Here Comes Trouble

Heritage Presbyterian Church

2nd Sunday of Advent
December 4, 2022

Scripture reading: Matthew 3:1-12

I have often said that when the four different Gospel writers choose the same topic to describe in detail, we should pull in close and pay attention; they do not do this often.

All four describe the following:

  • Jesus changing Simon’s name to Peter;
  • Jesus feeding the 5000 with only a couple of barley loaves and a few small fish;
  • The Last Supper, the betrayal by Judas, the arrest, the sham trial, the crucifixion, the death, and the subsequent hurried burial in the nearby tomb;
  • And, of course, our topic for today: the sudden, dramatic, unsettling appearance of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist in the wilderness on the banks of the Jordan River.

The other thing that all four Gospel writers do not miss is that John was trouble  – nothing but trouble – from the moment he began calling for people to repent and prepare for the coming the Kingdom of Heaven.  If John was coming, trouble was coming too.

This description should surprise no one.  If you examine all of the Old Testament prophets, you will find that every single one of them could be described as trouble – big trouble.  Let me share some examples of the trouble some of those prophets brought:

  • Joel warned of the coming Day of the Lord, that devastation was in store, and that repentance was required;
  • Hosea conveyed not just God’s anger at the failures of his people, but also his sadness, and even weariness; 
  • Jonah convinced the people of Nineveh to turn away from sin and to repent, but a few generations later, Nahum warned them that they would be destroyed because they returned to the same sins again;
  • Jeremiah predicted the unthinkable – the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 585 B.C. by the Babylonians.

So, as we all know, those prophets were not well received, their messages were harsh, and God sent them to bring the people back from their sin.

Nothing in those accounts said that the people WANTED to turn away from sin…just that they had to in order to avoid destruction.

Either they didn’t believe the prophets, or they just didn’t care.  Either way, they saw those prophets as trouble.

And in the days of Jesus, at least 300 years since the appearance of the last Old Testament prophet – Malachi – here came John the Baptist bringing an Old Testament styled message to the people.

John the Baptist got the attention of the people right away because of something he did that no other prophet had offered: not just a message to turn away from sin, but also a baptism of redemption and preparation for the forgiveness of sin.

That was new.  No prophet had offered that before John.  This message fell upon the ears of the people like rain falling on a dry, thirsty field of grain.  These people had a sense that their world was just plain wrong; the scales of justice were tipped in favor of the powerful and those maintaining the status quo; the bodies and souls of the common folk were languishing.  This, more than anything else, is why the people flocked to hear John the Baptist and to take advantage of the baptism he was offering.

But make no mistake: John the Baptist was trouble from the moment he began his ministry.

The problem was that John the Baptist was coloring outside the lines, so to speak.   

First, he had absolutely NO authority to baptize anyone, let along the common people in the waters of the Jordan River.  If baptism were done at all in those days, it was done by a priest in the Temple and was done for new converts – NOT for the forgiveness of sin.  And certainly not by some loudmouth in the wilderness who dressed like a bum and ate bugs and wild honey!

Second, John the Baptist was an immediate threat to the established religious hierarchy, namely the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Scribes, and the Teachers of the Law.  These people had to work with King Herod and the Roman Empire in order to maintain their way of life.  They had worked long and hard to establish what they had, and they were not going to let some troublemaker in the river threaten that work!  In case you needed evidence of that statement, look no further than the fact that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees came together to see about John…and those two groups of people could not stand one another.  Why else would they come together except to confront a common problem?  They were not just curious…they were threatened!  And the Baptist called them out when he labeled them, “a brood of vipers!”  Oddly enough, Jesus also called them the same angry name when he referred to them…

Third, John the Baptist was rejecting all the labels the people and the leaders were trying to put on him.  Was he Elijah?  Was he the Messiah?  Was he one of the prophets?  Notice that John didn’t claim any of those labels; if he had, his power and influence might have grown exponentially, at least for a short time.  No, the Baptist only claimed one label: he was the announcer for the one who would come, he was the herald of a brand-new message, and he was the humble servant who was going to help the people truly prepare for the coming of the one.  

In short, John the Baptist was nothing that anyone expected – and nothing anyone could easily figure out.  And his appearance took everyone by surprise.  He SUDDENLY appeared and began his work; he didn’t warm up to it over the years and then started.

All four Gospels are clear: John the Baptist suddenly and abruptly appeared – and it rattled some people.

John was trouble – big, BIG trouble, and he was not going to go away until his work was done.  Note that he kept doing his work until the day on which Jesus showed up to be baptized.  Once that was done, John pointed any followers he had toward Jesus instead.  “He’s the one you want…go and follow him!” was the new message.

Once Jesus began his own ministry – the work that John had predicted, we get a clear look at just what the two men had in common:

  1.  Both came from related families of a high priest; John was the son of the High Priest Zechariah; Jesus’s mother, Mary, was the cousin of Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth.
  2. Both used the same phrase to begin their work: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
  3. Both appealed to the common folk, not those in authority.  In fact, both seemed to deliberately avoid religious leaders because those same leaders were also troublemakers!  They got in the way of a clear, simple message of repentance and forgiveness and love from the Father.
  4. Neither man was afraid to rock the boat, shake the foundations of the status quo, and challenge those in authority to do their jobs righteously and properly for the people they were supposed to be serving.  That took courage, training neither man had formally received in any form, and the unwavering backing of their Heavenly Father. 

And on this second Sunday of Advent, when the message of John the Baptist is commonly shared, I have one question:

Where is the Peace that is supposedly marked by this Sunday?

Before John the Baptist, the area of ancient Israel – Samaria and Judea – may not have had war, but that doesn’t mean they had any peace.  The people were restless and struggling and tired of their hopeless lives.  They needed a reason to be hopeful again.  The message of repentance and forgiveness given by John the Baptist was at its core a message of peace.  What better feeling than the one that marks you as forgiven?  That is a peaceful, easy feeling, as the song goes.

Also, remember that Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  Again, no better feeling that to have been afraid at one time and then to have that fear completely taken away by the Lord.  

So, on the Advent Sunday of peace, we may not have peace from war, or peace and quiet in our households, or even peace on the streets.  But we have the peace that comes from knowing the Lord Jesus Christ has forgiven and saved us all.

And it all began with that troublemaking cousin of him, John the Baptist.