Note: This sermon is for the second Sunday of Advent, the season that spans the four Sundays preceding Christmas day. To read a Surprising God post explaining the meaning of Advent click here. For four GCI-produced videos for Advent, click here.
Scripture readings for today: Mal. 3:1-4 • Luke 1:68-79 • Phil. 1:3-11 • Luke 3:1-6
Participants in Christ’s Ministry
(Luke 3:1-6; Philippians 1:3-11)
Note to preacher: You might begin with a personal anecdote about anticipation-preparation: expecting the birth of your first child, the wedding of an adult child, the birth of a grandchild.
When anticipating something good such as a high school graduation, a wedding, the birth of a child or grandchild, a visit with old friends, a much-needed vacation, or retirement, there is joy in the anticipation. But when we’re anticipating something not so good, such as being cut from a sports team, losing someone you love, or corporate downsizing, the anticipation can be filled with dread and agony.
In the time covered in today’s reading in Luke, though the people of God had been anticipating the Messiah for a long time, they were not prepared for what actually occurred. None of the Old-Testament prophets (Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) had provided the full picture of what was to come. But then came John the son of Zechariah—we know him as John the Baptist. His prophetic ministry was unique in its scope and detail in announcing the Messiah.
Today, on this the second Sunday of Advent Season, we will focus on the important ministry of John the Baptist in preparing the way for the Lord Jesus Christ. We will also draw a parallel with how God has invited us to also be participants in preparing the way for our Lord and Savior.
The picture we get from the four Sundays of Advent is almost like looking in a mirror and seeing a reverse image: we are presented with a picture of the ministry of the Father, Son, and Spirit flowing in reverse from Jesus Christ’s second coming to his first coming. Though today we will focus on our readings in Luke and Philippians, I encourage you to also read Malachi 3:1-4 this afternoon or later this week. Together, these passages portray the anticipation and participation in ministry that we are given as we await our Lord’s return.
John the Baptist’s ministry of preparation
God sent Gabriel from his side in heaven to tell Zechariah the priest about the forthcoming birth of a son to be named John. Gabriel announced that John would “bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God… to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16-17). After the baby was born, Zechariah, led by the Spirit, spoke these words:
You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1:76-77)
What a special ministry was predicted for John! Let’s look now at today’s Gospel reading to see what John did and how he did it. Luke gives us a historical marker of when John served:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)
Roman and Jewish historical records place this event at AD 27 or 28. Although John had been appointed some 30 years earlier, God set a specific time in history for his important ministry to begin. The time had now arrived. The Father was soon to send his Son, Jesus, to begin his history-changing, world-saving work, so he led John to begin his participatory, preparatory ministry:
He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A 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.’” (Luke 3:3-6)
According to Luke 1:80, John “grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” After spending the early years of his life in a small town in Judea’s hill country, John moved to the deserted area east of Jerusalem. Zechariah and Elizabeth had raised him as instructed, taught him the Hebrew Scriptures, and shared with him the prophetic messages about his future ministry. John grew and became strong in the Spirit. When God called him to start his ministry, he left the desert and began preaching a message of repentance in preparation for the forthcoming ministry of Jesus.
John had to leave his familiar, though solitary, home to go where he could work to restore a God-consciousness in the Jewish people of his day. After years of being dominated by foreign empires, the public mindset had become secularized with personal survival being the highest priority. Although the Jews continued to have routine religious activities, the word of God was not guiding their daily living. John called on his Jewish kinsmen to repent—to turn back to God—and he followed up with the rite of baptism (see picture below). The area around the Jordan River was an appropriate setting for those who left their cities and towns to listen as John, a gifted preacher, reminded them of their roots as the people of God. The baptism in water dramatized their cleansing through God’s gracious forgiveness.
Isaiah’s poetic words related to John’s calling predicted a prophet powerfully calling on people to change their ways so that they would be responsive to the saving ministry of the Messiah, God’s Son. John was not seeking his own following—he understood that his role was to point the people to Jesus, not to himself. His ministry drew people’s attention to the Messiah who was to appear very soon.
One of the highlights of John’s ministry was to participate in Jesus’ baptism—a baptism not necessary for Jesus (who had not sinned), but necessary for all of us. Even today, believers continue to participate in that baptism as a sign of their repentance and faith.
