I’d like to begin by inviting you to study this portrait of John the Baptist. Here you will see him as traditionally presented in iconography. The first thing that I’ll point out is that John has been given wings. John has the title of the forerunner of the Messiah, and the wings symbolize John’s status as a messenger from God. So, John is portrayed in these icons as an earthly ‘angel’ and is given wings. You can see that he holds in his hand a scroll. The Scroll contains the Greek words of his message that you’ll find in the Gospel of Matthew: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near.” But the wings and the scroll are probably not what strikes you most of you about this portrait. The most striking thing about this portrait is that John is holding his head on a serving platter. John was a faithful messenger from God, to the point of death. John called on one and all to repent, including King Herod, who rewarded John with imprisonment, and eventually beheaded John. So, John carries his head as a badge of honour. What I find so striking about this portrait is the way John looks directly at you. I experience John looking at me with a quiet challenge, as though he is saying, “I was faithful to my message, now what will you do with it?” I need this challenge, because, to be honest, I’m uncomfortable with the Words that God gave John to preach. I find John’s words harsh and grating. They aren’t gentle words of comfort, they are words of challenge. John, like all the prophets, was not given an easy message to preach, yet he was faithful to the point of death. Lets honour John’s sacrifice by taking his message with the utmost seriousness.
Luke introduces John by quoting Isaiah 40, saying “This is the voice that Isaiah prophecied would call in the desert,” (Slide 2) “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.” That’s what John’s ministry is all about, preparing the way for the Lord. He calls people to make the crooked roads straight, the rough ways smooth, so that God will have a clear path into Israel and all can see God’s salvation. But then look at John’s first words to those coming to him to be Baptized! John says (Slide 3) “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?!” How’s that for a call to worship. What would you think if I opened the service by saying, “Your mother was a hamster! Who invited you?” Why does John start his work of preparing the way for the Lord by insulting the people seeking him out? Was John just grumpy? John’s opening words make a bit more sense after you hear a couple of verses from Isaiah, chapter 59. Isaiah 59 is about God’s promise to punish the injustice and oppression that was being committed in the land of Israel. Isaiah says that the people’s sins have become a barrier between them and God. Their hands are filled with blood, they corrupt justice in the court of law. Their tongues speak wickedness. Isaiah describes them as (Slide 4) “hatching adder’s eggs, and weaving the spider webs; whoever eats their eggs dies, and the crushed egg hatches out a viper.” Then look at what Isaiah says about this brood of vipers a couple verses later: (Slide 5). “Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace.” John’s job is to prepare a straight road that’ll connect the Lord and His people. But the brood of vipers is sabotaging his work by making straight paths crooked through flagrantly committing sin. Sin is a barrier to connecting with God. Sin makes the straightforward way of connecting with God full of twists and turns. John picks up this imagery, and tells those vipers to quit making straight paths crooked. John knows that his first order of business is to get people to stop making the road to God an impossible one to travel. They need to repent and change their ways! So, if John is going to make straight a highway for the Lord, then his first task is to get people to stop putting up roadblocks. Are there any roadblocks in your life that have become a barrier in your travels toward God?
(Slide 6) People in the crowd are convinced that there are barriers in their lives preventing them from connecting to God, so they ask, “What then should we do?” They ask John to explain some steps they can take to make crooked paths straight by practicing love, justice and mercy. (Slide 7) John says, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’” Prepare the way for the Lord by practicing simplicity and generosity. Its simple: if you have two coats, share with those who don’t have a coat. This is a challenging word for me, because my mom loves giving me coats for Christmas, and I’ve got far too many coats. But that doesn’t make it easier to give away. Each of my coats has a specific purpose, some keep me warm, come repel water, (Slide 8) some keep me warm but not too warm, some make me look fancy, I need my Carhart Coat to help me fit in with farmers and loggers… a guy can feel a little silly talking about why he needs so many coats with John the Baptist looking over your shoulder… holding his head in his hand. I can see that John is wearing the only coat he had, one made of scratchy camels’ hair, he probably doesn’t even have a good base layer to wick away sweat. But, could you imagine if he had a full coat closet behind him? That’d totally change this picture. Instead, all I see is John looking at me, this man who was faithful to his message unto death, and I think about how trivial I can take my faith. John lived a life of radical simplicity, and challenges us to prepare the way for the Lord by living the same way. John says the reason why we give our stuff away is to help those who don’t have anything. We have so much wealth in our culture. I buy stuff I simply don’t need, the other day I bought an extra tea strainer. I don’t need an extra tea strainer. It was 13$. What is so challenging about this is that there is so much desperate need in our world. That’s what is so compelling about what Abigail shared this morning. Where we put our money has the power to impact people’s lives hugely. But its easy to forget all that when you see a nice tea strainer or a coat on sale. It is quite easy to live as if the problems we hear about on the news exist in a parallel universe and that there is no need for us to do anything about them. As a result, I can easily go about buying things that I really don’t need. The consequence is that that money is not used to help support people climb out of their suffering, and good programs are in danger of shutting down because of lack of funding. Our choices impact others. John puts it this way: (Slide 9). Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none. Make crooked paths straight, prepare the way of the Lord. (Slide 10) Each of us need to decide what it means to live a simple life, and what it looks like to give the rest away. But giving our stuff away isn’t the only response.
