesus clearly challenges the norms of the day. In the song sung by Mary while she is pregnant with Jesus, Mary says that God is about to do a number of things through her son. God will
- scatter the proud;
- strip rulers from their unjust thrones;
- make the humble stand up with confidence and be counted;
- satisfy the hungry with food; and
- send the rich away empty.
These are not just pious thoughts – they are political dynamite. They challenge what people have grown accustomed to doing and address such problems as
- unjust rulers and injustice;
- oppression of the humble and lowly;
- hunger; and
- greed of the rich who do become richer by accumulating what belongs to others.
Over the years, the issues haven’t changed much, have they? Although John raised his voice and urged people to repent and change their ways in order to be prepared for the good things that God was about to do through Jesus, the world stayed the same. Although Jesus was sent into the world to proclaim the Kingdom of God, he was crucified by people who wanted to keep the status quo. Although Jesus died for the sins of God’s people and rose for our salvation, we still struggle with the same issues. So the voices of both the Baptist and Jesus cry out to us today – six months before Christmas. Welcome to Christmas in July!
Six-months before Christmas, we hear the words of John – repent for the Kingdom of God has come near – turn your life around and look to God for your life and salvation. Six-months before Christmas we are urged to comfort God’s people with words and actions that reflect God’s grace. Six-months before Christmas we begin our preparations by looking to the life of the Baptist which tells us:
- Don’t be afraid to stand out from the crowd;
- Stand up for what is in accordance with the will of God;
- Stand firmly with those in need;
- Be a political animal;
- Repent; and
- Prepare the way of the Lord by giving “knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
Let us listen to these words as we celebrate Christmas in July. Let us believe and trust in the Lord as the Baptist did before us, and may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.