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Dear Christian friends,
Many years ago I had two friends who were going to get married. The parents of the bride were going to meet the groom for the first time. The future in-laws were going to stay a few days in the area. The father of the bride liked to golf. The groom didn’t golf. The couple asked me if I would golf with the father to keep him entertained for a day. I was going to the Seminary at the time. When I got to the golf course, the father-in-law of my friend thought that I would be more interested in talking about the existential philosophies of Soren Kirkegaard than to talk about the advantages of using a three wood rather than a driver. Was he ever wrong! When I am bowling, golfing, making chili or preparing my world famous brats, trash talk comes a lot easier than philosophical chit chat.
Existentialism is religion based on your experience. It is very subjective, not objective. My religion is simple. Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. Frankly, when he started to talk about existentialism on the first tee I knew that this would be the longest round of golf in the history of Larry Zahn. “Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so” doesn’t satisfy the existentialist. We want the Scripture to guide us, not experience.
Today we turn to one of the most interesting of Biblical characters – John the Baptist. This is John the Baptist Sunday. Let’s listen as “John Points People to Christ.” 1) He points to Jesus as the center of all history. 2) He points to Jesus as the source of all comfort.
I believe it to be absolutely true that sometimes media takes polls so they can create a news story. So when they get the results of the polls the media has a story even though the people polled might never have thought about the question that was asked. I looked up a poll taken that asked the question, “What is the most important event in the history of the world.” I am convinced that fifty years ago there would have been no doubt what would have been in first place - the birth/life of Jesus. Not so anymore! Jesus gets stiff competition! He is not even close to first place. These days, events like the American Revolution or 9/11 are deemed more important. In one listing the Reformation was more significant than the life of Jesus. I thought how ridiculous! There would never have been a Reformation without Jesus first.
One day every person will know that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is the most important event in history. It is so unfortunate that some will find out the hard way. He, and only he, can change the eternal destiny of anyone.
When the apostle Paul wrote, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons,” that passage is packed with information that is worth many sermons. Yet the phrase that is so mind-boggling is, “But when the time had fully come.” I am not sure that anyone really understands all there is to know except God himself. But God knew what time was best; God knew when it needed to get done to send the Savior of the world.
Luke is very specific about the time. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.” There are far too many people who think that the Bible is a big fairy tale and talk about the myth of Jesus. It is also evident that a whole lot of people haven’t really taken time to study the detail of history found in it. When it comes to Jesus’ life, there are no “once upon a times’ or any “Long, long ago in a land far away.” Jesus was about to begin his ministry and John the Baptist was preparing the world for Jesus. When? “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar!” Tiberius Caesar was the successor of Caesar Augustus who died in 14 AD. In the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign puts the time about 29 AD. Additionally the infamous Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea. He served from 25-36 AD. Other parts of the nation of Israel were controlled by members of the family of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee. The word ‘tetrarch’ went back to the time when Alexander the Great had conquered the world. He left his kingdom to four of his generals. Tetrarch was a ruler of a ¼. By this time a tetrarch was simply a ruler. Herod Antipas had a brother Philip. He was “tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis.” That was the land north and east of the Sea of Galilee. There was also “Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene. Abilene was in Syria.
The names keep coming to identify what was going on in the world of John the Baptist and Jesus. Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. Annas was the father-in-law of Caiphas and preceded him from 6 AD to 15 AD. Caiaphas was priest from 18-36 AD. Nevertheless Annas seemed to be the real power behind the throne. Again, real people at real times!
All this might be making you bored. Perhaps some of you never liked history and this is causing you to yawn. Just remember that all these people are real. They have a place in the history books. This Jesus stuff and this John stuff is connected historically. This is not myth or fiction. This is the fullness of time. This is the centerpiece of history. While there are plenty of kings and queens, monarchs and despots who fill a place in history, they are nothing compared to Jesus. Society has become cynical of leaders these days. They are more inclined to do things to you than for you. Jesus and his forerunner John the Baptist whom God sent do things for us - good things. John pointed to Jesus as the source of all comfort.
