Rev Dr Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Toowoomba Church; Message: Luke 1-2; Date: 30 December 2012
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John and Jesus
Mary and Elizabeth were cousins and they were both pregnant with miracle babies. Mary conceived Jesus when the Spirit of God overshadowed her – without the involvement of a man (Luke 1:35) – and Elizabeth conceived John in old age – past menopause. Both babies were born around the same time and both grew up to be national leaders of God’s people. As adults, both made such an impact that people looked at them each as the promised Saviour from God:
Luke 3:15: The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.
Luke 19:37-38: When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
John was not the Messiah. Jesus was. John was the forerunner but both – John and Jesus – (at least for a while) – (at the same time) – practiced much of the same core ministry. Both preached repentance and then baptized with water to forgive people their sins:
John 3:22-23: After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized.
John and Jesus worked on the same patch of ministry so that some in the crowd began to have thoughts of competing ministries:
John 4:1-3: Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. [Jesus avoided any apparent rivalry.]
[By the way, we still have the baptism with water for the forgiveness of sins. Only now the baptism happens clearly in Jesus’ name.]
Their core message was the same:
Matthew 3:1-2: In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 4:17: From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
What would you have made of John and Jesus? Whose disciple would you have been? Both were God’s instruments and both were doing exactly what God wanted them to do. John had begun his ministry earlier than Jesus and – in fact – (demonstrating his authority and standing before God) – it was John who had baptized Jesus as one of the crowd – (thus releasing Jesus’ own baptism with the Spirit) – before Jesus himself became active. Whom would you have followed? (It almost looked like you had to make a choice.)
There was some tension between the disciples of John and Jesus:
Matthew 9:14: Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”
Even John was unsure of Jesus:
Luke 7:20: When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”
All of the confusion was and is understandable. If John had expected the Messiah (of whom he was a forerunner) to be a more powerful version of himself, then he was in for a bewildering surprise. For all of their similarities, John and Jesus were like chalk and cheese – utterly different from each other.
This is my point today: Pay attention to these differences (which I will list in a moment) because God keeps confusing people by moving on and operating in new ways – new ministries – new structures – (according to the season) new emphases in preaching and teaching – new power centres of global mission. Sometimes – often – people cry out: “This is unlike anything we have experienced before. This cannot be of God.” But it is. Right at the heart of Jesus’ saving work, there was John – his forerunner – and the two were not the same.
Before I list their differences, I repeat what was the same about them: 1) John and Jesus were both miracle babies. 2) Both had national ministries. 3) Both were suspected to be the Saviour. 4) Both preached repentance and baptized for the forgiveness of sins. 5) Both preached that the kingdom of God was near. [Both were also rejected and died a violent death.]
Now here are the differences: 1) One miracle baby brought honour (John) while the other caused shame (Jesus).
John’s parents were old and respectable descendants of priests, and John was their miracle baby which God granted them past child-bearing age—everyone rejoiced in his birth (see Luke 1:5-25,57-66). However, Jesus’ parents were young and poor, and the Holy Spirit caused his mother’s pregnancy before
marriage so that the miracle baby Jesus was born out of wedlock, away from home and in disgrace (see Matt. 1:18-25).
2) One was filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb of his mother (John) while the other only received the Spirit at around thirty years of age (Jesus).
Luke 1:15: ... and he [John] will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.
Luke 3:21-23: When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry
3) One was forbidden to taste wine or any alcohol (John) while the other turned water into wine and was accused of being a drunkard (Jesus).
While John was full of the Holy Spirit from birth, with the stipulation never to consume alcohol (see Luke 1:15), Jesus turned water into wine as the very first miracle He performed in the power of the Holy Spirit (see John 2:1-11) and He was known to drink wine Himself (see Luke 7:34). Jesus made wine the key ingredient in the holy meal of the Lord’s Supper and promised that in the eternal future they will drink the same again (Matthew 26:27-29).
Luke 7:33-35: For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.
4) At the time, one encouraged his disciples to fast (John) while the other did not (Jesus).
