Last week Russ shared a great lesson with us about the apostles and early Christians in Acts 1 and the how the outpouring of the Holy Spirit empowered them to be witnesses in sharing the gospel.  This week I want us to continue to explore what it means to be effective witnesses & the importance of preparing ourselves & our community here and afar for the arrival of Jesus Christ.  We are going to do that by looking at maybe the most underrated character of the entire Bible.

Lesson Title: “The Greatest of All Time”. The GOAT has become maybe the most popular acronym over the last decade, particularly in the sports world. The reason I’ve used this as my lesson title, is because there really is someone who can and should claim that title that none of us can debate away.  In Luke 7:28, Jesus declared that there was someone who in his divine opinion that “among those born of women there is no one greater than . . . John the Baptist!”

I’ll talk briefly about the significance of John the Baptist and then I want to show just why his life and message is of such great importance to Jesus, to the church then and today, and to you and me in our relationship with the Father.  Our scripture we will launch from today is actually taken from all 4 gospels.  Did you know that there are only 3 events outside of the Passion that are almost word for word or historically the exact same in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?  The feeding of the 5,000, the confession by Peter that Jesus was the Messiah, and the significance and setting and purpose of John the Baptist prior to Jesus’s earthly ministry.

I will be reading the Word of the Lord from Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:2-8, Luke 3:3-6, and John 1:23:

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and John said “As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”
[“I am the] “voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

 

Now in Mark, the author jumps right out of the gate and says the beginning of the Gospel is John the Baptist, and in the other gospels it is crystal clear that if we are to see and know Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, we will do well to study and examine John the Baptist, the one who was maybe the most important witness of all for Jesus.  One commentator I read this week went so far to say instead of wristbands or t-shirts that say “What would Jesus do?” maybe we should have some that say “What would John the Baptist do?”.  Now why is that?

Scripture says John the Baptist was prophesied and that he actually claimed to be the VOICE of one crying in the wilderness.  That’s the essence of being a witness for Jesus – a voice for Him.  By the way, did you know that the word “witness” or “testimony” comes from the Greek word “martyria”, which is where we get the word “martyr” and it appears over 150 times in the New Testament?  There’s definitely a lot more to say about that, but don’t lose that in your personal studies of the Bible.  There are three ways John was an effective witness for Jesus that we’ll talk about today:

  1. He saw and knew Jesus
  2. He called upon others to see and know Jesus
  3. He chose to be unseen when Jesus arrived

Isaiah prophesied in Isaiah 40, which all 4 gospels claim was fulfilled, that one day the Messiah would be preceded by someone.  No one, not the Pharisees or the Sadducees, or priests or anyone of Israelite heritage denied this passage was referring to the Messiah.  They were not just looking for the Messiah, they were looking for another prophet, another Moses, another Elijah.  And after 400 years of silence since the last prophesy we can read in Malachi, here comes someone that gets everyone’s attention.  In the Fourth Gospel, it says John shouted “Behold the Lamb of God”, when he SAW him, but CLEARLY both he and Jesus were not what or who the Jews were expecting, but that’s the point.  John needed to be a VOICE crying out, shouting, screaming, that these Israelite and Jewish brothers and sisters of his needed to be prepared . . . they needed to be cleansed and baptized . . . they needed to set aside what they thought or even been taught and discover the God of all creation through this man Jesus.

John wasn’t just talking to “the sinners” . . . he was speaking more to the teachers, the scholars, the ones raised in Judaism, the ones drunk on Jewish Juice.  He was talking to also to people like me and maybe some of you . . . raised in the church, always here on Sunday, always serving in a variety of ways, full of the CoC Koolaid.  But not really seeing Jesus for who he really is.

God absolutely uses sinners with very checkered pasts to be wonderful witnesses for Him, but I often believe that who He is really counting on often to show up the strongest for Him is the majority of us Christians who come to the playing field with a little more solid resume.

