The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 12/10/95
Text: Matt. 3:1-17 (Is. 40:1-5)

A time to put your imagination to work this morning. The scene is a large, ornate room in the palace of Herod the king. In it, you and others who comprise the best and the brightest in all of Judea - religious leaders, politicians, courtiers. There is an air of expectation in the hall, for you are about to meet a man whose reputation has spread across the land. The king's men have arrested him after reports that he has denounced Herod's marriage to Herodias, until recently the wife of Herod's brother Phillip. You want to see for yourselves what this strange man of the desert is all about. He is coming to offer a defense.

Suddenly, the great doors swing open, and into the hall he comes. He is dressed in homespun - camels' hair with a wide leather belt around his waist. Hair and beard somewhat unkempt. Fierce, burning eyes. Wild looking.

He speaks. "My name is John Bar Zecharias. I am also known as John the Baptizer or John the Baptist. I AM NOT THE MESSIAH. Some of you Jews came to me last week and asked if I were. I was gratified that you should even consider such a thing, but I repeat, I am not the Messiah. I will answer another of your questions: I AM NOT ELIJAH. I know that we Jews expect Elijah to return to herald the appearance of the Messiah, as I have been doing. We have looked for Elijah to crown him king and overthrow our oppressors. But no, I am not Elijah. Another question you asked: Am I the prophet that Moses said would come? Again, I say to you, I am not.

"Perchance it would be better if I describe about me what IS rather than what IS NOT. Then perhaps all will see what the purpose of my message has been. My father was Zechariah, the priest. My mother? Elizabeth...also of a priestly family. Good people obeying all the commandments. My parents were very old before I was conceived. They thought they would never have any children at all, but one day, during the course of my father's priestly duties, while he was burning incense in the temple, the Angel Gabriel appeared to him with the message that a son would be born to him and my mother who would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth. He would never touch wine nor strong drink. He would go as God's Elijah...turning disobedient people back to righteousness, and preparing the way of the Lord. Gabriel even told my father what my name should be...John.

"Well, my father found all this hard to believe, and told Gabriel so, which did not please Gabriel at all. So the angel said heatedly, `I am sent to you directly from God with this good news, and you do not believe. All right, to prove that this thing I have told you about IS coming to pass, you are hereby struck DUMB until the birth of the baby.' And sure enough, when he finally came out of the temple, my father could not speak. He was only able to make signs with his hands to let people know he had seen a vision.

"So he went home, and just as Gabriel had said, my mother became pregnant, and in the fullness of time, I was born. When I was eight days old, with the family preparing for the ceremony of circumcision, and people wanting to name me after my father, mother said, `No, his name will be John.' They looked to my father. He took out a piece of chalk and wrote HIS NAME IS JOHN. And with that, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he gave praise to God. Needless to say, everyone there was overwhelmed, and frankly afraid...because it was obvious that the hand of the Almighty God was controlling this. And the people knew that Yahweh must have a special mission for me. To be sure, that was the case...but more about that in due course.

"Under normal circumstances, I would automatically become a priest. I know our tradition well enough to realize that I would be considered as certain to follow my father. I know that only sons of priests can become priests. I know that family lines determine who can serve in the temple and who cannot. But I am not a priest, nor have I any desire to become one. On the day of my circumcision, my father said I would become a prophet of the Most High God. I would go ahead of the Lord to prepare a way for him, to tell his people that they will be saved by repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Certainly, you are not used to hearing a message like the one I have been delivering. The voice of prophecy has been silent in Israel for 400 years...and admit it, this nation SHOWS it.

"Growing up, I spent most of my time in the desert... studying, meditating, waiting for the moment when Yahweh would tell me what to say. And as I waited, conditions got worse... injustice, violence, immorality, victims of war and debt, thousands in slavery (three slaves to every freeman in a household)...people chained and cast into the mines until they either died or went blind...the breadless poor selling their own children into slavery or harlotry...kings and priests exacting heavy tribute (a third of a farmer's grain for temple and crown taxes)...stores and cattle seized for war. The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

"The conditions in the temple were getting worse and worse too: divisions and arguments and factions...some Pharisees, some Sadducees, some Herodians, some Zealots...each constantly at the throats of the others until something comes along to unite them, either in praise or in fear.

"Well, I say to you, ALL of you have reason to fear! I have been quoted as saying "REPENT! Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near. Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees and hypocrites. You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.' You have much to repent, and that is the message Yahweh has brought me out of the desert to proclaim. I am the voice that the prophet Isaiah said would be crying in the wilderness, saying `Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.' THE KING IS COMING.

"It is a message that needs to be proclaimed, and the people know it. That is why so many have been coming out from Jerusalem down to Bethany by the Jordan in such stifling heat. They are not concerned with their physical comfort but with their eternal well-being. They have been coming from everywhere...Galilee, Judea, Perea, Decapolis. All kinds of people too...high, low, politicians, soldiers, even some of you in this chamber. The message is the same for all...a demand for decency, dignity and generosity toward all. And, praise God, people have repented... and shown it.

