John the Baptist

What’s Missing


Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


Followers of Jesus sometimes struggle with how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament. The behaviors of the God of the Old seem different than the God of the New, and this perception can cause people to treat the ancient Jewish Bible as a colorful aside to the real story.

The beginning of Mark should help us put aside any notion the two can be separated. First of all, there is a clear connection of ideas, a flow from the promises of the Old Testament into Mark, generally considered to be the earliest gospel written.

Let me make this important assertion about the Old Testament: Grace abounds. Yes, in some of the really ancient stories, God can seem harsh, with entire cities vanishing in sulfurous flames or overrun by holy, spear-chucking armies. We have to remember how far back in time we are going with these stories, and we have to remember God is communicating who he is in the only way ancient people could understand.

What’s remarkable is in the midst of all that primitive communication, grace still abounds. God’s love for his creation and his desire to be in deep relationship with his creation shines through. There is a simple call throughout the Old Testament: “Put aside sin, be holy, and I will be with you.”

In our text today, we hear a quote from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a call to repent and prepare for the full, visible presence of God. If we back up a little in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, we hear the context for this call to repentance:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God,
speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Throughout the Old Testament, God seems to long for the full relationship to begin. You see this desire in the Psalms, and you certainly see it in the writings of the prophets.

When the Gospel of Mark begins, we remain in the theme and mood of the Old Testament. A man clearly dressed and living like an ancient prophet, John the baptizer stood in the wilderness crying the words of the prophets of old.

Just like the ancient prophets, he told the people to straighten out their lives. He was saying, The centuries-old promise is bearing fruit! Something is about to happen—get ready! Someone is coming, and in him you will meet God.

It was an exciting message, so exciting that word spread, and people went into the wilderness to hear more. They were even given a chance to respond. They partook of an activity rare for Jews, water baptism, symbolically putting their sins behind them and pledging to live under God’s law.

Repentance is not the end of it, though, John made clear. Even with their contrite hearts, something was missing. Again, John was very much the Old Testament prophet, repeating messages that had been floating around for centuries.

God had already described just how intimate he wants to be with his creation. Look at the words of another prophet, Ezekiel. He was speaking to suffering people, the people of Israel living in exile because of their sins. A day is coming, though, he told them:

“I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

The encounter with God was to be so deep that it would become a matter of the heart, God working from within. And like the prophets before him, John saw that day coming. In his case, it was coming soon, very soon.

It was to be a baptism much greater than the water-based one they were receiving in the wilderness. Instead of water, God’s Spirit will wash over you, into you, John told the people, and God will fulfill the promise of old.

As people looking back on the events through the lens of the New Testament, we know how this actually happened. Jesus came into the world, and was declared the Christ as the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism.

This baptism of the Spirit began to spill out on the world in Jesus’ ministry. His touch healed and the truth he declared marked the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth. After his death and resurrection, he breathed new life into his followers.

And then, just as he promised, the Holy Spirit descended on his followers at Pentecost and began to spread as word of the Savior spread.

The Spirit is God’s palpable presence, and where God’s presence is acknowledged and accepted, there is great power.

In a story of the early church in Acts 19, there is a fascinating account of the Spirit becoming known and going to work. Paul traveled to Ephesus, and there found a group of people who are described as “disciples,” followers of Jesus Christ. They had experienced what they described as “John’s baptism.” That is, they had repented of their sins with a sense of expectation, but they did not know they could experience the Holy Spirit immediately.

Paul let them know there was so much more available to them in terms of experiencing God’s power. He laid his hands on them, and Acts tells us they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.

They encountered the truth of God’s love and a sense of God’s presence. Think how that changes a life—to know, without doubt or fear, that God is real, that God speaks to you and through you.

I want for all of us what Paul wanted for the Ephesians. I want for all of us to have a deep sense of our connection to God, to know the Holy Spirit is at work. I want for all of us to sense that power, and then to see great works happen, not to our glory, but to the glory of God.

All I know to do is what John did as he baptized and Paul did as he guided the church at Ephesus. I declare to you today, the Spirit is present. I declare it to be true, in your lives and in mine.

Whether the Spirit truly changes us has a lot to do with how we have readied ourselves for this powerful manifestation of God. One of the authors in the recent book “A Firm Foundation,” Georgia Pastor Carolyn Moore compares this process to wood catching fire.

For the wood to be ready, time and patience often are needed. The wood has to be dry, free from the outside influences that hinder combustion. It has to heat up enough to reach the combustion point.

“Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated,” Moore writes. “Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it, and you’ll end up frustrated at best, burned at worst.”

Our spiritual practices are the kindling, drying the wood and heating it so it will burst into flames. Traditionally, Methodists have called these “means of grace”: worship, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, communion, and caring for the “Matthew 25” people of the world.

