Posts tagged ‘John the Baptist’

February 5, 2015

Earth’s shadow


At the moment I am reading Timothy Keller’s “Prayer, Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God” and I am finding it a great read. A quote quite early on in the book from Flannery O’Connor, beautifully describes the sense of the struggle and frustration that so many of us have with putting God first above all:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon … what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. I do not know You God because I am in the way.

The implication is that a major aspect of learning to pray (and therefore growing  in our relationship with God) is to not to let ourselves, or rather our ego get in the way. As John the Baptist said of the Lord Jesus:

“… He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Of course this is easier said than done!

December 5, 2010

JtheB and the road to the Lord

Clonakilty in the snow

Thank you so much to the person (who wishes to remain anonymous) who posted me a Facebook message answering my call for help.  The message picked me up and got me writing again – thank you!

Today’s Sermon (Text: Matthew 3:1-12) Advent 2, Year A

In his poem “St. John the Baptist’s Day”, John Keble writes:

Where is the lore the Baptist taught,
The soul unswerving and the fearless tongue?
The much-enduring wisdom, sought
By lonely prayer the haunted rocks among?
Who counts it gain
His light should wane,
So the whole world to Jesus throng?(1)

The Lord Jesus said of John:
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist… (Matthew 11:11a)

John the Baptist was an amazing character. He lived in the desert wilderness, and Matthew tells us that he had raggedy old clothes made from camel’s hair, held up by an old leather belt. For his food / Bush Tucker Trial, he had a strict diet of locusts and wild honey. The honey sounds nice, but I’m not so sure about the locusts! He doesn’t really sound like the type of character one would normally listen to, does he? But what an awesome character John was, so holy and so humble, never seeking any credit for himself and always directing attention away from himself and onto Christ.

When I was at theological college, a Rector who I did a parish placement with discussed John the Baptist with me as I was preparing to write a sermon for that Sunday. He told me about a sermon he did on John the Baptist when he was a Curate at a well-to-do parish in Dublin. Unbeknown to the very proper elderly ladies sitting a couple of pews back from the front, a friend of his had been hiding behind the Communion Table from before the start of the service. This friend was dressed as near as possible to what John the Baptist would have looked like; he was all messy and dressed in old rags, looking like he had wandered in from the nearest desert. Right in the middle of the sermon at the pre-selected point of time, he jumped out and shouted at the top of his voice “Repent, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”. I’m told that the old ladies had such a shock that the preacher feared for their health. It took much apologising from both rector and curate to smooth things over afterwards!

You’ll be pleased to know that there are no hidden John the Baptists here this morning, behind the Communion Table or anywhere else!

Matthew tells us that John the Baptist came preaching in the desert. Here was a man who had given his life to God, and now God had a very important job for him to do. Firstly, he had to awaken the people to see their need to be converted and secondly he was going to introduce them to the Messiah, who would make it possible for the people to be converted.

If any of you have ever been to see a famous band or act such as U2, Lady Gaga or the Munster Ramblers :-/ perform, they will usually have what is known as a “support band”. This is a kind of “warm-up” act, to get everyone in the mood for the main performance. Usually however, people tend to ignore the support band and not bother coming out of the bar until the main performance starts. John is a bit like the warm-up act, though his job is infinitely more important. Perhaps a better example is whenever a head of state, such as a King or Queen does something important, they may be announced with a fanfare of trumpets, the red carpet will be rolled out, and people will have spent time beforehand making sure that everything is ready for the important person to arrive. This is exactly what John the Baptist is doing for the immanent arrival of the Lord Jesus and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John is blowing Jesus’ trumpet and he’s laying out the red carpet to prepare the way for the coming Messiah.

So John went into the countryside all around the River Jordan and he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The word Repent in Greek is μετάνοία (metanoia), It means ‘to change one’s mind for the better, knowing that you have offended someone (in this case God) and to look with abhorrence on your past sins’ (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon). Of course, repentance then is not just once off, it must be the way of life for the Christian. Every day in prayer and through reading God’s word we allow Him to work in us to align us to His will, to His plan and purpose for our lives and to repent of our old way of living.

Baptism was nothing new. The Jewish people had for a long time performed a ceremonial washing of Gentiles who had converted to Judaism. The idea being that Gentiles were unclean and they needed to be washed before they could become one of God’s people. But here John is having the cheek to tell the Jewish people themselves that they needed to be washed, they too were unclean! But he’s saying to them, “Yes, you are unclean, but you can be forgiven, your sins can be washed away.” His audience would have been well aware of some wonderful verses in the Hebrew Scriptures that tell us about God’s forgiveness, for example:

As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)

You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
(Micah 7:19)

A family member told me about a dream they had once, where they were looking out to sea. The tide was out and in the mud there was lots of junk, you know the sort of thing, old shopping trolleys, washing machines and so on. The person understood these to represent all the junk in their life, in other words, all the sin. But then the tide turned, the sea came in and completely covered over all the junk. This represented what God does with our sins when we say “sorry” to Him. Even more than that, because in the dream the junk was still there under the surface – but God does much more than that, He removes our sin completely.

