O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, His mercy endures forever (1 Chr 16:34). Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church - Winnipeg, MB
EMBRACE THIS MARTYR'S RADICAL CALL
"EMBRACE THIS MARTYR'S RADICAL CALL"
Based on Malachi 3:1-4
Preached on July 15, 2012
In Christ the Lord, good friends!
Our church calendar isn't anywhere in the Bible. It's a tradition people devised. I'm persuaded it's a sound tradition. That calendar uses ordinary things like days and months to fix in your memory details of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Every year on June 24 we hear reports of people in Quebec celebrating a day called "Saint Jean Baptiste" almost as their own national holiday alongside Canada Day, or maybe even instead of Canada Day if you're a separatist. "Saint Jean Baptiste" means "John the Baptist Day". Know why it comes on June 24? Well, the Bible tells us that when Jesus' mother, Mary the Virgin, found out she was pregnant, she hurried off to her much older cousin Elizabeth for a visit. Mary had no way of knowing that Elizabeth was expecting, too, or that her pregnancy was already six months along. The baby born to Elizabeth was John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, who served as a forerunner to pave the way for Christ.
What happens when you start on Christmas Eve, December 24, and count back six months to the time when John the Baptist would have been born? You guessed it! That's how June 24 came to be known as the Festival of Saint John the Baptist.
I'm not here mostly to teach you trivia about this rugged man of long ago. You learn more of John's work in today's Gospel. On the basis of the text I just read, I'm urging you to embrace this martyr's radical call!
That leads me to share three things:
I. Many Christians are in no mood for John;
II. That's our failing, not his!
III. Thank God today for the gift of this martyr!
I. Of all the times I've heard believers tell me their favourite Bible character, I don't remember anybody naming John the Baptist. I'm not surprised. John was out of step with the thinking of a lot of people back in Jesus' day. Many Christians even now are in no mood for John the Baptist.
Fact is, our world wants to be kept happy. People want to hear pleasant things. It's true that Christian preachers and Christian people in general ought to be as pleasant and winsome as they can. When you as a Christian GIVE AN ANSWER TO EVERYONE WHO ASKS YOU TO GIVE THE REASON FOR THE HOPE YOU HAVE, the Bible encourages you to DO THIS WITH GENTLENESS AND RESPECT. In another place it says IF SOMEONE IS CAUGHT IN A SIN, YOU WHO ARE SPIRITUAL SHOULD RESTORE HIM GENTLY. And when you read in Acts about the apostle Paul testifying before men like King Agrippa, he's polite and respectful in addressing them. Even the time Paul lost his temper and spoke sharply to the high priest, he apologized for it right away.
But, friends, let's be honest! It's not just an unpleasant tone our world dislikes. Our world in many ways doesn't like the truth of God. When the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, spoke to the Jews about their spiritual condition, he started that speech in a very respectful way. But they got angry enough that they killed Stephen that day, not because Stephen was a nasty man, not because he didn't know how to handle people, but because they just didn't want to hear the truth from God that Stephen announced, about how repentance and faith are expected from them as much as anybody. When Roman Governor Felix once heard Paul preach, he interrupted the message and sent Paul away. It's not because Paul was too harsh. It's because Felix didn't want God's truth. That truth was putting the finger on some of his personal weak spots.
This doesn't just happen in the unbelieving world. It happens within God's Church. I've personally seen situations where a pastor or another Christian had to speak correction to someone, perhaps about sinful or loveless conduct. Many times the one receiving that correction gets angry, shuns the person who spoke, stays away from God's Word and worship. It wasn't always because the person speaking was harsh. I've seen instances when the person speaking was calm and diplomatic about it. But there are those times when even Christian people simply don't want God's truth if it cuts personally too close to the quick.
Yes, our world - including Christian people - wants to be kept happy. Success is often measured by how well an individual Christian or a particular preacher manages to keep people happy. John the Baptist's way was different. It was a radical way. It got right down to the root of the problem. John the Baptist's way was to tell God's truth.
