John The Baptist Revd. Martin Dale
Sermon: John the Baptist – Radical and Countercultural par excellence
Story: A young police officer was taking his final exam for the police academy and he was set the following problem to solve.
“You are on patrol in the outer city when an explosion occurs in a gas main in a nearby street.
On investigation you find that a large hole has been blown in the footpath and there is an overturned van nearby.
Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol. Both occupants—a man and a woman—are injured.
You recognize the woman as the wife of your Chief of Police, who is at present away in the USA.
A passing motorist stops to offer you assistance and you realize that he is a man who is wanted for armed robbery.
Suddenly a man runs out of a nearby house, shouting that his wife is expecting a baby and that the shock of the explosion has made the birth imminent.
Another man is crying for help, having been blown in the adjacent canal by the explosion, and he cannot swim.
Describe in a few words what actions you would take.”
The young man thought for a moment, picked up his pen and wrote,
“I would take off my uniform and mingle with the crowd.”
But just as that wouldn’t do for the policeman so we as Christians we can’t duck our responsibilities either
We are often called to swim against the tide of public opinion.
Jesus certainly did – and so did the subject of our Bible reading this morning – John the Baptist.
And interestingly all four of the Gospels tell us things about the life of John the Baptist (Mt3, Mk1 and Mk 6, Lk 3 and Jn1).
John was an important figure for the early Church.
John the Baptist was both radical and countercultural in three ways:
1. In his lifestyle
2. In what he taught and
3. In his fearlessness of men in the face of adversity.
1. The first way that John the Baptist was radical and countercultural was his radical lifestyle
While the religious leaders of his day lived in fine houses – and the High Priest himself even lived in a palace – John the Baptist took to the desert to live a life of seclusion and prayer.
John wasn’t pretentious. He didn’t overrate himself. In fact quite the contrary.
He didn’t claim to be more than he was. There was a humility about John.
When Jesus came to be baptised by John – look at John’s reply:
“But John tried to deter him, saying: I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt 3:14)
There was also a simplicity in his lifestyle
He didn’t wear an Armani suit or Designer jeans. He didn’t have a rolex watch either – and all the other trappings of worldly success. St Matthew records that
“John’s clothes were made of camels’ hair and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Mt 3:4)
While I am not advocating locusts and honey for our harvest supper – I do think it is important to notice the simplicity of John’s living.
2. The second way in which John the Baptist was radical and countercultural was in his teaching
John the Baptist was very clear in his message. He called a spade a spade
He was hugely popular with the people – not just because he tweeked the nose of the heirarchy – but because the people recognised what he was saying was from God.
There was a mini revival. Even the outcasts of society – the tax collectors and the Roman soldiers are recorded as coming to him (Lk 3).
And I wouldn’t be surprised if the prostitutes came as well.
Yet his message wasn’t a populist message – indeed it should have been extremely unpopular as it was so condemnatory.
We read in Matthew 3 that he preached a Gospel of repentance. And He was quite a tough preacher.
When many of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptised by him he said this:
“You brood of vipers Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath. Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves ” We have Abraham as our father. I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children of Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt 3:8-9)
I don’t think John the Baptist had ever read Dale Carnegie’s book “How to make friends and influence people”!!!
The Jews thought that simply by keeping the letter of the Law – as they saw it – would make them fit children for God
But God is interested in the heart – as Jesus often himself taught
“What comes out of a man’s heart and not what goes in is that which pollutes him,” (Mt 15:17-18 paraphrased) Jesus once said.
And God speaking through the writer of the book of Proverbs inn the Old Testament said this:
26 My son, give me your heart and let your eyes keep to my ways, (Proverbs 23:26).
John’s message was tough – he didn’t mince his words – and inevitably this brought him into conflict with the authorities – which in this case was the local king Herod Antipas.
For Herod, John overstepped the mark once too often when he condemned Herod for marrying his brother Philip’s wife. And so Herod threw John in prison.
And prison in those days was not at all comfortable. Prisoners had no human rights and generally were dependant on friends and relations for the very food they ate.
3. And the final way in which John the Baptist was radical and countercultural was in his fearlessness of men
He didn’t chicken out when the going got tough.
John, I am sure could have extradited himself from prison if he had simply found a formula to allow Herod to marry Herodias, Herod’s brother Philip’s wife.
And even great men of God bowed to such temporal pressure.
Story: One of the blots on the career of the great German Reformer, Martin Luther – was his acquiescence to the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hess.
In 1530, at the height of the Reformation in Germany – and where the Protestant cause was at its most vulnerable, Philip of Hesse organised the secular Protestant forces of the Reformation into
what was known as the Schmalkaldic League.
This alliance was set up to protect their religious and secular interests against interference from the Roman Catholic Holy Roman Emperor
On 11th December 1523 Philip married Christine of Saxony the daughter of an important ally George Duke of Saxony.
However Christine has been described by contempory sources as sickly and unattractive – and was reputed to have a drinking probem.
So it wasn’t very soon after the marriage that Philip committed adultery with the daugther of one of his sister’s ladies-in-waiting, Margarethe von der Saale.
And he wanted to marry her.
The matter was discussed with the great German Reformers, Luther, Methancthon and Bucer.
It was only when Philip threatened to side with the Holy Roman Emperor against the Protestant Schmalkaldic league if he didn’t get his own way, that the Reformers gave in.
They agreed that – rather than follow Henry VIII and have a divorce – they would sanction a bigamous marriage which took place on 4th December 1540, between Philip and Margarethe.
To the eternal shame of the Reformation
Had John the Baptist been asked his opinion, I am sure he would have condemned it.
Such was the courage and integrity of the man.
And John’s brave outspokenness eventually cost him his head.
John the Baptist’s story reminds us that being a Christian will not always be easy.
There will be tough decisions to make that might lead us to be unpopular.
Yet the story of John is not given to us to show us a way to earn our salvation – because we can’t.
All of us still have to come through the Cross of Jesus.
Even John the Baptist – a Great and Godly man as he was – could only enter the Kingdom through the Cross of Jesus Christ.
For the Kingdom of God is made up – not of those who in their own goodness try to enter it – but ofn those who are clothed in the blood of Jesus.
For in human terms John was special – but this needs to be kept in perspective – as Jesus said:
I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the very least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he (Lk 7:28-29)
However, once we are saved John was a great example for us to follow in Christian living.
But John’s life reminds us that we must have integrity in our lives.
We must be willing to be faithful to God’s calling in our lives – even if it eventually costs us our head. That is quite a challenge.