"They have asked what to do with this new-found righteousness and I have given them practical advice. I say, if you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. To the tax collectors, I have said do not take more than is just. To soldiers, do not do violence to not accuse falsely... be content with your wages. Then as an outward sign of their repentance, they have asked me to baptize them in the Jordan, a symbolic washing away of their sins.

"Some have asked about the baptisms. They did not understand by whose authority I was doing it if I were not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet who had been promised by Moses. If I were none of them, why was all this being done? To them, the only baptism that was understood was that which showed a Gentile had been converted to Judaism with the ceremony in recognition of the Lordship of Yahweh.

"But this baptism meant more. While I baptize with water, it does no good to go through it if the ritual is only to impress neighbors, if it is only for show. I have been saying all along that one would come after me who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and if your repentance is not genuine, you will be burned up as chaff. Some think they will be protected from God's wrath because they are Jews, the descendants of Abraham. But if Yahweh wanted children, they could be raised up from the stones on the ground. The only way ANY will be saved is in true repentance. The ax is ready to cut down any trees that do not bear good fruit. Yes, it is a hard message, but it is the one God told me to bring.

"I am standing here before you at this moment because I have denounced the marriage of the king, his setting aside of his own wife and taking Herodias, the wife of his half-brother. It is an incestuous, adulterous marriage, your majesty. If that offends you, I am sorry, but it offends Almighty God even more! I know it is dangerous to talk this way about the king, but it would be even more dangerous for me to avoid proclaiming the clear word of God. I MUST speak out even if it eventually means my head. I MUST speak out because the one to follow me has already come.

"Surprised? I see some of you murmuring. You have thought of ME as the Messiah, but one who is now here is so much greater than I, that I am not even worthy to be his disciple. Even that is too much of an honor for me in comparison to him. I am not even good enough to be the slave that unties his sandals.

"I know this is startling news to you. We have all been waiting for the coming of the Messiah, but I can tell you that HE HAS COME, not as the conquering hero who will throw off the yoke of Rome as many have been looking for (including me, until just recently), but as the sacrificial lamb who will take away the sin of the world. He is Jesus of Nazareth.

"I should have known it all along. Jesus and I are cousins through our mothers. And my mother told me stories from before my birth of a visit from Jesus' mother, Mary. My mother said I jumped for joy within her in Mary's presence. I saw him from time to time as we grew up. I always had a great deal of respect for him. He was keenly intelligent...always honest and just in his dealings with people. He was gentle, modest, gracious...a friend to all, easy and outgoing. Many times I wished I were more like him.

"Then one day, as I was preaching by the riverside, I saw him in the crowd. An odd sensation came over me. I stumbled in my preaching. My thoughts clouded. My eyes kept coming back to Jesus. Then he came to me and asked to be baptized...and I realized then that he was the one I had been talking about all along. Then I muttered something like `I should not be baptizing you, you should baptize me.' But he put me at ease and said for me to go ahead so that God's requirements would be fulfilled. So I did, and as soon as it was over, it was as if the heavens opened up, and the Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove...then a voice came out of the clouds saying, `This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' It was tremendous. So I cried out, `This is he of whom I spoke. He who comes after me is preferred before me, for he was before me.' It was a turning point in my ministry.

"The very next day, two of my disciples were standing talking with me when Jesus came by. I guess they could see the smile beginning on my face, and they looked at me with questions in their eyes. I said, `My friends, the one you see there is the Lamb of God.' They were good men. They had repented of their sins...and along with all of us, had awaited the day of the coming Messiah. So I could not blame them for chasing off down the road after him. As they got nearer, Jesus turned and asked them what they were looking for...but they really did not know. So one of them, Andrew I think it was, asked the first thing that popped into his mind: `Where do you live, Rabbi?' Jesus said `Come and see.' So they went with him and spent the rest of the afternoon in his company...and were totally enthralled. Andrew was so impressed that he went and got his brother Simon to come and see Jesus. He was equally taken. Then more and more came to him. They were not MY disciples anymore. Now they belonged to Jesus.

"Some who had been with me since the early days of my preaching were perturbed. They thought that Jesus was stealing my thunder. They came to me saying that they thought it was not fair that the crowds going to Jesus were getting bigger and bigger while mine were becoming smaller and smaller. I had to smile...a little indulgently, I'm afraid. I said, `Do you not remember my telling you I am not the Messiah, but have been sent ahead of him to get everyone ready for him? Think of the crowds as the bride, and of the Messiah as the groom...and of me as the friend of the groom. When the bride and groom have finally gotten together, the friend fades into the background. The groom must obviously become more important while the friend becomes less.' No, Jesus was not stealing my thunder. He was and is my thunder. And that is my message to you today.

Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. I am not the Messiah...nor Elijah nor the prophet Moses promised. I am simply the voice that Isaiah wrote about...the one crying in the wilderness saying, `Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' Jesus is the Son of God. The Father loves the Son and has put all things in his power. The one who believes on the Son has everlasting life. This is my message on the banks of the Jordan. This is my message to you in the palace of the king. This is my message to all in every age...Repent, and be saved. The Lord has come. His name is Jesus. His name is Jesus. His name is Jesus."


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