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John the Baptist according to the Angel Gabriel, June 24, 2012, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Alameda, CA

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The Birth of John the Baptist

Malachi 3:1-4 Psalm 141 Acts 13:13-26 Luke 1: 57-80

(My children’s song about John the Baptist)

A John the Baptist Song

1.  Of John the Baptist let us sing

He changed our hearts by baptism

Son of Zechariah and Elizabeth

He prepared the way for Jesus

2.  He wore a shirt of camel’s hair

It was scratchy everywhere

Ate grasshoppers and wild honey

(And said), be sure to share your money.

3.  (John said), “Jesus is the great I am,

He is God’s own little lamb.

I’m not good enough to tie his shoes,

To tell about Jesus is good news.

Into the water we all go

And this is what we get to know

We go down and Jesus comes up

and finds a way to save us.

by Peter Krey 06/27/2007

John the Baptist according to the Angel Gabriel

     Today we celebrate John the Baptist. Our lessons have the prophesy foretelling his coming in Malachi. Paul preaches about him in that Pisidian city of Antioch. Luke tells of his birth, which was foretold by the Angel Gabriel.

There in Luke the encounter between Father Zechariah and the Angel Gabriel is humorous. The angel is speaking to Zechariah and tells him he will have a son and that he should name him John. In Hebrew, his name is Joch-hannan meaning “God be merciful.” Zechariah is terrified at the sight of the angel, but still asks, “How will I know that these things will be? I’m an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” Here he has an angel speaking to him and he doubts the angel’s words.

The angel gets angry. I can think of many ways to say that but this is a sermon. “I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to speak with you and bring you this good news.” Now because you haven’t believed my words, you will be mute until these things come to pass in due course.

Poor Zechariah, a preacher who gets struck mute! That’s a real punishment, because you should come to a pastors’ Bible study and you would see how much pastors love to talk. That includes me, of course. It’s hard to get a word in edgewise in a group of pastors.

What better way to tell you about John the Baptist today than to relate what the Angel Gabriel tells us all about him! “You will have joy and gladness,” he says, and many will rejoice at his birth; for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and the power of Elijah he will go before them, 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.” (1:14-17)

Imagine that! Gabriel says that even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit! Thus little John jumps up when Mary who is pregnant with Jesus visits the pregnant Elizabeth. Then he is forbidden any wine or strong drink. Sometimes alcoholic beverages are called liquid spirits and they don’t mix well with the Holy Spirit.

Then Gabriel quotes Malachi’s words, the very last words of the Old Testament, where the prophet foretells Elijah’s return before the great and terrible day of the Lord. “He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse!” (Mal 4:5-6) You can see that that is the Old Testament, while the Angel Gabriel couches his words in the New Testament good news.

Once I thought John was a reincarnation of Elijah, but my father, who was also a pastor, made clear to me that Christians do not believe in reincarnation. And Gabriel says that John will go before the people in the power and the spirit of Elijah, making this distinction nicely. So when you experience a Seder and the Jews leave an empty chair for Elijah to come, then you know the chair in the new covenant is for John the Baptist, who will be filling that chair, and that he prepared the way for the Most High, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, yes because we confess that Jesus is the Messiah, who is at the center of history and who will also judge us when returning on the last day.

Now this fellow, John the Baptist, who ate grasshoppers and wild honey while out there in the wilderness – imagine eating insects! – some restaurants are serving them now –  this fellow who just like Elijah wore a leather belt and a shirt of camel’s hair, was born to get us ready, to prepare us to follow Christ. He preaches that we should repent, confess our sins and receive forgiveness. Like Gabriel said, he will turn our hearts away from disobedience and orient them to the wisdom of the righteous. We are to become wise and mature and John is abrasive enough to criticize us and correct us. Meeting John was a correctional encounter. If you’re like me it’s not easy to say with the Psalmist, “Let the righteous strike me; let the faithful correct me, (Psalm 141: 5) but I’ll take it and you should too because we want to straighten out our lives and grow and mature. Let us say, “I don’t want to stagnate like a pool of water that gets smelly. I want to flow with righteousness. So criticize me, correct me! That gives me a chance to improve.”

