Sermon 12-05-2021: “The Gospel According to John the Baptist”

Scripture: Luke 3:1-18

Be honest: As you look forward to celebrating Christmas in a few weeks with family or extended family or friends, is there anyone that you really don’t want to see… or someone that you’re not looking forward to seeing… or someone that you’re dreading spending time with or having to make small talk with? You know… like the cousin whose table manners are only slightly more polite than Ralphie’s little brother in the movie A Christmas Story… like that uncle who insists on volunteering his opinion about your favorite politician at the dinner table… like the in-law who passive-aggressively criticizes your cooking, or child-rearing, or homemaking skills…?

But you know what I mean… right? There’s often someone that we wish would just stay away from our Christmas celebration!

On our church calendar, every second Sunday of Advent, I wonder if John the Baptist isn’t at least a little bit like that person. Talk about Bah-humbug… Every year at this time he shows up, unbidden—insulting us, wounding our pride, telling us what’s wrong with us, telling us we need to change or else… otherwise just sort ofthrowing a wet blanket on our holiday cheer!

So we may be tempted tell John to go away! 

He often has that effect on people. After all, if you read verses 19 and 20, you’ll see that Herod Antipas was so fed up with John, he finally had him put in prison—and later, Herod’s wife Herodias was so fed up she arranged to have John beheaded!

John was a very unusual and divisive preacher! Pastor Chuck Swindoll invites us to consider the following:1 What would we think if we hired a “church growth” consultant to tell us “how to grow our church,” and he offered the following advice: “Here are five principles for growing your church.” “Here are five keys to growing your church.” 

Number One. Don’t go where people are; make them come to you. And should they come, don’t provide seating; make them stand. Don’t build a building; meet outside.

Number Two: Dress unattractively. Avoid the latest fashions. Look weird on purpose.

Number Three. Speak offensively. Insult your listeners and verbally assault your opponents. Use harsh, condemning words. Call your critics names like “vipers” and “hypocrites.”

Number Four. Rail against powerful, high-ranking officials who don’t have integrity. Call them out for their sins… publicly.

And finally, 

Number Five. Encourage your followers to follow a worthier leader. In fact, admit your utter unworthiness by comparison.

If a church growth consultant told us to do that, we would think he was crazy. And we’d want our money back. But this worked very well for John the Baptist! It’s hard to argue with John’s results! As we know from sources even outside of the Bible, John was very popular. People from all over Palestine came to be baptized by John and hear him preach.

But regardless of how popular he was, the important thing was, John heard the Word of God and responded to it—no matter the cost… And what did God call him to do? Prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah and Savior, God’s Son Jesus… That’s Luke’s point in verses 4 through 6, when quotes the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 40.

In fact, there’s a surprising name for what John is doing in this sermon he preaches… Luke uses a Greek word to describe John’s preaching in verse 18. He writes, “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.”

Good news. The Greek word for “good news” is one word, and it’s the same word that often gets translated as “gospel.” But Luke calls John’s message good news.

But when you hear the message that John preaches, I wouldn’t blame you if you thought, “This doesn’t sound much like ‘good news’! What’s so good about it?”

And that’s what this sermon will try to answer: How exactly is John’s uncompromising message about God’s wrath, God’s judgment, our helpless problem with sin, and the our need for repentance—how is this somehow good news?

First, let’s notice something: In verses 1 and 2, Luke provides more historical detail than other gospel writers. By doing so, he’s reminding us that the events that he’s about to describe do not take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” This is no fairy tale or myth or parable. In fact, since he tells us that John’s ministry started in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, then we can date these events with precision: It takes place in the year 29… A.D. 29. 

And one important point to keep in mind about all the powerful political and religious figures that Luke mentions is that they all worked for the Roman Empire—even the high priest’s family bribed Roman officials to become high priest. Don’t think it’s because these high priests were pious men of God! And notice later that Luke describes tax collectors and soldiers coming to John. They, too, collaborated with Rome—and exploited and bullied and oppressed and robbed from the people. 

From Israel’s point of view, the people were in bondage to Rome as much as they were in bondage to Egypt a couple thousand years earlier!