John has an important place in history – God’s history! He is a patriarch in every sense of the word just like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David. He had a very special job to do. John’s father, Zachariah, had known about and made it known after John was born. John was to prepare the world for Jesus. Zachariah proclaimed, “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” He was 1) to prepare the people for Jesus; 2) he was to give them the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sin.
That’s what he did. Luke says, “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” To prepare people for Jesus, the one coming after him, he did two things 1) He preached repentance; 2) he baptized for the forgiveness of sins.
The word ‘repent’ has two shades of meaning. One is to be sorry for sins or to be contrite. The second goes farther. It is to be sorry for sins committed but also to know and believe that sins have been forgiven. .
In our reading from Luke, Luke makes it quite clear that John was not unexpected. He quotes from the book of Isaiah who lived 700 years before John and Jesus and says that he was “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’” When John was preached repentance he did so with this objective in mind – to give Jesus a straight path to our hearts. For that to take place the obstacles needed to be taken away.
What are the obstacles? The mountains and the valleys – the mountains of pride and the valleys of despair! Anybody here climb a mountain somewhere along the line? I have. You know what? You don’t climb a mountain to look up. You don’t get on top of the mountain and cock your heady upward and say that the view of the sky is much nicer up here. You go to the top of the mountain to look down. That might be good to do if you are in theRockiesto see some pretty nice scenery, but that’s not what Isaiah was saying here. You don’t spend life looking down on others. When you are looking down on others, you aren’t looking up to the Lord. Pride is sin. Pride is wrong. Pride must be repented of. That was what John was called to do – level the mountains of pride. Proud people need to be leveled so they, or better said, we can look up to the cross ofCalvary. John’s message is so needed today, by all, by you and me.
There is another problem that keeps people from Jesus. Isaiah uses this phrase: “Every valley shall be filled in.” We just heard about a tragedy that was all over the papers and on TV last weekend. Jovan Belcher, the linebacker for a NFL team did a horrible thing. He killed his child’s mother. He then killed himself. He did something awful. In fact, the more you read about it, he did a lot of things that were awful. But in the end he also did something awful when he despaired so much that he thought his life was no longer worth living and took matters into his own hand. Certainly Mr. Belcher would have had to suffer the consequences of what he did, but he died a despairing and hopeless man. By his act of taking his own life it seems that he was also saying that God couldn’t forgive him. That’s a pit he found himself in. It appears that he thought that God could not help him. Lots of people find themselves there. We are living in times where despair is running rampant. Satan would love us to think that God could never forgive. There is no worse a lie. John was called to fill in the valleys of despair.
He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. When his message moved people to acknowledge their sin he wanted them to know there was indeed forgiveness. Baptism conveys forgiveness. He was called John the Baptist for a reason. Forgiveness of sins is conveyed through baptism. There is a lot of misunderstanding about baptism. Many object and say that we teach there is another way to be forgiven besides through Jesus when we say that in Baptism forgives sin and takes sin away. That’s not true at all. I like how someone said it. “On the cross Jesus won forgives of sins for all people. Yet that forgiveness will do us no good unless it is brought to us individually. Baptism brings it to us individually. Baptism is like a pipeline bringing forgiveness from its source, the cross of Jesus (which lay in the future from John’s perspective) and brings it to us individually. For the people at John’s time, the place was theJordan River. For us, it is a baptismal fount.
Some people say that John’s Baptism is different from our Baptism. The only difference is that the Savior who would bring forgiveness and all he would do still lay in the future. We see him in the mirror as he did this wonderful work of love in the past. So remember your baptism. Remember where the forgiveness of sins came from, taken from the cross and given to you personally as God puts his holy name on us and makes us his own.
So here we are on John the Baptist Sunday. Let’s he’s got a great gift for us – his message of repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of our sins.