We have heard quite a lot about John recently and I guess it’s no bad thing after probably a good few years without hearing about him. I don’t know what your expectations or experiences or even your knowledge of who and what John “the baptist” no relation btw, are, but he was a pretty cool, if a little of an unusual fellow.
He was Jesus’ cousin and had an unusual birth. He was the first to recognise that his cousin, Jesus, was different, how/what/where/when you ask? Luke 1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby jumped in her womb. So I guess this means that John started as he meant to go on. Being noticed for pointing to Jesus.
And this is where we find ourselves now. John was part of Jesus’ beginning as God incarnate, and now we find John in a place, and playing an important role in, where Jesus’ ministry begins. We might need to pay more attention to what it is about John that is sooo important.
These verses offer an insight into the “Strangeness of faith” the uniqueness of being a christian. They help us to see the “shape” faith takes in us. And the “substructure” or if you prefer the foundations we can rely on in our faith.
So pretty important don’t you think? Let’s read the first few verses and look at the strangeness of this faith.
Strangeness of faith – 4-6 – attraction/distraction
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
You can spot a tourist a mile away can’t you. The way they walk, often the clothes they wear, the way they look around at what are new things for them and not so for us the locals. And when they try to speak the language, well that’s a give away straight off the bat. If we think we don’t stick out like a sore thumb when we wander about Paris, Berlin or any other forgeign city, then we are fooling ourselves. Tourists are different to the rest of us.
John stuck out more like a sore foot than a tiny thumb. He was a curiosity and curiosities attract people. And we are all called to strangeness by Jesus. Ok He didn’t say exactly that but He did say a couple of things that are pretty close. Most notably John 15:19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. And Peter in his first letter 1 Peter 2:11-12 calls chrsitians , foreigners and strangers. The root of the word is “not recognisable, strange, sometimes weird”
And strangeness can attract people. It’s not quite in the way of a “victorian freak show “ sort of strange. Not in the “Bearded lady” “The Four-Legged Girl” and “The Dog-Faced Boy,” strange (real acts BTW). But the strangeness of John was an attraction to the point that the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Wouldn’t be quite an attraction if it was something they had seen before? Or experienced before. I have loved the real explanation of the french phrase “de ja vu”. We take it to mean that what we have just experienced is a little spooky. “I’ve been here, or heard this before” kind of thing. The actual definition of “de ja vu” is more sarcastic. In a sense it means “really, well that’s nothing new, I’ve seen that before”.
So please don’t feel that your strangeness as a chrsitian is some kind of hindrance. It is not. In this world being “not of it” is an attraction. Our way of life, actions, attitudes, the language we use, and we might say lack of certain language, sets us apart and trust me it is an attraction. We don’t need to be like everyone else to share our faith and the Gospel. John was certain of the Gospel, of the call God had on his life and he shared it in a way he knew how.
And what John shared was recognisable to those who heard him. Believe it or not and especially if we remember honestly, many of those we come into contact with are not much different than we were before we came to faith. It’s true, isn’t it? I know I was cantankerous, abusive, faithless and so completely lost to the world that I had no time for the Gospel but still I found recognition in people who had faith and shared it with me. We were no different to them, until we accepted the truth of Jesus Christ.
What John shared was the Gospel… Repentance, forgiveness of sins, baptism and recovery from the world’s strangle hold on us. And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. It is no different now than it was then. We make it complicated and think that by jazzing it up, making ourselves less strange, will convince others of the Gospels importance to them, well it doesn’t do that because it just makes it much like everything else around and they are then very much entitled to say “de ja vu” “I have so seen that before”
There is more to John and Jesus’ shared experiences as well. When we do all of this, we do have to remember that it isn’t going to be easy. The difficulties we might face may just be what causes us to stop and check our strangeness. The fear of ridicule and rejection is a strong force in stopping us from sharing. John did not get a good press everywhere. He was disliked as well as liked. Unfortunately the dislikes did end with an ultimately shared experience with Jesus, in death.
Now we don’t expect to share such a fate and given the likelihood we will not see anything even close to that it is important to note that our hope is not in the here and now anyway. And besides if we are not causing a little bit of a stir then what difference are we actually making? Conflict was and is always part of the Gospel. The last few words of the verse from John 15 I shared earlier is this: but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.
That is what the strangeness of faith is… John was confident not in his strangeness but in the gospel and that is why he shared it as he did, and that is what attracted people… and there is a little of John in all of us that is just waiting to come out.
Shape of faith – 7-8 – what faith does
And so we come to the “shape of our faith” that attracts people
7 And this was his message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’
There is in John a real and meaningful humility. He knew what he was and what he could and couldn’t do. He knew his place before God and it didn’t frighten him but gave him permission to share the gospel as himself. When he describes Jesus as the one “ whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” He was not even allowing himself to be party to do the lowest thing possible. Feet and sandals were the part of the person that got the dirtiest. I do wonder if they were the smelliest as well. And to describe yourself as not being worthy of untying them then you are not a Uriah heep sort of humility all notable for your cloying insincerity. No John knew who Jesus was. Knew who he was. There is a difference. The uriah is not attractive at all, real humility, shown by John is strong and fascinating to people.