My point is, Luke is reminding us in verses 1 and 2that God’s people were not free; they were under occupation to a hostile foreign power. And if you asked a typical resident back then, living within the borders of ancient Israel, what their biggest problem was, they would likely have said, “The Romans, and all these powerful people that work for them and do their evil bidding—they are our biggest problem.” And these people would be hoping that the Messiah, when he came, would save them from Rome… 

And then along comes John the Baptist, who’s preaching that the people’s biggest problem is not something outside of themselves; it’s not otherpeople; it’s not the Romans—it’s not the Herod family, it’s not tax collectors and soldiers and Roman collaborators… No, the people’s biggest problem, John says, is right here, in their own hearts; their biggest problem is their own personal sin. And while the main mission of the Messiah is to save the people—by all means, they were right about that… but John is saying that the Messiah’s main mission was to save the people… from their sins. 

I shared this in this my Advent devotional this year. But listen… Every teenager of the ’80s—like myself—remembers the Christmas charity single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid—an impromptu group of British rock stars of the early MTV era. The song was all over radio and TV during Christmas 1984. Its purpose was to raise money and awareness for famine relief in Ethiopia.

When I heard the song recently, for the first time in years, I was struck by these words:

There’s a world outside your window

And it’s a world of dread and fear

Where the only water flowing

Is the bitter sting of tears

And the Christmas bells that ring there

Are the clanging chimes of doom… [Clanging chimes of doom? Okay. Maybe not the best poetry…]

But next, Bono of U2, refers to starving people in Ethiopia when he belts out, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of me.”

Except… He doesn’t sing, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of me”—that’s what I remembered him singing. That line that would indict himself and the rest of us rich, comfortable Western Christians living in a world of hunger and need. No, he sings, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of… you.”

Instead of “you”? No offense to Bono—who actually has spent considerable time and money over the years trying to “feed the world”… So no offense, but who does he think he is? I’m reminded of the old adage, “When you point your finger at someone, three fingers point back at you.”

Advent is not a season in which we say “instead of you”; Advent is a season in which we say “instead of me”! And when John the Baptist preaches these words of warning to God’s people in today’s scripture, he’s not only speaking to Israel back then, he’s also speaking to rich rock stars like Bono, and to sinners like you and me…because we’re not so different. 

Don’t we really want to look at the sin and evil all around us and say, “The problem is out there. The problem is someone else. The problem is other people. The problem is not me!” 

But John will not let us rest comfortably in the conviction. He wants us to see that actually… we are the problem!

In fact, look at the language John uses: in verse 7, he calls everyone in the crowd who’s coming to see him a “brood of vipers”—children of snakes, in other words… offspring of snakes! John is not exactly following Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, is he?

But think about what it means to be called a “brood”: you can’t change how you’re born—it’s in your nature; it’s who you are! We have a sinful nature from birth. We’re helpless; we have no power within ourselves to change.

To make matters worse, John says, “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” In other words, it’s likely that most people in the crowd thought that because of their heritage as Abraham’s descendants, they would be protected from God’s wrath and judgment—as if to say, “Our sins don’t matter; it doesn’t matter what we do or how we live. Judgment and wrath are for other people, not for us; we are exempt from God’s judgment and wrath.” And John says, “No… unless you change, you’re not exempt from it!”

And keep in mind, John is directing these harsh words to the most faithful “churchgoers” of his day—to mostly religious people…

He’s speaking, in other words, to people like… you and me! Except… instead of saying, “But we’re children of Abraham,” we might instead say,

“But I went through confirmation!” “But I got baptized!” “But my parents were faithful Christians!” “But my dad’s a pastor!”—or “my mom’s a pastor!” “But I’m ordained!” “But I’m a conservative evangelical!”—or, “But I’m a progressive!” “But I walked down the aisle and prayed the sinner’s prayer when I was 12!” 

John’s point is, “None of us, no matter who we are, has reason for self-confidence before God—at least apart from grace. All of us are helpless sinners, apart from grace… none of us is righteous, apart from gracenone of us is able to become righteous, apart from grace.” In fact, John says, unless we “bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” we will be cut down like a dead tree and “thrown into the fire.”

I confess that if John ended his sermon around verse 14, we should be feeling pretty hopeless and depressed about now.

Hopeless because, on the one hand, John says we must change or else… or else we face God’s judgment and wrath. But he’s also told us, in so many words, that change is impossible—at least by our own power. Because we are a “brood of vipers”; we are, by nature, helplessly sinful. Like I said… the message so far seems hopeless and depressing.

