The Unexpected Messenger…The Unexpected Message

Heritage Presbyterian Church

2nd Sunday of Advent
December 5, 2021
Scripture reading – Luke 3: 1-18

In the ancient days of kings and kingdoms, there was always a threat that came from outside.  Insider threats were also a problem, but it was the unknown that consistently struck fear and anxiety in the hearts of rulers.  This extended to military heads and to every country, every civilization, and every group of people throughout the history and the world.

Because this was in the days of no telecommunication, important messages were relayed in person by important messengers sent by some specific leader to a counterpart.  This was when trouble often occurred.  If the ruler didn’t like the message – such as when their rule or kingdom or life was threatened in any way – the ruler would often jail, torture, or even execute the messenger as a way to demonstrate his or her displeasure at this insult.  Occasionally, the body of the dead messenger was mutilated, and the corpse returned to the sender as a message of its own.

This was where the phrase, “Don’t kill the messenger” came from.  If you didn’t like the message, it was completely wrong to take out your anger on the person delivering it.

I can only imagine how difficult it became throughout history to find reliable messengers who could accomplish the job without fear of being killed.

Messengers had to be brave.  Or messengers had to be naïve enough to believe they would return safe and sound.  Either way, it was a tough gig.

Throughout biblical history, messengers were sent by God to his people to deliver a messenger.  Virtually all of them were brave, bold, and unwavering in their task.  Occasionally, they were discouraged or threatened with their lives or even angry when God turned aside his wrath against the people because of the success of the prophet’s message.  But often the people didn’t really want to hear the message from God and blamed the prophet who was bringing that message.

Today, let’s talk about the greatest prophet of all time:  John the Baptist.  In this discussion, let’s focus on the unexpected appearance of the Baptist and his unexpected message.

First, the messenger himself: John the Baptist.  It is very important for us to remember that when all four Gospels tell the same story, we should pay extra attention.  All four tell the same story of John’s appearance as the first prophet for God’s people in nearly 400 years…the same amount of time before Moses was sent to free God’s people from bondage in Egypt.

When the Baptist first appeared in the wilderness near the Jordan River, he seemed to come out of nowhere.  He didn’t appear in Jerusalem, or at the Temple, or in any major place in those days; rather, he appeared in the wilderness – which recalled other times that God appeared to his people.  Perhaps this was about a return of the people to God.  It occurs to me that perhaps this is one aspect that greatly troubled the high priests and sent them to see John.  

Literally, the only clue we have before John’s appearance in the four Gospels is when he was the infant growing inside Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth.  We also discover that John’s father, Zechariah, was visited by an angel while working in the Holy of Holies within the Temple in Jerusalem.  The angel told Zechariah about John, but Zechariah didn’t believe the angel.  For his doubt, the angel struck him dumb until John was born and the question of naming him was being debated by John’s family. Zechariah wrote on a piece of paper the unexpected child was to be named John, and then his mouth was freed.  

That is all we have about John the Baptist until his appearance in the wilderness.

According to all four Gospel writers, John was absolutely something to behold.  First of all, he dressed exactly like an Old Testament prophet with the camel’s hair clothing, a leather belt around his waist, and diet of wild honey and locusts; Matthew and Mark both describe John the Baptist’s appearance in this unusual way.  He was also completely unafraid of anyone or anything.  He challenged the people, the religious leaders, and anyone else foolish enough to ask what he was doing or “who do you think you are?!”  He scolded the hated tax collectors but also gave them guidance as to how they needed to live; he did the same to the soldiers who came to see him.  If you read the four accounts of John’s ministry, it seems that John was impatient with the barrage of questions that kept coming his way; he answered them, but he never seemed to stop to do so.  

In short, John was a busy, impatient, seemingly grouchy man who was following the will of God.  But now let’s notice that John’s appearance as the unexpected messenger represented the physical world.

John’s appearance with the unexpected message represented the spiritual world that was to come…one that would need preparation from the people.

Because the prophet John the Baptist was the first one to appear in 400 years, I can only imagine that the message he brought from God was unexpected.  Even the people had to understand that God was NOT telling anyone, “You’re doing great!  Keep up the good work!”  No way!

Instead, John the Baptist – like all the other prophets before him – was bringing a new message to the people of God.  But unlike most of the others, John’s message was not about turning away from worshiping false gods and return to God.   John’s message and John’s baptisms were one of repentance.  This was not a baptism like the non-Jews received that marked proselytes as new believers in God.  This was not like those repeated baptisms done frequently only for ritual cleaning.

John’s baptisms in the Jordan River were done for the forgiveness of sins and to get the people ready for the “One who is coming.”  John’s work echoed the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’”  He was adamant about getting the people ready.

What was truly unexpected is reflected in the various questions John was frequently asked:

  • “Are you the Prophet?”
  • “Are you Elijah?”
  • Are you the Messiah?”

To each of these very important questions, John insisted the answer was, “NO!”  He constantly deflected attention away from himself and toward the “One who is coming.”  

John even established a hierarchy by saying that he was not fit to even unfasten the strap of the sandal of the “One who is coming.”

If anyone doubted John’s intent, they had only to look to his examples and listen to his repeated statements.  Often, prophets drew attention to themselves in order to deliver their message from God to the people who needed to hear it; John the Baptist did similar things, while at the same time continually deflecting attention away from himself.  

If that were not enough, John also minimized the work he was doing when he said, “I baptize with water; but the One who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire!”  Even the work that John the Baptist was known for, the work that every single Christian church imitates today, was minimized as nothing much when compared to the baptism that was coming.

That’s a pretty unexpected message!

In the final analysis, John the Baptist’s message revealed a spiritual awakening in the people.  His was not a radical teaching; the people had been warned by previous prophets that they needed to “wake up” and “get right with God before it’s too late.”  What made this message so unexpected was its deliverance to ALL people everywhere.  Yes, John the Baptist was in the middle of an area in which the people of God lived, but his message was addressed to everyone:

  • Rigid, uptight religious leaders;
  • Hated, reviled tax collectors;
  • Soldiers serving either corrupt Temple officials, rotten King Herod, or the powerful Roman emperor;
  • Crowds of everyday people who could have come from all parts of the Roman Empire;
  • All flesh shall see the salvation of God” is what John said.

Plus, remember that Luke wrote his Gospel with his own description of John the Baptist and his actions in a Gospel that was addressed to Greek Christians.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus always brought a message that demonstrated when repentance and forgiveness are available, judgment is the good news!

That may have been unexpected for the people in the days of John the Baptist and his cousin, Jesus.  But it must not be unexpected to us today.

Our job is to share it boldly with others who might not expect it at all.  That flame of faith that John described can appear suddenly, but it will not grow into a fire without being nurtured by the actions, belief, and love from God’s people.