Finding Grace in the Message

of John the Baptist


The gospel reading and text is John 3:1-6.  Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on December 6, 2009, the Second Sunday in Advent.


A Children’s Message: Can You Find Jesus?


I invite all children to help me discover the many symbols of Jesus that we have in the sanctuary today.  These symbols help us learn something about Jesus, the one who was born in Bethlehem on Christmas.  See the Chrismon Tree (monograms of Christ).  After we explain the various Chrismons, the children will be given a “Jesus sticker” to help remind them that this is the time when we look forward to the birth of Jesus…


Dear Friends in Christ,


Today’s gospel reading and this sermon time give me the opportunity to explore a line of thought that isn’t usually associated with John the Baptist.  Is there  any “grace” in the message of John the Baptist? 


We are used to his fiery rhetoric, his call for repentance, his warning about judgment and his calling the Jewish leaders “hypocrites.”  But really, is there some good news for us, something grace-full  for  Christians today?


The answer is “yes!”  Here’s what I’ve found:


1.     A major theme in Luke’s Gospel is the universal nature of God’s grace.  Grace is something that is free, that is undeserved, that is given to someone.  We are speaking today about God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.  John is anticipating a time when God can be fully gracious.


Over and over again Luke emphasizes that God’s salvation is for both Jews and Gentiles, for the whole world.  The 4 gospel writers each have their own emphasis.  Matthew describes the role of John the Baptist through these words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”  Luke quotes more from Isaiah to add his emphasis: A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him…AND ALL MANKIND WILL SEE GOD’S SALVATION.’


 This gift of salvation, this grace is for the world, not just a select few.


2.     What John the Baptist is calling for is translated “repentance.”  A repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The Greek word is “metanoia.”  Metanoia means “to turn one’s heart, to have a change of mind or outlook.”  Over the years I have often given this image of metanoia: if you are going in one direction, do a 180 degree turn and go the other way.  John is calling for a radical change in your life.


Is it associated with a renewed vow to keep all the religious laws?  Probably not.  I say that because we learn from the gospel writers that among John’s audience when he preached were Pharisees and Sadducees.  The Pharisees went out of their way to keep all the laws and statutes of the Jews, and Matthew tells us that John directed his wrath especially at them, calling them “you brood of vipers.”  The Sadducees were more worldly and politically minded, and seemed to place their hopes in those arenas more than in the spiritual realm.  John includes them in his “brood of vipers” comment.


The change that John was demanding of the people was something other than just keeping the laws and statutes of the Jews.  It was a call to recognize the God of their salvation once again.  The call in every generation, including ours, is the same: Depend upon God and not on your own understanding.  Here are the beautiful words of Zechariah’s song that he used when John was just a baby.  They seem to be the mission statement  for John the Baptist’s ministry: “And 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,  because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:76-79).


I have a question for you to consider.  Today, do you want me to preach more like John the Baptist or more like Jesus?  What do you think is the best way for pastors in our day to share present the message of salvation?


Some time ago I picked up a book by Daniel Preus entitled Why I Am a Lutheran.  The subtitle is “Jesus at the Center.”  Daniel is a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Pastor, and first vice president of their denomination.  I was interested to see if his take on Lutheran preaching is any different than mine, an ELCA pastor.  I am pleased to share with you some of his thinking, because we share a lot in common:


Page 196       The Christian faith is all about Jesus.  Being a Lutheran is all about Jesus.  St. Paul says, “No one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (I Cor. 3:11).


Page 170       According to Martin Luther: The proper work of a pastor is to speak “a word of salvation, a word of grace, a word of comfort, a word of joy, a voice of a bridegroom and the bride, a good word, a word of peace,” so the church may rejoice in the knowledge of salvation.


Page 171       According to Martin Luther: My every single sermon be forever damned which persuades a person to find security and trust in or through anything whatever except the pure mercy of God, which is Christ. 


Page 173       Faithful pastors want people to live, not perish, so they preach the Gospel.  They proclaim to people that no matter what they have done, God forgives it.  No matter what shame they feel, God washes them clean.  No matter what wrongs taunt them and never leave them in peace, Jesus, the Lamb of God, has taken them all away.  Grace not only covers every sin, grace is universal, which means it covers every sinner.  No one can say that Jesus didn’t come for me, didn’t die for me.  St. Paul says: In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (I Cor 5:19).


Here’s the word of grace (some call it “radical” grace) for us this day: God loves us all and wants to welcome us into his kingdom.  The price of admission has been paid in full.  All we have to do is accept this free gift.  It is called “grace.”  Thank you, Lord Jesus.