Matthew 9:14-15: Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
There are further differences between John and Jesus: 5) One never performed a miracle (John) while the other was authenticated by them (Jesus).
In contrast to Jesus, John (seemingly) never performed a single miracle in his work of preaching repentance to God’s people; but Jesus not only performed many of them, He relied on them for the confirmation of His preaching (see John 10:25-26,32,38). Contrary to John’s own experience, God used miracles to certify the calling and identity of Jesus: …Jesus…was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him… (Acts 2:22).
John was said to come in the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17; see also Matthew 11:14; 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-13) but Elijah was prominent in the past as a prophet who worked miracles.
Jesus’ greatest miracle of raising the dead foreshadowed the ultimate miracle of his own resurrection which was the wondrous breakthrough of our salvation (see John 11-12).
6) One baptized with water only (John) while the other also baptized with the Holy Spirit (Jesus).
Luke 3:16: John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
[At first, Jesus came and did not do what John announced. Only after his death and resurrection – from heaven – did Jesus baptize people with the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2).]
Considering these differences, what do you think? Were people right to be confused? If you had to choose between the two, who would have been your pick (judging from the evidence so far)? [John had the better background and was born with the anointing of the Spirit already being on him! He seemed purer in his focus (fasting, no wine) and did not distract from the message with miracles.] Why was and is God doing this – confusing people – messing with our minds – always changing the look of his work among us? The answer is contained in the following Bible verses:
1 Corinthians 1:27-29: But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
Luke 10:21: At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”
This means: be careful with your judgements. God keeps scandalizing our minds – the expectations which are based on our expert knowledge – to humble human pride. He is in charge.
John and Jesus – both – preached repentance, baptized with water, administered forgiveness of sins and proclaimed that the kingdom was near. Both touched a nation but the differences between them were significant and I summarize them again: 1) One miracle baby brought honour (John) while the other caused shame (Jesus). 2) One was filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb of his mother (John) while the other only received the Spirit at around thirty years of age (Jesus). 3) One was forbidden to taste wine or any alcohol (John) while the other turned water into wine and was accused of being a drunkard (Jesus). 4) At the time, one encouraged his disciples to fast (John) while the other did not (Jesus). 5) One never performed a miracle (John) while the other was authenticated by them (Jesus). 6) One baptized with water only (John) while the other also baptized with the Holy Spirit (Jesus).
[Further differences: John: He ate locusts. Jesus: He loved feasting. John: The masses loved him. Jesus: The masses turned against him and called for his death. John: The king (Herod) cut off his head. Jesus: The king (Herod) wanted to see him perform miracles. John: People were coming to him. Jesus: He went to the people.]
This morning – we humble ourselves before God and accept the diversity. We pause and pray before we dare to make any judgements. In the Bible – Peter was an uneducated fisherman that rose to being the principal leader of the early church but Paul – another key leader – was a scholar – superbly educated and preaching with such depth that even Peter struggled sometimes:
Acts 4:13: When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
2 Peter 3:14-16: ... our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand ...
Modern-day examples would be – on the one hand – Smith Wigglesworth – the Pentecostal pioneer – who was not a trained preacher but a plumber. He only learned to read after his marriage and never fully mastered the English language. But – on the other hand – we have Martin Luther – a university Bible scholar – who spearheaded the Reformation through his deep understanding of the Bible. What are we to do? God works with confusing diversity – establishing spiritual leadership with plumbers and scholars.
The diversity is great. John Wesley may have preached in the fields – outdoors – but he was wearing his formal clergy robes and praying formal high-church prayers which seem to be miles away from today’s church meetings – many of them – where preachers dress in jeans and t-shirt with scores of people camping on the carpet – casual and informal – soaking in the presence of God. Can both be expressions of God moving in power?
Carlos Annacondia is an evangelist – one of the greatest city-reaching evangelists ever – who is in the habit of challenging the devil in mass meetings, crying out: “Listen to me, Satan. You and your demons, get out.” And people do get free. Ravi Zacharias – on the other hand – is an evangelist – a logical thinker of the highest order – reaching national and world leaders – who does not lay hands on people but reasons with them about the claims of Jesus in the Bible. He is not so much preaching but debating with people. Are both from God? Do we have to take sides? Who is better?
