I don’t think too many listeners have ever described a sermon as ‘short and sweet.’ I recall sharing a funeral service with another pastoral leader who never checked his watch and rambled on in a form of a eulogy for 45 minutes. It was a brutally hot day and the funeral home’s airconditioning unit was struggling to keep the temperature even moderate with a room packed to capacity. I spoke very briefly under the circumstances and recall my mom who was in attendance saying, “That was short…” (I don’t think she added the adjective sweet.)
John the Baptist’s ministry was short–brief from a human perspective.
1) His coming – This predicted ‘messenger’ came as a ‘voice,’ exactly as Malachi and Isaiah had predicted. “And so John came,….” Mark notes.
2) His calling – He called his listeners to repentance. He preached and practiced baptism, NOT as a step of obedience and symbol of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection as it is for Christ-followers today, but as an outward evidence of repentance. A candidate demonstrated a willingness to change their mind, for that is what repentance is, by responding to the preaching of John’s message by immersion in water. Repentance was shown outwardly and John’s baptism = repentance. For Christians, repentance precedes baptism and connects very different spiritual ‘dots.’
2) His congregation – Stirred up after years of silence from heaven, ‘the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.” Like parts of India in years gone by, this was practically an entire people movement, with a large crowd, stirred up by God’s Spirit, submitted to the Spirit-filled preacher’s call to life-change. They confessed their sins, agreeing with God as to their guilt and ‘proved’ their willingness to change by this outward act.
3) His clothing – Unfettered by ‘fine clothing,’ John’s attire was simple. Rough, camel’s hair clothing, wrapped around with a leather belt provided his wardrobe. Elsewhere, Jesus spoke of ‘fine clothing’ (Matthew 11) as being suitable attire for the palace. John’s prophetic ministry was not ‘fanciful’ or ‘fancy’ – he had one main point – “Repent!” and the Spirit of God led him to maintain simplicity externally to demonstrate consistency. Even his consumption of locusts and wild honey made for a short grocery list in the wilds of the desert!
4) His Christ-centredness – John’s ministry was not the ‘main’ attraction. He was not the ‘headliner’ but rather an opening act, a singular voice with a Spirit-led subject. He had come to point to Christ, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. Mark cites his explicit declaration – “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The Christ (Messiah) who was ‘waiting in the wings’ was coming soon. He was more powerful and the adult John, like the unborn John in the womb of his mother Elizabeth (Luke 1) leaped for joy with the good news of His coming. John knew Christ’s place as well as his own. There was no comparison. Jesus was more powerful. Jesus was more prominent.
There are plenty of lessons of application for those of us entrusted with the sacred task of preaching. We too call people to repent. If any ‘respond’ to our preaching, we know this is a stirring up not generated by our gifting or personality. We must remain undistracting and remember that our preaching and ministry, even if it is not ‘short and sweet,’ is to point to Jesus Christ, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. We shall only complete our assignment in God’s plan by the power of the same Holy Spirit whose presence was clearly life changing in the ministry of the preacher Jesus described as ‘the Elijah who was to come.” (Malachi 4:5)
Here’s a painting by Pieter Bruegler (16th century Flemish painter) of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness.