October 16, 2011
John the Baptiser
This is how it all began! For thirty years Jesus had lived a life of obscurity as the son of Joseph the carpenter. He had been like all the other boys, had grown into a man and took over his father’s business. And now his ministry was about to begin in earnest. But it would be really hard to just show up and start preaching.
People would want to know “Who is he?” “Where did he come from?” “Why is he here?” People would want to know “What qualifies this man to say what he is saying?”
And so 800 years before Jesus would be born in a manger the plan was already taking shape. In the opening words of Mark we read Mark 1:1-2 This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, and he will prepare your way.”
Most of us don’t stop to think that Jesus, the son of God came to this earth as a newborn infant in just the right place at just the right time. It wasn’t by chance that Jesus was born where he was born and when he was born. It was part of a plan, part of the plan. Five hundred years before Alexander would conquer Asia the plan was in place, seven hundred years before there would be a Roman Empire the plan was in place. A plan that would rely on the language of Alexander and the infrastructure of Rome.
And God didn’t just throw a dart at the time line of human history to determine when and where Jesus would make his entrance.
I’ve talked about this before, it is really really important. God could have chosen any time in the scope of history for his Son to come to earth and for the church to be born, and yet he chose a specific spot on the time line of history. Why? Why at that particular point in time?
According to historians there was no better time for the church to flourish than the two hundred year juncture of history known as The Pax Romana. E. J. Goodspeed notes: “This was the pax Romana. The provincial under Roman sway found himself in a position to conduct his business, provide for his family, send his letters, and make his journeys in security, thanks to the strong hand of Rome.”
The Roman Peace had spread across the known world, providing one of the few windows of opportunities for the land and sea to be travelled safely without the threat of warring factions. For the first time roadways connected points across the known world. But it went beyond simple transportation and incorporated communication as well. Instead of having to learn a multitude of languages and dialects it was only necessary to know one. Greek was the common language, a reminder of Alexander’s conquests, allowing the written word to be sent to encourage and correct the growing churches in diverse cultures.
It was not a coincidence that the Creator chose this point in time to interrupt history William Barclay writes in the Daily Study Bible: “It was no accident that Christianity came when it did. It came in God’s own time; all history had been a preparation for it; and the circumstances were such that the way was open for the tide to spread.”
Matthew begins his telling of the story of Jesus 1500 years before Mary would meet Joseph Matthew 1:1 This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham: John begins his story of Jesus before the very beginning of time itself. John 1:1 In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Luke begins his story not with the birth of Jesus but with the birth of Jesus’ cousin John. Luke 1:5-7 When Herod was king of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.
And in many ways that should have been the end of the story. They were good people, they were righteous people, but they had no children, not for lack of trying but very simply written because Elizabeth was unable to conceive and they were both very old. And 2000 years ago there really were no options. But God had a plan and one day when Zechariah was serving in the temple God interrupted their lives and their plans with his plans. Luke 1:11-13 While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.
And then we don’t hear from or about John for 30 years and then his story begins another Gospel Mark 1:1-4 This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, and he will prepare your way. He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the LORD’s coming! Clear the road for him!’” This messenger was John the Baptist.
John 1:6-7 God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony.
John was sent to prepare the people of Israel for the ministry of his cousin Jesus, and by all accounts he did a pretty good job of it. And it was a remarkable story, John should have been teaching in the temple, remember who his father was. Instead we discover him preaching in the wilderness and apparently doing an awesome job of it.
And his ministry had two parts, the first part was where he derived his nickname from, Mark 1:5 All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. By all the accounts that we read in the four Gospels, people were flocking to hear John preach and they were responding to his ministry.
The entire baptism thing is kind of interesting. For us as Christians we see this as the beginning of the ritual which we call baptism but baptism had been happening for hundreds of years in the Jewish faith. When a gentile, someone who wasn’t a Jew wanted to become a Jew it required a number of steps, one of which was baptism. But for the person who was already a Jew the thought of being baptized would be a pretty difficult concept to grasp. The question would be “why?” after all they were part of God’s chosen people by default, they had been born into that family.