In fact, it seems like the message of a very well known and popular Christmas song… one that gets a lot of airplay this time of year. This song is much worse than “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” It’s worse than “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or those dogs that bark out “Jingle Bells.” And even when I was a little boy and sang it, I knew there was something wrong with it. And it’s very popular. Bing Crosby sings it on his beloved Christmas album. Bruce Springsteen does a live version of it that’s very popular this time of year… That girl group from the ’60s, the Crystals, get a lot of airplay this time of year with their version of the song. I’m referring to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

Let me preface this by saying that I love Santa Claus. But I frankly don’t think this song reflects who Santa is. “He’s making a list/ He’s checking it twice/ He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.”

The song says, “Nice children get toys and naughty children get lumps of coal.”

Think about it: According to this song, Santa isn’t the giver of gifts. He’s in the business of doling out rewards and punishments.2 You’ll get rewarded if you behave well—if you perform a sufficient amount of good works, and avoid a sufficient number of bad works.

But even when I was a young child, I knew Santa wasn’t like that… I knew Santa was more gracious and forgiving than that… because, well… I never lived up to the song’s standard of good behavior… I “pouted and cried” often. I got in trouble with my teachers. I had to sit out in the hall. I got sent to the principal’s office. I drove my sisters crazy. I disobeyed my parents again and again… And yet, Santa never failed to bring me something good on Christmas morning!

So… Is John the Baptist saying the same thing… about God? You better watch out… Or else! 

Again, if he had ended the sermon at verse 14, it might seem that way! But he doesn’t end it there. He goes on to talk about the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire whose sandals he’s unworthy to untie. In other words, he goes on to talk about Jesus. 

No, what John is doing is what the gospel of Jesus Christ is supposed to do: He is convicting us under the Law, God’s Law. He’s showing us what God’s standards of righteousness look like, and how badly we fail to measure up to them! Romans 3:20: “For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.”3

And as John knows, when we see how utterly sinful we are, what do we do? We realize we need a Savior… We realize we need Jesus. And we run to him. He’s going to be righteous on our behalf. He’s going to live the life of perfect obedience tot the Father that we’re unable to live. He’s going to take it upon himself to suffer and die… not for his sins; he doesn’t have any… but for ours. And he’s going to give us his Holy Spirit so that we truly have the power to repent and change! In the meantime all of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven and forgotten. So long as we continue to trust in Christ as Savior and Lord, it’s as if we had never sinned at all!

See, when we Christians fail toinvite John the Baptist into our churches—on this Second Sunday of Advent, or any other time—when we fail to let him tell us this very bad news about our sin, about God’s wrath, about God’s judgment, about hell, about our helplessness to do anything about it, about how desperately we need a Savior… then we think, “Gosh, it’s nice that God became a little baby lying in a manger at Christmas and all,” but we miss the most important point about Christmas: which is why God did so in the first place!

So in today’s scripture, John is letting God’s Law do its good work—to convict us of our sin and point to our need… for Jesus.

I grew up in a Christian tradition—and I know many of you did—that emphasized the importance of testimonies. I love testimonies. I’ve also loved music since I was a very young, so I’m especially interested in hearing about rock stars who left behind the lifestyle associated with sex, drugs, and rock and roll and embraced Jesus Christ instead… I’m kind of obsessed with rock stars who’ve become Christians. Lisa and I were listening to WNEG a few weeks ago, and the song, “I’ve Been Waiting for a Girl like You” by Foreigner came on. And I turned to Lisa and said, “You know, the lead singer of Foreigner, Lou Gramm, is an outspoken Christian now.” Or we’ll hear “School’s Out,” by Alice Cooper. “Oh, you know Alice Cooper is a committed Christian now.” “Carry On, Wayward Son,” by Kansas. “Oh, you know the lead guitarist and bassist are Christians now.” Like I said, I’m obsessed.

But I love hearing these testimonies of these rock stars’ dramatic conversion experiences—in part because they gave up so much of what the world values, and in part because, in most cases, Jesus rescued them from self-destruction through reckless living, and through alcohol abuse and drug addiction.

I love hearing these testimonies because people like them—people who’ve had these dramatic conversion experiences—they seem to radiate a love for Jesus. I’m a little jealous. I want to love Jesus like that. But I think they love Jesus like that because they seem to have a deeper appreciation and gratitude for what Christ has done to rescue them from their sins in such a tangible way!

