A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sermon (Jan. 19) by Rev. Robert McDowell


    Today’s Gospel reading has reminded me of what a super interesting person John the Baptist must have been. A rock star of his day, people flocked to see him. But he also had a lot of idiosyncrasies. I don’t know how he would have ever made it through our rigorous ordination interviews of today.

     “Uh, John. We appreciated our interview with you today, but we need to be honest with you. You have a lot of rough edges to work out if you want to be a pastor in our conference. Love the passion. Love your fiery sermons, but calling people a brood of vipers will most likely mean very short pastorates for you. One or two year, tops. That will preach out in the middle of the wilderness, but in a church, not so much.

     And usually when there’s an interview, the candidate wears shoes. And a tie wouldn’t hurt either. Not absolutely necessary, but it would be nice, not to mention some pants and a shirt. Maybe save the camel’s hair outfit for when you…uh, when you take the youth on a weekend retreat or maybe some other special event. But probably not when you’re leading worship week after week.

     Don’t get us wrong, we like you, John, but we just feel that you need a little more time and seasoning. You’ll note at the bottom of our comments section, that we are suggesting a couple of church growth seminars that will be helpful to you as well as a sermon planning workshop that will give you some more interesting preaching topics to explore, you know, in addition to the repent or else type sermons. It’s just that people don’t want to hear the same sermon all the time and they have only so many toes for you to step on. Maybe listen to some other preachers. I hear the Athens First pastor posts his sermons online. Maybe check those out.

     But here’s what we don’t want you to change, John. Even with all of these things that we want you to improve, keep on pointing people to Jesus like you’ve been doing. We need more people like you. Call us if you have any questions, follow our suggestions and share your progress with us next year.”

     We don’t always know what to make of John the Baptist. What an interesting guy! As I’ve been reflecting on this larger than life biblical character, it occurred to me that he was like a celebrity of his day. People flocked to hear him. They were drawn to his fiery words. Many were even baptized by him. He must have been the talk of the surrounding region.

     Maybe it was the camel’s hair clothing that reminded the people of another celebrity centuries earlier, the prophet Elijah who wore something very similar and who also paved the way for people to see God in a new and fresh way. John was channeling Elijah and helping people to rethink what it means to be God’s people, and to get them ready for the new thing that God was about to do. 

     And this makes me wonder, who are the John the Baptists in your life who have helped you to be open to the new way that God is at work in your life? Who are the John the Baptists along your path who are pointing to a new way of living and a new way of taking that next step in your faith?

     It might not be a man wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey in the middle of nowhere. That was John’s day. But it more likely might be a friend who knows you so well, they always seem to bring the best out in you. It might be that person who sits near you in the same pew every Sunday and who always asks how your week has gone and offers an encouraging word of hope. It might be that teacher or that pastor or that Stephen Minister who helps you to see beyond all the obstacles and the challenges you may be facing into a more hope-filled future.

     The John the Baptists of our lives have this uncanny ability to point beyond themselves to as the Apostle Paul says, a faith that anticipates the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ and to a God who is always faithful. 

     My brother is an ordained Deacon in the United Methodist Church. He serves as the Music Director at our home church in south central, Pennsylvania. He has been in that position for the past thirty years. His ministry in that church has included a summer musical theatre each year which involves over a hundred youth from the local high schools in the surrounding area.

     A lot of these youth are now adults and he has told me how rewarding it is to stay in touch with them and to see how they are doing. Many of them ask him to officiate for their wedding. Some turn to him when they are facing a challenge in their life or the loss of a loved one. Even though they may have moved away from the area, they still see him as a John the Baptist like figure who through his music ministry, pointed them to the loving and guiding presence of Jesus in their lives, something that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.

     Who are the John the Baptists in your life?

     This past June, during our West Ohio conference sessions up at Lakeside, Ohio along Lake Erie, Patrick Shannon shared how a United Methodist Church in the Dayton area was like a John the Baptist for him. That church, including the members and the pastor pointed him to the loving grace of Jesus Christ and he says how it saved his life. Let’s listen to Patrick tell his story.

     All this church did was welcome Patrick into their community of faith, point him to Jesus, and provide a community of love and support.

     We live in a celebrity culture where entertainers and sports figures become larger than life. But the real stars are those who point away from their celebrity status and instead point us to a hope that offers transformation and new life.

     Think about a theater, like the one that is in a high school auditorium. Those theaters typically have big old spotlights at the back of the room. Those long cylinder contraptions are designed to have someone swivel and turn the light and to cast a flood of attention on a particular spot on the stage.

     Placed by the stage of the Jordan River in the wilderness, John the Baptist was ready, and was prepared to shine the spotlight on the one who has come to “take away the sins of the world.” John saw his purpose, his life goal in proclaiming, “make the Lord’s path straight” and testifying of Jesus that “this is God’s Son.”

     And this is what makes John the Baptist so special to me. Because he could have said, “I might not be Jesus, but we are related, you know – I’m his cousin, actually. Did you know that? I’m the one you are looking for out here in the wilderness. Bet you haven’t seen anyone wear camel’s hair like this in a long time. Follow me and we can all be famous!”

     John had every opportunity to say something like that. He had a star like personality. Many came to hear him preach. He was the trending story of his day. He could have started his own ministry. 

     But instead, he took his popularity and the recognition he was receiving and pointed people to Jesus. That’s when a star is born. When we point to the one who offers hope, new life, and transformation. 

     That’s why we are remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend who pointed to Jesus. A modern day John the Baptist who cried out in the wilderness shining the light on racism and injustice. A prophet out in the wilderness of America announcing that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

    Like John the Baptist, like Dr. King, and like so many who have gone before us, let’s take our spotlights and shine them on Jesus, the one who offers hope and new life. The one who has come to take away the sins of the world.

A Star is Born
Sermon Discussion Questions
John 1:29-42
January 19, 2020

Pretend that you are on a new pastor search committee and you are going through the resumes. You notice one that states, “Unconventional preacher who is not afraid to point out people’s sins, wear out-of-style clothing, and preach out in the middle of nowhere.”

Would you call this candidate in for an interview? Why or why not?

John the Baptist chose an unconventional style of ministry because he wanted to remind the people of the Prophet Elijah who had lived centuries before him. Elijah was known for preparing people for the new thing that God was about to do.

Who are the “John the Baptists” and the “Elijahs” who have helped you prepare for the new thing that God wanted to do in your life? How did they help you to take a new step in trusting the new future that God had in mind for you?

During the sermon, we showed the video testimony of Patrick Shannon who experienced spiritual transformation thanks to many “John the Baptists” who loved and encouraged him through a United Methodist Church in the Dayton, Ohio area. Like John the Baptist, they pointed him to Jesus who continues to make a difference in his life. Here is his testimony:

How can our church be like John the Baptist for the people in our community? In what ways might God be calling us to be a welcoming, inclusive, encouraging, and nurturing community of faith for the people in our church and community?

Pastor Robert shared in the sermon how pointing people to Jesus is like pointing a spotlight away from ourselves and upon Jesus. When we do that, people are drawn closer to Jesus who offers hope and new life and who takes away the sins of the world.

What can help us remember to shine the spotlight on Jesus rather than upon ourselves?

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