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A BRAVE MAN - by Ted Schroder


by Ted Schroder

John the Baptist's birth was announced by the angel Gabriel to his father Zechariah when he was serving as a priest in the Temple. He and his wife Elizabeth were "well along in years", they had no children, and she was 'barren'. In other words, his birth was, in the least, unusual. He was designated to be a prophet from birth in the spirit and power of Elijah. He would turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:17) When he was born, Zechariah, who had been struck dumb by his angelic visitation and doubt, proclaimed his son as "a prophet of the Most High" who would "give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins." (Luke 1:76,77)

When he grew to maturity John was summoned by the word of God to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, in the desert by the river Jordan. Crowds traveled from Jerusalem, attracted by this strange man, who was clothed in camel's hair (not Brooke's Brothers), like his predecessor Elijah, existing on a diet of locusts and wild honey. He must have been a magnetic figure to hold the attention of the curious, and to convict them enough of their sins to be willing to be baptized in the river. His was a message of hellfire and judgment, and a call to moral reformation. He exhorted the people to be generous, and share what they owned with others in need. He warned the tax collectors to be honest. He told the military to live off their pay and not use extortion or blackmail to grow rich off others. In other words, he attacked any abuse of power by those in authority.

His message was meant to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the Messiah. He was plowing up the ground so that the people would be ready to receive the seed of the kingdom of God. He preached the same message to the rich and the poor, to the upper classes and the lower classes, to the religious and the secular. He spared no one. He did not trim his sails for anyone. He even rebuked Herod the tetrarch (ruler of Galilee and Peraea) for divorcing his wife and marrying his brother's wife, Herodias - a liaison forbidden by the law (Lev.18:16; 20:21); and for other evil things he had done. John was a brave man, who was willing to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and was willing to suffer for the sake of truth.

Herod imprisoned John, and executed him at the request of his wife for a foolish wager. Herod was eventually defeated in battle by the forces of his first wife, was deposed by the Emperor, and spent his final years in exile.

John was the forerunner of Jesus. He was the last prophet of the old covenant. He was the link between the old and the new testaments. He laid the groundwork for Jesus and his ministry. He prepared the way for the coming of the day of the Lord. He exhorted the people to repent of their sins, and he preached the good news of forgiveness to those who would change their ways.

What can we learn from him for ourselves today? None of us is probably going to be called to the kind of life he led - living in the desert. But we may be called to witness to the message he embodied: to speak the truth about the coming Messiah, boldly to rebuke vice, to call people to change their lives, and get ready for the coming judgment.

In other words, the message of this prophet, is that knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins is conditional upon repentance - the inward change of the mind and will resulting in the outward change of behavior. Baptism was the outward sign of this personal conversion.

Prophets are rarely, if ever, popular. They make us feel uncomfortable. Prophets do not have congregations. Pastors who attempt to be prophets often end up alienating portions of their flock, and losing their jobs. Most of us want to hear the good news, not the bad news. We want to hear about unconditional love not conditional salvation. We want to hear about grace and not about works.

Preachers are aware that attempts at moral exhortation place them in a precarious position of seeming moral superiority; and renders them vulnerable to scrutiny. Any lapse of character or moral failure is magnified, leading to charges of hypocrisy. It is a brave person who is willing to put themselves on the front line where their integrity can be called into question.

All of us, as private citizens, neighbors, friends, members of families, suffer from the same constraints. We don't want to be criticized as judgmental, or legalistic, or out of date, or narrow minded, by others whose approval we value. As a result the truth is not told, vice is not rebuked, people continue to make bad choices, lives are not changed for the better, and are not prepared for the coming judgment.

Yet, the life and words of John the Baptist, the other biblical prophets, and Jesus, continue to speak to us. Those who heard him asked, "Teacher, what should we do?" He answered very directly and specifically: 1. Share out of your abundance with the needy; 2. Don't be greedy; 3. Don't abuse others by trying to control them - be content with what you have; 4. Honor marriage. All these we can do personally, and witness to their truth in our community.

1. We can share with the needy through our giving to the church which generously supports a number of benevolence ministries.

2. We can curb our greed through giving rather than wanting more for ourselves.

3. We can learn what it is to be content with what we have, rather than base our happiness on controlling others to do what we want them to do.

4. We can make known our views on the importance of honoring marriage and family life as we have received it, and as society needs it, as the foundation of our national life.

These times in which we live call for another John the Baptist. Our Western society is in thrall to conspicuous consumption, excessive extravagance, irresponsible immaturity, self-absorbed individualism, compulsive addictions, and unrestrained sexual promiscuity. We need to repent, to change our lifestyles. We need men and women who are brave enough to call for moral reformation and spiritual revival.

John said, "I baptize you with water; but one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. He must increase and I must decrease." John the Baptist was the prologue to the main story - the Messiah who was to come. He prepared the way by convicting people of their sins, and getting them ready for Jesus. He got their attention by troubling them about their condition, turning them around, and pointing them in his direction. Why can't we do the same?

---The Rev. Ted Schroder resides in Amelia Plantation Chapel, Amelia Island, Florida

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