There are three signs this morning that tell me it’s the second Sunday in Advent. Two candles burning on the Advent wreath. John the Baptizer emerging from the wilderness to preach a baptism of repentance. And Nancy Clarke with her oboe. It just isn’t Advent without the sound of that oboe.
On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist’s cry,
Announces that the Lord is nigh.
Awake and hearken for he brings
Glad tidiings from the King of kings.”
The accent on this second Sunday in Advent is John the Baptizer.
John cuts an odd figure on the biblical stage. He was conceived by a childless couple – Zechariah and Elizabeth – when they were already way beyond childbearing years. Conceived solely by the power of the Word of God spoken through the angel Gabriel who said to Zechariah, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” John was raised in the wilderness, outside the confines of Jerusalem. Some believe that his parents died when he was rather young and he was raised in one of those wilderness communities, like the Essenes, who were watching and waiting for the Messiah. That certainly fits John, a rough, untamed man of the wilderness, a prophet sent by God.
John was a bridge between the old and the new. He came in the way of Elijah, dressed like Elijah. He was spoken of by the prophet Malachi, the last of the old testament prophets through whom God said, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.” He was the Voice spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, “A voice of one calling out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” John stood in between the old and the new, between prophesy and its fulfillment. He was sent for one purpose: to prepare the way of the Lord, to smooth out the road for the Messiah.
Matthew and Markdescribe what John looked like – clothed in camel’s hair and a leather belt. They tell us what he ate – locusts and wild honey. But Luke tells us when John appeared. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod the tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconituis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Ablilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” You can’t get more specific than that. We would say the year AD 25-26, but Luke didn’t have the luxury of a universal calendar.
Luke is writing history. This is not some sort of religious fable or legend. This is not something that happened, “a long, long time ago in a land far, far away.” This happened in a time, 1,977 years ago. It happened in a place, in the wilderness east of the Jordan River. This is not a pious fairy tale or a “timeless myth.” This is historic fact. As historic as Tiberius Caesar and Napolean and George Washington. It’s anchored in the history of the Roman empire and the priesthood of Israel. It happened at just the right time in history, when the fulness of time had come, when history was ripe with the Promise of God. The Word of God came to John.
In history, facts matter. That’s why history can be dull at times. It’s about people and places and dates. Lots of dates. As a student of science, I avoided history courses like the plague. I wanted nothing to do with all those dates and names. My interest in history awakened later, at the seminary, when I began to realize that God’s fingerprints were all over human history. God was working in, with, and under human history. History was important because the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us in time and place. God participates in history. God makes history happen. Jesus Christ, whom we worship as Savior and Lord, is the Lord of all history, and He is Himself the hinge and pivot point of human history. History has never been the same since the Son of God took on human flesh, suffered, died, and rose from the dead.
Of all the fields of study, history is perhaps the most endangered species in our day. History is now opinion, point of view, a kind of wax nose that you can bend to suit your mood. People now read between the lines of history, more than they read the actual lines of history. And the historic lines are now discounted as unreliable. Case in point: the current fascination with Mary Magdalene. So called “scholars” are reinterpreting ancient texts and coming up with new insights on how Jesus and Mary Magdalene had some special thing going between them. Some speculate that Jesus and Mary were lovers or were even married. The DaVinci Code has been hot on the best seller list for the better part of the year. Mary Magdalene made the cover of Newsweek recently.
What is the source for all this speculative “history”? Second and third century gnostic writings, material was written two hundred years after the fact by people with a vested interest in discrediting tradition, orthodox Christianity. And what evidence do these so-called scholars of history ignore? The documents of the New Testament. The first century eye-witness accounts of the very people who had been with Jesus. They are interpreting the new testament through 2nd and 3rd century documents written by people who were trying to discredit Christianity. And they even make up a history to justify themselves, saying that these documents were suppressed by “those in power,” as if there were any power to be in.
It’s like putting books about the Civil War written last year ahead of the memoirs, letters, and eyewitness accounts of the people who were actually there and smelled the gunpowder and saying, “Those people suppressed the real story.” And we call this nonsense “historical research”?! When I went to school, if you didn’t cite primary sources, you flunked the course. Now you get tenure and your nonsense gets published in Newsweek and makes the NY Times best seller list. Incredible!
Pardon my rant, but I hope you appreciate the danger of what’s going on in our culture. History has been hijacked by myth makers. Facts of history are being denied, and revisionist history is being passed off as the real thing. And when history is attacked, the Christian faith is under attack, because Christianity is the only faith that is based on historic fact. Buddhism couldn’t care less if the Budda never even existed. It doesn’t matter. Judaism bears no resemblance to the historic religion of the old testament. Islam has no history to support the claims of Mohammed. But Christianity stands on the historic death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God.
