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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

I Want to See the Kingdom - 12/11/2016

Who is this John the Baptist?

This is the second time he shows up in the Gospel, according to Matthew. We heard about the first time last week … he is the voice “crying out in the wilderness.” He is the one the prophet Isaiah told us about, who would urge us to keep awake and “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (3:3)

The gospel writer fills in details of who this man was for our imaginations – John the Baptist appears unconventional in many ways. He is dressed in camel's hair cinched at the waist with a leather belt, connecting him in physical appearance to the prophet Elijah – the Tishbite, who was described as “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” (2Kings 1:18)

 He lives off the land, dependent on no one but God for his nourishment, which he finds by reaching his arms into honey bee nests and eating locusts.

His sermons and teachings must have been very persuasive because people were coming to him from all over the place – to hear what he had to say about the one who was coming after him – the one who was coming with urgency even more powerful then John the Baptist could muster: “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!” he said.

We know how compelling John's message must have been because even some of the Sadducees and Pharisees were seeking out the baptism he offered. They saw the connections to what the prophets foretold and they thought, well, just to be sure, let's go get this baptism too.

John called them out on it, of course. “You brood of vipers,” he fired at them. You slither down here like snakes for this holy gift of baptism and then slither back to your places of comfort, to your policies of casting a blind eye to the masses, to your interpretation of the law which you worship above all else.

The people would have heard all this, don't forget. It was no small thing to speak Truth to power like this and the people would have gone from there telling everyone they met about what John the Baptist had said to the powerful priests who had come down to the river for their baptism insurance.

Things probably seemed like they were going pretty well to John the Baptist and his disciples. People were buzzing about his message. They were coming to him for this opportunity to repent and be baptized in water. They seemed to understand there was a hope they could truly hold on to in the one who was coming after John the Baptist – the Messiah who would baptize not only in water, but in the cleansing fires that ensured their forever lives with God.

Things were going well, but now we meet John in a very different place in his story – he is jail – his message of Truth to power and power in Truth has gotten him in trouble and, like examples of other prophetic voices before him and since him, there were those who wanted to shut his voice down.

And while he is not completely shut down, we do get a different voice from John the Baptist this time. Instead of the loud, pot-stirring message that rides the winds out in the wilderness, we get a smaller voice coming from the damp and shadowy, still air of a prison cell. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (11”3) John asks.

We can imagine what John the Baptist might have been thinking – Perhaps his unspoken plea to Jesus was something like: “I need to see the Kingdom, Jesus. Will you show me how God is at work? Because I cannot see it right now.”

So, I think this all serves to help answer this question I pose today: “Who is this John the Baptist?” He doesn't come in soft robes. His message stands strong and unshaken in the windy voices of those whose allegiance and devotion is to power and self rather than God and community. He is the one whose word and deed Jesus holds up as exemplary and calls a prophet greater than all the prophets; the one whose ministry seemed to be going so well, only to become confined by the walls of a prison cell.

But there's more to who this John the Baptist is, as you might guess. I would suggest to you today, and probably any given day, that this John the Baptist is you.

We too are a people preparing the way for the Messiah – we prepare for all the ways that he has come into this world already, and we prepare for all the ways the Messiah promises to come even yet. And as people of God, as Lutherans who try to walk the way of the priesthood of all believers, we are called to get our John the Baptist voices out there too – like voices in the wilderness.

It happens in many ways. I would say, as many ways as there are individual fingerprints in this room.

Sometimes our John the Baptist voices speak into the quieter spaces between two or three people gathered for coffee or for whatever reason. Sometimes our John the Baptist voices come out right here at the pulpit – in a message that is prepared in someone's heart of hearts. It is spoken more loudly and for the benefit of more ears, and even amplified by a sound system. Our John the Baptist voices come in all the endless possibilities that fall in between and beyond those two examples.

And like John the Baptist, we can often feel like these voices spoken into our own wilderness do indeed make a difference. We can feel that when we share parts of our faith stories with others. We can feel it when we sit quietly at the side of someone who is very sick or dying. We can feel it when we offer a suggestion at work that has Jesus' teaching at the center of it, even if we don't explicitly say “that's what Jesus would do.” We can feel that in the passion of conversations we have with our children and our grandchildren about the Christ-centered values and beliefs they inherit too.

We can feel our own voices speaking Truth to power and power in Truth and we can see the signs that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near, and then …

… then something happens – sometimes abruptly, sometimes over time, and it feels like its trying to shut us down.

We seem to make genuine headway, for instance, in our response to climate change and then it all seems undermined when when we hear that seven more species of bees were put on the endangered list and we remember the children of Flint still cannot drink the water.

We might look around and see leaders in government, in the church, in our workplaces and organizations who don't seem to represent our values and beliefs in the slightest.

We raise our voices wherever we can to share the story of Jesus. We invite people join us here in our faith community and experience the forgiveness and the freedom which are still offered in the waters of baptism today. But then we feel like we are shouted down by voices proclaiming that other things – like money, sex and drugs, status, millions of followers on Twitter, or whatever – are more powerful than some water and the Word of God.

We grow confident in the promise of God that came in a baby named Emmanuel,  and will come again in the return of Christ, and then we feel beaten down and burdened when faced with some of the brutal realities of this world … another person is diagnosed with a terminal illness, too many people are hungry, cold and homeless, too many people have never heard the story that we gather around here.

And so our John the Baptist voices become quieter. Instead of being shouted out to the winds and carried to all those with ears to hear, they rise up to God's ears like delicate wisps of incense, in our prayers of lament and desperation, doubt and even anger. “Are you going to come, God?” “I need to see the Kingdom,” we plead.

Well I'm here to assure you, as best I can, that our prayers and our questions do not go unheard and unanswered, my friends. In Jesus' response to John the Baptist, we may find a response for ourselves as well.

Look around you, Jesus says to John and us. Become awake to it all. They may not make the evening news, but there are people everywhere who were previously blind, deaf and unmoved by the presence of God in their lives, and now they can see, hear and feel God, not only around them, but working in them too.

Where we feel overwhelmed with the problem of feeding the hungry people in our community, suddenly you're writing a sermon and the fire truck is coming down the street with little children behind it collecting food for the local pantry.

Where we feel helpless to respond to the needs of our homeless neighbors, suddenly you notice a critical mass of people is beginning to form to work out how we can provide shelter and safety for these brothers and sisters.

And even when we lament with Jesus over the imprisonment, and eventually the execution of John the Baptist, we remember that even Herod, a most powerful man in that world, could not shut John's voice down, because here we are, nearly 2,000 years later, still remembering what he said and letting it embolden our own John the Baptist voices in our world.

The prophets foretold our coming. “See, I am sending my messengers ahead of Jesus,” God says of you and me and many more beyond these walls. “These are my messengers, who prepare Jesus' Way before him...Repent. The Kingdom of Heaven is near!”

Let us walk in the light of the Lord!


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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