The Preaching of John the Baptist

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Church
December 12, 2021
Third Sunday of Advent
Luke 3:7-20

Sermon recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, December 10, 2021

At the beginning of worship

We’re at the third week of Advent. Christmas is coming. Have you’ve been naughty or nice? Of course, that sounds like I’m emphasizing works. We often think the only thing that matters is a belief in Jesus. And while believing in Jesus is important, so is how we live our lives. Because of the love we’ve experienced in Jesus Christ, we are to share such love with others. 

This week on Twitter, a seminary student witnessing an online debate over what’s the correct belief, responded: “Some of y’all need to stop studying apologetics (that’s the defense of our faith) and start studying apologies.”[1] She has a point. Jesus would probably agree.

I’ve been reading Makoto Fujimura new book, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making. The author challenges us at our “bottom line”.[2]What are we doing with our lives? How are we using the gifts God has given us to make this world a better place? Not only do we need to believe and love Jesus, but we must also shape our lives using him as a model. 

Before the Gospel Reading

Again, this week, we’re dealing with John the Baptist. The man preaches a harsh sermon. God’s judgment is at hand! John’s message when added to Zephaniah’s (whom we heard in our Old Testament reading) blend into the sweet and sour of God’s word. Like sweet and sour sauce, the richness of tastes comes by combining both flavors. God’s ways are good for salvation, yet they are linked to judgment. Listen to what John says. Once he gets your attention, I think you’ll then be surprised at what he says.  

READ LUKE 3:8-18

After the Reading of the Gospel

The Hound of Heaven

Francis Thompson depicted Jesus as the Hound of Heaven in his epic poem by the same name… We, of course, are the ones portrayed in the poem as being chased by the hound. Out of fear, we run as fast as we can. 

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him…

But the hound pursues. He doesn’t give up the chase. When he finally overtakes us, we find it’s the not the deranged dog we’ve feared.[3]Jesus is a loving hound, who chases us down because he cares about us. The Hound of Heaven is the type of dog that would jump all over us and lick us. 

At the risk of blasphemy, the hound of heaven is like my dog, Mia. As those of you who have met her knows, she barks and barks, but if you get to know her, she’s loving. She’ll roll over and let you rub her belly. 

The Junkyard Dog 

But if Jesus is the loving hound of heaven, John the Baptist is the junkyard dog.[4] Wild and furious, John stands in our way. Interestingly, in all four gospels, before we get to the life of Jesus, we go through John. We endure John’s preaching and hear about the vipers, wrath, and unquenchable fire. 

We want to get to the stable, where we feel safe and can see baby Jesus lying in a manger. We want to bring gifts for the child, to sit at the feet of a gentle Savior and draw in his words. But before we arrive, we must deal with this wild lunatic. The junkyard dog snaps at our heels, shouting repent, repent, for judgment is at hand.

John wasn’t a preacher who spoke gently. He had no golden tongue or mild-manner ways. When the crowds came, he shouted at them, “You brood of vipers.” That’s not a line church growth consultants suggest we preachers use. Yet, they came. People came from all around. Somehow the word got out and people were intrigued, and they made their way to where John was holding his camp meeting. Why, what drew them?  Perhaps they needed an honest assessment of themselves. Or, more likely, they knew what John said was true, that deep down they were lost and to find the way to salvation, they had to be honest to themselves and to God.  

The Need to Confront Our Sin

Consider this: If we think things are okay, we have no need for a Savior. But when things aren’t looking quite right, when we’re in over our heads, we need a Savior. John prepares these folks for Jesus’ arrival, getting them to understanding that just being children of Abraham isn’t enough, they need something more. It’s no longer the “good old boy system” where you get special treatment because your daddy or uncle is so and so.

The Grace in John’s Message

Although John has some rather unusual tactics and he preaches judgment as harsh as any fire and brimstone Puritan, his message really isn’t that tough. He gets the crowd’s attention by harshly pointing out their sin and teaching that they couldn’t depend on the faith of their ancestors. Once he’s got their attention, John demands they behave in a particular way. By then, they know they have not been living up to God standards for John doesn’t command anything that’s not set out in the law.  

What Should We Do

What John does is to get his audience’s attention, convict them of their sins, and lead them to the point that they ask, “What should we do?” This question forms the centerpiece of this passage about John’s ministry. What should we do? It’s asked three times in these few verses!

First the crowd asks the question. “What should we do?” And John says, “Be generous.” Share what you have.

Next, tax collectors come and ask what to do. Did you catch Luke’s irony? In the New Revised Standard version, the phrase reads, “even tax collectors came.” No one expects them, but they came and asked what they should do. John tells them to only collect what they are supposed to collect. 

Luke sets the stage here for an event that will come later. In the 19thchapter, he’ll tells us the story of Zacchaeus, the wee-little tax-collector who meets Jesus and doesn’t have to ask what to do.[5] Instead, he gives half his possessions away and promises to give to those he defrauded four times what he’d taken. Had Zacchaeus heard John’s sermon? 

