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Message for 12-8-13 CANDLE IN THE WILDERNESS

“CANDLE IN THE WILDERNESS”

Matthew 3:1-12

 

            “It seems to me that you lived your life like a candle in the wind…Your candle burned out long before your legend ever will” – words sung by Elton John at the funeral of Princess Diana – words that could just as easily have been spoken at the funeral of John the Baptist, as his followers laid his lifeless body in a tomb in the desert.  Here’s a guy whose candle definitely burned out too soon.

            John the Baptist was the first prophet to hit the scene in Israel in almost 400 years.  You can imagine the excitement!  It had been a long time since God’s people had heard straight from God.  And what a character God sends as his spokesman: a guy who looks like he crawled out from under a rock – a guy who lives off the land, who takes the simple lifestyle to an extreme.  John was a fiery, thundering type of guy, and yet his name means “The Lord is gracious.”  What a contrast between his name and his image!

            John was the kind of guy who’d never win a popularity contest.  He was not Mr. Personality.  John was as subtle as an oncoming freight train, and as diplomatic as a buzz saw.  John didn’t mince his words.  John was as blunt as a butter knife.  He was as abrasive as sandpaper.  He was not a feel-good type of guy.  You wouldn’t want him at your dinner party.  Nobody in their right mind would want to elect him as their pastor.  He didn’t fit our profile for what a pastor should be.

            And yet, the crowds went wild for John.  John had busloads from all over Judea coming down to the Jordan to hear him preach.  Why?  One reason is because John hits the scene in the year 26 AD, a sabbatical year, a year when farmers are supposed to take a year off, meaning there are lots of people with time on their hands.

            But a more important reason why the crowds were attracted specifically to John is because they knew that John told the truth.  Maybe John wasn’t a likeable guy, but they knew that John was in touch with God.  They knew that John had the truth, and would tell it to them straight, with no baloney.  Sometimes the people we need to hear are not the most likeable people.  Students often hate tough teachers, but later on we recognize that they were the teachers we learned the most from.

            John’s message was all about repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).  I used to think that “repent” means to get rid of every single sin in your life.  But the Bible’s word for “repent” means a change of mind or a change of direction.  It means to turn toward God instead of away from God.  It means to love God more than you did before, and to hate sin more than you did before, which requires a complete turnaround, a change of mind, a change of heart.

            John borrows the Jewish ceremony of baptism as a powerful symbol of the kind of repentance he has in mind.  The Jews would perform a complete dunking in water on pagans who wished to convert to Judaism, to wash away the uncleanness of their old pagan identity.  John takes this symbol of conversion and applies it to Jews also.  He argues that even good Jews must come to God like unclean pagans who need to turn to God from their sin.

            Naturally, many Jews in the crowd objected.  “Hey!  We’re already children of Abraham.  We were born that way.  We don’t need your baptism of repentance.”  John says, “So what if you were born a descendant of Abraham?  God can make children of Abraham out of these stones on the ground!”  (“God can make benayya out of abinayya!”)  John proclaims: “Nobody gets born into the kingdom of God.  Nobody gets in except by being re-born.”

            But getting people dunked was not what was most important to John.  What was important to John was changed lives.  What he wanted to see was repentance.  Notice: John would not accept people for baptism who just wanted to go through the motions.  He cries: “Who gave you the idea that baptism was cheap fire insurance?  Bear fruit that befits repentance.  Show me evidence from your life that you’ve had a change of heart toward God.”  John wouldn’t baptize anyone who didn’t understand what they were doing.  Let’s face it: John…was a Baptist!

            John the Baptist is my favorite Biblical character.  It’s not surprising that Jesus says, “Among those born of women, there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11).  Yes, I’ve noticed that John’s candle was blown out well before his time, and I have no great desire to suffer a similar fate, and yet I am attracted to John’s strengths.  In many ways, I identify with him.  Following in John’s footsteps is no way to have a long career, but I admire John for his courage, for his radical simple lifestyle, and for his humility.