As abruptly as John’s ministry at the Jordan began, it ended with his arrest. Herod “locked John up in prison” (Luke 3:20b). He did not enjoy the pleasure of carrying on his ministry into old age. In fact, his ministry lasted for no more than a year or two. Behind prison walls, John could not rejoice in seeing the results of his work of service.
John was a special prophet, foretold in Scripture, and honored to prepare for the Messiah. No greater prophetic work was ever done before him, and yet it was cut short of any immediate rewarding celebration. This combination: privileged calling, yet unfulfilled ultimate results, may seem somewhat conflicting. What lessons can we learn from John’s experience? What similarities do we find in the ministry of the church?
The church’s similar ministry
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says this concerning Luke’s account of John the Baptist:
Luke raises up John as a model for his churches. They, too, prepare for Messiah Jesus and are not the Messiah. They, too, are the pioneers leading others to the frontiers of faith in Jesus. Whenever John’s story is preached as part of the good news, they are challenged to repent, so that they, too, may be prepared for the advent of the Lord Jesus.
As modern readers of the Gospels, it’s easy to overlook this connection. The profound truth is that just as John the Baptist participated in Jesus Christ’s ministry, preparing people to receive Jesus, so has the ministry of the church participated for the past 1900+ years—and that includes this congregation today.
We were designated before creation and have been called now to participate. We cannot fulfill this ministry inside the walls of our Sunday gathering places any more than John could fulfill his ministry without leaving his familiar home and going to the Jordan River. Our calling is part of an awesome work, and yet, like John, we often serve without the opportunity to enjoy the end results.
Let’s consider another of today’s readings, which enlarges on this role of participation:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Phil. 1:3-4)
The apostle Paul considered the members of the church at Philippi his partners in ministry. Their involvement started when Paul first evangelized the city more than 10 years before he wrote this letter from prison. Over the years that transpired, they had actively continued that participation.
For those of us who wonder if our small congregation can make a difference, let me share what the Oxford Companion to the Bible says in summary concerning the church at Philippi:
[It] apparently was first housed in Lydia’s home. In spite of its small beginnings, it grew and became an active Christian community, taking an important part in evangelism, readily sharing its own material possessions, even out of deep poverty, and generously sending one of its own people to assist Paul in his work and to aid him when he was in prison.
The members of the church at Philippi were not apostles. Most of them were not even preachers. But, together, they all participated in the ways that they were gifted by the Holy Spirit. They faithfully fulfilled their calling and mission to make disciples, modeling faithfulness in that mission for other churches. Though their part in this high calling was not always pleasurable, it was always powerful and spiritually rewarding. Paul’s letter to them came from a prison cell. Their emissary to Paul, Epaphroditus, in carrying out his appointed task to visit Paul, almost died for the work of Christ (Phil. 2:30). The congregation experienced both joy and sorrow as they joined Jesus in ministry. Many of the churches of that time—just like today—experienced internal problems, which we read about in some of Paul’s letters.
Paul referred to himself and Timothy as “servants of Jesus Christ” in the opening words of his letter to the church at Philippi. That is who we are as well—servants who partner with Jesus to fulfill his mission. In other words, the members of the church at Philippi, in partnering with Paul in ministry, were participants in Christ’s ministry. From the city of Philippi, they reached out, sharing the gospel, serving the poor and supporting Paul as they reached far beyond their city limits in the work of Jesus.
As we proceed through this Advent Season, going in reverse from the second coming of Jesus toward his first coming, we are wise to consider the stage of Christ’s ministry in which we find ourselves today. Ours is a ministry of participation with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist prepared the Jewish people for Jesus’ ministry. Paul likewise ministered to both Jews and Gentiles, and many of them partnered with him. Today, we follow in the footsteps of these outstanding examples as we participate with Jesus, as he comes to us by the Spirit, in his ongoing ministry to the world.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- The sermon this week addressed the topic of anticipation. Share a time when you were anticipating something negative. Talk about the emotions. Now share a time when you were anticipating something good. Share those emotions.
- For years, Israel looked for the Messiah. Explain what you think that meant to them.
- How are you preparing for the celebration of the Incarnation?
- Read Malachi 3:1-4 and discuss what these verses mean. What does it mean to be like a refiner’s fire, or a launderer’s soap?
- Read the poem of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79). Discuss the poetry. What did people think as they heard it? What did Elizabeth think?
- How are you participating in Christ’s ministry?