This sermon was preached at St Matthew's Lutheran Church, Maryborough, 8.15am (lay-reading), and Grace Lutheran Church, Childers, 9am.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.
Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Our reading today speaks about John the Baptist and his ministry. And this comes to us from the very first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Mark writes: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The word “gospel” means “good news”. And particularly in ancient times, when there were various wars going on, the people of a particular city would have been waiting for some kind of messenger to come galloping on his horse down the road to the city gates to tell the people some news: either good news, or bad news. Bad news would be: “the enemy is coming”, “the king is dead”. But good news would be: “they did it!” “We won!” And all the people would shout, “Hooray!” And then they would prepare to get ready for a wonderful celebration for when their king and the army would return, and have music and dancing and food and celebrating!
In our world today, we are faced with a lot of bad news. There are tremendous things happening around the world: wars, famines, refugees. All these things are bad news. Our parliament this week has approved the marriage of two people of the same sex. This is bad news. Sex and gender are things which God has created in each one of us and are his gift, and taking the distinction of gender out of marriage is a serious thing. People in our country in the last year have wanted even to stop children giving Christian cards at Christmas, shops are discouraged from having nativity scenes, Christian Christmas carols are heard less and less on the radio and TV and in shops. This is bad news. But if we go and look back in the days of the Old Testament, we will see there many generations of kings, where God’s own people worshipped idols, golden calves, burned their own children as offerings to evil spirits, conjured up the dead, performed witchcraft, and all kinds of other crazy things. At one time things were so dark that Elijah the prophet despaired, thinking he was the only believer left in the world. Many Christians are feeling like that more and more today.
There are so many passages in the prophets—whether it be Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel—where everything looks like all is lost. But God promises to remain faithful—he will always keep a faithful church on earth that holds to his word. You see, when all around us is nothing but sin and shame, we need to realise that the only people who will be part of the church are sinners. God will convert people just as he did to you, and change their hearts, and turn them back to himself. In Isaiah chapter 9 we read that it is not the people who already walk in light that see the great light, but the prophet says: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. And later the prophet says: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. We must remember as we prepare for Christmas that it is precisely to a sinful world with no hope from itself that Jesus our Saviour and our King comes. He comes to no other world than a sinful one, he shines his light on no other world than a dark one, and he brings his joy to no other world than a sad one. And so the angel came at Christmas and said: Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.
And so also in our reading today, we read about the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. So how did this gospel begin? How did the good news begin?
Mark begins by quoting from two of the prophets. The first quote comes from Malachi: Behold I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way. The second quote comes from Isaiah: The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ Mark applies these two passages to John the Baptist, so that we understand very clearly that the messenger that God sends is John, and the voice of one crying in the wilderness is also John. John is like the messenger who comes into the city after the battle on horseback, and says: “We’ve won! We did it!” He prepares the way for the king to come in so that the people will celebrate when he arrives. He’s like the MC at a wedding, who gets everyone to stand up, charge their glasses, and prepares them to welcome to bridal couple.
So John is a messenger, and a voice. It is so important for pastors when they preach to believe that it is not their ministry, or their word that they are to speak, but that it is God’s ministry, the ministry of Jesus, and it is his word that they speak. Jesus says to his disciples when he sent them out: The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me. And so John the Baptist is the voice of one crying the wilderness. John is the simply the voice, but it is not him who crying in the wilderness, but God who cries out in the wilderness using John’s voice.
Both of the prophets, Malachi and Isaiah, say that this messenger, this voice— John—is sent to do one thing: Malachi says that he will prepare your way. Isaiah says: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Do you hear this word “prepare”? Can you imagine if an army had won a battle, and the war was ended, but nobody knew about it in advance? Can you imagine if at the end of World War II if all the Australian troops simply came home and marched through the streets without anyone knowing about it? There would be no ticket parade, no celebration, nothing! They needed a man on the radio—a voice!—who says: “The war has ended!” And so he “prepares the way” for the troops!
And so, John also prepares the way for Jesus, so that when he comes, people are expecting him and they recognise him. And so, let’s read about what John was actually doing to prepare people. We read: John appeared, baptising in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.
Some of you have told me about your travels out to Queensland’s “wild west”, and some of you might have visited the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service out at Longreach. Earlier this year, I visited the Royal Flying Doctor’s museum in Dubbo. And we watched a video there about all these “bushwackers” in the outback, and how they looked after their health. One man had cut a skin cancer off his own arm with a knife! The interviewer said: “Aren’t there germs on that?” And the man replied, “No, not at all! I once saw a couple of germs on my knife, but not anymore!”
Now, in some sense, this is the kind of person that John the Baptist is. He’s like one of those bushwackers from the outback! There is John, dressed in camel’s hair, a belt made out of home-made leather, and what was his food? Locusts and wild honey. When we think of locusts, we normally think of them as a pest. I’ve never been in a locust plague, but in the book of Exodus, we read that locusts were one of the plagues that God sent over Egypt. The crops would have been completely destroyed. A man once visited me in Victoria, a week after he had been driving through a locust plague. You can imagine the front of this car was just full of splatter!