In other words, when God forgives, He sends our sins away to a place from which they can never be brought back. When we forgive someone, we might occasionally remind them of the bad thing that they did to us, thereby showing that we haven’t totally forgiven them at all. But God doesn’t do that. He doesn’t remind us of our sins, He completely wipes them out, so that they are no more, literally, as far as the east is from the west, or as if they had been cast into the depths of the sea.

Quoting from Isaiah, John says that there will be:

A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight …’ The voice in the desert is of course John himself, but what does he mean when he says about making straight paths for the Lord? Perhaps that his audience should provide the Lord with ready access to their hearts and lives. May we let God’s access to us not be a windy narrow West Cork Boreen full of pot holes, but a highway where we openly welcome Him into our hearts and lives.

Later on, the Lord Jesus was to declare that John was in fact the most important of all the prophets. But even he is only a forerunner, he is only the one to announce the arrival of the coming King, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Lamb of God and Saviour of the world.

John welcomed the King himself, and many people who heard John’s message also welcomed Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Let’s ask ourselves, how straight the paths are between us and God; are there obstacles in the way? Let’s be encouraged by John’s message. Let us allow ourselves to be converted, to repent, to walk in the direction of God’s will for our lives. If we’ve done this already, let’s keep going, and let us allow God by His grace to remove every obstacle in our lives that prevents us from having an increasingly full relationship with Him. Let us pray:

Lord God, you know our lives so completely, you know my life. You know the obstacles, all the pit falls, all that hinders my relationship with you. Lord there are things I try to hide, things that I am ashamed of, things I avoid; words I should say and words I shouldn’t, things I should do and things I shouldn’t … I give this all to you now and I say ‘sorry’ with all my heart. Help me Lord, help me every day to follow you, every day and every moment of my life now and into eternity. For the glory of Your Name. Amen.


December 14, 2008

Reflecting the LIght

Olympus C310, 1/10 sec, f3.9, ISO 50, 10.9 mm, (Click to enlarge)

John 1:6-8, 19-28

John the Baptist was quite a character. If you were walking along the street today minding your own business and a man dressed in a coat made out of camel’s hair, eating wild honey and locusts came towards you, you couldn’t be blamed for wanting to cross over to the other side and out of the way of this tramp / hippie!

How deceptive appearances can sometimes be. John the Baptist was unique and perhaps a little out of the ordinary in what he looked like and what he ate. But what really mattered was what he said and what he did. He had a very important message given to him by God; in fact verse 6 tells us that John was sent by God as a witness to testify concerning the light.

The light is of course referring to the Lord Jesus, the Light of the World and it was John’s duty to tell everyone that Jesus was here, the King had come. I don’t know about you, but when I see the word “testify”, it conjures up an image of a courtroom, with someone standing in the dock giving evidence, (or maybe that’s just because I’ve read too many John Grisham books!) But that is sort of what John is doing, he is standing up, not in a courtroom, but in the Judean wilderness and he is testifying, he is proclaiming the truth of Jesus’ arrival as the promised Saviour.

“[In December 1952] a toxic mix of dense fog and sooty black coal smoke killed thousands of Londoners in four days. It remains the deadliest environmental episode in recorded history.”

Here is what happened:
As the smoke coming out of London’s chimneys mixed with natural fog, the air turned colder. Londoners heaped more coal on their fires, making more smoke. Soon it was so dark some said they couldn’t see their feet. By Sunday, December 7, visibility fell to one foot. Roads were littered with abandoned cars. Midday concerts were cancelled due to total darkness. Archivists at the British Museum found smog lurking in the book stacks. Cattle in the city’s Smithfield market were killed and thrown away before they could be slaughtered and sold—their lungs were black.
Funeral director Stan Cribb remembers the moment he saw the first gray wisps: “You had this swirling, like somebody had set a load of car tires on fire.”
London’s killer fog is a metaphor of the spiritual world into which Jesus came: a malevolent, sinister, deadly darkness covered the world when the Word “made his dwelling among us.” (1)

Despite what he looked like, and despite where he was, John had really good news. It was the most important news the world had ever heard; the Saviour, the Deliverer of God’s people was coming …

Notice how John was very quick to make sure that he wasn’t the one being noticed. As far as he was concerned, he was just the messenger and he wanted people not to take any notice of him, but rather the message that he was giving and who the message was about, the Lord Jesus. As we read in verse 8:

He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The light is Christ and John is only (I say only but it’s a very important task) the reflector of the light. As one writer puts it, “John testifies concerning the Christ like the moon testifies concerning the sun.” You know how the Moon has no light of its own to give, but we see it lit up in the night sky because it is reflecting the light of the Sun? (2) Well that is a picture of the relationship between John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus.