The attack on history is really an attack on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It’s man’s attempt to overthrow God and become the Lord of history. That’s what the old Adam wants. He wants not only to control his future, he wants to rewrite his past. The old Adam is the consummate revisionist, always trying to justify his present by rewriting the past. And if he can push God out to the margins of history, and turn God into a spirit myth, so much the better. I can’t think of a greater tool in the hands of the devil in these end times than to have history became as pliable as Play Dough.
For Luke, history is the raw material of salvation. It’s the canvass on which God painted the redemption of the world in Jesus Christ. In the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar, a wild man appeared in the Jordan wilderness, John the son of Zechariah. John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was entirely new and unheard of. Judaism knew of no baptisms. The wilderness communities, like the one in which John grew up, had ceremonial washings, and maybe those lay in the background. But baptism, a washing with water that someone else did to you, that was completely unheard of. And that’s what John was known for. John the Baptizer.
John’s baptism already anticipated Jesus and His greater baptism. John’s was a baptism of repentance, a turning from sin to righteousness, a change of mind, a new way of thinking. Forgiveness of sins was coming availabe in an entirely new form. OT Israel knew forgiveness through the ritual offering of blood. John moved Israel in a new direction. The time was near, Messiah was on His way.
John was the voice calling out in the wilderness. The wilderness was where God had made His Israel. John was calling Israel back to the wilderness, the place of its origins, to be reborn. It was time for a repentance, a change of thinking. God was about to do something new, and the people had to be prepared. The King was coming and the roads had to be repaired and paved. The low places filled in, the high places made low, the crooked places made straight, the rough places made smooth.
John was God’s bulldozer, leveling the soil of Israel, cutting a straight path to the religious heart. It didn’t matter whether you were a prophet, a priest, a king, or simply a law-abiding peasant. You needed to repent and be baptized. John didn’t care who you were and where you came from. What he said applied to everyone without exception. “All flesh, every human being without exception, will see the salvation of God.” Everyone needed to become entirely new, because God’s new creation in Christ was coming. The old wineskins of the old religion couldn’t handle this new vintage.
This all actually happened 1,977 years ago in the Jordan wilderness. Just as Jesus Christ actually suffered, died, and rose again from the dead 1,980 years ago. This is not a matter of faith. It’s simply a matter of historic fact. It’s true whether you believe it or not. It’s also a matter of fact that Jesus’ death is the atoning sacrifice for all sin and for every sinner, and that His resurrection from the dead is the first fruits of all the dead. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.” The matter of faith is that Jesus Christ died and rose for you personally, for your sins, for your death. It’s a matter of faith that His death is your death and your life is, at this very moment, hidden in Christ. That you must believe, you must trust and take God at His Word. But the fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection is a much an historic fact as John preaching in the wilderness.
Faith in Jesus Christ, trust in His death and resurrection, comes by hearing the Word of Jesus Christ preached out of mouths and into ears. That’s what John was doing: preaching. Preaching people to repentance and baptism. The Church is John the Baptizer for the last days, the days after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christ has come in humility to work salvation. The next time He appears, it will be in glory to deliver salvation.
Before Jesus disappeared in a cloud, He ordered His disciples, “Go, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them and teaching them.” What John was doing: Baptizing and teaching. We’re preparing a world to meet its Messiah. The One who died and rose from the dead to save the world. We’re preparing a world for the appearing of Jesus, who comes to judge the living and the dead. We’re calling people to repent, to change their thinking about God and about themselves and about religion, to acknowledge their own sinfulness and to receive the forgiveness that Jesus Christ has won for all by His death.
You and I are that voice, calling out in the wilderness. “Get ready. Prepare the way for the Lord.” Hear the Word of Christ. Repent and be baptized. To the world, we may as well be wearing camel’s hair and leather and eating honey coated grasshoppers. We’ll be looked on as weird, strange, quirky, fanatical, out of touch with the culture. The religious assessment of John in the end was, “He hath a demon.” Never mind all that. Christ is coming!
You know the truth, my dear friends in Christ. There is only One in all of human history who died and rose from the dead never to die again. There is only One in all of the history to have the audacity to claim to be the Son of God and had the evidence to back it up. There is one One who is the eternal Word made Flesh, who baptizes you into His death, who gives you His body to eat and His blood to drink, who takes away all of your sins and gives you eternal life entirely as gift without your so much as lifting finger. There is only One who redeems human history, and your own personal history, by His own bloody death.
Dear people of God in Christ, those who have been named and claimed by the Son of God, baptized into His death and life, you are that voice calling in the wilderness, to friend, to family, to coworker, to neighbor. God is at work through you, his priesthood, in your time and in your place, working now in history, to prepare the world for the second appearing of Jesus. “All flesh will see the salvation of God.” The news is too good to keep to ourselves. The Lord is near. Repent and be baptized. Prepare the way!
Come, Lord Jesus!. Amen