Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

September 23, 2012


Old John would have been run out of town


There are many characters in the Bible I wish I had known. One is the strange backwoods preacher called John the Baptist.

John was different. Fashion was not his forte. He wore a shirt made from camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. His favorite dish was locusts flavored with wild honey. But it is not his diet or his clothing that attract me to John. What impresses me is his fearlessness. Every preacher would love to have some of John’s “holy boldness.” He was not afraid of the devil himself.

Had John the Baptist been a Methodist preacher, he would have been run out of town by every church he served. You don’t call good Methodist folks a “brood of vipers” and get away with it. But John had no church nor was he a pastor.  He was a prophet whose thundering voice attracted large crowds to his wilderness pulpit.  And he wasted no time mollycoddling people in the hope that they would “accept him.” He “shelled the corn” by telling people the truth. He put the food down where the goats could get it.

John knew why he had been born. He was on a mission. His mission was to warn the Jews that the wrath of God would soon fall on them. Their only hope of escaping God’s fierce judgment was to repent of their sins, be baptized, and begin loving needy people.

Luke, in his Gospel, tells us that the crowds of people were impressed by John’s preaching. Instead of condemning John, the people urged others to come hear him. Hundreds came and were stirred as John preached about the imminent judgment of God. Many were convicted of their sins and came forward to be baptized. John quickly put the sinners who came to him “all the way under,” baptizing them in the Jordan River.

That is how John got his name, “the Baptist.” The word means “an immerser” or one who administers the rite of immersion. The name John, by the way, comes from a Hebrew word that means “Jehovah is gracious.”

People were eager to hear John preach and that is not surprising. For centuries there had been no prophets proclaiming messages from God. Still the Jews believed the Messiah would one day come. The appearance of John fanned the flames of their hopes.

Perhaps, they thought, John is the Messiah. If so they were ready to follow him into Jerusalem and cheer as he delivered them from their Roman rulers. This was the kind of Messiah they expected, one who would overthrow their oppressors with military power. Wisely ignoring the praise of the people, John did not allow his ego to become inflated. He understood his purpose. His role was to point people to Jesus. But John had a rare combination of boldness and humility.

The Bible reveals many examples of John’s humility. Sometimes he would say of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Or he would say, “He must increase and I must decrease.” In Luke’s story he says, “One more powerful than I is coming.” And to emphasize his point, John declares, “I am not worthy to untie his sandals”!  Imagine that! Untying sandals was the work of slaves.

To explain further the difference between himself and the Messiah, John said, “I baptize you with water,” but “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Thus did John “prepare the way” for the Christ whose disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and a fire that enabled them to spread the good news of Jesus.   

John’s strong message teaches us that ritual and religion are not enough to please God. John would not allow his converts to be satisfied with baptism. He insisted that they “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” When they asked what this meant, John explained that they must love the poor by sharing their food and clothes with them.

Tax collectors were known for extortion. To them John said, “You must begin treating people fairly; collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” In other words, stop stealing from people.

Soldiers received similar advice from John. They used threats and false accusations to “shake down” the weak. John said to them, “Show you are right with God by being satisfied with your wages.”

Many of us need to heed John’s warning not to be satisfied with ritual and religion. God is not interested in religion. He sent his Son to deliver us from religion. It is not enough to repent, be baptized, accept Christ, and join the church. Ritual and religion, even church membership, will not save us nor give us peace with God.

We “get it right” when we fall in love with Jesus. Only then do we begin living for the right reasons. Then we will care for the poor for the right reason. Then we will be fair to people and learn to be content with what we have. Our lifestyle will prove that our repentance is genuine. Genuine discipleship involves a delicate balance between faith and works. Our works will not save us. But our faith is phony if it produces no deeds of love and mercy – and especially for the poor. 

But being “charitable” is not enough. Our charity should not point to ourselves to show others how generous we are. True deeds of love and mercy point to Jesus. John allowed his whole life to point to Jesus. Such a lifestyle we would do well to imitate! + + +