“The World’s Greatest Prophet” – Luke 3:1-20
Advent 2 – December 10, 2017
Introduction to Service: Who is the greatest….? (discuss as 6 or 8 people around you) actor, hockey player, painter, composer, baseball player, Canadian Prime Minister, American President, British Monarch, singer, scientist, inventor…prophet.
When you think of Old Testament prophets, what do they look like? (long beards, robes, sandals; but Isaiah had to walk around naked and barefoot for three years!)
What do they say? (messages of doom and gloom, fire and brimstone, the end is near, repent or else)
It seems that there was a little old white church out in the countryside with a high steeple. One Sunday, the pastor noticed that his church needed painting. He checked out the ads and found a paint sale. The next day, he went into town and bought a gallon of white paint. He went back out to the church and began the job.
He got done with the first side. It was looking great. But he noticed he had already used a half gallon. He didn’t want to run back in town and being the creative person that he was, he found a gallon of paint thinner in the shed out back, and began to thin his paint.
It worked out great. He finished the remaining three sides with that last half gallon of paint.
That night, it rained… hard. The next morning when he stepped outside of the parsonage to admire his work, he saw that the first side was looking great, but that the paint on the other three sides had washed away.
The pastor looked up in sky in anguish and cried out, “What shall I do?”
A voice came back from the heavens saying, “Repaint, you thinner!”
“End is near” Cartoons (on slides)
The messages of the prophets did fall generally into certain categories – warning/punishment (Zephaniah’s warning of destruction on various neighbour nations), rebuke/repent (Jonah’s message to the people of Nineveh), the coming of a Saviour (Isaiah’s “For to us a child is born” message), hope/promise (Jeremiah’s message that the Babylonian exile would last for 70 years and then the people would return to Israel).
The messages of the prophets were not just about foretelling the future, but they were more importantly about forthtelling – they included a pertinent message for the people of the prophet’s own time and situation.
Who were the famous prophets: Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Daniel.
Who was the greatest one? None of the above… Jesus calls John the Baptist the Greatest Prophet (Luke 7:28) – but why?
- John – who is he?
The first question we need to answer about John is “who is he?” From the beginning of Luke’s Gospel we read that John is the miracle baby born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old age. They were both of the priestly tribe of Aaron, and Zechariah was serving as a priest in the temple when he received an angelic message that Elizabeth would bear a son. The angel said that this boy would be great in the sight of the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit and the power of Elijah, and that he would make people ready for the coming of the Lord. The spirit and the power of Elijah… that allusion to the famous Old Testament prophet fulfilled the words from Malachi that we heard about last Sunday: “I will send you the prophet Elijah before that… day of the Lord comes.” Later Jesus, Himself, said to a crowd of people, “If you are willing to accept it, [John] is the Elijah who was to come.”
When John was born, Zechariah was filled with praise and uttered a prophetic message including these words: “You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” Those words refer to the Old Testament lesson we heard today from Isaiah 40: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God… and all mankind together will see [God’s salvation].’” John was the way-preparer spoken of by Isaiah.
And what did John look like? Well, we heard that in the gospel reading from Mark 1. He wore clothing made of camel’s hair – yuck, that would be bristly, I think – with a leather belt, and he ate locusts and wild honey – very trendy food… for a prophet!!
- John – what did he do?
The second question today is what did he do? Well, his common nickname – John the Baptist – doesn’t tell us what denomination he belonged to. It tells us what he did. Mark’s gospel tells us that he came baptizing in the desert region, in the Jordan River, east of Jerusalem. Even before John appeared, different groups within Judaism practiced baptism. Rabbinic literature notably mentions that Gentiles converting to Judaism were expected to undergo circumcision and a proselyte baptism and to make an offering. These rites marked full acceptance into the community of God’s chosen people. But John insisted that Jews needed to repent and be baptized, implying that they were no better than Gentiles. The word ‘baptism’ refers to washing, cleansing. It was something that the Pharisees did to their plates, cups and bowls to properly prepare them for ceremonial use. Yes, the Greek word ‘baptism’ is used in that context. But here in Mark 1, it referred to a cleansing of a person, especially spiritually, morally, on the inside. That’s why it was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
Accompanying his ministry of Baptism was some preaching. The message was one of repentance, but we’ll cover that in the next point.
One other notable thing that John did was to call out King Herod for his evil actions, especially adultery with his brother’s wife, Herodias, who was also his own niece. For that reason, Herod locked John up in prison. Even though he had been rebuked by John, Herod did not kill him because he enjoyed listening to him, and he knew him to be a righteous and holy man, and he feared the crowds who considered John to be a prophet. Herodias, however, had no such hesitation. When the opportunity presented itself, she took advantage of Herod’s own ill-advised promise to her daughter to ask for John’s head on a platter, thereby bringing to an end the story about her hatred for John.
- John – what did he say?
A third question… what did John say? As a prophet, did he have those same messages of warning, repentance, the coming of a Saviour, and hope as did the prophets of the Old Testament? We’ll leave the Saviour and hope messages for the final point today.