So then the first part of our reading shows the purpose of John the Baptist’s ministry, to focus everyone’s attention on Jesus, the Light of the world. In the next section we see John actually in the wilderness, Baptising people in the river Jordan (v.28). The religious authorities had got to hear about John, so they send a posse of priests and Levites to check him out. Some rumours had probably filtered their way back to Jerusalem that this John character was a bit out of the ordinary, some people thought that he might even be the Messiah – John would have been horrified at such a suggestion and that is the first thing that the religious men ask him. He replies very clearly “I am not the Christ” (v.20). So next they ask him, “Are you Elijah?” This is a bit strange don’t you think? But these guys knew their Scriptures, and they knew that the prophet Malachi, in chapter 4 of the book that bears his name said that Elijah (who was one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets) would come to herald the arrival of the Lord (v.5). Of course John wasn’t Elijah, but he was a great prophet like Elijah, and he was indeed proclaiming the arrival of the Lord. But he was playing a bit of a game with this inquisitive bunch of religious men so he leads them to question him further by saying “No”. So next they ask him, “Are you the prophet”. By this they meant THE prophet (in capital letters), in other words, the Messiah. Of course, John said no to this question also.

You can see that the priests and Levites are getting exasperated, so then they just say “Who are you? Give us an answer that we can take back to those who sent us”.

So then quoting from Isaiah, he says:

“I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (v.23)

So then, they understand that John is saying that he is in fact the forerunner of the Christ, he has come to prepare the way for His coming. But he is saying more too, he is also implying strongly to the visitors that the religious authorities which they represent must make the road straight so that the Lord can come into their hearts and lives and those of the people. No longer must they place obstacles of a thousand-and-one rules and regulations for holiness for people to follow. It was not about what people do, it was rather about being forgiven, something that can only be achieved through faith and by God’s grace (3).

The image that John conjures up is one of a King returning to part of his realm. They must make the way clear for Him to return and they must remove all the obstacles that would hinder people coming to Him in repentance and faith.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of being invited to the official opening of an extension to a school not too far from here, at which the President would be performing the ceremony. As you would expect, there was a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air as we awaited her arrival. There was a long wide red carpet laid out for her, with lovely flower arrangements lining the pathway into the school. There were many Gardai and important looking people milling around, awaiting the arrival of the Presidential car and entourage. Now I am always one to arrive early whenever I can, and this occasion was no exception. I was feeling quite pleased with myself at being able to get a car parking space right next to the entrance gate, and thought nothing more of it, since I was one of the first to arrive. There I was sitting on the front row in the school hall, with several hundred people present and then it happened. You know how when you are in a public place, whether it be the theatre, a bus station or the airport and an announcement comes over the loud speaker “would the owner of car registration number …” and you think to yourself what eejit left their car there! Well this was about to happen to me. A rather flustered and hurried lady got up onto the stage and said, “would the owner of a dark red Honda Civic, with the registration number 97 C blah blah blah please move their car, as it is blocking the Presidents entry into the school.” Needless to say I went an even darker red than the car and rather sheepishly made my way through a dozen rows of tutting, head-shaking guests to remove the offending obstacle …

Now making way for the President is one thing, but what about making way for the Lord Jesus? John was preparing the way for the Lord by baptising, which is washing the people in the river. At that time, baptising was only performed by priests as an initiation rite for gentiles, (that is non-Jews), who were converting to Judaism. But here John was saying that the Jews, God’s people themselves were not clean, and they needed to be washed of their sins. Naturally the religious men took him up on this, to which John replied:

“I baptise with water … but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (v.26-27)

So John, by washing the people in the water of the river Jordan was saying that what he did was only a sign. It was Jesus who would do the real cleansing work on people’s hearts. And so it is with Baptism today, it is only an outward sign of an inward action of God upon the hearts of all who put their faith and trust in Him.

And what about us? What if any obstacles are there in our lives hindering our relationship with God? Let us ask Him to remove them. Let us ask Him to level the mountains of our pride and lift up the valleys of our doubts and fears and let us in true and humble repentance and faith come to Him who left the glory of Heaven and gave His life for us …

(1), National Public Radio, “All Things Considered,” (12-10-02)
(2) William Hendriksen, John, p.77, Banner of Truth
(3) Ephesians 2:8