Perhaps more surprisingly than the tax collectors are the soldiers who make their way to John’s revival meeting. These soldiers would not have been welcomed by the Jews of the day, for they were serving Imperial Rome.[6]

Remain Moral in Compromising Occupations

Surprisingly, John doesn’t say the tax collectors or soldiers should find a more suitable occupation. Tax collectors can still collect taxes and soldiers can still do their duty. However, they are encouraged to be generous, honest, good, and content. In other words, they’re to be nice. John’s teaching assumes that even in potentially compromising situations, people can still be moral.[7]

Nothing Radical About John, Mostly Mundane

There’s nothing radical about what’s John calls people to do! As one scholar on this passage wrote, “Much of what it means to follow Christ into better ways of living seems so mundane.” He goes on to note that mundane comes from the Latin word for world, and suggests that John 3:16 could also be translated as “God loves the mundane that sent his Son.”[8] Being a disciple isn’t about making a being on a grandstand, it’s what we do in the mundane encounters of life.

John comes to prepare the way and because of his message people expect something great to happen. The greater the demands, the greater the expectation. As the church, we need to remember that. The people of Israel now expect great things; after John, they are ready for Jesus. But are we?  Ponder that question…

Those Not Wanting to Hear John

Of course, there are those who don’t want to hear John’s message. There are always those who don’t want to play nice. One is Herod, the puppet ruler for Rome, who is one of history’s rotten characters. Herod can’t stand the truth. In a classic example of shooting the messenger, he has John jailed and later beheaded. But it was too late, John has already spoken, the Savior is on his way, and soon Herod will only exist as a footnote in history.

John Challenges the Chosen

It’s interesting to me that John can pull off his message. After all he preaches to the chosen people, those who feel God’s hand-picked them to be special. He’s telling those who feel secure because they have a covenant with God to shape up. Some of us may feel this way. Yet, we should know God expects more of those who have been given more.[9]

Will Rogers, America’s John the Baptist

Will Rogers may be the closest thing we’ve had in America to John the Baptist. Rogers didn’t pull any punches when attacking “sacred cows.” Like John, Rogers challenged society to live up the values they espouse and to change oneself before changing others. Pointing out the inconsistency in this nation of Christians, he once asked:

            What degree of egotism is it that makes a nation, or a religious organization think theirs is the very thing for the Chinese or the Zulus?  Why, we can’t even Christianize our legislators!

On another occasion he said that we have “the missionary business turned around. We’re the ones that need converting.”[10]

We Need to be Converted

Rogers has a point. We need to be converted, and now is the time. Before we head off to Bethlehem, we need to realize our need for a Savior. Before we enter the stable, we need to get our act together so we can anticipate what our God can do for us as opposed to what it is we can do for ourselves. We need to be shaken out of our comfort zones, to be confronted by John’s wrath, so that we too will seek out and clean up those places in our lives that are inconsistent with the gospel.

As harsh as we might think John came across, his preaching wasn’t void of good news. Yes, John points to the ax at the tree not bearing fruit and he talks about the fire burning the chaff. But trees that have been pruned bear more fruit and though the chaff is burned, the kernels of wheat are saved. John’s message encourages the Israelites (and us) to bare more fruit. And to be fruitful, we must put away those obstacles, those sins, which keep us from having a healthy relationship with God.  

Conclusion

Before rushing off to the manger to worship the Christ Child, pause long enough to hear John’s warning. His bark may sound mean, but it’s a loving warning. Repent and prepare a place in your hearts to receive the Messiah. Live so that your faith in a loving Savior is shown in a gentle life that is lived honestly and filled with kindness. Amen


[1]Laura Klenda, on Twitter, 9 December 2021

[2]Makoto Fujimura, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2021), 62.

[3] Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, nd).

[4] Idea from a sermon titled “A Cure for Despair” where John was portrayed as a Doberman pinscher.  See Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain: Sermons on Suffering (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 22ff.

[5] Luke 19:1-10

[6]James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 112.  

[7] Edwards, 113.

[8] Scott Hoezee, “Remembering the Future” in Reformed Worship #57 (September 2000), 9. 

[9] Luke 12:48.

      [10] The Best of Will Rogers, Bryan Sterling, editor (New York: MJF Books, 1979), 194.

Whitefish Point Lighthouse Ornament from my Christmas Tree. In a way, John the Baptist was like this lighthouse, that also boasted large fog horns that warned passing ships of the shoals around the point.

7 thoughts on “The Preaching of John the Baptist”

  1. One of the suggested readings for this week (mentioned in the newsletter of our former church back home) was Zephaniah. I hadn’t read that book in many years, and I have to admit that the connection between the text and this week of Advent escaped me. I wonder if you could elaborate a bit on it, or maybe you have a previous post that addresses this reading? Thank you!

    • The link between Zephaniah and Advent has to do with the joy he proclaims in a good who is coming to save. That said, I haven’t done much preaching on Zephaniah. I had to go to my paper files and found one sermon there, from 1988, before I had a computer and in the first year I preached every Sunday. I should dig more into this book!

  2. So many good points in your message today, along with some analogies that made me smile.

    I hope you’ll do a review of the Fujimura book. It sounds interesting.

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