John the Baptist:
Only Half the Story
Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon on December 4, 2016, the Second Sunday in Advent.
Dear Friends in Christ,
John the Baptist is back! Every year on this Second Sunday in Advent, the door is opened for John to make his appearance again. His message seems to be so harsh and judgmental, a real “Scrooge” in our time of Christmas preparation. No figures of John in our churches. Give him one day and move on, seems to be the way we handle John the Baptist in December.
I’m hoping today that we can get beyond the stereotype that we have created and see some grace in the ministry and message of John the Baptist. Let’s see if you and I are up for this challenge.
The gospel writer Matthew presents John as the last of the prophets, preparing folks for the arrival of God’s Messiah. John’s message is one of repentance. He baptized people who confessed their sins, in the River Jordan. John had real contempt for the Pharisees and Sadducees. These were the religious elite of the day and they saw no need to repent or to ask for forgiveness for their sins. They were determined to rely on their heritage, for they were children of Abraham. John calls these people “vipers”. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Have you engaged in Bible Study about the early church’s dilemma regarding John the Baptist?
Even after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, many people held onto the notion that John was the Messiah. In the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, we read about St. Paul’s encounter with a group of folks who had never heard of Baptism into the name of Jesus. They were so proud that they had been baptized by John and Paul had to teach them about Jesus Christ. Until just a few years ago, there was a sect of Christians in the near east who called themselves Christians, but continued to insist that John was the real Christ, the Messiah. Somehow the title “John Christ” doesn’t role off my tongue easily.
We hear in each of the 4 gospels the confession of John: I am not the Messiah. We hear it very clearly today in Matthew: One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
So, what about the message of grace in John the Baptist? I must admit that we hear no grace in his preaching. John doesn’t even mention the idea of forgiveness, if we go with Matthew’s gospel account. If we read carefully the accounts in Mark and Luke, they describe John as proclaiming a baptism of repentance “for the forgiveness of sins”. That’s a real game-changer in terms of understanding God.
I like how David Lose, president of our Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, puts it:
Don’t look to John (the Baptist) in the gospel of Matthew for forgiveness, because you won’t find it. John’s role is to present half the story. His role is all about the law and pointing out what needs to change. Repent! Change your ways! All of us Lutheran pastors are taught to preach this way: first law and then gospel; bad news first and then good news.
Our gospel writer Matthew saves the message of forgiveness and grace and gospel until the very end of the gospel account. It takes place at the Last Supper. Jesus has broken the loaf of bread and says, “Take and eat. This is my body.” Then holding up the cup of wine, he says, “This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
The gospel writers Mark and Luke make no mention of “forgiveness of sins” at the Last Supper, for it has been proclaimed earlier with the message of John the Baptist. Matthew has left out these important words about forgiveness in John’s baptism and makes sure to include these words at the climax of the Supper. Matthew believes that John only has half the story. We have to look to Jesus to complete the story of God’s grace and salvation.
I like poems with a surprise twist ending. This poem is for all of us who feel so confident that we are going to heaven and wonder if some of the folks we know are going to make it to heaven or not:
Surprise in Heaven
I dreamt death came the other night
And Heaven’s gate swung wide.
An angel with a halo bright
Ushered me inside.
And there! To my astonishment
Stood folks I’d judged and labeled
As “quite unfit”, “of little worth,”
And “spiritually disabled”.
Indignant words rose to my lips
But never were set free,
For every face showed stunned surprise –
No one expected me!
Thanks God for the good news of God’s grace.