The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:10-11
On April 18, 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren learned through Boston’s revolutionary underground that British troops were preparing to cross the Charles River and march to Lexington, presumably to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams. Fearing an intercept by the British, Warren had devised a redundancy plan to warn Hancock and Adams. He would send one rider by land and one by sea. (Source.)
He gave a silversmith the easier route and to the local tanner he gave the more dangerous mission. The tanner set off at 9 p.m. and managed to make his way through a British Checkpoint– according to one account, by pretending to be a bumbling drunk farmer. Soon after all travel out of Boston was halted. He arrived at the Lexington Hancock House at 12:30 a.m., meeting up with his fellow town crier. The two proceeded forward to then warned the residents of Concord and on the way the silversmith was captured when they encountered a British Patrol. The tanner, however, concocted a ruse about an ambush, which scared away the British soldier. In the end the ride was successful. I know you know the name of the silversmith, does anyone know the other? Who managed not to be captured and took the more dangerous route? Williams Dawes faded into obscurity while Paul Revere became a household name.
It’s hard to tell how history chooses those to honor and those to be forgotten. Both men, however, fit into the mold of town crier or herald, if you will, respected members of society out to warn people of the danger to come.
But the Bible is fascinating in who’s voice it chooses for God’s heralds. It features the obscure, the rabble rouser, the non-conformist…someone much more likely to be forgotten by history than William Dawes. And yet the very first verses of Mark’s gospel feature a wild-eyed man from the wilderness. John the Baptizer who spoke with even more urgency and fervor than those on that midnight ride, for he came not to warn of an enemy assault like Dawes and Revere, but the coming wrath of God and the arrival the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah.
In Roman times, a herald would announce the coming of the emperor hailing his kingdom and lauding him as savior and deliverer. It was of course through war and devastation that this so-called peace came. Specifically, the emperor’s herald would describe their whole message as “euangelion” that is Greek for “Good News!”
In stark contrast to these Roman heralds, John the Baptist displays an entirely alternate visage. Rather than pomp and circumstance surrounded by royal attendants in fine robes, John emerges wild-eyed from the wilderness in a hair shirt with locust on his breath.
John comes to announce a new king and kingdom of which God, not the emperor, will be sovereign over. As you see, the words used by the gospel writers were very deliberately chosen:“savior” and “good news”, “king”. They were offering an alternate world view from the Roman world.
Jesus as savior not Caesar, and the good news is not Caesar’s arrival but the coming of a heavenly kingdom ruled by a loving God not a tyrant. This kingdom will not be established by the brutality of Roman warriors but by the apostles of servanthood.
And though it is not by the sword it will require sacrifice. In Matthew’s gospel John warns the crowd of God’s coming judgement. Though John’s words sound harsh they are meant to awaken us to a whole new world, a whole new kingdom that will bring us true peace. He needs to be forceful because so many have become numb to a different reality that they must be jolted into new possibilities.
And the people listen! They receive John’s gift and then are ready to hear Jesus. This is the primary role of the herald. As one source tells us, “Kings and emperors would send heralds ahead of them as they journeyed to a city … to instruct the people to make preparations for the arrival of the king.”
That is a task for every one of us to make preparations for the arrival of our Lord, to be the mouthpiece of God announcing the coming of the newborn king.
And that is why we are here this morning in the season of Advent. To prepare for the coming of the King and His kingdom. And if John’s message prepared people for Jesus back then it can surely prepare us today.
When John the Baptist comes most famously to “prepare the way” he does so by telling people to get ready through repentance.
Repentance in our common understanding means being sorry for the mistakes we have committed while being determined to set yourself on a new path.
It is a very logical human approach. Self-improvement through a steely determined will. It was Edison’s path to success, as he said of his famous 4,000 attempts to invent the light bulb, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
In the football world hall of fame coach of the Packers, Vince Lombardi observed, “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather in a lack of will."
Certainly, both of these sayings are wise and true, and I am sure many of you have used a similar drive to find the success you have enjoyed in this life. But unfortunately, what works in the world of business, and school, and life may not work in the life of faith. It requires and different type of effort and a new disposition.
Human nature shows us willpower will only get us so far for so long and faith can lead to despair, especially If we think repentance means turning ourselves around, changing your life by willing yourself to do something different! Telling yourself, “This time I will stick to my diet.” “This time I will not lash out at the ones I love.” This time, this time, this time…
But this is not what John is talking about. Note the wording of his message calling us to “a baptism of repentance.” It is not “repent and be baptized.” We don’t repent. We can’t, or else Jesus would not have had to die on that cross. It is the baptism that does it for us. God changes us. We can change our habits, we can change the words we use, we can change our spending patterns…but we cannot change our soul; we cannot find our true selves on our own.
This is why John’s message is such good news. These baptismal waters wash away our pride, our fear, our self-grasping and make us receptive to the love of our infant Lord.
It is why when Martin Luther was struggling, he would shout out, “I am baptized.” That is, I am something new, not because of me but, because of God’s gift in Jesus Christ.
This Advent, take the time to remember your own baptism and consider all that it implies. It makes you a part not only of the Brick family, but of the worldwide family of 2 billion Christians, and even more a part of the heavenly family of father, son, and Holy Spirit.
Baptism has the power to heal and restore, it is a moment in which the parents who bring the child forward place all their hopes for a long, healthy, and glorious life, in which the parents are keenly aware that they do not have to do this all on their own, in which there is a community who vows before God to help. It is a moment when the congregation who sees these priceless children are reminded the profound preciousness of their lives and of all life and the amazing God who grants it. As we gaze into the eyes of these children all the ways we adults have complicated life dissolve away and the raw beauty of life shines through the fog of hearts and mind that have been dimmed by the trials and stresses of our lives.
And for the adult who is baptized it is the moment of deep realization of God’s infinite love, in which we let go of barriers of protection and our lives become shine like our Advent candles: hope, peace, joy, and love.
Remember your baptism of repentance and herald it to the world with passion, joy, and fervor for we are heralding something more than “The British our coming!” Instead, it is the King of Kings who comes, the Lord of all creation who comes humbly in a manger as one of us. Amen.