John Prepares Us for Jesus
by Brian Johnson, Pastor
Today in worship we are reading from chapter 1 of the Gospel of Luke and talking about the birth of John the Baptist.
It always seems weird that Luke, when telling the story of the birth of Jesus, starts his telling with a story that doesn’t seem to be about Jesus at all. Before we get to Mary or Joseph or shepherds in the fields or a baby born in Bethlehem, before we get to the baby Jesus laid in the manger because there’s no room at the inn – before all of that, Luke begins his story with the birth of John.
And, to a certain extent, it makes sense. In all four of the Gospels, Jesus’ public ministry begins with him going out into the wilderness and meeting with John. John was a prophet, who was sent by God, as the Gospel writers put it, to “prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s job was to get the people ready for Jesus. In the Old Testament, prophets call the people to return to God – to abandon injustice and return to God’s way of justice, to abandon hatred and return to God’s way of love, to abandon the things that lead to death and turn to the things that God has promised will give them life. That’s what John does – and, as the Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) tell it, he does it with some fiery intensity. He tells people to give away what they have so that they can care for the poor. He calls out injustice, hypocrisy, and greed. The challenges the religious establishment, describes those who he sees as hypocrites as “a brood of vipers,” describes the powerful and the system they control as rotten trees that need to be chopped down and thrown into the fire.
John is a lot. And, the Gospel writers are unanimous that his ministry is an essential preparation for Jesus. In fact, according to Matthew, the first thing Jesus preaches, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” is the exact same thing John preached during his ministry. John told the people that God’s kingdom was on the way, and that they therefore needed to turn away from evil and turn towards good – in other words, they needed to get their lives in order, because God was about to do something big. This message – and the challenge it brought to the powerful – got John in trouble. Eventually, it got him killed. So, when Jesus comes along preaching the same message, we know, from early on in his ministry, that the powerful aren’t going to like him very much either.
But, because John is so intense – because he has such high expectations of us – he’s the perfect preparation for Jesus. Because Jesus is the one who comes not only with a challenge, but with a word of grace. The arrival of John on the scene brings a word of God’s judgment – God judges all our evil, all our hatred, all our violence, and calls us to turn away from all that is wrong and back towards what is right – God’s way of justice and love and peace. John speaks a word of judgment that we need to hear, but he is followed immediately by Jesus, who speaks a word of grace that we need even more. Because, when we get it wrong, when we fail, when we are in despair and discouraged, Jesus speaks a word of healing and hope to us. Jesus says, “yes, you do need to turn away from your sin. I do expect you to listen to John and work for justice. But, even when you don’t, I still love you. Even when you get it wrong, I have still died for you. Even when you are selfish and self-centered and hateful, I am still for you, and I still invite you to share my life.”
John reminds us of just how serious God is about fixing this world – and just how much our own lives need to be healed. Jesus repeats John’s words – Jesus gives us the same reminder, offers us the same invitation to turn our lives around – but he also tells us that, whether or not we answer that call, even when we fail, even when we choose darkness over light – even then, and no matter what, we are loved by God and welcome among God’s people. John prepares us for Jesus by telling us how serious God’s calling on our lives is. Jesus follows John’s message by telling us how God’s love for us is even more serious than that.
So, it seems appropriate for Luke to start his story of the birth of Jesus with the story of his birth of Jesus’s cousin, John. John is the culmination of a long line of Old Testament prophets, preparing the people for the amazing thing God is doing in Jesus. He is a gift from God, speaking God’s word of challenge on our sinful self-centeredness. His birth is a miracle, and his life prepares us for God’s even greater miracle. And he prepares us for God’s ultimate gift, Jesus Christ, who offers us both intense challenge and unimaginable grace.
John calls us to turn our lives around. And, when we don’t turn our lives around – when we keep going our own way – Jesus chases after us, to save us, whether we deserve it or not.
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