John’s message was certainly one of warning and a call to repentance. In Luke 3, John referred to the gathering crowds as a “brood of vipers” and asked who warned them to flee from the coming wrath of the final judgment. I suppose there was a little fire and brimstone there. Like any good law/gospel preacher, John was pointing out where the lives of the people had failed to live up to God’s divine standard. He was calling them to honestly confess their sins and to genuinely seek God’s forgiveness for those sins.
Another thing that he said was, “Don’t rest on your laurels. Don’t hide behind your heritage. Don’t brag that “We have Abraham as our father,” and we don’t need to do anything else. He was saying, “You can’t just count on being Jewish for your salvation. You can’t summon the faith of your grandma or grandpa to count for your hope of heaven. It’s got to be real, personal, meaningful and now… you and God!”
There was one more thing that John said. It wasn’t so much a warning or a rebuke. It was more of a challenge. The crowd asked, “What should we do?” It was the very same question that the cut-to-the-heart Pentecost Day crowd asked Peter after they had been convicted of their participation in Jesus’ crucifixion and after they had been convinced of the truth of Peter’s words that God had made this Jesus both Lord and Christ. This Jordan River crowd was also cut-to-the-heart over John’s fiercely passionate call to repentance, and they said, “Now what?”
John responded by saying “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, “If you have a Godly heart, then live a Godly life.” And he made his response practical, giving various groups of people specific ways to live their faith. To everyone, he proposed sharing food and clothing with the needy. To tax collectors, he suggested practicing integrity by not collecting any more taxes than they are required to. To soldiers, he urged honesty and contentment in their work.
Do some of these challenges and warnings apply to us? You bet they do! We all have sins that infect, and affect, and assault us… every day! John’s message calls us to repent of those sins, and to confess those sins to God, earnestly seeking His forgiveness. Jesus’ disciple John – a different man – wrote about that in his first letter: “If you confess your sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Like the Jews of John’s day, we cannot rest on our laurels or on the faith of our fathers. Our spiritual heritage is of no benefit or advantage for us. I can’t say, “My uncle was a pastor. My dad sang in the choir. My mom was involved in LWML.” Their faith and their faithfulness does not contribute in the least to my salvation. Neither does the faith of your ancestors. It’s got to be real, personal, meaningful and now… you and God!”
Then there is the challenge to produce spiritual fruit in our lives of faith. The same examples as John used could apply to us: give food and clothing to the poor; live lives of integrity in your work; be honest, truthful and content with what God has given in your life. If you’re going to be a God-person, if you’re going to have a God-faith, then live out a God-life – inside and out. Ask God for wisdom. Ask God for guidance. Ask God for power, the power of His Holy Spirit to have your life match your faith. Trust that when you fail, as we all do, God’s safety net of grace will catch you and set you free to live a Godly life again tomorrow.
- John – pointing to Jesus
OK, so we still haven’t gotten to why John was the greatest prophet. As I mentioned earlier, it was actually Jesus’ own assessment that John was the greatest prophet. This account is recorded in both Matthew 11 and Luke 7. John was still in prison but he was inquiring about Jesus’ own identity, wondering if He was indeed the Messiah, the Saviour. Jesus answered that inquiry with the facts about His own actions, and then talked about the character of John. He included this evaluation: “”Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.”
John was the last prophet under the old covenant, but His surpassing greatness was his close connection with Jesus. In the infancy narrative of Jesus, we discover that Jesus’ mother Mary and John’s mother Elizabeth were relatives. So, John and Jesus’ were also related – perhaps cousins or second cousins. John was the one who prepared the way for Jesus, announcing His advent. In Luke 3, when people were wondering if John was the Messiah, he discouraged them from that opinion saying, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” When Jesus did come on the scene, John baptized Jesus in those very same Jordan waters, allowing Jesus to identify with us sinners in that special action that works cleansing on the inside. In fact, John and Jesus were so closely related that even King Herod got the two confused, thinking at one point that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead.
Just like Malachi last week was the beginning of the bridge from the Old Testament to the new Testament, John was the end of the bridge from the Old Testament prophets to the prophet par excellence – Jesus! John understood his role to be one of pointing to the Saviour. After Jesus’ baptism, while John was still baptizing but Jesus and His disciples were also baptizing, people questioned John about everyone going to Jesus and following Him. John explained it correctly: “I told you I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of Him.” Then he compared himself to the friend of the bridegroom – the best man, the best prophet – while Jesus was the true groom coming to wed His bride, the church. Then John said the most important words from his lips: “He must become greater, I must become less.” In other words, “If you’re looking at me, you’re looking at the wrong guy. Jesus is the one. He is the Messiah. He is the Saviour. He is the Lord. Follow Him.”
This is why he’s the greatest – He points us to repentance, to Baptism, to forgiveness, to lives aligned with our faith, bearing fruit. But most significantly, he points us to Jesus. Perhaps the last words attributed to John the Baptist in the Bible sum it up: “The one who comes from above is above all… the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God… The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in His hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” What more is there to be said? Prepare the way for the coming of the Lord… it’s Christmas! Amen.