2 Advent Proper A2
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 3:1-12 Sermon
December 8, 2013
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal & Christian Worship):
60 "Hark A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding"
63 "On Jordan's Banks"
CW 13 "There's A Voice In The Wilderness Crying"
66 "Hark The Glad Sound"
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.’”
One of the newer reality shows I enjoy from time to time is called "Flipping Vegas." The show centers around a man by the name of Scott Yancy and his wife Amie. They are in the business of "flipping houses." What they do, is buy run-down or seriously abused houses for a very cheap price. Then they go in, and in most cases they literally gut the house. Cabinets, fixtures, and appliances are removed. Carpets are pulled up. And whatever junk the former owners left behind is also hauled away.
Then they remodel, repair, and replace what needs to be done, and they don't cut corners either. When all is said and done, they are able to turn the house over in a relatively short period of time. And of course they make a nice tidy profit on their little venture.
Their whole operation runs on a fairly tight time schedule, and sometimes they are within hours of their open house. But everything has to be ready. When the real estate agent has the open house and people start to look at the place, it can't be half finished or look disheveled. All things must be in order. People have to be impressed if they're going to pay the asking price for the house.
These people are experts in getting things ready. They know what has to be done, and how long it will take. Their entire livelihood depends on proper preparation and presentation. They can't afford to goof things up.
In our text for today, we meet an individual whose whole purpose was to prepare something, to get things ready. 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, things had to be ready, 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. We're all familiar with churches that have the name “Saint John,” especially our good neighbor to the east. But when we encounter this name on a church, 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, including St. John here in Seward. But then there’s Saint John the Baptist—and it’s the latter of these that we will be discussing today. So let's look at 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 of the sisters, 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, who was 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, John's father, 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 chapter 1, verse 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 might have 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 or might not have included bugs at all; we really can't be sure.
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 being baptized according to the Old Testament tradition, which was done as a sign that they were indeed repentant, and waiting for their sins to be washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. They were preparing for the Saviour.
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 our attitudes. We become prepared to face world's troubles, with the message that Jesus 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. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, we believe this, so we indeed have the saving faith in the promised Saviour. It is ours without a doubt.
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.
In our world, people are continually preparing for something. The people who flip houses for a living know how to prepare a house to give it the right type of curb appeal. They know what will work when it comes to selling a house. They know what people need and want. It can either be a make or break situation.
And on a smaller scale, we see people preparing for other things. Maybe it's cleaning the house before company arrives, or having a meal prepared in time for supper. Students prepare for exams. And yes, I had to prepare for this morning. I shaved, showered, and got dressed. I had to have something ready to tell you about John the Baptist. Preparation is important.
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.
In our hearts, the Holy Spirit has prepared the way for the Saviour. We must keep that road open and clear from anything that would clutter our lives, because we know that Satan will always try to block that path. Yes, prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight, for he comes to bind up the broken-hearted and proclaim freedom for those in Satan's bondage. Be prepared for the coming Saviour of the world.