William Barclay wrote in the Daily Study Bible, “The Jew knew baptism; but the amazing thing about John’s baptism was that he, a Jew, was asking Jews to submit to that which only a Gentile was supposed to need.”
And so John preached a message of repentance, and it would appear that he was a powerful speaker because the story records that people were being baptized in droves. And as a part of his message John continued to point to another, he would tell the people; “There is one coming who is even more powerful than I am, the one who was promised is coming.”
And you know the story, how one day as John preached and as people responded Jesus showed up. While we do know that Jesus and John were related, somehow, we don’t know how close they had been up to that point, we don’t know whether they had played together as children or hung out together as teenagers. Whether they had ever shared their dreams and aspirations with one another. The only other account we have in the bible of the two being together is found in Luke’s gospel and happens shortly after the Angel Gabriel has told Mary that she will conceive and carry the son of God. Mary leaves her home travels to stay with her relative Elizabeth, and we read this Luke 1:39-41 A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea, to the town where Zechariah lived. She entered the house and greeted Elizabeth. At the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped within her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
The next time was see them together is in Mark’s account and his telling of the story is pretty simple and concise Mark 1:9 One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River.
But John knew who Jesus was, if we read the account in the other three gospels we get the entire story, how John objected that he wasn’t worthy to baptize Jesus, but his cousin insisted so John complies.
And I shouldn’t have to tell you the rest of the story, because you are very familiar with what happened next. Mark 1:10-11 As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” You get the picture right? It’s a clear picture of the Trinity. The Son is standing on the river bank, the Spirit descends and the Father speaks.
For the next six weeks we are looking in the Gospel of Mark. This Gospel was written by John Mark, a young man whose mother’s home was a meeting place for the early church. Those in the know tell us that Mark was probably recording the events of Jesus’ life from Peter’s perspective.
Interestingly there is an incident toward the end of Mark’s account that takes place during Christ’s arrest that is recorded only by Mark. Mark 14:50-52 Then all his disciples deserted him and ran away. One young man following behind was clothed only in a long linen shirt. When the mob tried to grab him, he slipped out of his shirt and ran away naked.
Many scholars feel that this young man was none other than Mark Himself.
The Gospel of Mark was the earliest gospel written, perhaps as early as A.D. 50 and was written primarily to non-Jewish believers. The reason it was written? To show that Jesus was the Saviour of the entire world. More than forty percent of this book takes place during Christ’s last week.
This morning more than focusing on whom John was I want to look at what John was doing. He was baptising. Now understand that John wasn’t baptising people in the sense that we baptize people today because this was before Christ’s death and resurrection and offer of grace. But John’s baptisms set the stage and provided a pattern for the baptism that would become an integral part of Christianity.
When John called people to repent and then to be baptized as a sign of that repentance, people were thinking that baptism was about the here and now, something I am doing right now. And today when someone decides to be baptized they see it as a “right now” decision, something they are doing today.
But two thousand years ago baptism wasn’t simply about one point in time for those being baptized, whether they realized it or not their baptism wasn’t simply limited to the present it encompassed all of their life. Baptism was in effect a statement about their past, it is was a statement about their present and was a statement about their future. Because two thousand years ago baptism was as it is now a line drawn in the present that separates the past from the future.
Matthew 3:1-2 In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”
Baptism is a Statement of Regret for the Past As long as you think you are doing all right and there’s no need for a change in your life there is little chance you will change. The scriptures tell us that John’s message was “Repent of your sins and turn to God” the word that is translated repent in the bible simple meant “to think differently about”.
For many people their behaviour before they meet God is irrelevant. For most they have narrowed the ten commandments down to “thou shalt not kill” and figure as long as they aren’t a murderer they are doing all right. It’s almost like they feel that is the starting point now, that it reallyis a slippery slope, two hundred years ago Thomas De Quincey wrote, “If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.”