John wasn't against bringing cheerful Good News to crowds of people. ALL MANKIND WILL SEE GOD'S SALVATION, he preached when he was getting them ready to meet Jesus. The Bible adds, WITH MANY...WORDS JOHN EXHORTED THE PEOPLE AND PREACHED THE GOOD NEWS TO THEM. In one way John told the happiest, sweetest, pleasantest thing there is, that the Saviour of the world is coming to make peace between God and fallen humankind. But this Good News involves a clean break with sin. It wasn't harshness, but God's truth that moved John to lay it on the line and tell everybody: Your sin, your hypocrisy, your lovelessness, those things block the road for the Promised Saviour. Dear friends, face them! Blast them out of the way! PREPARE THE WAY FOR THE LORD, MAKE STRAIGHT PATHS FOR HIM, John insisted.
I've said a lot of people are in no mood for that sort of talk. It's why a lot of people didn't like John, and many times don't like others who may have to speak as he did. But when we're tempted, as we all are, to find fault with John the Baptist, let's remember...
II. That is our failing, not his! The text I read today comes from Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament. It's a short book. You can read the whole thing in ten minutes. Malachi wrote it 400 years before John the Baptist came, that's 2400 years ago. Strange how a guy from back then does such an accurate job picturing modern-day weaknesses!
For example, in Chapter 1, Malachi describes how spiritually sleepy people have no eyes to see how shallow their faith has become. They've been believers for years. They're taking God for granted. They're not going to inconvenience themselves too much living for Him. They offer the minimum they can get away with.
They cannot understand why God tells them that He'd rather they didn't bother worshiping Him at all, if that was how they were going to worship!
In Chapter 2, Malachi describes how these same people so blind to their own shallowness blame God for what's wrong in their lives. If there's too much evil in the world, it's His doing. He's not caring well for His people. He's not seeing to proper justice.
Malachi's an old book with a modern story line, isn't it? It is so tempting, friends, to be completely uncritical of yourself. When friendships break down, it's so easy to see the bad the other person did and to excuse everything you did. When God doesn't seem to be answering prayers as you feel He should, it's tempting to accuse Him of not caring and to ignore your sins that stand like roadblocks that prevent Him from bestowing certain blessings in your life. When another Christian or a pastor has to say a challenging word to you, it's common to reply, "Why's he laying a guilt trip on me? She's not being very loving! Don't they realize they made me feel bad?" when quite possibly you ought to ask yourself soberly whether they've spoken some of God's truth that you personally need to face right now.
People in Malachi's day thought they wanted the Messiah to come. Well, said God, He's coming! SEE, I WILL SEND MY MESSENGER, WHO WILL PREPARE THE WAY BEFORE ME. That was John the Baptist. Malachi predicted him 400 years in advance. THEN SUDDENLY THE LORD YOU ARE SEEKING WILL COME TO HIS TEMPLE, His people. THE MESSENGER...WHOM YOU DESIRE, WILL COME, SAYS THE LORD ALMIGHTY. You think you want Him, BUT WHO CAN ENDURE THE DAY OF HIS COMING? WHO CAN STAND WHEN HE APPEARS? HE WILL BE LIKE A REFINER'S FIRE OR A LAUNDERER'S SOAP. HE WILL SIT AS A REFINER AND PURIFIER OF SILVER; HE WILL PURIFY THE LEVITES (the spiritual leaders) AND REFINE THEM LIKE GOLD AND SILVER. THEN THE LORD WILL HAVE MEN WHO WILL BRING OFFERINGS IN RIGHTEOUSNESS.
John's message was radical, hard for folks to hear. It's still God's message to every one of us. The Bible says exactly that about John, THE LORD'S HAND WAS WITH HIM.
God's Word to you is that neither the Messiah nor His forerunner come to offer excuses for the complacent. Christ offers rest to the weary, but not excuses for the complacent. This Messiah comes like fire, to burn up all the underbrush and weeds growing thick in your life and mine. This Messiah comes like harsh old soap. It stings as it cleanses away the dirt we've permitted to get down deep into our pores.
John the Baptist came one day with that burning and that stinging to a king named Herod. If he'd have been the kind of preacher that a lot of Lutheran congregations want to have nowadays, he'd have kept his big mouth shut about Herod's immoral life, breaking up his brother's marriage so he could take brother's wife for himself. John said bluntly, "It's a sin for you to have her." Herod threw John in prison for saying that, and ultimately had him beheaded. The problem was not merely that John didn't know how to be diplomatic. The problem was that Herod's wife didn't want God's truth.