To be clear I’m not talking about superficial or hypocritical behavior or attitudes.  This goes for genuine Christians that have a deep commitment to serving and loving Jesus, but like me maybe lacking the content of Jesus.  Loving God must be wed with knowing God.  John the Baptist was passionate about Jesus Christ with an overwhelming desire to glorify Jesus, but he also gave a correct theological explanation of who Jesus is.

You cannot be an effective witness to something you don’t see or understand or know yourself.  How many of us here today need a fresh glimpse of Jesus?  Hebrews 12:2 says we “fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith”.  Where are your eyes or your time or your heart fixated mostly?  I don’t have time to go into this point deeper, but I would challenge all of us to be really deep divers into the word as well as studying some books about the nature of Jesus or the meanings and teachings of the gospel or listen to podcasts about the same.  Or please be prayerful of starting a new Bible study with some friends or challenge your current small group to an in-depth study of Jesus or the gospel accounts . . . I know many of you may be saying all I need is the Bible and I would agree with you but there’s much to know and learn about the language, translations, historical contexts, etc. that I believe God wants us to comprehend.

[Russ offers a great and valuable study tool to all of us every week in his sermon notes that are online . . . if you read them from last week you’d find so much deeper meaning and discover more of Jesus and the Holy Spirit (there’s even a copy of a wonderful sermon by Tim Keller he posted that all of us should read).]

Here’s the second point. . . to be an effective witness or VOICE, Scripture says we are to SHOW and TEACH others who Jesus is.  I understand some of you may be saying that’s just a veiled way of saying “evangelize the lost”, but it’s more than that if you look at John the Baptist’s plan of attack.  It says in the 4 gospels that John the Baptist “PREPARED the Way and Made Straight Paths for [Jesus]” . . . what does that mean?

Prior to Jesus’s arrival, John made no qualms about calling out the evils of the world around him and the sin that was right in his own backyard in Judea and Galilee.  It says the Jews were flocking to John and were getting baptized.  Do you realize that baptism for Jews was extremely unconventional at the time?  Baptism was almost universally a symbol of cleansing for Gentiles who were being converted or proselytized to Judaism, not for Jews.  But John’s message was just as much for the Jews to get their houses in order and their communities.  How is this applicable today and for us here at Madison and for us as Christians in what many are now calling a post-Christian America?

How many of us are more and more just turning a blind eye to the marginalization of God and all his holiness in America?  What are we doing to speak out against and lovingly challenge: abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism, racial injustice, or to tone it down a little . . . what are we doing about the rise of homelessness, predatory lending, child or elderly abuse?  What are we as the body of Christ doing to prepare the way to make straight paths for the Lord in our Community?  Practically, I’m challenging us all to pray earnestly that God will tug on our hearts (or maybe he already is on one of these issues) to do something and make the paths straight for those we point Jesus to.

Showing and Teaching other about Jesus, like John the Baptist did, no doubt requires sacrifice.  It may involve persecution, and one day soon here in America in ways we’ve never experienced before.  No matter how hard the fight might be to challenge the status quo here in America or tell people that God’s holiness is above all and what matters, not our own definition of life or gender for the unborn, for example.

As we prepare to get out into our Community more and more to be the light that God calls us to be (be prayerful of serving on April 30 on our clean-up day!) we need to ask ourselves that as more and more unbelievers move into the 37115 zip code and, God willing, come into our church building, will they ultimately despise or reject Jesus in all his wonderous simplicity because of what we’ve cloaked him in in the world around us or covered him with the filth that we have not cleansed or cleared out of the way in our community or what we are NOT saying or doing to or for “the least of these”?

A friend of mine, Dan Bouchelle wrote a book recently, We’re on a Mission from God, and stated that “the narrative of America as an exceptional Christian nation is a naïve distortion driven by questionable motives”.  The Kingdom of God is NOT an American story!  Can we really look back in our American history and say definitively “the church got it right.”?  Maybe our (the church’s) best times ahead are during a period of persecution versus a period of prosperity!   If you read church history, you’ll discover that the church grew fastest in the first 3 centuries before it was legal, could own property, or institutionalize in any way.

