2nd Sunday in Advent
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 3:1-12 Sermon
December 4, 2004
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
2 "O Come, O Come Emmanuel"
38 "Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming"
4 "On Jordan's Banks the Baptist's Cry"
28 "The Happy Christmas Comes Once More"
“SOMEONE IMPORTANT IS COMING!”
TEXT: (vs. 1-3) “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
The President is coming, the President is coming! Do you know what happens when the President of the United States announces that he’s coming to a particular place? Maybe you’ve never thought about that before.
First of all, such a visit is usually planned far in advance. The U. S. Secret Service, which is the government agency in charge of the President’s security, has things planned out to the nth degree.
So one of the first things that happens is that the Secret Service is in contact with local government and law enforcement people. They arrange when and where the President will arrive, where he will stay, where and when his public appearances will be, how he will get from one place to the other, and where and when he will be leaving. Routes are planned—which streets and highways will be used, along with alternate routes, just in case something happens.
Crowd control is also discussed—how close people can get to the President, along with what to do with those who want to publicly protest against the President (they are usually kept quite a ways away from the rest of the crowd). Traffic control is an issue too—and the bigger the city, the more difficult that problem is.
Then there’s the law enforcement people—local police, the Sheriff, and the State Patrol, plus any other affected agencies, such as the FBI or university police. They need to figure where each and every person will be, and what they need to be doing.
Almost all of these preparations have to do with the President’s security. This has been the case for many years, and has become even more acute and concentrated as terrorist activity in the world has drastically increased, and hatred for the United States has grown. The American people have elected this man to be their leader, and so the people that elected him have to keep him safe as well.
If you think about all of the places the President appeared during this last election campaign, then you should be aware of what had to happen before he ever got there. A lot of time and dollars are spent keeping this man safe.
When the Vice President visited Lincoln several months ago, much the same type of preparations had to be made for his visit. Lincoln’s mayor let it be known how much it cost the city to have him visit—the cost of the extra police on duty which involved some overtime, the cost of the ambulance in the motorcade, and so forth.
Suffice it to say, that when the President comes to visit, preparations have to be made. He just can’t slip in and out of town like anybody else can. He can’t land at the airport, rent a car, and head to a motel. He can’t wake up the next day, have a quiet breakfast at IHOP, and head over to the venue where he is to speak. If he’s hungry, he can’t just jump in the car and go through the drive-up window at McDonald’s. Anything regarding the movement and activity of the President cannot be spontaneous. It has to be planned, and certain issues have to be dealt with.
So if the President is coming, people will know and be prepared for his visit. That’s just the way things have to happen.
In our text for today, we meet an individual whose purpose was to prepare the way for another, and a far more important individual. This man by the name of John was sent, as Isaiah describes to be: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
John was the one God had promised to send to prepare the way for the promised Messiah. Preparations had to be made, and John was just the man for the job.
Before we get into the discussion of John’s particular activity, l want to focus a bit upon the history leading up to this point in time. I’m not going to go into the end of John’s life and his beheading at the behest of Herodius and Salome, as this is fodder for an entirely different sermon.
First of all, there are two “Saint Johns” connected with Jesus’ ministry. If you encounter a church with the name “Saint John,” it might be named after one of two different individuals. There’s Saint John the Apostle, the brother of James, the son of the fisherman Zebedee. That’s the one a lot of “Saint John” churches use as their namesake. Then there’s Saint John the Baptist—and it’s the latter of these that we will be discussing today. So here’s a bit of history about him. Bear in mind that sources are kind of sketchy, and this is sort of pieced together the best I can do.
John’s parents were Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest in the order of Abia, which was 8th in the 24 different orders in which the priests of that time were divided. He lived in the little town of Ain Karim (sometimes referred to as Jutta), five miles southwest of Jerusalem.
John’s mother Elizabeth has a bit more history available regarding her lineage. Her grandfather was a man by the name of Mathan, who was from the house of Aaron. Mathan had three daughters: Mary, Soba, and Ann. Mary (not Jesus’ mother) who was the oldest married a man from Bethlehem. They were the parents of Salome. Soba also married a man from Bethlehem who was a Levite. They were the parents of Elizabeth, John’s mother. And then Ann, who was a good deal younger than her two sisters, married a Galilean man by the name of Joachim. They were the parents of Mary, the mother of Jesus. So Jesus and John the Baptist were second cousins, John being about 6 months older than Jesus. They shared the same great-grandfather. The age difference between the sisters Soba and Ann explains the reason why Mary was the young virgin woman, and Elizabeth was past her prime, and yet they were still first cousins.