Next, John addresses tax collectors and Jewish soldiers working for Rome. These were two of the most despised groups of people. Tax collectors and Jewish soldiers were seen as selling out to Rome, the enemy nation occupying their land. But did you notice that John doesn’t tell them to quit their jobs? Most Pharisees probably would have told them to hand in their notice, if they could. Instead, John tells them to live justly within their profession. (Slide 11) For the tax collectors, John says, don’t charge people more than is fair. John starts at the bottom of the barrel in terms of jobs, because his message isn’t about people needing to quit their job and find some holy vocation. Instead, John’s challenges his hearers to live faithfully in whatever work they do. John challenges us to work with kindness, mercy and justice in whatever line of work you find yourself in, even if you’re a tax collector. So if you work with the land, John would ask, “how can you treat the land with the most respect?” If you work with people, how can you treat them with dignity? If you work with animals, how can you treat them humanely? If you’re raising kids, how can you best love them? If you work for an employer, how can you serve them well? If you’re an employer, how can you treat your employees fairly? John challenges each of us to seriously ask what it means to be faithful in our own area of responsibility. In doing so we are joining n the work of making crooked paths straight, and so prepare the way for the Lord.
(Slide 12) But this isn’t just self-help, because we quickly can get to that point where we don’t want to change anymore. I don’t want to give up my right to buy an extra tea strainer. That’s where I need to hear John talk about the one coming after who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, and the fork in the messiah’s hand that will separate the grain from the chaff, and the chaff that will be burned away with unquenchable fire. I have chaff that needs burning away. Let me illustrate the need for chaff to be burnt away by adapting an illustration that Mike used a couple of months ago. I roast coffee beans. To roast beans, you need a whole lot of heat, you could say that my coffee roaster produces unquenchable fire. This heat is necessary, because green unroasted coffee beans aren’t really good for anything. But if you apply heat, two things are produced, chaff, and awesomeness. The chaff is the casing around the bean that comes off when the bean or grain is processed. This is chaff, its completely useless. The only time chaff has come in handy for me is right now, when I’m trying to illustrate how useless chaff is. But if you can separate the chaff from the roasted bean, the result is amazing. A coffee bean roasted to perfection will wake people up from their sleep. Just smell the coffee! The chaff is just the stuff that’s useless, the stuff that John was talking about that gets in the way of walk with God. The chaff is that stuff in us that makes us want to hold onto our 5 coats, ignore the needs of our neighbour, and behave dishonourably at work. But John says that the Messiah is coming, and John was a coffee roaster, John would say the messiah is going to roast some beans with the Holy Spirit and fire. I wonder if John had in mind Isaiah chapter 4 when he said all this. (Slide 13). “Whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.” Notice how much of this imagery John uses when he describes what Jesus will do: Washing and being cleansed by the Spirit and fire. John is calling his people to prepare the way for the Lord by cleansing themselves from sin, from getting rid of the chaff, the useless stuff, in their lives, the stuff in their lives that makes straight paths crooked. But often that work is beyond us, but the Lord is stronger than we. The Lord comes baptizing with Spirit and fire. The Lord washes over us with Spirit and Fire, and burns away the useless chaff that gets in the way of our relationship with God. The Lord washes over us with Spirit and Fire, and makes us a people that are more likely to be generous in Spirit, trustworthy in our work, and loving of our neighbour. And as the Lord brings heat to our lives, as the chaff burns away, the aroma will be delightful. People around us will want to wake up and smell the coffee. But you should know something about this passage in Isaiah. The purification by fire came through a national calamity, it came through hardship, it came through the life of the nation falling apart. It was a mix of judgment for sins, and mercy. Sins were judged, but those sins were barriers to relationship with God. So God in his mercy removed them with a baptism of fire. So the Lord comes into our lives with His purifying Spirit, and washes us in a baptism of fire. He burns out the chaff from our lives. As he does so, we will experience God nearer than we ever thought possible. And from our lives, people from far and near will taste and see that the Lord is good.