MORNING MESSAGE – John Cline
Scriptures: John 1:19-34; 3:22-30 – Reader: Ele Bender
When we listen to the Lord, and when we act in obedience to what is telling us, as Helen Emokpae did in her testimony just now, our reason in doing the things we do becomes evident as God’s purpose for us becomes clearer. What is God’s purpose for you? You will know it when you listen and obey. In today’s sermon, we will look at the conception, birth, life, and tragic death of a man who knew his purpose, because he lived in obedience to what God had laid out for his life. But this sermon is not just about him, but about his parents who were also discovering God’s parents for their lives, and about us. Do we know what God’s purpose for our lives is? Here we go:
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. (Luke 1:5-7)
This sermon is about a child and his parents, and about each of us, and people knowing God’s purpose in their lives. God sent the angel Gabriel to Zechariah who told him about their son-to-be’s purpose:
“He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:14-17)
Twice a year, Zechariah and the other priests from his town were chosen to go to Jerusalem to serve in the Temple there. In this passage, we find Zechariah ministering in one of his shifts when God shook up his life with that good news message from the angel Gabriel we just heard read. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son John would grow up to be John the Baptist, the final prophet before the Messiah appeared, the forerunner prophesied about in the Old Testament. We have just finished a sermon series on the purpose for Jesus’ coming to earth, but just as Jesus had specific purposes for coming, so did John. And Zechariah and Elizabeth had discovered God’s purpose for them.
When his time of service was completed, Zechariah returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” (Luke 1:23-25)
Elizabeth was filled with thanksgiving. She knew that she and Zechariah had waited a long time to have a child and now she learned the reason for that long wait: because God had His purpose for them, to raise the forerunner of the Messiah, their child being the one who would point to the Messiah and turn people’s hearts to him. Elizabeth, while pregnant with John, then had her baby show her his purpose in directing people to Jesus and bringing praise to him. It happened when Mary, her younger cousin who was pregnant with Jesus, came to visit.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. (Luke 1:41)
A short time later, John was born and his parents were ecstatic.
His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:67-80)
Question: are you like Zechariah and Elizabeth, wondering what God’s purpose for your life is? Or do you know your purpose? God has a purpose for you. That is His part of the deal. Faithfulness and patience is our part in learning His purpose for us.
John would grow up to be a strange dude, a wild man living north of Jerusalem, in the countryside of the Jordan River, wearing clothes made of camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey for food, all that while preaching to people to get ready for the coming of the Messiah. You know, sometimes, God uses people that others consider somewhat strange or eccentric, like John but most other times, God uses entirely ordinary people, like Zechariah and Elizabeth or you or you or you or me. God has a purpose for everyone. We need to discover it and live it out. John the Baptist had grown up knowing Jesus, but it was not, it would seem, until in the midst of baptizing people as a repentance for their sins and as a sign of God’s forgiveness of them, that the identity of the Messiah was revealed to him. That happened when his cousin, Jesus, showed up asking to be baptized. Only then did John realize who he had been preparing people’s hearts to accept and only then did John realize that his cousin was the Messiah, God’s lamb who would be sacrificed to bring forgiveness, freedom, and salvation to those who would choose to follow him.
Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” Finally, they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” (John 1:19-34)
John the Baptist knew his purpose in life and lived it out: to prepare people for the arrival of the Messiah. But, now the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, God’s chosen One, had come. At least two of John’s disciples, Andrew and one other, believed John’s words about Jesus and left John to become disciples of Jesus. Up until that time, John had a significant following. All of Israel knew about John and many people had accepted his message and undergone baptism, anticipating the new thing, the coming of the Kingdom of God, that John said would come with the Messiah. However, after Jesus came, the end of John’s ministry was at hand. Particularly, after he baptized Jesus, John knew that his time in the spotlight was ending. When Jesus proclaimed and showed himself to be the Messiah prophesied about by Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets, and then accompanied his words with miracles and healings that only the Messiah could do (applying the prophecy in Isaiah to himself – in Luke 4), the crowds abandoned John and turned to Jesus. John was fine with all that but his remaining disciples not quite so…
After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. (This was before John was put in prison.) An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan — the one you testified about — look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:22-30)
John the Baptist wasn’t putting himself down in saying, “I must become less.” He was simply reiterating that he had served his purpose and his time was now done. Do we know God’s purpose for our lives? John was not to be the groom of the bride, but the best man to the groom. The focus from that point on was to be on Jesus the Messiah, not on him. To John, the reality of a shrinking audience meant he had done his job, fulfilled his purpose. “He must become greater; I must become less.”