The Holy Spirit is the match. But the wood cannot be lit until it is ready. What are you doing to prepare yourselves to catch fire?

Through our lives and through this church called Luminary, may the Spirit bring glorious changes in this world God so desperately loves.

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Solidarity

Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”


Just like John the Baptist, we can resist the idea of Jesus undergoing baptism. When we consider his divine perfection—his sinlessness—a baptism of repentance is difficult to comprehend.

We need to see Jesus’ submission to baptism as a gift, however.

Let’s consider all this from the perspective of people who want to belong to a group. If you’ve never wanted to belong to a group, you are an unusual person, a true lone wolf. For most of us, finding some sort of group identity can be critically important to achieving worldly success and happiness.

My mind goes to the high school and young adult years, that decade or so when we make an intense exploration of who we are. As we reject some groups and pursue membership in others, our identities begin to take shape. We continue to repeat these processes our entire lives, but the teen and young-adult years are called “formative” for a reason.

You all know how this works. Once you’ve identified a group you want to enter, you have to figure out who the gatekeepers of the group are, and what they require for admission. You begin working on your application. It’s probably not on paper, but you’re going through an application process, nonetheless.

This process can be very healthy; well-run sports teams or academic clubs with principled leaders are good examples. This process also can be very unhealthy. Think of street gangs, where people who see limited prospects band together for survival, or ethically challenged business efforts, where profits supersede normal rules of behavior and concern for others.

Jesus, of course, is the gatekeeper for Christianity. But as he did so often in ministry, he turned the role upside-down.

Instead of us going to him for admission to the kingdom, he first comes to us. It is as if the coolest kid in school showed up at your door one day and said, “You’re going to run with me and my crew.”

Jesus’ baptism was an act of solidarity with humanity. Undergoing baptism signaled God’s intention to save us from our deserved eternal deaths. It also was in many ways his first step toward the cross.

Jesus also was saying he would handle the admission requirements for us. Only someone holy and pure could pass the test, and we didn’t stand a chance.

It is only because of Jesus’ work that we can undergo baptism ourselves to establish our eternal, unchanging identities as children of God. We ride our older brother’s linen coattails into membership in the kingdom of heaven.

And of course, like any group we desire to join, there are benefits. It is a truly beautiful thing when we gather to worship the one who saves us, remember who we are, and then behave accordingly.

Who Are You?

"John the Baptist," icon in Kiev Museum, public domain.

“John the Baptist,” icon in Kiev Museum, public domain.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

The Jewish leaders sent messengers to ask John the Baptist a straightforward question: “Who are you?”

Having drawn crowds of Jews with his preaching and his call to repentance, he answered their real, unasked question, Are you the Messiah?, by simply assuring them he was not the savior prophecy had predicted. The messengers pressed John the Baptist, however, finally leading him to quote Scripture as his answer.

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the Prophet Isaiah said.”

We largely remember John as looking like a wild man, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. Set aside to serve God from the moment he was conceived, he usually is depicted in art with uncut hair and beard, roaming the desert wasteland most of his life until he drew near civilization to declare the beginning of Jesus Christ’s ministry.

To understand John the Baptist, we have to read his story in all four gospels. In Luke, we learn John the Baptist was a miracle child in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled even before he was born. He leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, capable of recognizing the presence of the Messiah.

We also understand from Luke that Jesus and John the Baptist were related through their mothers, cousins separated in age by only six months. We can only speculate whether they spent much time together. Luke also tells us John the Baptist grew up in the wilderness, meaning he may have lived part or all his life as a hermit prophet, possibly among a sect of Jews known as the Essenes.

When John the Baptist began his adult ministry as recorded in all four gospels, he preached a fiery call that the people should repent of their sins in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. Ultimately, Jesus came to John to be baptized in the Jordan river, that great symbol of God’s promises and new beginnings.

It is here we really see John’s humility, rooted in his clear understanding of his role in the universe. John initially resisted Jesus’ request, saying Jesus should baptize him. At Jesus’ prodding, John finally relented and performed the act. Jesus’ servant ministry was launched in humble solidarity with people craving righteousness and holiness in their lives.

As John’s story proceeds alongside Jesus’ story, the ministry of the messenger fades as the ministry of the Messiah burns more brightly. There is no earthly glory for John, no story of victory in this life. Ultimately, he died an ignominious death, his severed head presented to a dancing girl and her wicked mother.

How different John the Baptist’s story seems from ours. And yet, Christians, how similar our calling is to his.

If we are ultimately to emulate Jesus, striving to have the attitude of John the Baptist is a good start. I don’t mean we have to wear itchy clothing and roam the desert eating bugs, or die a martyr. It helps us all greatly, however, if we can keep God’s great plan before us and find our role in it.

John the Baptist existed for one reason, to declare the coming of the messiah. Again, in this Advent season we’re being reminded that we, too, anticipate Christ’s return. The church and its members exist largely to “make straight the way of the Lord,” to call people to repentance so they are ready to meet their savior.

