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Sermon for 11 December 2016


John the Baptist; Holy Spirit and fire


John the Baptist is someone we might perhaps spend a moment to think about at Advent, but that is probably about it. 


We have just a few incidences in the Bible that help us see who he is, but it is limited, and I will try and paint a picture today.


John the Baptist had a remarkable connection to Jesus, they were almost the same age, they had the same faith, they were part of the same community, and yet they had the smallest of contact, in the most dramatic circumstances. 


John’s mission was to prepare the world for Jesus’s ministry, and he saw just moments of the reality of it.


He is referred to as John the Baptist, not surprisingly, because he was the first with a baptismal ministry.  Others before had encouraged the practice of ceremonial washing but John preached a message of repentance and immersive baptism.


Yet, as he preached this, which was a total game-changer, he told of one who was yet to come who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit.


Today’s reading is near the end of his time, but we should go back to the beginning of the story.


As we take steps through this story we will move from a period where the Holy Spirit seems to break through on occasion, to a point where he really is very fully felt, and that presence of the Holy Spirit is something we should really be embracing today.


Three elements today (1) John’s Ministry (2) Jesus’s arrival and John’s stepping back (3) The Holy Spirit, then and now


So, the beginning.  


We are all very familiar with the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would have a baby.


But Gabriel had a visit prior to that one – he announced to John’s father, Zechariah, that he and his wife were to have a baby.


Now John’s parents, described in Luke 1, were "advanced in years” and, moreover, Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife had been unable to have children during their marriage. 


But this couple seems a very special couple. Zechariah was a priest, and he and his wife were both "righteous before God, walking blamelessly in the commandments and statues of God”.


On a very regular day, something totally earth shattering was to happen to Zechariah while he was serving at the temple. 


In those days the temples were not open like this one, but there would have be a curtain between the area with the altar and the area where the people were.


By lot, on that occasion, the bible notes, Zechariah was the chosen priest to go behind the curtain, into the holy place, to light the incense, as an offering for the people, while the congregation was praying.


He went behind the curtain, knelt, lit the incense, and beside him was Gabriel. Gabriel started "Do not be afraid, for your prayers have been answered”.


Poor old Zechariah and his wife had been praying for years for a child.  Now, when he is past it, an angel comes to tell him his prayers are going to be answered, and he will have a son who is to be called John. 


He is left unable to speak, but his wife conceives shortly thereafter. 


Six months later, Gabriel appears to Mary, and we know what news is in that message.  But as well as the message that Mary is to have a child, Mary is told of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. 


We are told that the two of them are in fact related, and Mary then travels ‘with haste’ to a town in Judah to go and visit Elizabeth.


Two pregnant women then meet in circumstances they could never have imagined – one a virgin and one too old to have children.


Two remarkable things:


First, Elizabeth’s baby (John) leaps in the womb. John connects with the presence of Jesus


Second, Elizabeth, is "filled with the Holy Spirit” and exclaims "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”.


Even more striking, she says, "Any why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”


Elizabeth knew that it was the Messiah that Mary is carrying, she calls her the mother of my "Lord”.  She is the first ever to recognise Jesus for who he is, and he is not even born


Zechariah didn’t speak again until John is born and named, and at that moment Zechariah hears directly from God, a prophecy, of what his son’s life will be, and the preparatory role he will have.


There is a growing expectation in this small community that something amazing is happening. 


The Holy Spirit is starting to break through. There is a degree of revelation and knowledge that has never been seen before.  We are having a taste of the New Testament. 


But there is a long pause now.  A period of time after the boys are born where we hear very little – both John and Jesus grow to be men.


The general view is that John’s parents die while he is quite young, perhaps not quite or only just a teenager, and he ends up living in the wilderness in Judah, almost hermit like, surviving we are told on locusts and honey.  Not such an unusual life as it might sound as there were religious groups that lived in communities in the desert at the time – though it was more unusual that John seems to live on his own.


In Luke 3, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Ceasar, we are told, the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.  And he went into all the region around Jordan, proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins.


From the moment John hears from God, he goes out and starts a ministry that has never previously existed.  What is more, people from all over the region seek him out. 


The power of God is moving in the Land. John speaks harshly to those that come, yet they listen, and they want to turn from their ways. They are baptized.


Some actually wonder if he is the Messiah that is written of in the scriptures, and they ask him that, but he says no. 


In fact, he is much more explicit "I baptize with water, but he who is mightier that I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.




It is while John is baptizing in the Jordan that Jesus finds him among the crowds and asks to be baptized.


When John sees Jesus coming towards him, he perceives Him as "the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world”.


There is much debate amongst scholars and it seemed even amongst Jesus’s family at the time, as to why Jesus should be baptized at all,


…but Jesus baptism was something quite different. It was not a baptism of repentance and washing of sins, it was a baptism of the Holy Spirit.  It seems to be the moment when he became fully aware of who he is (God spoke) and fully empowered.


