First Lesson: Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
Responsive Reading: Psalm 126
Second Lesson: 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
Gospel Lesson: John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Several years back, my dad and I went to a Minnesota Timberwolves game. The Timberwolves were so bad that there were times that you were able to get two hundred dollar tickets for twenty bucks. The Timberwolves had recently traded away the best player in team history and arguably the best player in the league, Kevin Garnett, because they weren’t even able to win with him on the roster. Desperate times call for desperate measures! So what the Timberwolves in the darkest of times wanted to sell was hope, so they came up with a new slogan “Build It”.
“Build It” was meant to encourage fans on the ground level to follow the team because they believed that they would be good down the line.
The “Build It” plan didn’t work on the terms set out for it. The Timberwolves currently have the longest playoff drought in the league and are currently the worst team in their conference. This season the Timberwolves have lost games by 48, 28, 17, 26, 22, and 19. The Timberwolves have only been able to sell hope for the past several years.
What the struggle of basketball fandom reminds us is that in the midst of darkness that we yearn for nothing more than light. A sign that a new way forward is coming soon!
The story of trying to find hope in the midst of despair brings us to our Gospel lesson for today from John 1. It’s another lesson centering around the person of John the Baptist. Whereas last week, we looked at John’s background, today; we look at the specific goals of John’s ministry.
Our lesson includes the goal of John’s ministry quite clear in verse 23 which says “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.”
So how did John make straight the way for the Lord? How did John get people ready for Jesus’ coming?
I think the mistake that we make when we think of John the Baptist’s life is to think of him as Jesus’ sidekick. Sure, John the Baptist and Jesus were related by blood, but they probably had no interaction with each other growing up as children.
Elizabeth had John as an old woman. Mary had Jesus as a young virgin. Jesus grew up in Nazareth. John grew up in the wilderness. It is possible that Jesus’ baptism was the first time that they would have met each other.
Another interesting example of John’s distance from Jesus is the interaction between their followers.
Further evidence that these two men had very little interaction with each other throughout their lives comes from Luke the 7th chapter where a group of John’s disciples approach Jesus by saying “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
If those closest to John were unable to identify Jesus standing before them, this points out how the encounters between these two men were probably quite limited. What this background reminds us is how John the Baptist needed to proceed by faith in his ministry just as much as anybody else.
So where our story connects to John is in the central task of his ministry “Making straight the way for the Lord” or preparing people for the Messiah’s coming. How John built a ministry at the Jordan River is what I want to look at this morning.
The first thing that I noticed about John this morning in reading our text for this morning is John’s great humility. John knows exactly who he is and who he isn’t.
“I am not the light.”
“I am not Elijah.”
“I am not the Christ.”
John states in some of his more famous words that “the one that was coming after him; his sandal he was unworthy to untie.” John’s sense of humility guided his whole ministry. But perhaps even more importantly than this, John believed that he was a part of something much bigger than himself or his sense of earthly comfort.
Second story, a while back I came across a quote by Gopher Football Coach Jerry Kill. Kill took over a program that like the Timberwolves was in the dumps. Kill has achieved some success. Kill said something that struck me during a recent interview. Kill talked about how he didn’t think he would be a witness to the type of success that the Gophers are having. What Kill believed is that he would lay the groundwork, the administration would get frustrated; Kill would get fired, and then the next guy would turn it around.
The often lack of outward success for our work brings us back to John the Baptist. John was a part of something special when he baptized our Lord. This famous baptism is why we know John, yet John didn’t get to see the outcome for his most famous of life events. John didn’t witness any healing miracles, and John didn’t witness the resurrection. John continued to live in hardship until the day of his execution. John’s ministry centers upon fleeting encounters. John was used to this. John probably baptized all sorts of people that he never saw again. What John ultimately believed is that his Baptism would ultimately serve a greater purpose even if he never got to see its outcome.
John’s story can bring us to thinking about people within our life. Each and every person in this room can probably speak about people who have profoundly influenced our faith life without them knowing the outcome.
I’ve spoken before about how I don’t believe I’d be a pastor if it wasn’t for my great-grandpa Arvid. Arvid’s been dead nearly twenty years, he was never going to know the outcome of his influence. This never stopped him from acting! We must remember that God works in a wide variety of ways. God works not only in pastors, God works in people at work, God works in neighbors, and God works in family members.
Another story, a while back I was leading services at the Veterans Home. After the service the chaplain asks me to go visit with a guy we’ll call Bob, who had recently lost his wife. Bob was devastated as she died away from him, living in another nursing home.
As we sat down together that day, Bob recalled a lot of things about life. Bob talked about their sixty years of wonderful marriage. Bob talked about trying to make sense of it all because of his faith. Bob shared his frustration about being confined to a wheelchair. The conversation was emotionally intense as Bob broke down several times within it.
Bob finally put me on the spot in the midst of our conversation when he asked “What was God’s purpose in keeping him around?” Believe me this question seems always to be asked whenever I’m visiting with someone who is unable to live life according to their wishes. I wished I could give Bob a smooth, easy to understand answer. This question got me thinking about our purpose in this world.
The thing about a purpose is that it we often don’t easily discover it. So what I told Bob is “I don’t know why God has you here.” “God might have you here to witness to a great-grandchild or even a nursing home staff member years down the line”, no different than my Great-Grandpa influenced my life well into his nineties.
It’s helpful to remember this as we talk to our own kids and grand kids about faith and seemingly have to bang our heads against the wall. You might not see the outcome of your witness a generation before.
God might have you around for an outcome that you will be unable to observe just like John the Baptist. Remember the famous words from Philippians as we question how we can be more patient and articulate “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
John the Baptist’s greatest trait was that he was able to see the limits of his own powers. Advent is a future looking season. Today we lookout upon the congregation to ask the following questions: What might this church look like ten years from now…or twenty years from now? What might this congregation look like once we are beyond the point of being able to influence it?
I think the important thing to remember is that there will come a day when we are no longer able to change our surroundings. What we must also remember is that day is not today. We must remember that the odds for revival might seem long if not impossible. We must also remember that God builds the church on resurrection.
We are a unique body with a unique purpose and calling, no different than John the Baptist. “To make straight the paths for Our Lord.”
To prepare people for Christ’s coming. We go forth with a mission of seeking to educate people about our God. The Mission is no different than John’s purpose in seeking to instruct the Levites in today’s lesson. Our God is neither an angry God nor a vengeful God. Our God is not merely concerned with petty rules and regulations. Our God seeks to make this world whole once again.
John’s humility saved him from the error that many a pastor and many a church fall into in thinking they can do so much. The future of this church or any church does not belong to us. John didn’t evaluate the success of his baptism in the same ways that we evaluate the success of our own ministry. John wasn’t going to be around to see Jesus rise, John wasn’t going to be around to see the Christian church born, yet for John this didn’t mean that his task wasn’t an important one. John realized that the Lord brought him to a certain time and certain place for a purpose to serve out.
I’m sure as word spread around Galilee of John the Baptist’s execution, his critics felt justified. Yet what the critics could not see was what was going on beneath the surface. A community of faith was in the process of being built that was going to be present long after John was gone. John the Baptist did not fail, because God’s timeline was ultimately going to be more important than his own.
Doors were going to close, people would dream big, ideas would fizzle out, and expiration dates would expire. Within these times, many of John’s disciples would become Jesus’ disciples. These disciples would eventually get to witness a resurrection from the darkest of place. Amen
 Luke 7:20 is the exact verse quoted. The full story takes place from Luke 7:18-35
 A paraphrase of John 1:8
 John 1:21
 John 1:20
 John 1:27
 These comments took place in an interview with WCCO’s Mark Rosen which aired on November 30th, 2014.
 These comments were inspired when re-reading Ed Markquart’s Gospel analysis for John 1:6-8, 19-28 this week at sermonsforseattle.com for Advent 3B.
 Philippians 4:13
 I was reading through an essay this week by Pastor Russell Rathbun entitled “ Give Your Church an Expiration Date” for Renew 52: Ideas to Change the Church put out by Luther Seminary and edited by David Lose. Rathbun’s easy is found on page 87. Rathbun’s essay reminds me of many of the key points that I sought to make within this sermon regarding the nature of failure and success within the church.