If I stepped into this pulpit this morning and started pacing back and forth, calling you all a bunch of hypocrites and said you were all a bunch of snakes and that hell awaited you unless you repent, would I still be your pastor next Sunday? There is a reason I am asking you this question. Plato once said that when you begin a speech, you should flatter those you are speaking to. Let your listeners know that you are on their side. You have probably heard many speakers use that technique. John the Baptist did not study preaching under Plato. Today we are going to talk about John the Baptist, who we will think of this morning, in a nice way, as “Weird John.”
The Evangelist Mark wrote his Gospel as if he, his Subject (Jesus) and his readers were all in a hurry. The book is the shortest of all the Gospels. Mark’s favorite word has been translated as: “immediately,” “straightaway,” “quickly,” “just then,” or “at once.” In our text, He credits the prophet Isaiah, but he actually combines some words from Exodus, Malachi and Isaiah. Those words set the stage for “a voice of one calling in the desert” and Mark immediately introduces the locust eating, camel’s hair and leather belt wearing owner of that voice. Weird John.
Mark boils John the Baptist’s years of preaching down to their very essence: “After me will come One more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Then Jesus comes and is baptized, and by verse 14 of the first chapter, John has already been arrested by Herod and is out of the picture. The next time he is mentioned, it is to tell us he is dead.
Short and sweet, and yet, like all the Gospel writers, Mark will not let us hear Jesus until we first hear John. The “Good News” begins with the strange man and his powerful preaching of repentance. We are told that huge crowds went out to hear John. Mark wrote, “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.”
People did not go out to be amused by the sideshow antics of some bug-and-honey-eating freak. John was not popular because he ate a lot of weird stuff like they make people do on “reality” shows like Survivor or The Amazing Race. People went to him because he promised good news and good things. At the same time, his words didn’t sound much like “good” news. Mark didn’t record them, but I’m sure that few of John’s listeners ever forgot the verbal shots he hurled at them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” and “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Matthew and Luke even include John’s burning promise that the One to come will baptize, not only with the Holy Spirit, but also “with fire!” If people out there accuse us of being politically incorrect, what would they think of John the Baptist if God sent him back to start preaching today? William Willimon, a Christian writer, once asked a question that many thinking observers want to ask: “Why would people have (gone) out into the wilderness to hear that?” Willimon answered his own question, saying: “Weird John had a simple message…You can change.”
It is essential that we realize that John did not promise that people could change on their own or that he would change them. He baptized with water. The “Spirit-baptizer” was still coming. The Holy Spirit is the very power of God that enables us to change. He can and will change us…if we allow Him to. The Holy Spirit makes us stronger. The Holy Spirit makes us greater. The Holy Spirit makes us holier. But remember the advice to be careful what you pray for. If we really, truly, want God to change us, get ready for a shock!
Most of us don’t really want to change. We find John’s message disturbing, rather than “good” news. We think deep in here that we do not need to change, everyone around us needs to change; we’re good! We blame others for what is wrong and we even blame everybody else for our lack of faithfulness and our meanness. Repentance demands change and change demands repentance. Ultimately, and this may be the toughest part, we must humble ourselves and seek freedom from, and forgiveness for, the past.
There is no better time for this than our annual preparation for Christmas. Weird John comes barging into our lessons every year at this time and, if we will let him, he will barge into our lives and promise that when God’s Messiah comes, stands at the door and knocks, calls our names and is born among us, we can change!
The most amazing thing at this time of year is, as always, the most amazing thing we can ever hear about: God’s amazing grace. The Word of God was fleshed-out as a little baby, born in a barn and nestled into a feeding box for animals so that He could then die on a cross and rise again. Billions of people can’t bring themselves to believe that–it’s too bizarre, too much like a fairytale, too silly. But believing that little piece of amazement is child’s play in comparison to believing why He did it. He did it for the very people who can’t believe it. He did it for you and me, the stumbling and bumbling creatures who are so afraid of letting Him change us into all that He can see, who can change us into all that we can be.
We can change. God can and does make us stronger, greater and holier. Like John the Baptist, Mark’s Gospel also reminds us that this time of year, which always seems to ask us what we want to get, is really a time to work on what we ought to be.