Tag Archives: John the Baptist

Fully Immersed – Sermon on Luke 3:15-22 for Baptism of our Lord C

January 13, 2019

Do you know your purpose in life? Do you have a clear idea of why God made you, and what you are supposed to do with this one precious life you’ve been given?

Jesus did. He understood that his primary purpose was to bring us humans into right relationship with God. That was the whole reason he came into the world – God With Us, Emmanuel – not to condemn it (John 3:17), but to save it. In order to do that, he had to become one of us. Continue reading

It All Starts Here – Sermon on Mark 1:1-8 for Advent 2B

December 10, 2017

Imagine you are in Palestine. War is everywhere. You are surrounded by violence. The military leader who just got promoted to imperial dictator happens to be the same general who was responsible for destroying your village last year. Friends and family have scattered, and you aren’t sure what you should do next.

Someone bumps into you on the street, and presses a pamphlet into your hands. For a moment, your eyes meet, and you are struck by two things: first, the intensity of this stranger’s gaze, and second, by the fact this intensity does not seem to be rooted in anger or fear, but … joy. You glance at the pamphlet in your hand, and read the title: “Good News.”

You could use some good news. Is the war over? Has the dictator been overthrown? You find a safe place to open the pages, and you begin to read…

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Continue reading

When Seeing is Believing – Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11 Advent 3A

December 11, 2016
View a video of this sermon here. 

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, echoes the song Hannah sang when she brought her son, Samuel, to the temple and dedicated him to the Lord. You may remember that Hannah had been childless, and had begged God to give her a son. When Samuel was born to her, Hannah kept her promise to God, and gave him over to the priest Eli, to serve in the temple. Samuel became the last of the judges, and it was Samuel who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul. Later, Samuel also anointed Israel’s greatest king, David.

When Mary learned that she was to become the mother of Emmanuel, God With Us, she went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who, much like Hannah, had become pregnant after many years of childlessness. Mary imitated Hannah’s song, while Elizabeth reflected Hannah’s story. Mary and Elizabeth may have been related to one another by blood, but they were both related to Hannah in spirit. When Hannah sang, she prophesied that Israel would one day have a King. Mary’s baby would become King of Kings, and Elizabeth’s baby would be the prophet who introduced that King to the world.

Fast forward about thirty years. Continue reading

Turn Around – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 Advent 2A

December 4, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here

What do you think of first when you hear the word “repentance”? What do you think it means to repent?

In today’s gospel lesson, you will hear about repenting three times. John the Baptist calls us to repent, to prepare for the coming of God’s Kingdom. We usually think about repentance in terms of what we need to repent from – turning away from our sins. But turning away from sin begs the question: What does God call us to repent toward? As you listen to John the Baptist’s words, I invite you to focus your attention on what it is you need to turn toward when you repent. Continue reading

Come and See – Sermon on John 1:29-42

It’s easy to get John the Evangelist mixed up with John the Baptist, especially when we read a passage from John’s Gospel that describes John the Baptist as an evangelist!  But that is what we have in front of us today. Last week, we heard Matthew’s version of the Baptism of Jesus. This week, our story takes us to the day after Jesus is baptized. John the Baptist notices Jesus walking down the street, and points out the Lamb of God to a handful of his own disciples. John shares his own experiences of the day before, and his disciples take off after Jesus. What happens next reminds me of one of those spy shows, where a professional spy is being tailed by someone, and suddenly turns to confront the follower. In this story, there isn’t a car chase, and we don’t see any hand-to-hand combat. This confrontation turns into an invitation. Three simple actions, expressed in two questions and an answer, show us how to share our faith with others and point them toward Jesus. Hear the Word of the Lord, from the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 29-42:

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

There is a subtle pattern that runs through this passage. It gives us three simple actions that point people to Jesus. First, John the Baptist notices Jesus. Second, he shares his experience with his own disciples. Then, John invites his disciples to follow their new teacher. Andrew and the other disciple notice Jesus, they share time with him, and then Andrew shares his experience with his brother, Simon. Finally, Andrew invites his brother to follow Christ, and Simon is changed. He becomes Simon Peter.