And yet, in the book of Leviticus, God gave certain foods to the Jewish people as clean, and forbade them from eating certain other foods. You might know that Jewish people even today don’t eat pork. When it came to insects, there were also some that God forbade, and some that God allowed. In Leviticus 11, it says: You may eat… the locust of any kind, the bald locust of any kind, the cricket of any kind, and the grasshopper of any kind. But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you. Honey was also made by bugs, by bees! And so you can see how John survived in the desert right at the bottom of the food-chain, wonderfully trusting in God’s own hand to provide for him, relying on locusts for food, and bees for honey.
Now, what’s amazing about John is that God sends him (of all people!)—not a respectable, educated man from the city, but a bushwacker from the outback, the kind that has to cut his own skin cancers off with a knife! And so, we learn a powerful message here: When God sends a man to preach, we should take no notice of the man, but of the Word he preaches. Because it is God’s word that saves us, not the preacher. If the preacher offends us because of something about him we don’t like, then we need to be careful that we’re not cutting off from ourselves God’s word.
And so, what was John doing? First of all, he was baptising. But he wasn’t doing it without explaining it, and he wasn’t doing it in silence. The same goes for us in the church: when we baptise a person, it never happens in silence. But it always happens together with God’s word. So when we actually baptise a person, the pastor says: I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We use God’s word, and the exact words that Jesus told us to use. But also, we teach people about what baptism does and what it means for us, that baptism works the forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. Jesus said: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them, but not only baptising, but also teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And so this is also what John was doing. He was preaching the word of God. It says, he was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And we see that a wonderful series of mass conversions comes about because of this. Now, today people often think that the Holy Spirit can be manipulated and almost fooled into having revivals and mass conversions. And in our country, mass conversions like this rarely happen. In Africa, or in Asia, we might read about many stories of mass conversions. At the time of Luther, we read about how many, many people turned from the superstitious practices of the middle ages and started listening to the bible and heard the Gospel. One thing though that those people had that many people in our country don’t have is a conviction that the bible is God’s word. John the Baptist could have preached anything from the whole Old Testament Scriptures, because it says that he was preaching repentance for forgiveness of sins. The whole bible can be broken down into these two teachings: repentance and forgiveness, law and Gospel. And so it’s so important for us today to confess clearly that, as St Paul says: All Scripture is God-breathed, or inspired by God. That the writers of the bible were moved by the Holy Spirit, that the Word of God is truth, that the Scripture cannot be broken, as Jesus says. Proverbs 30 says: Every word of God proves true. Our congregation’s constitution says: We believe and accept without reservation the holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as a whole and in all their parts, as the divinely inspired, written and inerrant word of God, and as the only infallible source and norm for all matters of faith, doctrine, and life. The reason why it’s so important to hold to this is because when we hear or read something that we don’t agree with, and that shows us our sin, if we don’t believe that this is God’s pure, clear word, then we will always harden our stubborn hearts, and we won’t change our minds and repent when God calls us to, because God’s Word is the only way that he calls us to repentance. There is never a time at any stage of our life when God does not say to us: You need to change, your life is not as it should be, it must be different from what it is now! Until our last breath, we will never be free from sin. And so, this is how John prepares the way for the Lord: he preaches God’s law, and his strict judgment against sin. We don’t prepare ourselves for the Lord through our own works, but the Holy Spirit himself prepares us by convicting us of our sin through his Word. Hebrews 4 says: The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…and no creature is hidden from its sight. And if we don’t believe that the Scripture is God’s perfect word, we will never know our sin, we can never be prepared, and never be ready for Jesus. Who needs a Saviour, when we don’t know what we are being saved from?
But also, when we’re crushed and burdened by the conviction of our sin, even more in those times we need to trust that the bible is God’s word, because the Word of God is the only means by which God applies to us his forgiveness. There is not one single sin that Jesus has not atoned for and died for and sacrificed himself for you for. Jesus is our Lord and our God, our perfect and faithful and trustworthy Saviour.
And so we read how the people went to John the Baptist confessing their sins. It is a daily task of us Christians to confess our sins to Jesus, just as he teaches us to pray: Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
But also, John’s baptism is not just to call people to repentance, but it is for the forgiveness of sins. This is the same as our baptism. And why can John say that it is for forgiveness? Because he points to Jesus, and he says: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John himself does not give forgiveness, but he points to Jesus who gives forgiveness. He says: After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.
And so, the same goes for us. Pastors baptise people with water, but because of God’s powerful and inspired word, we trust that Jesus is also here baptising people not just with water, but also with the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, Peter said: Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for what?... for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive what?... you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Here we can see that the baptism which is performed with water and the word by human hands in the church is the means by which Jesus the Lord of heaven and earth sends us his Holy Spirit. And so, what a wonderful privilege and a gift it is to continually hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in the word of God, through the preaching of repentance and forgiveness, through law and Gospel, to strengthen and ground us in faith until our dying breath.
Jesus is mightier than John, because John is nothing but a voice. John is the messenger, but Jesus is the king who has won the battle and the victory belongs to him! And so Jesus, our Lord and our God, comes into our city and shares with us the spoils of war: he has won the forgiveness of sins, he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and he is the one who sends and baptises [you] with the Holy Spirit. And that is good news, that is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the best news that could ever be spoken. Amen.
Dear Jesus, we thank you for the wonderful gift of your Word, the knowledge of our sin, your word of forgiveness, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.