Immediately after Jesus was baptized, he went into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.  He was tempted, resisted the temptation, and emerged to start his ministry in full flight.  He called his disciples, he started preaching, and the signs and wonders started.


One of the last scenes of John the Baptist in the field is described in John 3, where Jesus with his followers and John with his followers seem to be both baptizing close by in the countryside.


One of John’s disciples asks John about Jesus and he says "I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.   The one who has the bride is the bridegroom.  The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.  Therefore, this joy of mine is complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.”


John is describing Jesus as the bridegroom who has come to meet his bride, the church.  John is a friend of the groom, watching the love grow, off to the side. 


The reading today is an unusual one.  It reports of a question from John the Baptist while he is prison in Herod’s palace – it’s not long after Jesus has started his ministry.


John the Baptist had been imprisoned after criticizing Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. 


He clearly has indirect contact with the outside world and he sends a message to Jesus, asking "Are you the one who is to come, or is it another?”


Why is John asking this when we know he had such clear revelation both before he was born, but particularly as he baptized Jesus, that Jesus was the Messiah, the Saviour?


All I can assume is that, as he was sitting in his cell, perhaps with a premonition that death might come any day, he wanted to be reminded, for sure, yet again, that he had indeed prepared the way for the one who was to come.


Jesus replied in Matt 11:4-6 "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me”


Jesus’s reply was not "yes I am” or "you know that I am”, but rather a summation of the signs and wonders. 


John knew that there was a move to repentance, but he had expected and prophesied that Jesus would bring a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.  


What he had hoped for and prophesied had arrived.




I’ve talked about John and how he prepared the way for Jesus.  When Jesus spoke he repeatedly promised that the Holy Spirit would be with his people when he returned to heaven.


We have seen glimpses of how the Holy Spirit has sporadically broken through in the story so far, especially as the characters receive revelation and words from God.


But in each and all of the four gospels, John’s expectation that Jesus would baptize in the Holy Spirit is recorded – Matt 3:11-12; Mark 1:7-8; Luke 3:16-18; John 1:33. 


John spoke of his own baptism with water but of Jesus baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire – this speaks of something more than just the odd break through. 


With the arrival of Jesus, there is an absolute emphasis on repentance, profession of faith and a water baptism, but it is the living and active presence of God that starts to really change things.


We see the lasting impact of the Holy Spirit when he comes in the form of Dove when Jesus is baptized and it is from that moment that Jesus’s ministry starts.


The Holy Spirit is ever present with Jesus but the Holy Spirit does not come to Jesus’s followers fully until after Pentecost.


When Jesus has risen, returned to heaven, it is then that the Holy Spirit comes upon and to the disciples in the upper room.  He is the promised companion. 


The disciples at that time appear in the street afterwards speaking languages that are not their own, and onlookers wonder if they are drunk.  That period post Pentecost is, for sure, the beginning of a time where great signs and wonders start to occur.


This overwhelming immersion in the Holy Spirit is something that is recorded elsewhere too:


While Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, it was later when Ananias came and prayed for him that (1) the "scales” fell from his eyes but notably (2) he was filled with the Holy Spirit.


In Acts 10:44-45 when Peter was preaching, "the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.  And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles”


In Acts 19, Paul, when travelling in Corinth, asked Apollos, a well-educated and accurate teacher of the way, whether he had received the Holy Spirit.  Apollos replied "no, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”.  Paul laid hands on them [he and his companions], the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying”


What we deduce is that when we come to Christ, when we turn to Him, we receive his spirit, we are all one with the spirit of God, but there is more.  Paul received more, the disciples received more, and Jesus taught them to expect more – Acts 1 5-8.  They received an immersion of the Holy Spirit and it changed things.


The Holy Spirit brought more refinement, more purity, more revelation, but also more of the gifts that we read of in 1 Corinthians 12: Wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, various kinds of tongues and the interpretation of tongues.


Does this just happen, do we have to pray for it, what does it change and what does it mean?  I think for every person it is different.  But yes, pray for it, ask for his presence and his power, be open to receive. Ask others to pray for you, just as the apostles did for Apollos and his friends in Acts 19.


Today, we need John’s message of repentance and baptism by water / profession of faith; we need all to turn our lives around, to move on from sinfulness into wholeness; but to see more of heaven on earth, we need the Holy Spirit to come, to not just be with us, but to come in power, with fire. 


To come in a way that releases us from our prejudices, our sensibilities, our stiff upper lip, and pull us into New Testament Christianity.


Going Deeper: 

  1. When you pray, what words do you use? 
  2. Who do you address?  Why?
  3. Do you think of the Holy Spirit as a person or as a thing?
  4. Should theexperience of the early Christians of the Holy Spirit be any different to ours?


Posted: 12/12/2016 at 09:44
Tags:  Sermon  Simon
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