How we do this requires John-like humility and a little artfulness. Humility helps keep us holy; to quote Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Any good work we do can quickly dissolve when mixed with sin. Just think Bill Cosby if you don’t understand what I mean.

Artfulness in relationships and communication comes with prayer and practice. It also helps to trust that God’s Spirit can shape us and others in ways we thought we never could be shaped.

Who are you? Regardless of how you may appear to others, or whether you meet worldly definitions of success, you are a child of God, saved by Christ from eternal death because of God’s love for you. So are all the people you meet. Let them know.

The Abundant Life

Matthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)

One of Jesus’ great, oft-cited miracles is the feeding of 5,000 men, plus however many women and children were present. There’s an additional miracle going on here we sometimes miss, however. Jesus’ gracious, divine Spirit overcomes what should be a crushing human burden.

Note how the story begins: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” This is a sign to readers that we need to back up a little in Matthew. Something important has just happened, something tragic, something painful.

That event was the senseless death of John the Baptist, a holy man slaughtered in the context of a courtly scene nearly pornographic in its intensity. King Herod, a puppet of the Roman Empire, had taken his brother’s wife for his own. John the Baptist had publicly condemned the marriage, leading to the prophet’s imprisonment.

On the occasion of Herod’s birthday, the wife’s daughter danced in a way pleasing to Herod, so pleasing that he promised to give her anything she wanted. After consulting with her mother, the daughter asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Cornered by his own offer, Herod reluctantly ordered the executioners to do their work, and the gruesome reward quickly arrived.

The nastiness of the world stains this scene mightily, even if some of the ugliness must be inferred. In addition to the callous murder of a prophet, there is layer upon layer of incestuous behavior, both in Herod taking his brother’s wife and Herod’s lust for her daughter, presumably his niece. There also is the wife, who apparently was quite happy trading up to a marriage that would put her in Herod’s court—she is, after all, the one who initiated the beheading, clearly unhappy with John the Baptist’s public critique.

An Intrusion?

Sin came crashing down, killing Jesus’ cousin, the one who had recognized the presence of the Christ while still in the womb, the one ordained by God to declare the messiah’s arrival. Jesus needed time to grieve. He also had to come to terms with another sign his own suffering and death were not far off.

Naturally, Jesus wanted some privacy. The human part of him needed to pray and grieve, perhaps even to cry. But when he arrived at the shore of the deserted place where he headed by boat, it was no longer deserted. The people had run on foot from the towns to be in his presence, in particular, to bring their sick.

How would we react to our much-needed respite being interrupted? Except for a few true saints among us, not the way Jesus reacted. At our best, maybe we would be polite; maybe we would send a spokesman to ask the people to go away, with a promise to appear at such-and-such town on a specific day and time.

It’s a normal reaction when we’re under the stress loss and anxiety can bring. We physically hurt, pain knotting in our heads, our chests or our stomachs. We tend to overreact to what others say or do, and that can make us fearful of being with people. We feel like we cannot be much good to anyone else.

But Jesus looked around—I imagine him taking a very deep breath—and, filled with compassion, began to heal, a process that at times seemed to drain him. Ultimately, he began to feed all those people, despite what seemed like a dire shortage of food.

In feeding these people, Jesus was sending one of those messages designed to turn the world upside down. Sin cannot win. Brokenness and scarcity will not triumph. The eternal, all-powerful God, the one who made all things, offers abundance in all things, even when his heart is broken by his own creation.

Bearers of Grace

Anxiety and fear do not represent the normal order of the universe as God made it to be. We are human, but as Christians we are to be like Jesus as much as humanly possible, allowing the Holy Spirit to strengthen us at times we think we can go no further, particularly if we’re called to show God’s grace in a particular moment. We cannot forget that while Jesus provided the miracles, he also told the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”

I’ve known a few people who seemed to be really good at taking that deep breath and doling out grace. One of my favorites was a man named Bob Loy. Bob had every reason to feel crushed by the world.

He had lived for decades with about 30 percent lung capacity after an accident that nearly killed him. By the time I knew him, he was elderly. His wife became very ill; while staying with her at the hospital, Bob slipped and fell, breaking his leg near the hip and putting himself in the hospital.

While Bob was laid up, unable to move, his wife died. He couldn’t even go to the funeral. His sister also died about the same time. Again, he couldn’t go to the funeral. This was a man who had every reason to give up.

But not Bob. Through his pain, he kept looking around what had become a very tiny world for him, a hospital room. He was certain every day somebody near him needed God’s grace, and he was going to be God’s vessel for that grace. I know for a fact that he brought at least one nurse to a belief in Jesus Christ while flat on his back in that hospital bed.