When we criticize others, however, we should first ask them if they can take it, because when someone’s self-esteem is very low, criticism feels like rejection. First we have to help them lift up their self-esteem and then they will realize that the criticism will help them.

Sure the criticism hurts. I remember after a summer of walking barefoot, how my mother would scrub my feet with a hard brush. I howled and screamed, because it hurt. But she would lift up the clean foot so I could compare it with my dirty foot and say, “See the difference? You can’t go back to school like that. You have to be clean.”

The baptism that John introduced is like that. Baptism dunks us down into the water and raises us back up. In this sense it is a metaphor for dying and being raised back up to our new and righteous lives. The cleansing done by baptism is another metaphor. John’s baptism takes when we are scrubbed with a fuller’s soap, which refers to a whole cleansing process in the way they did it in those days. The occupation of a fuller was to clean, whiten, bleach, thicken, shrink, and dye cloth. A fuller had to clean and prepare newly shorn wool and woolen garments. Often the fuller washed with lye, which is potassium or hydrogen peroxide! They also cleansed using pressure, usually by trampling on garments with their feet and then laying them down in the fullers’ field to be bleached by the sun. So you see that an encounter with John the Baptist was not a mere rinsing of your fingers so that you don’t really get your hands wet. You could expect to get scrubbed with lye and get trampled underfoot until you straightened out your life and became pure in heart, pure enough to see God. Remember how he called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers”?

John’s cleansing preparation with fullers’ soap was one metaphor, but there is another metaphor that concerns the metal you are made of. You get put through a refiner’s fire and like for gold and silver all the impurities in you get burned out, so that your hearts become pure gold. As Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

Yes, he turned our hearts away from disobedience to orient them to the wisdom of the righteous. For another of his favorite metaphors, John gets you onto the threshing floor, so your worthless superficial shell comes loose and your true and real self comes out, which is like the kernel of wheat. Usually people pound the wheat that is still in the shell and then throw it up into the air so that all the shells or the chaff flies away and the real kernels of wheat are left. So the Holy Spirit blows away all the shallow wrappings that we think are so important in our lives, and we are left our true and real selves, like kernels of wheat, ready to be made into flour and then baked into bread, that is, bread for the world, ready to become manna from heaven to nourish God’s people.

All of these metaphors are used to explain repentance, the repentance that John preached, as well as the process by which we are forgiven and become prepared to meet the Lord, become prepared to follow Christ in our lives.

Despite John’s giving the people of his day such a hard way to go, the scripture says that the whole countryside of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to John to be baptized by him. So even if John puts us through a ringer, we ought to let him, because he is preparing the way of the Lord. It’s a narrow gate that leads into the joy of the Gospel.

What would it ever take for all the people of California or for all the people of our country, even all the people of our cities, like Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, L. A., and San Francisco, for example, to repent and go through this cleansing, refining, and threshing floor kind of repentance and forgiveness? What would it take for our preparation to receive Christ, the horn, the power of our salvation, so that our hearts are turned away from disobedience and oriented to the wisdom of the righteous? In those days kings were referred to as horns, those powerful weapons of steers and bulls.

So here is some critique the way John would have said it now for us today. Bear with me. This critique is a little rough and I realize some of you may have strong feelings on the subject. As a nation of immigrants, we need to start treating the strangers in our countries like ourselves. All of us were once immigrants unless we happen to be Native Americans or came over on slave ships. Listen to God’s command in Leviticus, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (19:33-34)

Now of course we should not just take laws and commands from the Bible and apply them directly to our lives today. We have to think them through and debate them and see whether they are reasonable for us. Further, no mention is made here of legal or illegal entry, but on the other hand, sometimes laws trip poor and desperate people and make them fall. When such a clear command comes up in scripture, however, we have to be careful about how we treat immigrants. Let’s call to mind the words we etched on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired and poor; your wretched refuse yearning to be free. I lift my torch before the golden door.”  What will it take to welcome immigrants once more?