Last summer, I read about a wedding at which a relative of the bride dared to wear a long white lace dress. Most of the guests were taken aback knowing the only attendee of the wedding privileged to wear a long white lace dress was the bride. All the other family members and friends of the bride acknowledged it was her day and they dressed appropriately to give the bride all the attention that the day merited her. But not so this relative. Her being insulted that others were aghast became a big story on social media, with most people commenting that anyone else but the bride wearing a long white lace dress was acting inappropriately for the wedding day belongs to the bride. John the Baptist recognized that his role was to prepare for the wedding of the groom to his bride, the church. John’s purpose was not to be the groom but to prepare the bride, the church, for Jesus the actual groom. It was a time of big changes for John. He had known and fulfilled God’s purpose for his life but then he was arrested. Imprisoned below ground (as it is thought) John’s faith faltered. One of the great dangers of imprisonment is depression, and faithful lovers of God are as prone to it as anyone else. To be torn from the open air and everyday scenes, to be forced into idleness and a tediousness that chafes the mind, are burdens not easily borne, especially by people of an active disposition, such as John. He who had wandered the wilderness and proclaimed a life-transforming message to thousands, and yet as he found himself languishing in prison doubts crept in. What if he had been wrong? There had been many false prophets in Israel. What made him so sure that he wasn’t one of those false prophets? What if he had led thousands astray? Could his imprisonment be God’s judgment upon him for misleading people? Also, there had also been many false messiahs. What if Jesus was just another? After all, the Kingdom of God that Jesus ushered in had not exactly taken down all the strongholds of the enemies of the Jewish people. When his disciples came to visit him, John then sent them to question Jesus.
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matt. 11:2,3)
Now, Jesus loved John and knew him well, so he did the one thing that he knew John would understand and find peace in: he quoted Isaiah 61, that prophecy about the Messiah, that prophecy which he claimed was all about him. So, in response to John’s disciples’ question,
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)
John had been thrown into prison by King Herod Antipas as a punishment for John’s public and continual condemnation of the marriage of King Herod Antipas and his new wife Herodias. King Herod Antipas was one of the three sons of King Herod the Great. When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was split into three parts and three of his sons each became a king over their nation. Now, in order for King Herod Antipas and Herodias to marry each other, they had divorced their spouses but to complicate matters even further, they had been having an affair with each other, while married to their first spouses and, to make matters even worse, the former husband of Herodias was King Philip, a brother of King Herod Antipas (they ruled in neighbouring kingdoms). Herodias, in particular, was furious with John the Baptist’s public humiliation of her and her new marriage. She wanted revenge and so she used her daughter (tradition gives her the name Salome) to get it.
Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet. On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. (Matthew 14:3-13)
This was a terrible ordeal for Jesus to endure, in part because he loved John so, and he knew that his death was the result of him living out God’s purpose for him in his life. Jesus, sorrowing, tried to retreat from society and find some solitude but, as we will read in a few chapters from now in John’s Gospel, thousands of people followed him and didn’t give him any rest or peace and quiet. In compassion for them (for they had not brought any food for their adventure), Jesus performed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand with a few loaves of bread and two fish.
In any case, returning to John the Baptist’s life, let’s hope that we won’t be beheaded for our service to the Lord (though, a few years ago, the Muslim terrorist group ISIS did behead many Christians who stood strong in the faith and service of Jesus). But is there anything we can learn from John the Baptist’s life and apply it to ourselves as we serve the Lord? Yes, there are three things of import:
1.Know the purpose God has for our life;
2.Don’t draw attention to ourselves, but live in humility. This is a very difficult concept for too many pastors, sadly, but what a counter-cultural statement this was by John. “He/Jesus must become greater; I must become less”; and,
3.Proclaim Jesus and direct people to him, as Helen Emokpae did
and, as Zechariah and Elizabeth and their son John did.
When we know our purpose, when we walk in humility, and when we direct people to Jesus, we will experience God’s peace in our lives and we will know the blessing that we are being used by God for small but significant, or large and great things. Amen!