And what John knew was that the one who comes was the messiah, the christ. His hope was not in who and what was around him but the one who comes and who can truly save us and forgive us. That hope is attractive if seen in any of us. No one knows this hope until they’re shown it and accept it, but it is attractive because again, it is strange to see it in people.
In a world that is, even without all that Covid brings, uncertain, often fickle, always changing, never fair, greedy and violent, someone who puts their hope in something and especially someone else, is strange, weird, but in the end it is compelling.
Is our hope found in nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness? No one can manufacture that, it comes from God revealing how important you are, how much he loves you and it only comes when he changes our hearts so that we live in that very truth and nothing else matters.
For that to happen, John tells us the difference Jesus will make and that is this “I baptise you in water, but he will baptise you in the Holy Spirit.’ Now there is nothing, in my opinion, that can seem weird to people than the Holy Spirit. And I’m not talking about spiritual gifts, per se, here, and the miracles that can happen as we allow God to work through us, no, what makes people really go “whoa!” is the holy Spirit’s work in our characters. The work of God’s spirit as He brings about the fruit in our lives.
The world lacks love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But I believe it longs for them. In the madness of life seeing someone demonstrate and ooze love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control is a weird and sometimes frightening thing to see. I mean that, people are fascinated yet can get angry as we, pour coals on their head Proverbs 25:22 & Romans 12:20. The Romans reading continues with v21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” Now that is a very strange thing to do “overcoming evil with good” but it is the fruit of the spirit that does it in us.
We cannot be strange without God’s spirit so please don’t try. Our help comes from God who is able to do all things according to His purposes, in us. Recognising the shape of our faith is that in humility we need that help and where we place our hope is not in this world will be a start in seeing we may be as strange as John anyway.
Substructure of faith – 9-11 – what it stands on
So what do we stand on and hope in, then? It may not be that obvious to others when they first came across these strange christians. Let’s read the final verses together.
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’
“You are my son” It is simply a very to the point statement. “ you are my son” is a declaration of intent by God. A declaration to those around, in earshot, that this is the one you can put your trust in. It is the one whose life and ministry will change everything but even more so his death will change YOU and your relationship with God the father forever. This statement is equally aimed at every single person in the world. “You are my son/daughter” “whom I love”. God loves his creation. And He goes further and says this love is so great that “I sent my son so that those who believe I love them would be with me forever”
The Gospel is the whole life of Jesus. God, living as we do, knowing what we struggle with and have to bear. Everything even right up to sharing our death, only more so, so he could save us from that very thing.
And the whole of the Gospel means the whole of it. We cannot have His life without His death. The phrase that stands out here for me is this “heaven was torn open…” It is not as some versions have “opened” it is far more violent than that. The word is cleave asunder and rent apart.. The other place it means as much is at Jesus’ death when not only is the veil in the temple dividing the people from the presence of God but the very rocks (or earth itself) cracked because of the enormity of what had just happened.
And it is there that God completed the circle in opening up the heavens so he can now say to everyone “… you are my my beloved…with you I am well pleased” The boundaries that separate us from God have been torn down in Jesus’ death and resurrection. First at Jesus’ baptism and finally at His death and resurrection.
Both of these events, the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry and also at its completion, were witnessed by the whole of humankind. At the beginning the jew “John” heard and recognised Jeus for who He was and heard the almighty say “ this is my son”. At His death, God confirmed His grace for the whole world as He revealed who Jesus was to a gentile, a centurion, as he spoke much the same thing as John Mark 15:39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
This Gospel is not for the select few who we deem acceptable but the call is to everyone with no exception. In this family tree there are no distinctions and just as Jesus was baptised along with us, for those who accept Him, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for all one in Christ Jesus. Which may, at times, seem strange to us but not to God and if accepted by us then it is one of the strangest things about us.
So please be weird and strange. Don’t be afraid to be who God intends you to be, even if that is not very much like anyone around you…it’s sort of what you are meant to be, a foreigner and an alien.
To be as strange as God wants you to be we are to allow the Gospel to shape us and accept that we are flawed but God works through the flaws so that we can share this great gift with others. It can get difficult at times but allow nothing but the truth that we stand on, foundations not of our making but ones built on Jesus Christ and that God’s response to us is the same as His words spoken over Jesus and heard by John “ this is my child…who I love and with you… I am well pleased”
We’re going to spend some time in prayer together and there will be moments of quiet for you to reflect on God’s grace to you and to ask Him to move in people, places and problems that He puts on your heart. Please pause the video as and when you need to and only continue once you feel able or wish to.
The Lord gives strength to his people;
the Lord blesses his people with peace.
Heavenly father thank you that you have made peace with us through Jesus Christ.
As we think of those dear to us, our friends, our neighbours, family and our work colleagues, we ask that they would know that peace as well…
And we pray that we would be open to your spirit as He speaks God’s voice through us.
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord is enthroned as King forever.
You Lord are worthy of our worship and king over all the earth.
We come to you, faithful God, in the midst of the chaos that is life. In the uncertainties we all face and pray that you would reign those things on our hearts. Those that are in our own lives but also for those we know that need to know your faithfulness.
In those problems
Make your voice known to all and that it will break, shatter and then rebuild where there seems
No solid ground on which to stand.
And we pray together as Jesus taught
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom the power and the glory
Forever and ever