Sometimes immigrants will work harder than we do and will do dirtier and more back-breaking work. We need them to challenge us so that we grow and get out of our comfort zones.

Immigrants often bring us prosperity. Have you heard of Elon Musk? He’s an immigrant from South Africa and he launched three really important companies: Paypal, Tessla Motors, and Space-X. Tessla Motors makes new electric cars that are just coming out. They go from 0 to 60 mph in six seconds. He is also the CEO who then bet all his money on Space-X, his private company that just sent a rocket into space that successfully resupplied the space station with cargo. Would we even let him into our country today?

Often the issue we have with immigrants revolves around our competition for jobs. It is easy to blame them for our lack of jobs, but remember that right during the time of the last presidential transition eight million jobs were lost, because the brokerage houses went bankrupt when the bubble burst, a bubble, which they and the banks helped create, doing a number on the whole economy, which went into a tail-spin. A lot of what they were doing was pretty much gambling with financial instruments no one could understand. And greed makes some people lose sight of need – so profits are not made by real production for the sake of filling human needs, but merely with an eye to increasing wealth.

God will give us a scrubbing, trample us underfoot, refine us with fire, until we repent and undergo the harrowing process of repentance and forgiveness. But after that, we enter the joy of the Gospel. When a mother goes into labor, she endures waves upon waves of painful contractions, but when the baby is born, the incredible joy sets in when her new child is placed into her arms. John puts us through a ringer of preparation, like a boot-camp of the soul, so that we can enter the joy of the Gospel, which is our very own new birth in Christ.

My sermon would get too long, if I brought up more issues that require us to repent! Indulge me with only one more. In the scriptures God commands us to care for the widow and the orphan again and again. Then budget cuts often take away their support first. Let’s not make the poorest people in the land pay for the trouble the richest people got us into. And we tend to pack nursing homes and senior citizen homes in our land with the elderly, isolating them from the rest of us. The prophet intends to turn the hearts of the children to their parents. That means we cannot let them languish in those homes, isolated from their families and children, just because they are no longer productive. We have to find a way to integrate the elderly more meaningfully in our society so they take part and have a part in our lives. We’ll be surprised how much joy that will bring!

On the way to Immanuel Lutheran Church this morning, I thought of how the early church had a special office of widows, whom the bishops provided for. Why not have the nursing homes built right around our churches and give the elderly special places as prayer warriors, greeters, and helpers in our congregations the way they were in those days. What joy such a renewal in geriatrics would bring to them and our whole society![1]

Like the people in old Judea, we Americans need to gather at some river and hear John’s call to repentance – to make straight the way for Jesus, the horn of our salvation, who can once again bring us the joy of the Gospel.

How do we orient our hearts to the wisdom of the righteous? It is by learning, growing, and maturing in a life-long process. It is so comfortable and so seducing to stop, persecute, and reject the people, who overtake us, rather than learning from them and continuing our painful, but Oh so rewarding process of growing.

We need the kind of renewal that John the Baptist brought by his call to repentance; that dying and rising in baptism, that cleansing with some fuller’s soap, that threshing that rids us of our shallow and superficial natures and leads us forward in our new Christ-like selves. We need the Baptist’s renewal that uses fire to burn all the impurities out of our hearts, so that we receive hearts of pure gold, so that with pure hearts we can see Jesus, the horn, the power of our salvation – so that nations who are now our enemies become converted into friends. If we have a renewal in our country, then there is a good chance that people will want to be more like us all over the world. We won’t have to force countries to be our friends. Let’s repent and quite intentionally make friends with countries, one after another. Why not reach out in some way to Greece? And let’s listen to the Angel Gabriel and respond to John’s call to repentance and the hard way he makes us go for forgiveness. John the Baptist is still preparing us today and making straight the way of the Lord among us, so we really mean what we say, when we confess that Jesus Christ is our Lord, the horn of our salvation, the King of our hearts and with that enter the joy of the Gospel. Amen.

[1] See “Loneliness in Later Years” on Michael Krasny’s NPR Forum June 20, 2012, 9:00am: In the program geriatric workers witness to the joy that their work brings.


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