John the Baptizer, witness, forerunner, way-preparer. He came in the wilderness to prepare people for the coming of Christ. John was a prophet, standing in the breach, with one foot in the old covenant, one foot in the new. John was a plow, cutting through the hard pack, turning over the soil of people’s hearts to make them ready for Messiah. John was just the beginning – the dawn before the daylight, the appetizer to the main course. John was the prelude, Jesus was the theme. “He must increase,” John said. “And I must decrease.” That’s true for each of us too.
John was a preacher who didn’t pull punches. John had nothing to lose. He wasn’t on anyone’s pay roll. He didn’t aspire to high synodical office. He didn’t have a wife and kids to feed. He didn’t own a house or have to pay a mortgage. He lived on honey-coated grasshoppers; his suit of camel’s hide lasted a lifetime. John was, for all intents and purposes, utterly dead to the world, and therefore, utterly free. He was free to tell the sharp-edged truth.
Large crowds came out to John to be baptized. A good religious show always does. People are always drawn to the new, the odd, the weird. People who otherwise wouldn’t set foot in an established church, will check out a new, non-traditional church, especially if the preacher puts on a good show. People flocked to John to be baptized by him. John’s baptism was something new. But John wasn’t exactly Mr. Seeker Sensitive extending the friendly hand to the masses. He calls them a “bunch of snakes,” a brood of vipers trying to slither out of bad situation.
John saw a bunch of religious looky loos looking for a cheap infusion of religion, and he nailed them. “Bear fruit fitting repentance.” Walk the talk. And don’t start prattling about how you’re a relative of Abraham or how you grew up in a nice Jewish family and how religion has always had a “really special place in your life.” John couldn’t care less. If God wants children of Abraham, He can raise children of Abraham out of a pile of rocks. But as for the crowds, time was running out. The ax was already at the root – chop, chop, chop – ready to cut down every tree that doesn’t produce. To hell with it, cut it down and and use it for fire wood.
Amazingly, people actually put up with this stuff. Does that surprise you? It surprises me. I always figure that people hear enough bad news as it is. Why on earth would anyone go out to a grasshopper eating wild man who calls you a bunch of snakes and tells you to clean up your act before it’s too late? And then again, I’m not surprised. Some of the most popular forms of religion today are the strictest and most demanding. The tougher they are, the more popular they are in the mind of some. The more legalistic, the more popular.
The people even demanded specifics. “What should we do?” they asked John. And John told them what to do. If you have two tunics, give the extra one to someone who doesn’t have one. If you have extra food, give it to someone who is hungry. When tax collectors asked John what they were supposed to do, they probably expected him to say, “Stop collecting taxes for Rome.” But instead, John told them to collect only the tax they were supposed to collect and no more. When soldiers came, they too probably expected John to tell them, “Put down your guns, turn your swords into plowshares, give up soldiering.” But instead, John gives them some very basic, common sense things to do. “Don’t extort money, don’t accuse people falsely, be content with your paycheck.”
You don’t need a wilderness prophet to tell you those things. Hopefully, you learned them from your mother or in Kindergarten, at least. Share your stuff. Be honest. Don’t bully others. Do a good job and be happy you have one.
I don’t know about you, but I would have expected something with a bit more teeth from John. More like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. John’s law sounds like a yappie toy poodle next to Jesus’ Doberman. Things like, don’t even call your brother a name or harbor hatred in your heart. And don’t even think of looking at a pretty woman who isn’t your wife. If someone takes your tunic give him the shirt off your back. If your enemy strikes you on one cheek, present the other one to him for good measure, and then bless him and pray for him and love him and do good for him. What should you do? Be perfect, as your Father in heaven, is perfect. Now that’s law!
But, as I said at the beginning, John was the warm up act; Jesus was the main event. John was preparing the way for the coming of Jesus. In his own not-so-subtle way, John was retooling expectations. People were waiting anxiously, expectantly, for the coming of the messiah. Some even thought that John himself might be the messiah. The expecation of the day was that messiah would come as a great military, political, and religious figure who would purify the priesthood, restore the glory to the temple, kick out the Roman army and their tax agents, and put Israel back on the map. In many ways the attitude of your basic Israelite toward Rome is much like many Iraqis toward America. Thanks for the plumbing and the roads, now go home and leave us alone.
John’s father Zechariah seemd to have this idea of the messaih. When John was born, Zechariah sang this psalm: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for He has come to redeem His people. He has raised up for us a horn of salvation…salvation from our enemies and from the hand of those who hate us.”
Even gentle Mary in her Magnificat betrays more than a hint of militarism in her Magnificat: He has shown the strength of His arm, He has scattered the proud in the conceit; He has brought down the mighty from the thrones, and has lifted up the humble.”