What about us? Has our love for Jesus grown cold? Was there a time in our lives when we really felt in love with Jesus, when we really felt on fire for Jesus, but that was a long time ago… and now we’re so preoccupied with other things… Life has sort of gotten in the way. We’re like members of the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:4. Jesus tells them, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”

Have you? Have I?

If so, Advent is an excellent season to change. It starts by letting John the Baptist do his good, gospel work of convicting us of our sins all over again… of reminding me, for instance, that I’m no less a sinner in need of God’s grace than any of those born-again rock stars I mentioned… or any spectacular sinner out there. And neither are you…

My pastoral care professor at Emory, Rodney Hunter, told the class once that he had a recovering alcoholic friend who attended an AA meeting in the basement of his church. One day Dr. Hunter saw his friend coming up from the church basement as Dr. Hunter and his fellow parishioners were going into the sanctuary for a church service. Dr. Hunter waved at his friend, and his friend pointed to the basement and said, “That’s where church really happens!” 

That’s where church really happens…

Here’s what Dr. Hunter’s friend meant: when you’re in AA, everyone knows that you’re not there just because you like the coffee; you’re there because you have a deadly problem with sin, which in this case happens to be an addiction to alcohol. And you’re very open and up-front about that fact. You introduce yourself to other people that way: “Hello, my name is Brent, and I’m an alcoholic.” And you confess that you are powerless over this problem with sin. And you know that if anyone’s going to solve your problem, and save you from yourself, it’s going to be God. So you put your whole trust in him because what choice do you have? If you don’t, you’ll die!

I wish we at Toccoa First United Methodist could be more like that! 

Because while our sins, our compulsions, our addictions, may not be as apparent to others, and may not be as obviously harmful and self-destructive as drug or alcohol abuse—we may be able to hide them better—our sins are nevertheless every bit as real; they can and will destroy us on the inside apart from God’s grace; and we are as powerless to save ourselves as our brothers and sisters in Alcoholics Anonymous!

So with that in mind, I’d like to conclude this sermon by reintroducing myself: “I’m Brent. And I’m a sinner… I’m in need of God’s grace at every moment. And thank God, through no merit on my part, he gave me this grace through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. In fact, the main reason our church celebrates Christmas is because God became a flesh and blood human being in order to save a sinner like me. Isn’t that crazy? That he did that for me, of all people. And yet it’s completely true.”

[Call attention to v. 8… Irony, because that’s exactly what Christ has done for us who are Christians: He has made us children of Abraham through faith in his Son Jesus… And it’s likely that I’m talking to someone in this congregation whose heart is softened for the first time to the gospel message, and you know what you need to do. That’s Jesus calling you… That’s Jesus doing something supernatural in your heart right now… calling you to come to him, to repent of your sins and believe in him and follow him as your Savior and Lord. Jesus said, in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

Won’t you say yes to him today? Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. But the Lord has graciously given you this moment to repent and believe…

“For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:26…]

  1. Charles Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights: Luke (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2017), 92-3.
  2. This idea, along with some of the language, comes from “The Gift that Never Stops Giving,”, Accessed 11 December 2015.
  3. Romans 3:20 NLT

One thought on “Sermon 12-05-2021: “The Gospel According to John the Baptist””

  1. I agree that John the Baptist convicts us of our sins and points us to Jesus as He Whose sacrifice for our sins achieves salvation for us: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” However, I am not quite sure that is ALL he does. Thus, when asked, “What shall we do?” he does not say, “It is not a question of doing anything–just look to Jesus.” Instead, he lists out specific things to do commensurate with the people asking the question. Thus, in addition to faith to be saved, it is also necessary to “repent” to be saved. “Repent and be baptized, for the forgiveness of sins,” Peter preaches at Pentecost, to start off the “Church Age.” “Bring forth fruits indicative of repentance,” John the Baptist says. Of course, we cannot do so perfectly, as John the Apostle points out in 1 John 1–we cannot earn or deserve our salvation. “Herein is love; not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and gave Himself for us.” “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” But I don’t think it can be avoided that we also have to “turn around” and renounce our sinful lifestyle–as best we are able. As an illustration, when the Civil War ended, Lincoln generously and without regard to the merit of the Confederate soldiers offered unconditional amnesty. It was totally undeserved and an act of mercy on his part. However, it was necessary for them to do one thing–lay down their arms and quit fighting the Union army. Similarly with us, we must “switch our allegiance” over to God to receive the benefit of His totally “gracious” amnesty.

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