LUKE 3:1-20

30 June 2013


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The Norfolk, Nebraska treasure, Johnny Carson, had a side-kick who opened the The Tonight Show with a phrase that never varied.  Night after night, Ed McMahon introduced Carson with the words, "Here's Johnny!"  Then Carson would come on stage to entertain his studio and television audience.   As the herald of the show, Ed McMahon played an important role in getting Johnny on stage.  He pumped up the crowd with enthusiasm, anticipation and gusto. 

            In a sense, Jesus had his own Ed McMahon.  While Jesus was in the wings there was a man out front preparing the people for his entrance.  His name was John.  They were cousins and John, like Ed McMahon, spoke with enthusiasm and gusto.  And his remark, recorded in John's Gospel (1:29), "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world," was his way of saying, "Here's Jesus!"

            John was born into a family which had prayed for years for a child.  That finally happened when both his parents were well advanced in age.  In fact, prior to an angelic visit to his father, Zechariah, John's parents had given up hope that they would ever have a child.  But his mother Elizabeth, did give birth to a child and they named him John as the angel had instructed them to do.  

            John developed into a rugged man who loved the outdoors.   He dressed strangely, mimicking the dress of the prophet Elijah complete with a camel hair coat and a leather girdle around his waist.  His speech was direct, filled with the wisdom of the soil.  He was on the side of the poor and oppressed, the distressed and the needy.  He could be compared to a Robin Hood of the times between the Old and New Testaments.

            John became one of the great preachers of all time.  His messages rang with authority and were like clear bugle calls on crisp mornings.  Jesus paid him one of the greatest complements of all time.  The gospel writer Matthew recorded it (11:11).  Jesus of him, "Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist."

            If we had had the opportunity to hear John speak in person, certain things would have stood out to us.  First, we would have been struck by his pointed preaching.  He had a laser-like focus.  His words zeroed in on specific targets.  His messages were not shot out at random for anyone who might be standing by; rather they were aimed carefully at specific listeners.  Let me show you what I mean.  Note verse seven.


            John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Do not begin to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor"; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire."



            If we had heard John in person, we would have never accused him of sugar coating his message and he custom-tailored his sermons to fit the customer. 

            He began with the Hebrews.  The Hebrews of that day were proud of being sons and daughters of Abraham.  Maybe you recall Lee Greenwood's country song God Bless the USA and the lyric "I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free."  Well, they would have sung, "Im proud to be a child of Abraham where at least I know I'm blessed," and rightfully so.  They shared a rich and wonderful heritage, but they were bloated with this pride and they excluded all others from God's favor.  John the Baptist could not tolerate this narrow view and he blasted their bomb shelter of security.  Looking for an apt illustration John sees the abundance of loose stones that lay everywhere in the Jordan wilderness, and he says, "I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham."

            I am reminded of the old Scottish woman who referred to a young man as obviously fitted for the ministry because he was a "right harmless laddie."  John would never had been described as such.  His preaching was far from nice, cozy and harmless.  The Bible talks about the word of God as being a two-edged sword, piercing and laying bare even the secrets and intentions of the soul.  The word of God in John's hands cut deepest of all. 

            Maybe in this age of political correctness and tolerance his style would not play as well.  He certainly would have been more Southern Baptist than Presbyterian, but maybe his style is needed more than ever, at least occasionally.  Not too long ago, a noted church leader said to a group of preachers, "People are not listening to us because we are often preaching sociological drivel instead of Christ crucified."  He said,  "A  cross-less Christ is the emasculated, weak defense of an economic and social gospel, a Christ that never speaks of repentance."  John certainly spoke of it.  He spoke of it quite pointedly, and that leads us to the second thing that would have struck us about John's preaching. 

            Second, we would have been struck by his productive, results oriented preaching.  He didn't want people merely to feel bad.  He wanted them to change their behavior.  He said to them, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance."  He wanted people to turn around, to make an about-face.  Read what he expected of the people who came to hear him preach.  Verse ten.


            And the crowds asked him, "What then shall we do?"  In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what shall we do?"  He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you."  Soldiers asked him, "And we, what shall we do?"  He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."


            He motivated people to change their behavior and John was very specific concerning the results he wanted to see.   

            There was a woodsman who was noted for his uncanny accuracy in shooting his old rifle.  In the woods around his hut there were many trees that had a ring carved in the bark and then right in the center was a bullet hole.  One day the old man was asked how he could always hit dead center.  He said, "Ah, there is nothing to it.  I just shoot at the tree and then go up and carve a circle around it."  The bullseye for John was repentance and when people asked what it would look like, he drew a circle around it and said, "For you it will look like this." 

            Plato's famous symposium included the testimony of a scholar who said:  "When I listen to Pericles or any other orator of the day, I say to myself, 'He is a good speaker,' and that is all; but when I listen to Socrates, my soul is stirred, my eyes fill with tears, and I blush for the trivialities on which I spend my days."

            John's preaching stirred the soul, filled people's eyes with tears, and most importantly moved them to abandon the trivialities of their existence.  They were moved to change their behavior.  His preaching produced results.   

            Then, thirdly, if we had heard John in person we would have been struck by  his ability to mix the law with the gospel.  If we practiced selective hearing, and I'm sure we never do that here, but if we practiced selective hearing and only focused on parts of John's preaching, we might liken John to a crow calling out condemnation from a perch in a tall dead tree.  But that's only the half of it.  John had mastered the blending of law and gospel.  I draw your attention to verse fifteen.


            As the people filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful that I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."


            After John called for repentance he ushered in the Good News of Jesus who will give them the Spirit of God and purify them from their sins. 

            Dr. Fredrik Norstad of Lutheran General Hospital in Chicago was presenting a lecture on a cruise.  Toward the end of the talk he told about the death of his daughter as cancer stalked her and she finally succumbed.  It was told with the love that only a father could feel for his only girl.  More than words were uttered from his lips.  Then he began to sing, the song his daughter had requested he sing before she slipped into eternity.  It was part of the Christmas cradle song, Away in the Manger:


            Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay

            Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.

            Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,

            And fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.


            He told the people on that cruise ship the story of his daughter's death; but it was also a Jesus' story, a story of heaven and what a difference Jesus makes. 

            The late Halford Luccock, the former professor of preaching at Yale Divinity School, was confronted by a student after a lecture with the statement that all this religion stuff is nothing but moonshine.  Dr. Luccock thanked him for that word.  Then he asked the young man if he had ever been to Panama.  The student said, "No, but what has that to do with moonshine?"  Luccock replied, "There is a lot of moonshine there."  The discussion led to the fact that there are some twenty-two-foot tides that come in from the ocean in Panama.  It is an unbelievable lift of millions of tons of water.  What is doing it?  Simply moonshine - the pull of another world, an unseen but resistless force.  Then the good professor told the young man that religion, faith in Christ, is like that.  It is unseen but very real and like moonshine gives lift to life.

            John the Baptist gave us a sample of preaching at its very best this morning.  It was pointed, productive, and preparatory.  He set the stage for the main act, and he did it well.  "Here's Jesus!"  Amen.

[1] Borrowed from a message by James Bjorge.