            John had the courage to act on principle, not expedience.  John had the courage to speak the truth, even when it was dangerous to do so.  It’s not that he enjoyed hurting people; John just had the courage to say what needed to be said, no matter whom he had to offend.  John becomes the Headless Prophet for daring to suggest that the First Lady had no business dumping her first husband to marry Herod.  How many of us would have found excuses to avoid the issue?

            But John was not always as hard-nosed as we might imagine.  Contrary to what we might expect, John did not command soldiers or tax collectors to quit their jobs, even though the Jews considered both of these to be unacceptable professions for a faithful Jew to practice.  All John required is that they pursue their jobs honestly.  And unlike the Pharisees and the monastic groups out in the desert, who had rigid, exclusive membership requirements, John’s community of faith was open to all, even tax collectors and hookers, anyone who was willing to repent and believe.

            We can also admire John as a man who had renounced the luxuries of the world.  Since John’s parents were old when he was born, he probably became an orphan at an early age.  A lot of orphans at this time were taken in and raised by a monastic group in the desert called the Essenes, where the members took vows to practice celibacy and radical simple lifestyles.  John may have been taken in by this group.  A 1st-century writer tells us that John refused to eat human-made products like bread or wine.  All we can say about John’s menu is that at least it was kosher.  John’s radical simplicity gave tremendous power to his message when he tells the crowd, “Whoever has two coats, let them share with whomever has none, and whoever has food, let them do likewise” (Luke  3:11).

            Finally, we can admire John as a man of exceptional humility.  He made no claims to greatness.  Lots of people back then thought that John might be the Messiah; John could have easily pretended to be the One.  But John knew that he was not the star of the show.  It was his job to point the way to Someone else.  And when that special Someone arrives on the scene, John quickly and gracefully steps aside.

            John allows Jesus to walk away with his followers, without protest!  He lets Jesus steal the show out from under him.  How many of us could have done that?  John insists: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).  What if John had refused to step aside and give up control?  John was able to look beyond his own self-interest.  John would have been sad if he had lived to see that today, 2000 years later, die-hard followers of John (known as the Mandeans) still exist in modern-day Iraq.

            In a day like ours where the body of Christ demands leaders who make us feel good and cater to our desires, we need a few more characters like John the Baptist.  No, we don’t need any more insensitive, self-appointed head-bashers, but we do need more prophets, individuals who are willing to challenge us with unpopular truth, people who are willing to take the same kind of risks that John did with Herod, without regard to their own self-interest, even if it costs them money, job, friends, or freedom.

            A guy named Robert Quinn talks about what he calls the “transformational leader,” a leader who is driven not by personal survival, but by a moral vision of the way things ought to be.  Such a leader is so tied to that vision that he/she is willing to sacrifice their own job, their own personal survival, even their life, of the sake of that vision.  As I was reading Quinn, I suddenly realized that John the Baptist was one of those transformational leaders.  He was willing to sacrifice his own personal survival for what he knew was right.

            In a day like ours where we are intoxicated by comfort, we need more Christian souls who are willing to divest themselves of the distracting entanglements of material comfort, so that they can accomplish God’s mission for them, unencumbered by the cares of this world and the delight in riches.  In a day like ours where so many of us crave the limelight, where so many of us crave credit and recognition, we need more humble souls who are willing to do what needs to be done, without worrying about who sees or who gets the glory.

            John the Baptist was a shining example of courage, simplicity, and humility.  As John Piper has said, John’s life burned with authenticity.  His was a powerful message of repentance: that in order to come to God, each of us must have a change of heart that produces evidence in our lives.  No, he was no warm fuzzy personality, but John the Baptist was a guy who was real, a guy who told the honest truth even when it was not safe to tell, a guy who had the guts to act on principle, not political expedience, which led him to pay the ultimate price for what he stood for.

            John truly lived his life like a candle in the wind.  His candle burned out long before his legend ever will, and yet his life is a shining example to us today.

            Let us pray.  Lord, we give you thanks for the life and witness of John the Baptist.  We praise you for his shining example.  Help us to become more like him.  Help us to live with radical simplicity, with courage, and with humility.  Help us to show repentance.  Help us to demonstrate a change of heart that produces convincing evidence that we have turned to you.  We ask for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

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