Notice, Share, Invite: Three simple actions. According to Luther Seminary professor David Lose, this is the essence of evangelism. He writes, “At its heart, evangelism is noticing what God is doing in our lives, sharing that with others, and inviting them to come and see for themselves.”[1]  So why do we find it so hard to think of ourselves as evangelists?  Why are we so afraid of spreading the Good News to others?

Maybe part of our fear comes from the fact that we just don’t notice God at work in our lives. Think about it for a moment: how have you experienced Christ?  How have you noticed God working in you, or in the life of the church?  How has your life changed since you met Jesus?  And if you don’t see God at work, why not?

John saw Jesus, and openly declared: “Here comes the Lamb of God, the One who takes away the sin of the entire world!”  That’s quite a proclamation!  But John had experienced something his disciples apparently had not, and he was eager to tell them about that experience. So, John told them what he had seen: the Spirit of God coming down from heaven like a dove, and resting on Jesus. John affirmed the identity of Jesus to these disciples. He said, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”  John noticed. He saw with his own eyes, and he recognized what he saw. This was the Son of God, the One he’d been waiting for, the One he’d been preparing for.

In order to notice God at work among us, we have to be looking for it. As John’s disciples went after Jesus, his first words to them were “What are you looking for?”  They had noticed Jesus, thanks to John, but his question must have brought them up short. What were they looking for?  What did they really want to find?  Jesus asks the same question later in his ministry, when John sends messengers to Jesus from his prison cell to ask, “Are you the One?  Or should we look for another?”  After Jesus sends the messengers back to John with the words, “Go tell John what you see and hear. The blind see, the lame walk, and the poor have good news preached to them,” Jesus goes on to ask the crowd, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?  A reed shaken by the wind?  A prophet?”  In other words, what are you looking for?  How do you see God working around you?

If we are to find God, to notice God working around and among us, we need to know what we are looking for. The direction of our gaze is important. We may be looking in all the wrong places, noticing all the wrong things, and miss the Kingdom of God if we do not keep our focus on Jesus himself. I used to tell music students, “Listening is paying attention to what you hear.”  There is sound all around us all the time, so we need to be careful how we filter that sound, how we decide what needs our attention. The same is true as we look for God at work: we need to pay attention to what we see.

Let me give you some examples.
During Advent, some of us went caroling one Sunday afternoon. It was really cold, so our group was small, but we represented people of every age from seven to eighty-seven. As we stopped to sing at several homes, we were met with hugs, tears, smiles, and gratitude. The people who heard us sing were deeply moved, and the people who did the singing saw some folks they hadn’t seen for years, or – in some cases – had never met. This is God at work.

Every third Wednesday, some of us meet up at Ridgeway on 23rd, to sing old familiar hymns with residents of the memory care unit. As we sing, people who can no longer read remember all the words to “Amazing Grace” and “The Old Rugged Cross.”  We say the Lord’s Prayer together, with one voice. This is God at work.

On Wednesday nights, people come here to eat a warm, tasty, nutritious meal together. Children learn Bible stories, Confirmation students dig into what it means to be a Christian, and teenagers talk about their concerns with trusted leaders, while adults meet to study God’s Word together. God is at work.

Once a month, I meet with other pastors over lunch, as we pray for one another and for our churches. Some of these pastors come from denominations that do not recognize the authority of women in the pulpit, yet these men welcome me, pray for me, and pray for you and our ministry together. This is God at work.

We need to notice it, and call attention to it, just as John called attention to the Lamb of God, walking toward him. Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” of us, just as surely as he asked it of those two disciples who left John and followed him down the road. So, what are you looking for? Take a moment, and write down one way you’ve seen God working in your life, or in the life of this congregation lately. Go ahead. I’ll wait…

God is at work now, just as he was at work when Jesus asked those two disciples, “What are you looking for?” Their answer points to that second action – sharing. “Where are you staying, Teacher?” they wanted to know. The day before, their allegiance had been to John the Baptist, but once he had shared what he had seen when Jesus was revealed to him as the Lamb of God, there was no going back. John told them everything he had experienced, everything he knew about Jesus. Their response was a desire to know where Jesus was staying, where he was living, where they could count on finding him again and again. They wanted to share in that “abiding” with Jesus. The scripture isn’t explicit, but we are given the detail that it was about four in the afternoon when these two disciples met Jesus face to face. This would have been late enough in the day that it’s quite possible the disciples stayed with Jesus overnight, talking, listening, sharing life with their new teacher. Then, Andrew found his brother, and shared the news with Simon that “we have found the Messiah.”  Andrew noticed, then he shared. He told Simon his story, just as John had told Andrew and the other disciple the story of recognizing Jesus as the Son of God.

What is your story? I’m not talking about your church history, but your personal experience of Christ changing you.  John talked about what he had seen with his own eyes, and he didn’t mind repeating himself. Andrew was eager to tell his brother Simon about Jesus.

What’s your ‘elevator speech,’ the one you could tell on the way up to the third floor if someone getting into the elevator with you asked, “Why are you a Christian?”  Maybe you aren’t ready to give an entire speech, but we often have opportunities to share how God is working in our lives. If we don’t practice telling those stories, the opportunities may fly past us. Maybe we’re nervous about sharing our faith stories because we’ve never done it. The only way to learn how to do something is to practice. So, let’s practice for a minute. Turn to someone next to you, and tell each other one reason why you like coming to church here. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

That wasn’t so hard, was it?  When John the Baptist shared his story, he only needed a few sentences. When Andrew shared with his brother, Simon, he only needed one: “We have found the Messiah.”  It doesn’t take very many words to tell someone else about the one thing that excites you, the one reason you like to come to church, or the one way you have noticed God working in your life. And when we share that good news, we want the person listening to us to come be part of it, too.

That brings us to the third simple action: invitation. John the Baptist invited his own disciples to follow their new teacher when he pointed Jesus out to them and said, “Look, here is the Lamb of God I was telling you about yesterday.”  When Jesus caught them following him and asked what they were looking for, Andrew and his friend asked, “Where are you staying?”  Jesus didn’t tell them. He didn’t bring up the map app on his phone and show them how to get there. He just said, “Come and see.”  It was a little invitation, but it changed everything.

Jesus invited them into his life, and they followed him home. Then Andrew invited his brother to come and see the Messiah, whom he had just met, and when Simon went with Andrew to meet Jesus, he was changed. He became “Peter.”  It was a little invitation, but it changed everything.

Christ invites us to invite others. It can be a little invitation. What is it about being part of this church that really gives you joy?  Who do you know that needs some of that?  If you don’t know anyone outside this church, how can you remedy that situation?

You may be surprised to learn this, but seven years ago, I was classified as an introvert. I did not spend time with anyone outside of church or the Christian school where I taught. I would much rather eat lunch at my desk than in a noisy restaurant with a table full of people, all talking at the same time.

And this bothered me. How could I share the Good News, how could I call myself a minister of the Gospel, if I insulated myself from the very people who needed to hear that Gospel?  So I prayed about it. And slowly, I started to notice how God was working on me, putting people in my path that I would have ignored before, but who needed to talk with someone about their questions and their doubts. As I shared this awareness of how God was working in me with others, I discovered that I was not alone. And I realized that, for me, being an evangelist is not buttonholing strangers on the street and asking them if they know where their souls will go when they die. It isn’t demanding that they make a decision on the spot and pray the Sinner’s Prayer after I have eloquently explained the plan of salvation. That isn’t the way Jesus worked, and it isn’t the way most of us are wired to work, though some may find those methods effective.

But I can do this: I can notice God at work in me and around me. I can share those experiences with others, and I can invite them to be part of what God is doing.

Notice, share, invite.

Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?”  Are you looking for grace and forgiveness?  Are you looking for eternal life?  Are you looking for an abiding and deep connection with the God who created you just so he could love you?

The disciples asked, “Where are you staying?”  Finding Jesus means finding the One we can depend on to remain with us, to stay with us, to share life and to change us through that experience.

And, together with Jesus, we can reach out to people who don’t know him yet, people who are looking for Jesus, even if they aren’t sure that God is the one they are seeking, and we can invite them to come and see Jesus at work among us, changing us, loving us, giving us life.

Or maybe that person is you. Maybe you are the one looking for Jesus. Maybe you are the one who needs assurance that he is with you, that your sins are forgiven, that God loves you and invites you to become his own beloved child. If that’s you, let me invite you to know the Word who became flesh. Let me invite you to ask forgiveness of your sins, and to rest assured that Jesus loves you so much, he died for you, so that you could have eternal life, rich and full, beginning now. Let me invite you to come and see Jesus. Amen.

[1] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3002

Magnify – Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11 and Luke 1:47-55

In the traditional church calendar, the third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” and it is the first word of this Sunday’s customary opening sentence, or introit, taken from Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” We light a rose-colored candle, to contrast with the purple or blue candles used on the other three Sundays of Advent. In many churches, Advent is still considered a penitential season, much like the season of Lent, and there was even a time when fasting during Advent was quite common. Gaudete Sunday was a break from that fast, a time to rejoice in the nearness of Christmas, less than two weeks away.

One of the features of Gaudete Sunday is the use of Mary’s song from the first chapter of Luke in place of a Psalm. We used the beginning of it earlier, as our call to worship. Here’s the whole song:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – Luke 1:47-55

Mary’s song echoes the song Hannah sang when she brought her son, Samuel, to the temple and dedicated him to the Lord. You may remember that Hannah had been childless, and had begged God to give her a son. When Samuel was born to her, Hannah kept her promise to God, and gave him over to the priest Eli, to serve in the temple. Samuel became the last of the judges, and it was Samuel who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul. Later, Samuel also anointed Israel’s greatest king, David.

When Mary learned that she was to become the mother of Emmanuel, God With Us, she went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who, much like Hannah, had become pregnant after many years of childlessness. Mary imitated Hannah’s song, while Elizabeth reflected Hannah’s story. Mary and Elizabeth may have been related to one another by blood, but they were both related to Hannah in spirit. When Hannah sang, she prophesied that Israel would one day have a King. Mary’s baby would become King of Kings, and Elizabeth’s baby would be the prophet who introduced that King to the world.

Fast forward about thirty years. Just last week, we heard Elizabeth’s son, John, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'(Matthew 3:2-3”)

In today’s lesson, John is in prison, and Mary’s son, Jesus, has established his own ministry of preaching and performing miracles. But John wonders if the Kingdom he foretold is really as near as he thought it was. John isn’t sure that Jesus is THE King, because he isn’t bringing down the judgment that John expected Messiah to bring. Hear the Word of the Lord, from Matthew 11:2-11:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

A lot has happened since John ate locusts and honey out in the wilderness. Now, John has found himself in prison. In the first century, prison was not a final destination, but a place where one remained until trial, waiting to be acquitted or condemned. This waiting could be a cause of great anxiety, and John’s circumstances may have contributed to his doubt. After all, if Jesus really was going to inaugurate a new Kingdom, wouldn’t getting his friends out of jail be a high priority? What was he waiting for? Wasn’t it about time for Jesus to overthrow King Herod’s corrupt government, and then get Israel out from under the oppressive rule of Caesar? This wasn’t panning out the way John had hoped it would. Jesus wasn’t measuring up to John’s expectations for a Messiah King.

Perhaps we can take courage in John’s disappointment. After all, if the greatest prophet who ever lived can wonder whether or not Jesus is the real deal, maybe our doubts and disappointment are a little more understandable. As we frantically try to get ready for Christmas, we may find that fear and doubt come creeping in. If we’re just scraping by, how can we afford to buy presents for those we love? When we get sick, or we lose people we love, when stress rises and hope fades, how can we pretend to be cheerful? How can we sing “Joy to the World” when our personal worlds are crumbling around us? Where is God when we really need him? Maybe we can understand John, as he paces around his prison cell, wondering if he made a mistake. When will the Kingdom finally show up? Could he have been wrong about Jesus? There’s only one way to find out, and since he can’t go himself, he sends his disciples.