You see, this idea about the messiah was deeply rooted in the people (and still is among many messianic Jews today). A superman, a savior who flexes divine muscle and makes the streets safe for the holy. And in many ways, that’s also our expectation of Jesus. We expect Him to exert a little of that divine omnipotence in our favor once and a while. We expect God to put down our enemies, to punish the wicked and to reward the good, and it galls us when we discover that He causes His rain and sunshine to fall on the good and the wicked alike.
We expect the first to come in first, not second or third. We expect prayers to be answered on a dime, and we get downright frustrated when they aren’t. We expect exemptions from the common maladies of humanities. We are, after all, God’s people, right? And if God is the respectible Deity He claims to be, we expect Him to take care of His people.
John’s picture of Jesus the Messiah was pretty hellfire and brimstone. He said, “I’m nothing but a flea compared to the One who’s coming. He’s so powerful, I’m not worthy to be His slave and untie his sandals. I baptize you with water, but you watch. When He comes, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He’s coming to judge, to sort the wheat from the chaff, and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. And that’s what John called preaching the good news! (I’d hate to hear bad news from John!)
Aren’t you glad the Gospel begins with John, but it doesn’t end with him? Aren’t you glad there’s more? I am. When Jesus finally appears in the wilderness, He isn’t anything like John described. There’s no winnowing fork in His hand. No baptism with Spirit and fire. No axe laid to the root. Instead, Jesus voluntary submits to John’s baptism of repentance. The One who John said was so great and mighty he wasn’t worthy to untie His sandals, stoops down before John to be baptized by him. And John immediately sensed that everything was upside down. He should be baptized by Jesus, but instead he’s baptizing Jesus. What kind of messiah is this?
Later on from Herod’s prison, John would ask the $6 million messianic question: “Are you the One we were expecting, or do we look for another?” Jesus was simply not the kind of messiah anyone was expecting. Who expected the messiah of God to be rejected by His own people, by their religious leaders? Who expected the messiah to hang out with tax collectors and all sorts of sinners and criticize the religious for their hypocricy? Who expected the messiah to be handed over first to the religious court and then to the political court, be tried and convicted and crucified between two terrorists? I can assure you, there wasn’t an Israelite alive and breathing at the time of Jesus – not John, not the disciples, not even Mary – who expected the kind of messiah Jesus turned out to be.
And thank God for it! Thank the Lord that He rearranges our expectations and turns them on their head and spins them around until their dizzy. We’d be putting a band aid on this problem, and a patch on that problem. We’d be inventing religions to try to reach up to God, to get closer to Him, to bribe Him and win His favor. But Jesus takes all our religious expectations, all the things we lay on God, all the ways we have for remaking God in our own image and likeness, and He crucifies them. Jesus took all the messianic expecations of Israel – of power and might and glory – and He did it all under the opposite appearance. A messiah who was despised, rejected, crucified. And there in HIs dark death, there in the broken man of the cross is God’s messiah, His Christ, the strength of His arm to save you, me, and world from enemies – sin, death, devil, the Law.
John didn’t know (how could he?) that the way to salvation, freedom, peace, and life is not through power, not through military might, not politics, but through the death and resurrection of one Man, the Son of God in human flesh.
John didn’t know (how could he?) that the axe of God’s judgment against our sin would be laid at the root of Jesse, at the root of the Son of David, the promised successor to David’s throne. John didn’t know (how could he?) that the winnowing fork of the Law would judge the Son of God guilty in our place and treat Him as chaff to to be burned.
John didn’t know (what we know) that Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, was made to be our sin, though He was sinless, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. John would soon get an inkling in Jesus’ baptism, that the purpose of Jesus’ coming was not to judge but to be judged, not to condemn, but to be condemned, to be God’s Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
That doesn’ mean John was wrong. He was simply farsighted. He saw the long view of the Messiah, but the close-in view was out of focus. Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. We confess that every Sunday, as the church has for centuries. He will sort the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, faith from unbelief, on the day of His appearing in glory. He has already baptized the church in the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and He will one day blow His fiery breath over all the world and destroy it.
But know this, my dear friends in Christ, and cling to it in faith: The One who comes to judge the living and the dead has been judged for you. The One who comes with baptismal wind and fire has baptized you. The One who will gather the wheat into His barn has already gathered you into His death, and has promised never to let you go. The One who will welcome His believers to His marriage feast welcomes you to His Supper here today, a foretaste, an appetizer, of the feast that is to come. The One who will judge your works has died for your sins and spoken His forgiveness in your hearing.
That’s why the day of His appearing is something to look forward to with hope, with joy, with expectation.
The Lord is near! Rejoice!