John the Baptist spoke it, anyway. He didn't do it because he was loveless. He didn't relish arguments, or enjoy making folks feel bad. He did it so that you and I will face up to your sin and my sin, your sins of lust and envy, your sin of ingratitude and wasting the time God gives you, your sin of gossip and self-centeredness, your sin which loves focusing on how you feel about everything and often doesn't care beans about how someone else feels, including how God feels.
When you realize what a tangled mess you've made out of life with all those things you could never undo, and understand you're helpless to do anything but cry out, "Lord, have mercy," then rising up from this tangled mess of a world God throws His spotlight on those crosspieces of wood where the Man Jesus Christ is nailed tight and dripping blood everywhere to pay for all the failures you'll never clean up. Then this Jesus Whom you took for granted becomes the most beautiful, dearest and sweetest Friend you can find. He is your personal Ransom. He is God's Good News aimed at you.
Dear one, whenever God's truth is spoken to you, you stand before a choice. You can block it out, as Governor Felix did, often quite effectively. You can attack the messenger, as Herod did, and tell others the problem is with that messenger-person. You can focus in on your feelings and decide it's wrong for you to have to be uncomfortable, as countless people - including a great many in the church - continue to do. But I submit to you there's a much better response as you think about God's man, St. John the Baptist.
III. It's to thank God for the gift of martyrs like this! You may not know the full meaning of that word, "martyr." In our English language it's a person who dies for a cause. John the Baptist died for the cause of Christ. But there's more than that. In the old Greek Bible language, "martyr" means "witness."
John was a first-rate martyr, a first-rate witness, wasn't he? He witnessed by his courageous words which were not popular. He also gave a strong witness by his willingness to die for the Lord's sake.
John the Baptist is a gift which God's Church needs to unpack and benefit from. In these days when believers will skip the preaching of God's Word just because they were out late Saturday night or because it's summer and they don't feel like bothering, in these days when many believers won't take time to show care for each other because they've got fun stuff planned and it's too much trouble, in these days when we'll neglect bringing our faith toward Christ into a conversation because we don't want disapproval from other people, in these days John the Baptist is a gift which Christians should unpack and learn from.
He had a mindset so different from ours. He didn't straddle the fence. Confessing Christ, going with Christ, giving glory to Christ, prioritizing everything else around the fact that I belong to Christ, paying the price if that's what it takes to keep faith with Christ; that was John's way.
He's a gift, all right. Your gracious God has given many gifts like that, many martyrs and witnesses to His people to equip us for what is still to come. We do not honour them only by setting aside a day on the calendar, or only by saying nice words about them, or by becoming a little misty-eyed about their sufferings or just wishing we could be different.
The Lord can use these martyrs as a gift to make you deeper and stronger. REMEMBER YOUR LEADERS, Hebrews 13 reminds us, WHO SPOKE THE WORD OF GOD TO YOU. CONSIDER THE OUTCOME OF THEIR WAY OF LIFE AND IMITATE THEIR FAITH. Yes, don't just consider the bad stuff they endured along the way. But consider the outcome of their way of life, the approval they received from the Lord, the crown they inherited. CONSIDER THE OUTCOME OF THEIR WAY OF LIFE, AND IMITATE THEIR FAITH.
The more time you spend in Scripture getting to know the martyrs like John very well, the more they become your personal friends, the more you soak up their mindset, the more they end up shaping and forming you, the more you get the eyes to see past the troubles of this moment, the more you view a lot of your own pettiness for what it is, the more you realize how kind God is to share with us people like that.
Here's how to reflect properly on a personality like blessed John the Baptist. It's to embrace the truth of God, even when it stings you personally, because you know it comes from your loving Saviour Jesus. It's to embrace the faithfulness of a man like John, whose way was never popular, but which is needed now in this world where Christians have become far too flabby. An old hymn verse has it just about right:
And all the noble throng
Who wear the spotless raiment
And raise the ceaseless song-
For these, passed on before us,
We offer praises due
And, walking in their footsteps,
Would live our lives for You. Amen.