Some church leaders build mega-churches while others promote house churches. I give you one last example of unexpected diversity. In this church, we value the presence of God and it is nice to experience the closeness of God through emotions (love, peace or joy), signs and wonders and healings, prophetic experiences (visions, trances, audible voice of God) – see a person like Heidi Baker – but then there is also someone like Mother Teresa (note: Heidi Baker loves to quote Mother Teresa) – a mature Christian – an amazing woman that impacted the world for God – who used to experience the presence of God in prayer – heard Jesus’ voice audibly calling her into the work that she became known for – only to be devoid of experiencing any closeness to God for the last thirty-nine years of her life. I read from one of her letters:
In the darkness ... Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The child of Your love – and now become as the most hated one. You have thrown away as unwanted – unloved. I call, I cling, I want – and there is no One to answer – no One on Whom I can cling – no, No One. – Alone. The darkness is so dark – and I am alone. – Unwanted, forsaken. – The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable. – Where is my faith? – Even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness. – My God – how painful is this unknown pain. It pains without ceasing. – I have no faith. – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart – & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me – I am afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy. – If there be God, please forgive me. – Trust that all will end in Heaven with Jesus. – When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven – there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. – Love – the word – it brings nothing. – I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Before the work started – there was so much union – love – faith – trust – prayer – sacrifice. – Did I make the mistake in surrendering blindly to the call of the Sacred Heart? The work is not a doubt – because I am convinced that it is His not mine. – I don’t feel – not even a single simple thought or temptation enters my heart to claim anything in the work.
The whole time smiling. – Sisters & people pass such remarks. – They think my faith, trust & love are filling my very being & that the intimacy with God and union to His will must be absorbing my heart. – Could they but know – and how my cheerfulness is the cloak by which I cover the emptiness & misery.
In spite of all – this darkness & emptiness is not as painful as the longing for God. – The contradiction I fear will unbalance me. – What are You doing my God to one so small? When You asked to imprint Your Passion on my heart – is this the answer?
If this brings You glory, if You get a drop of joy from this – if souls are brought to You – if my suffering satiates Your Thirst – here I am Lord, with joy I accept all to the end of life – & I will smile at Your Hidden Face – always. [written some time in the 1950s]
[Mother Teresa did not waver in her intense longing for intimacy with God, her obedience her conviction that she was doing God’s work, her passion for the salvation of others, her willingness to give Jesus everything, but – nevertheless – felt utterly abandoned by God – without any satisfying touches of his love.]
How can this all be God? How can we know what is right? This calls for caution and most careful discernment – real humility before God.
I come back to John and Jesus. What do you make of the following Bible verses?
Luke 7:24-30: After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)
Even though John and Jesus operated at the same time – at least for a while – there was a progression in what God was doing from John to Jesus: “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John headed up the move of God that prepared the next move – (the coming of the kingdom in power). This still happens today. For instance, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the beginning of the 20th century seems to have been prepared in the Holiness Churches (roots in Methodism) of the United States and elsewhere. If this is true, then – again – repentance – a move toward deeper holiness and the fear of God – preceded a richer expression of God’s kingdom in the church.
This adds to the general complexity of discernment. In our world today – which moves are forerunners and which move are the next expression of what God is doing? When are powerful moves of God to make way for the next wave? John and Jesus lived at the same time and John looked like he may have been the senior man of the two. [He was of priestly origin, anointed in the womb and more radical in remaining pure (no alcohol, eating locusts, staying in the desert). He did not rely on distractions such as miracles but preached a pure word.] Yet, Jesus was the Messiah. How easy it is to make mistakes – jump to conclusions and then judge what is of God.
However, there is still another puzzling fact. The Bible reading informs us of the following:
(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)
What does this mean? Whoever was not baptized by John – whoever had not embraced the first move of God – did not accept Jesus’ words – was not ready for the next move of God. Is this still applying today? Unless you honour what God is doing in one forerunner camp – or what has been doing in past church history – unless you honour previous moves of God, you are not ready for what is coming next? Is this true? If this was true, we would be in deep trouble because the church is currently divided into more than 30,000 different denominations which (mostly) do not honour one another.