Jesus tells those disciples, “Go tell John what you are seeing and what you are hearing. The Greek tense used here indicates continuous action, not a one-time event. Look at the evidence that is right in front of you, Jesus says. That work is continuing all around you. There’s an old adage that says, “When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.” Jesus must have heard that saying, because instead of going into a long defense of his kingship, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah and says, “Look around. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” In John’s Gospel, we read that Jesus says, “the very works that I am doing bear witness about me that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36). In other words, this is the kingdom. No matter what you were expecting, this is what it looks like.

The problem isn’t with the kingdom, it’s with our view of it. John’s disciples were looking for the wrong thing. We fall into that trap, too. We don’t see the kingdom at work around us, because we are looking for the wrong thing. We may be looking for more people attending church, or larger offerings, or better publicity in the community. And we miss seeing the healing, the resurrection, the good news happening right under our noses.

John was expecting military power and swift judgment, but Jesus came offering forgiveness.

Others were anticipating a king in a palace, wearing soft clothes, but Jesus came to die on a cross, wearing only a crown of thorns.

We may be looking for a quick solution to all our problems, but Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him.

“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus says. Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me, might be another way to put it. If John was offended by the way things were turning out, Jesus wanted him to know that this was the way God intended his kingdom to come. Jesus wasn’t trying to ignore John or belittle his work. Jesus knew that John was in a very dangerous situation, and he also knew that his own ministry had depended on John’s “preparing the way” before him. Instead of downplaying John’s importance, Jesus lifts him up to the crowd as the greatest person who has ever lived, up to now. And yet, …

John was great, but the least in the kingdom of heaven will be greater than John. How can John be both the greatest person ever born, while the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John? The answer lies in John’s unique place in human history. John’s ministry marks both the end of the old order, and the beginning of the new. He is the bridge between the kingdoms of earth and the Kingdom of Heaven.

John is the climax of the old order. Biblical scholar Donald Hagner writes, “He is the one in whom the OT expectation has finally been distilled into one, final, definitive arrow pointing to the presence of the Messiah. Thus from a human point of view no one greater than John has ever been born.”[1] John lies at the turning point of history. This is the point where promise becomes fact, where prophecies become reality. Nothing can ever be the same again. This is the beginning of a new era. This is where grace takes over, and the kingdom of God breaks into our world in the person of Jesus Christ. John is the pivot point between the old and the new, between the prophecy and its fulfillment, between what was, and what is now.

John himself says of Jesus, “he must increase, while I must decrease” (John 3:30). John knows that his job description has changed. No longer is he the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Now, John must exchange his prophetic stance with that of a disciple, whose only job is to magnify the Lord. Instead of preparing the way for Messiah, John must learn to follow him. John is no longer the messenger, the one who goes before Christ, announcing the way of the Lord. John must become a disciple if he is to participate in the kingdom that has come, is coming, and will come in Jesus Christ. Theologian Karl Barth says that “true discipleship [is] simply to point to all that God has done for us in Christ.”[2]

John the Baptist asks, Who is Jesus? Jesus asks the crowds, Who is John?
But the real question we must face is this: Who am I, then?

It’s a question every Christian asks at some point. In John the Baptist, we find an answer: to be a disciple is no longer to look backward or forward or even deep into our own hearts, but rather to look only at Christ. In pointing to him alone, our identity finally becomes clear. It isn’t who we are, but whose we are that matters.

Once we grasp this truth, that we belong to God as followers of Jesus Christ, we have a job to do. Like Mary, our job is to magnify the Lord, showing Jesus to others so they can see God better. That’s our mission here: pointing people to Jesus, so they can experience the same grace we have experienced, choosing to follow Jesus as we follow Jesus.

Here we are on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, preparing to welcome the Savior on Christmas Day. As we make our hearts ready, our joy may be mixed with disappointment. Like John, we may be wondering where God is in the midst of all the trouble that swirls around us, trouble that seems to be magnified by the pressures that go with making a holiday merry and bright. Yet, Mary calls us to remember that God has done mighty things, and is continuing that amazing work right under our noses, right now, right here. Rejoice! Again I say it: Rejoice! The Kingdom of God is at hand!

[1] Donald Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary (Vol. 33a): Matthew 1-13, 305-306.

[2] As quoted by John P. Burgess, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, 72.