He also showed me a lot of grace. I was a new pastor, and he constantly was encouraging me, even as pneumonia took over those weak lungs and he had to keep pulling off his oxygen mask to speak.

A Near-Death Experience

Bob had a secret that explained his attitude, a secret he shared with me after we had known each other awhile. When he had that accident decades earlier, the one that scarred his lungs so badly, he had a vision of an entryway to heaven.

His had been the classic case of dying on the table and being brought back. He said his experience was indescribably beautiful, a vision of a stream, a vast plain, and the most glorious mountain he had ever seen. He knew God was there, and if he crossed the stream, he could not go back. He also knew he had a choice. A young man at the time, he chose to return to his family, he told me.

But he did not forget the vision. He had seen what eternal victory in Christ looks like, if only briefly, and from then on that vision shaped his life. I knew Bob only late in his life; when it came time to preside at his funeral, I heard story after story of the lives he had changed through the years with his joyous version of the story of Christ, a story he both told and lived out every day.

I don’t think Christians have to have a near-death experience to understand what Bob understood. We have embraced the story of a Savior who shows us repeatedly that when it comes to the things that matter—love, hope, joy—there is eternal abundance. We simply need to learn to dwell in that abundance.

God’s Pawn

Life can seem pretty tough at times, even if you are certain you are following God’s will. In a world filled with evil, being on the front line for God can be exhausting, and exhaustion can lead to doubt and even despair.

We see it in the Old Testament in the prophet Elijah. At the height of his ministry, he overcame the priests of Baal in a battle of prayers and worship, bringing the destruction of those who were leading the Israelites astray. And yet, when faced with the evil Jezebel just a short time later, Elijah for all practical purposes ran away and collapsed in a heap in the wilderness, asking God to take his life.

We see it in our New Testament text for this third Sunday in Advent. Jesus would declare to the crowds that John the Baptist is “Elijah”—that is, John the Baptist was the prophet the people had been expecting, the one sent by God to declare the arrival of the Messiah. And yet, in the story, John the Baptist comes across as uncertain and even confused as he sat in prison.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” he asked Jesus through messengers.

When you consider all of John the Baptist’s story, it is an astonishing question. If he was not certain, who can be certain?

To understand John the Baptist, you have to read his story in all four gospels. In Luke, we learn John the Baptist was a miracle child in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled even before he was born. He leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, capable of recognizing the mother of the Messiah before he has seen the world.

We also understand from Luke that Jesus and John the Baptist were related through their mothers, cousins separated in age by only six months. We can only speculate how much time they spent together. Luke also tells us John the Baptist grew up in the wilderness, meaning he may have lived all his life as a hermit prophet, possibly among a sect of Jews known as the Essenes.

When John the Baptist began his adult ministry as recorded in all four gospels, he seemed certain enough, preaching a fiery call that the people should repent of their sins in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus came to be baptized, he seemed certain enough, protesting that Jesus should baptize him and not vice-versa. In the Gospel of John, he seemed certain enough when he first saw Jesus, declaring, “Here is the Lamb of God.”

It would seem the uncertainty crept in during imprisonment, which happened after the prophet rebuked Jewish King Herod for taking his brother’s wife as his own. Just as it was with Elijah, there’s no telling what caused doubt to creep in. Certainly, for a man who had lived all his life freely outdoors, eating locusts and honey and going where the Spirit drove him, being locked in a cell must have been disorienting.

Perhaps as a prophet, John the Baptist also began to sense where all of this was going. He wasn’t going to leave the cell alive. In fact, he was going to have his head delivered on a platter to a dancing girl and her spiteful mother. Had John the Baptist heard of chess, he might have begun to use the word “pawn” to describe himself, feeling like a disposable piece in God’s grand plan.

Jesus’ answer to his cousin’s question was not the obvious “Yes, I am the one,” the answer that would have provided comfort. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus told the messengers. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Here is what I hear in this response: “John, you are a prophet, filled with the Holy Spirit. You know the signs; you know the answer.”

We do not know how John the Baptist received that response. The range of possibilities would run from despair to joy, I suppose.

I believe that like his Old Testament predecessor, Elijah, John the Baptist at least moved from doubt to strength. An angel of the Lord ministered to Elijah; messengers from Jesus returned to John. I think their straightforward words would have fed him spiritually, giving him a renewed faith that God’s kingdom was present through Jesus.

As I study John the Baptist, I’m also reminded how much Jesus loved his cousin, even if his reply was almost businesslike in its tone. When Jesus heard of John the Baptist’s beheading, he took to a boat to find a deserted place—he was grieving. And when the people found him, one of Jesus’ great acts of compassion occurred, the feeding of the 5,000.

When we find ourselves exhausted and doubtful, perhaps even feeling like pawns, it is good to remember we worship a God who treasures every piece in his creation. This life may not always go as we hope, but we need not doubt the joy God’s plan ultimately brings us.