John’s birth was certainly a miraculous one. Zechariah certainly prayed long and hard for a child. Then an angel appears to him in the temple and announces that Elizabeth would bear a son, and his name was to be John. It would be an appropriate name too, because the name “John” means “Jehovah has mercy.” Anyway, we know that Zechariah doubted and questioned God, so God struck him speechless until after John was born and he was named.
Nothing is really known about John’s childhood, except that he was brought up in a Godly household by two very respectable parents. He would have been well instructed in the faith, knowing the Scriptures well. He would also have been acquainted with Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the one who was to prepare the way of the coming Saviour.
The Bible tells us in Luke 1, 80: “And the child [John] grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.” That’s the extent of what we are told about John’s early life.
John spent much of his early adult life living by himself out in the desert. Prophets and other men of God often spent time in seclusion as a time of meditation, prayer and fasting. One reason that is given for his choice of the desert, was that he was perhaps under threat from Herod, who had sought to kill the Christ child. Tradition says that Zechariah was killed by Herod while he was performing his priestly duties at the altar in the temple.
In any event, John was in the desert for quite awhile. While he was there, the Bible tells us that he ate “locusts and wild honey.” When we think of locusts, we might picture people on TV shows like “Survivor” where they are eating insects, and those cicadas we hear in the trees on a summer’s evening that we also call locusts. So we picture John eating bugs soaked in honey, and we find that kind of revolting.
The Greek word “akris” is the one translated “locust.” What this probably referred to is the pod of the locust tree, which is where carob comes from. And if you’ve visited a health food store, you know that carob is sold as a substitute for chocolate. In fact, there is a type of Greek cake made from carob called “enkris,” which is deep fried in olive oil and soaked in honey. Even though the book of Leviticus talks about eating various insects, including locusts, John’s diet might not have included bugs at all.
In any event, John was in direct communication with God during his time in the wilderness. God would have let him know without a doubt that he was the one who was to prepare the way for the Lord. He was the voice of the one crying in the wilderness. He had a job to do, a divine call, and he had to get about the business of doing what the Lord directed him to do.
So he begins his ministry with the message: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This didn’t mean that it was some event off in the distant future somewhere. It didn’t mean that this was something that could be put off for a better time. This didn’t mean something that was uncertain, or that might not occur at all. This message talked about something very definite and certain. The kingdom of heaven was here now, right now, and people needed to prepare for it.
John preached repentance, and he did it in such a way that people paid attention to him. Here was this man, healthy and strong, dressed in a way that befit the rugged individual he was. He was not like the church people of the day, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were locked up in their ivory towers pouring over theological issues. He did not have the self-righteous attitude that marked the teachers of the law.
John’s presentation captured the attention of everybody. For the common person, he was like one of them. And for the high church officials, his grasp of Biblical doctrine was like nothing they had ever seen before. This man, often regarded as the very last prophet of the old covenant was doing his job well. When John got done preaching, people were ready for the Saviour who would be coming soon. They were baptized as a sign that they were indeed repentant, waiting for their sins to be washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.
The message that John was preaching is something as timely today as it was back then. The need for people to repent of their sins and turn to Jesus for forgiveness has never been needed any more than it is today.
Jesus has not come to change our world and make it more to our liking. He's come to change us, our hearts and the attitudes with which we face this world's troubles, with the message that He has already conquered sin, death and the devil. And knowing and believing that can make all the difference in the world. We can face trials and even become strong models of faith like Isaiah describes in chapter 61 verse 3 as the "oaks of righteousness planted to display His splendor" if when we face our trials we are assured that He loves us. We can cope with uncertainties if we know that ours is the ultimate triumph in the end. We can mourn the death of a loved one yet be glad that if they died in Christ we will soon see them in heaven. Jesus came to assure us of all of that, to make it all possible through the cross and the empty tomb.
John knew all of this, so he set forth on his ministry to prepare the people to meet Jesus. Some people, like the Pharisees and Sadducees needed some strong words to bring them around. They needed to know they couldn’t inherit heaven just by their ancestry or works of the law. They needed to see their sin and repent. They needed the forgiveness of Jesus as much as anybody else.
But for others, this message of John’s was a ray of hope for them in the midst of a sin filled world. John was making people ready for their Saviour. John’s disciples became Jesus’ disciples as they continued on with their ministry.
As we consider our place as Christians and as a congregation, we have much the same goal in our ministry. We are to prepare people to meet Jesus through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. We preach repentance and faith. We encourage good works as a fruit of that faith. But most importantly, we show the world the Saviour through whom we receive strength for this life, and hope for the life to come.