In church seminaries – (the training ground of future pastors) – Lutherans read the works of Martin Luther and Wesleyans read all about John Wesley. Reformed Christians read thick volumes by John Calvin and the budding officers of the Salvation Army study the writings of William Booth. None of them will read much catholic material and they usually do not study each other – except for finding fault with each other and cementing their own positions. Am I right? At least this was my own experience in preparing for the ministry. What is the consequence? We get stuck in one move of God – camp there – keep wandering around the same mountain – instead of moving from the Reformation (Martin Luther and the rediscovery of salvation by faith) to the Great Awakening (John Wesley and the power of sanctification) to the outpouring of the Spirit and his gifts in the 20th century (Azusa Street, Toronto Blessings, etc).
However, at least we get stuck in one move of God – one is better than none. The Bible experts before Jesus – the Pharisees and the experts of the law – had not embraced John; therefore were not ready for Jesus. They missed out altogether. What was their problem and what can also be our problem – the fundamental root cause for missing out on everything that God is doing?
I read you some more from the Bible:
Luke 20:1-8: One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?” He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.” So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.” Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
The Bible experts before Jesus knew that he had authority – they recognized that something was going on – and they asked him about the source of his authority but – as many times before (Matthew 16:1; Mark 10:2) – they were not sincere. Jesus exposed them when he drew a parallel between himself and John. What did the experts think about John? He also had demonstrable power and authority. They consulted with each other and – as Jesus had known – they did not enter into a sincere quest for the truth but played politics – debating games – which shielded them from making any commitments. In their thinking – they could not acknowledge John’s authority and the good fruit of his ministry because then their disobedience would have been inexcusable but they could also not openly reject John because the evidence of his godliness was so overwhelming. All the people knew what the experts tried to deny. This basic lack of sincerity and honesty on their part shut the door to what Jesus was doing. Unless there is a readiness to shift from debating Jesus’ authority to embracing a relationship with him which involves submission and worship, then any verbal exchanges are a wasted exercise. Jesus said about them:
John 5:39-40: You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
Mark 7:1-13: The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
Matthew 23:4: They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
Matthew 23:23: Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
The experts before Jesus – and any Bible experts who are similar to them today – they knew the Bible but used the Bible as a rule book – a manual – a constitution – which shaped acceptable behaviour. They did so with passion but the Bible is not a rule book but an invitation to enter into a relationship with the God of the Bible. As a rule book, the Bible can be frustrating because – (as we have established) – God used both – John and Jesus – and (therefore) – with confusing diversity – ensured that no rule books could be based on either life story. For instance, (as Christians) are we allowed to drink wine or not – base rules on John or Jesus? You need to enter into a relationship with the God of the Bible and then listen to him – his living voice which tells you his will for you today.
The key is relationship which may sound more attractive than embracing a rule book but rules have their advantages because rules – laws and regulations – always have loopholes. If you want something, you can always argue your case and avoid obedience. Jesus told the Bible experts of his day: “You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.”
To finish this point – if you have the basic attitude of confronting any possible new move of God by arguing a case of resistance, you will not make progress. At some stage – whatever God is doing – you need to enter into a relationship with him and learn to be humble – accept his authority in different people, churches and seasons – his living presence in diversity, not your rules.
In closing – if you have not done so before – humble yourself and allow God to be who he is. If you have been overly fond of a certain religious tradition or denomination (to the exclusion of others) – if you accept only a limited range of Christian faith expressions (e.g.: hymns only or soaking prayer only) – repent and have another look. God invites you to embrace both – John and Jesus, Smith Wigglesworth and Luther, Carlos Annacondia and Ravi Zacharias, Heidi Baker and Mother Teresa. [By the way, Heidi Baker is a huge fan of Mother Teresa.]
As a church, we learn to accept one another (with discernment) and give ourselves the freedom to be different from each other. God loves diversity and so do we. Amen.