It’s only when we come to realize that sin is disappointing God with our behaviour, it is when deliberately and consistently choose to please ourselves instead of God. There is a description of the sinful behaviour of the people of Israel in Judges 17:6 In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. And proverbs 21:2 tells us the problem with that Proverbs 21:2 People may be right in their own eyes, but the LORD examines their heart.
So repentance is when we choose to leave the path that we had been following to follow the path of God. When we turn away from what was yesterday and turn toward the tomorrow that God has in store for us. So baptism is a statement of the past.
Matthew 3:5-6 People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.
Baptism is a Statement of Decision for the Present In the bible the act of baptism wasn’t something that you thought about and prayed about and planned. It was something you did. When they confessed their sins he baptised them. Right then and there.
Read the book of Acts, when Philip led the Ethiopian Eunuch to the Lord in the middle of the desert we read Acts 8:36 As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?”
When Paul was in Philippe speaking to a group of people along the side of the river we read this account. Acts 16:14-15 One of them was Lydia from Thyatira, a merchant of expensive purple cloth, who worshiped God. As she listened to us, the Lord opened her heart, and she accepted what Paul was saying. She was baptized along with other members of her household . . .
When Paul and Silas were in prison and the earthquake caused the prison doors to be opened and the guard thought they had all escaped and was going to kill himself. But Paul and Silas were still there and they shared the gospel with him, listen to what happened. Acts 16:32-33 And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. Even at that hour of the night, the jailer cared for them and washed their wounds. Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized.
Some people ask “well isn’t it enough that I believe?” Well apparently not because Christ tells us in Mark 16:16 Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. And in the first sermon ever preached by Peter after the resurrection of Christ on the Day of Pentecost we read Acts 2:38 Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins, turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ to show that you have received forgiveness for your sins.” Not just repent of your sins and turn to God but you need to be baptized. Why? To show that you have received forgiveness for your sins. It was their testimony. In effect they were saying, “Look this has happened in my life.”
And just before Jesus left the disciples he gave them their marching orders, so to speak. Matthew 28:19-20 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” It wasn’t enough to make disciples and teach of all nations, they were supposed to be baptized.
Baptism wasn’t something that people put off until another day it went hand and hand with their decision to follow Christ. It’s not something that happens somewhere down the road of our Christian Journey it marks the beginning of our Christian journey. It is our first act of obedience to Christ. It is saying “there is some water, why can’t I be baptized?”
So baptism is a Statement for the Present
Luke 3:7-8 When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, . . . “Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.”
Baptism is a Statement of Belief for the Future Baptism is driving a stake in the ground for all to see and for you to remember. Baptism is that milestone that you can look back to as the beginning of your journey. John was warning them that baptism without a change in heart and behaviour was simply getting wet.
It doesn’t mean that we are saved by the way we live, Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8-9 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. You can’t earn your way into heaven, but once you have accepted his grace and decided to walk his way it should be evidenced in your life.
When John baptized people he expected that they would change their behaviour. When you chose to follow Christ you are choosing to live as a Christ follower and that is following his directions and guidelines. And those directions and guidelines are found in his teaching and they are for the purpose of making us better people, who love God and love others.
So now I am going to speak clearly and plainly. If you have chosen to be a Christ Follower and you have not been baptized you are being disobedient. And the question is why? What are you waiting for?
And when I ask people that I get a variety of reasons. “There is still stuff I need to take care of in my life.” From the scriptures the only thing you need to take care of in your life before you get baptized is accepting God’s grace in your life.
Others are afraid of how they will respond to being immersed, or afraid of how they will look when they come up. I have never dropped anyone or drowned anyone in a baptism service.
And part of the baptism service is that it is a humbling experience, most people don’t look good wet, that’s just a fact of life. And vanity shouldn’t be what stands in the way of obedience.
I am sure that there were people who stood on the side lines and felt like they should respond to John’s call but they question that overrode their desire to be obedient was “what will people think?” And there are people today when we talk about baptism who wonder “what will people think?” But the overriding question has to be “What will Jesus think about my being disobedient?”
In two weeks we are going to have a baptism, that is October 30th what is keeping you from being baptized? Remember the words of Christ Mark 16:16 Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved.