A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 16th December 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 40:18-24 and Luke 3:1-22.
To-day is the third Sunday in Advent. Advent means coming. In this season, the Church prepares for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. In doing so this year, we reflect on II Isaiah’s words: Those who wait or hope or trust in the Lord shall renew their strength (Is 40:31).
How do we hope, trust or wait for the Lord? On the First Sunday, from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, it was suggested that we must be born from above or we must make every effort to find ways to reconnect with God. Last Sunday was Bible Sunday. It was suggested that we must listen to the Word of God – for this Word is the Lamp to guide us and the Light on our path. This Sunday is John the Baptist Sunday. This is his message and plea: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand” (Mt. 3:2). “Repent” means to turn away from sin, from self-centredress, from separation and alienation with self, with others and with God and turn back to God – to be in communion with God. On this Sunday, we are very happy that Angela has made this decision. We have just witnessed her baptism.
John the Baptist was the pioneer for Jesus. When I was a student at Queen’s College in the 1950’s, my only recollection was that the Governor of Hong Kong came to our graduation exercises every year in November. I was most impressed by the police inspector whose motorcycle with a British flag always went in front of the Governor’s Rolls Royce. According to what I have been told, his major function was not only ceremonial – to make the Rolls Royce behind his looked more dignified; but more importantly to clear the way in case there was heavy traffic so that the governor would always arrive on time. In other words it was the inspector who ensured the punctuality of the Governor which was known as the Governor’s time!
Likewise, John the Baptist cleared the way for Jesus.
“Look, I am going to send my messenger in front of you to prepare your way before you. (Mk 1:2).
John the Baptist was the messenger of God who went before Jesus.
“A voice of one that cries in the desert: Prepare a way for the Lord, Make his paths straight.” (Mk 1:3 quoting Is 40:3).
The main duty of John the Baptist was to prepare the way for Jesus and make straight his paths.
John the Baptist was the first evangelist. He brought forth Jesus Christ – who was and is the “evangel”. His preaching and his work was recorded somewhat in detail in Lk 3:1-22 which was read this morning. It may be also found in Mt 3:1-12; Mk 1:1-8 and Jn 1:15-42.
John’s preaching was simple and clear. Repent: Turn back from Ego-centric to Theo-centric; from always thinking of our own benefit to caring for others. “If you have two shirts give one to the person who has none; and share the food you have with the hungry.” (3:11).
In those days, tax collectors and the Roman soldiers were disliked by people. This was the advice of John the Baptist for them respectively: “Don’t collect more than is legal” (3:13); “Don’t take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely” (3:14).
In answering questions raised by tax collectors and soldiers, John the Baptist reminded all of us do not fall into the pit of always caring for our own benefits at the expense of other people.
When people’s hopes began to rise at the work of John the Baptist, he denied categorically that he was the Messiah. He pointed out that the Messiah would come in the person of Jesus Christ. “I baptist you with water, but someone is coming who is much greater than I am. I am not good enough to untie his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16).
How humble was John the Baptist! He claimed that he was not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. In those days, only slaves would untie the shoes or sandals of their masters or the guests of their masters.
How many of us would not mind to be a second fiddler in our Church? As James and John, two of closest disciples of Jesus, we want to sit on high places or important positions. Not too long ago, there was a dinner for church leaders all over the world hosted by the Christian Conference of Asia in Hong Kong. A Church leader from Hong Kong was placed in table number 5, rather than the head table or table no. 2. He had a look on the situation and excused himself saying that he had another dinner to attend! We all are very ego-centric and are extremely difficult to be humble.
But John the Baptist humbled himself. I wonder to what extent Jesus learned from him. As we all know throughout his life Jesus served those in need humbly – even to the extent of giving up his own life. As Paul observed, “although Jesus was rich. He became poor for our sake, so that we would become rich through his poverty.” (II Cor. 8:9). Later, Paul described Jesus’ utter humble service by emptying himself in one of the Christological hymns in Phil. 2:6-11.
Eventually, John the Baptist met his fate of being executed by King or rather Governor Herod. Luke alluded it in 3:19. But Mark gave us a detail account of this extra-judicial killing in chapter 6 (vss 14-29) and Matthew also gave us a less detail account in chapter 14 (vss 3-12). However Luke did give us the reason or reasons why John the Baptist was beheaded.
First according to Luke, “John in many different ways preached the good news and urged them to change their ways” (vs 18). Generally speaking, people like to maintain the status quo. Only very few people would like to accept radical changes in their life.
Second, “John reprimanded Herod, the governor, the ruler of Galilee, because he had married Herodias, his brother’s wife, and had done many other evil things” (vs 19). In verse 20, it says, “Then Herod did an even worse thing by putting John in prison”. The woman Herodias hated John’s guts. Mark filled us in with the details after John was put into prison.
At Herod’s birthday party, Herodias’ daughter danced to the great delight of Herod and all his guests. So Herod told her he would give her whatever she wanted. She consulted her mother who suggested the head of John the Baptist. Herod was sad, but he could not refuse, especially in front of his guests. So John was beheaded.
John met his fate simply because he decided to tell the truth! It is always difficult to tell the truth in front of the authorities, particularly if the truth is against the powerful. It is a rule that the people in authority, like governor Herod, do not like to hear the truth because oftentimes they do according to their likes and dislikes and rule according to a pack of lies.
In 1999, because of the influx of people from the mainland who wanted to come to join their families in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong government decided to ask the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) to rule on the article in the Basic Law regarding who have the right to reside in Hong Kong. The CFA ruled against the Hong Kong government for trying to limit the number. So the government launched a publicity campaign by saying that if Hong Kong followed CFA’s ruling, more than 2.6 million mainlanders would flood Hong Kong. Basing on this scare tactics of lies, the general public in Hong Kong did not object that the Hong Kong government requested the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to rule in its favour.
The decision makers often used lies or cover-ups to justify their decision. Worse, the Church could not live up to the standard of John the Baptist by always telling the truth, especially in critical moments.
The message of the Church like John the Baptist or Jesus Christ is “Repent and believe in the Gospel”. Before we preach the Gospel of repentance, we must repent first, not just once but continuously.
In looking at how the Church in Hong Kong remained Silent in the 1990s and especially in recent years, I was somewhat heartened in my last years working in the Hong Kong Christian Institute. In 2000, Pope John Paul II issued a statement to usher in a new millennium by calling his Church to repent on all the wrong doings in the past. Earlier on the French Bishops’ Conference had issued the statement on “Silence is Sin” (alluding especially to the Silence of the Roman Catholic Church during the Nazi purge of the Jews). About the same time, the Bishops’ Conference in the Philippines asked the people’s forgiveness for the Church’s support of Ferdinand Marcos.
John the Baptist as Jesus’ Pioneer lost his life as a result of truth-telling. We can understand a lot better why the Jewish leaders wanted to put Jesus on a cross as well. (c.f. Mk 3:6 and 11:18)!
Besides a physician Luke was also a historian. He always put his messages in historical context. This is the beginning of the Gospel, he wrote, “I do (or I write) this so that you will know the full truth about everything you have been taught.” (1:4). To introduce John the Baptist, he wrote, “It was the fifteen year of the rule of the Emperor Tiberius; Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was ruler of Galilee…” (3:1ff).
Luke gave some detail about John’s family. John came from a very pious family: his father Zechariah was a priest and mother Elizabeth was a devout woman. “They both lived good lives in God’s sight and obeyed fully all the Lord’s laws and commandments.” (1:6). Hence Zechariah was able to turn his doubt and fear: how can we have a son? I am an old man and so was my wife (3:18) into a song of praise (the Benedictus; 1:67-79). So was Elizabeth. She turned her shame (being too old for a baby, 1:25) into a statement of trust (1:39ff).
John the Baptist and his father Zechariah and mother Elizabeth ushered in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. They were all humble to admit that they were not the ONE to come, But only with their generous, unselfish and humble service to God could God’s plan be fulfilled. Like them, we too, have to play our part, no matter how small, in God’s saving activities on earth.
The utter humility of John was no accident. Luke reported that in order to prepare his service to God, he decided to live in a desert (Lk 1:80). Mark added “John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Mk 1:6). John lived a simple life. Indeed it is this simple life style which enabled John to be humble and accomplished great things.
This was how Jesus summed up John’s life of humble service.
“A prophet? Yes indeed, but you saw much more than a prophet. For John is the one whom the scripture says, ‘God said, I will send my messenger ahead of you to open the way for you!’ I tell you, John is greater than any man who has ever lived.” (Lk 7:26-28).
Let us pray:
O God, your truth is hidden from the wise and pendent, and revealed only to the humble: Grant us pure and humble hearts, that being inspired by the Holy Spirit we may know to follow your path of salvation in this world. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.