A sermon preached at St. John's Anglican Church, Portsmouth, Ontario,
January 9, 2000
Our topic today is John the Baptist. He himself said his ministry was totally different from what the Messiah came to be and do. "I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8). And Jesus said "Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11). John was greater than anyone who had ever lived, but he did not have a kingdom of heaven ministry. That does not mean he was excluded from heaven, but it does mean his work was very different. Let me pick out three differences.
LIFESTYLE - Notice the "I" and the "He" in our text. Jesus enjoyed children, but they would have found John the Baptist very severe. He wore a camel hair shirt, ate the locusts and wild honey he found in the wilderness, and never drank wine. But Jesus' first miracle was at a wedding in Cana of Galilee when he changed 120 gallons of water into the very best vintage wine. I make wine at home, 6 gallons at a time, and I know that 120 gallons is an awesome amount of wine for a party.
We never read of John the Baptist eating in people's homes, but Jesus ate with all sorts of good and very bad people. In those days children had a game of weddings and funerals. When the piper played a cheerful tune they all danced. When he played a dirge they all had to cry and wail. So Jesus said "We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn. For John came neither eating or drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, "Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of mafia tax collectors and sinners!" I am sure Jesus never got drunk, and I doubt if he stuffed himself with food, but his lifestyle was certainly very different from the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets.
So to this day in our churches we have funeral Christians and wedding Christians, John the Baptist Christians and Jesus Christians. For hundreds of years people thought you had to be a monk wearing a hair shirt sleeping on a hard bed to be a really good person. And many of you can remember Sundays when no one was allowed to laugh or play or have fun of any kind. Tony Campolo wrote a book called The Kingdom of God is a Party. Others think being a Christian is a long gloomy Lent of giving up things like John the Baptist. As we will see in a moment, it is not that one style is right and the other wrong, but they are different.
BAPTISM - Both John the Baptist and Jesus enrolled disciples by baptism. But what their baptism was and what they taught had a quite different emphasis. At Queen's Medical School when students have graduated as doctors, some of the them enrol in a course to specialize in radiology. They learn to use X-rays for diagnosis. They can tell patients there is a broken bone, or a TB patch on their lung, or evidence of cancer but they do not have what it takes to heal them. Other medical students specialize in internal medicine or family medicine. When the patient is worried sick by the diagnosis, the doctor can say "It's OK, we can take care of that."
Similarly we could contrast diagnosis Christians from healing Christians. John the Baptist enrolled people to learn how to get ready for the Messiah, and the first lesson was to know what was wrong. Jesus said "Don't worry, I can take care of that" and he undertook to heal them. Some Christians are riddled with guilt, and feel they are terrible sinners. Others are confident to say "I am in the hands of Jesus the doctor for sin, and he has promised to heal me. Praise the Lord." When he was asked why he spent so much time with sinful people, Jesus said "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Mark 2:17).
In all congregations you will find Christians who feel called, like John the Baptist, to tell us what is wrong with the church, and their diagnosis is often right. Others major on "This is what God is doing" and they are very excited about Jesus the Messiah in his healing and loving ministry. Some of us look at others and we notice their faults and how much needs to change. One can also look the way Jesus saw people and picture them healed and full of love and joy and peace.
ENERGY - Thirdly we have two very different kinds of energy. "I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8). A John the Baptist message is "You had better smarten up, try a bit harder, and get ready for the Messiah." And some Christians feel their life is meant to be full of "you ought to do this" and "you ought to be doing that." Others hear Jesus saying "The Holy Spirit will empower you to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, even to love enemies." Jesus says "I know you are a miserable person, but by the Spirit you will be filled with joy and enthusiasm. I know you are a worry-pot, but I have spiritual resources for you to find peace."
There was a roadside pulpit sign outside a church building : "Don't let worry kill you. Let the church help." And some churches load us like the Pharisees with unbearable worries. I am sure you would all want people coming into this congregation to discover the spiritual resources that Jesus has promised. If you are finding your Christian life overloaded and heavy going, I am going to encourage you to relax and move from what you think you have to do to what the Holy Spirit is longing to do. You don't need guilt and nagging anxiety.
People have the idea that repentance means telling God how bad you are. I don't think loving parents would want that for their kids. The word repentance means turning from one direction of looking to another. People turned to John the Baptist to show them what needed changing. People repented by turning to Jesus the Messiah to empower them for joyful eternal life.
As I have said, there are John the Baptist Christians and Jesus Christians
in our church. But please don't imagine these are contradictory and need
to oppose one another. For twenty years I have bought cars from Danny McLeod
at Taylor Chevrolet. It used to be located on Bagot Street just east of
Queen. When it moved to Highway 2 wreckers came in and took down the old
building. Last year they dug out the foundations, and then builders put
up the handsome new Staples Business Supply Depot. Similarly John the Baptist
came to prepare the ground, but it is Jesus who is building the new temple
of the Holy Spirit. Their ministries are not contradictory, just very different.
But without the work of the Holy Spirit we are like a torn down building
and an ugly big hole waiting for what the Messiah has in mind for us.