Maybe we should give up trying to make or restore our churches and nation as “the greatest on earth” and instead invest completely in serving the mission of God and extending his reign in the world.  Maybe he’s calling us now to serve in Poland because of what’s happening in Ukraine?

<Announcement of new church plant in Pereira, Columbia and the Correa family>

The third point . . . in addition to Seeing and Knowing Jesus ourselves, Showing and Teaching Jesus to Others, we must Choose to Be Unseen when Jesus Shows Up. The power of John the Baptist’s life and message was that he prepared and cleared the path or the way for Jesus in a manner that allowed only Jesus’s glory to shine when he showed up.

In Cuba or in Ukraine or for the many of you who know first hand going to Baja, there is no air conditioning or seat cushions or elaborate programs to draw the Community in to the church building . . . that’s not why they are growing in numbers.  They are growing because they firmly believe that the church is not the source of the light, but merely pointing to the light.  As I said a few weeks ago on this stage, the mission of God is not to get more people into church, but Christ into more people, and it’s not about us getting to heaven but bringing the light of heaven into our community.

Charles Spurgeon said that “may we be simple and plain whenever we tell of Jesus.  Then when he comes we get out of the way and he alone may be seen and that all hearts will be won to him!”  God forbid that our “doctrine”, our “traditions”, our “worship style”, the condition or color of our carpet, or the variety or flavor of our coffee at Roots, get in the way of the true light of Jesus.

A question and challenge for us all today . . . is there anything in your life blocking the light of the Savior?  Are you or your pride or past getting in the way of Jesus’s arrival or impact in your sphere of influence?

In the accounts of John the Baptist we find a common theme, particularly in the baptism of Jesus, where John wants no credit and claims he’s not even worthy to untie Jesus’s sandals, which was something even slaves at the time didn’t do for their masters.  John claims in the book of John in Chapter 3 verse 30, that he must become less, and Jesus must become greater.

At the same time we must understand that this does not mean to hide behind the scenes.  Being an effective witness means more than just a personal relationship with Jesus . . . . it involves a public and transforming relationship with the world.  Belief is not enough.  Worship is not enough.  Personal morality is not enough.  Even Christian community is not enough.  2 Corinthians 5:20 says we are Christ’s ambassadors!

<Closing>

The Gospel of John has such deep and theological nuggets related to Jesus as both divine and human and particularly connecting covenant language from the Torah or Law of Moses to Christ.  The gospel presented in John reveals the reality of God dwelling within us, His followers, no longer in a temple in Jerusalem.  It calls for us to join Him in saving the world that He loves so much.  God’s plan to change the world – that’s through you and me – we are his witness, we are his martyrs.  As Richard Stearns said in his powerful book, The Hole in our Gospel, “We are God’s Plan A and there isn’t a Plan B”!

[OMITTED IN LESSON – In Luke, Chapter 4, verses 16 through 21, the power of the gospel was announced by Jesus in a synagogue in Nazareth when he made the audacious claim – and an outrageous promise that the good news would be preached to the poor and that justice would be restored.  The poor would be helped by the rich; the brokenhearted would be comforted; the oppressed would be liberated; the downtrodden would be lifted up.  God’s kingdom was going to begin on earth through the changed lives of His followers, and its hallmarks would be forgiveness, love, compassion, justice, and mercy.  There would be no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female – <no American or Cuban, no white or black, rich or poor> all would be equal in God’s eyes.]

<Song –  “Surrounded” by Michael W. Smith>

God will surround us, like he’s surrounding those in Ukraine and Cuba, and He will fight our battles for us . . . we just need to join His army and be willing to fight with Him and submit to His authority.  If there’s anyone that hasn’t joined His team yet and wants to be a part of Plan A, let me encourage you that are no pre-requisites to sign up.  For God, none of your checkered past or any of your accomplishments matter one iota.  Come as you are and he WILL accept you and we will be joyous witnesses of your rebirth through baptism as He is victorious over all your sin forevermore.