GCI Sermon – December 12, 2021


Just the Right Kind of Crazy: John the Baptist

Luke 3:7-17 ESV

Have you ever had one of those friends who was maybe a little strange? An eccentric who lived out of sync with the rest of the world. Someone who perpetually wore styles a decade old? Went barefoot in the winter? Was always off in their head? And yet also spoke truth? Sometimes outsider folks like this have insight the rest of us don’t.

This might be a good place for a story about someone who everybody else doesn’t “get,” but who sees further into life than they do. Be gentle.

“Crazy John” is what they called him on the popular series “The Chosen.” He looks the part – hair going out in all directions, eyes a little crossed, and, other than the occasional baptism, no bath in quite a while. Most of the time, when we see John the Baptist portrayed in a movie or art, Crazy John is the accurate description.

He’s certainly not someone we think about at Christmas, especially passages like the lectionary reading this week. Brood of vipers, ax at the root of the tree, unquenchable fire – not exactly the “good tidings we bring” choruses we are used to hearing this time of year.

But it’s important to keep the whole life of Jesus out in front us, not just stick to some favorite parts. The manger led to the cross; his baptism led to his crown of thorns. However, in a similar way, his brutal death had his resurrection on its heels; and his anguished night prayers became songs of glory.

In the end, Crazy John is a perfect reading for Advent for a few reasons, and that’s what we’ll explore today:

  • Crazy John spoke in riddles.
  • Crazy John was insanely bold.
  • Crazy John lived upside down.

Crazy John spoke in riddles

Stones. Trees. Threshing wheat. These were the concrete metaphors that were all around the people in the ancient world. These were the riddles that Crazy John used to get people’s attention.

If we push back further, we can see that some of these riddles connected with the story of Israel. The ax is already at the root of the trees (v. 9). John is connecting them with the Israel narrative, specifically from Isaiah.

And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:13 ESV)

Isaiah, and John by Isaiah, speaks to them of God’s judgment when Israel strays from him. Cut down the mighty tree, in this case Israel, and the remnant remains.

The issue in John’s era, among others, was that God’s people were relying on their heritage instead of acting like God’s people. Many times, John and Jesus remind the people of Israel that knowing God is a matter of heart, not heritage.

For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Luke 3:8 ESV)

The ax is at the root of the tree because the people had strayed from God and relied instead on their rituals and heritage. God himself is on the move and about to come and set things straight—in person.

Finally, a threshing floor. In Jesus’ day, you had to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat was the kernel that could be eaten or made into bread; the chaff was the useless shell that needed to be thrown away.

The threshing floor was a packed dirt or rocky flat area where the wheat was laid out to dry. Threshing floors were often on a hill so the wind could blow away the useless husks of chaff. When the wheat was dry, the farmer would use a winnowing fork or fan to throw the wheat into the air. The chaff would blow away and the heavier kernels would fall to the ground. It was about separating, taking away the useless from the useful, the bad from the good.

So far, this doesn’t sound like your usual Christmas fare. Not a lot of babies in mangers and songs to sing at this point— this sounds more like an earthquake.

Yet we have to remember that this earthquake of images was God on the move. The paradigm was shifting; the reality of God’s relationship with humanity was coming into focus. So, pardon the disruption! When God changes us, this is how it can feel – earth-shattering, growing pains.

Crazy John reminds us that advent and Christmas are not just about comfort but transformation. Not only will you be immensely comforted and surrounded in love when you meet Jesus, but you will also never be the same. Everything changes.

The great writer C.S. Lewis describes his own reluctant conversion in similar terms:

You must picture me alone in that room night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.

Crazy John was insanely bold

Crazy John was insanely bold. We have to look at who John the Baptist is talking to here. These are people who felt a spiritual hunger and thirst; those who were the most hypocritical and comfortable gave John a wide berth. The people here who say, “What should we do then?” (v. 10), are for the most part “good” people. These are the people who see there is something going on, something new happening, and they are drawn to that because their hearts are in some measure tenderized by God.

What John points out to the tax collectors, the soldiers, and the ordinary citizens are the everyday sins. These are the “understood” sins, the little sleight-of-hand, “everybody does that” kind of sins. He’s pointing out that your food and goods surplus belongs to the poor, and the “accepted” evils of the tax collector culture – skimming some off the top – is unacceptable. He points out that the “accepted” evils of the soldiers’ world – extorting people for extra cash, skimming off the top, too – is also unacceptable. Crazy John boldly points out – to all levels of society, no matter how high – that Jesus is here to take sin out by the roots, not to improve the building or remodel the building, but to demolish it and start rebuilding from the ground up.

We have such “accepted sins” in our own culture; sins that go against God’s design for our lives and our happiness. Being dishonest on our taxes, stealing small items from work, emotional infidelity, cohabiting, mistreating others. They are sins that go against sharing God’s love and purpose for our lives, but sins that our culture often looks on with a helpless shrug – that’s just the way things are. Plenty of good and moral people are in these circumstances.

John points out here that no sin, even the culturally acceptable ones, will work in God’s eyes. That’s not living in our true identity. He is pointing out that we don’t just need a slight modification of behavior or a refreshing of our perspective, but we need a new heart and soul. We need Jesus to take down our old concepts of righteousness and goodness and build the real thing in its place.

As we’ve pointed out above, Crazy John takes aim at the stock answer that many gave in those days: We have Abraham as our father (v. 8). Because they are ethnically Hebrew, God’s chosen people, many believed they would be excluded from God’s judgment. A word of judgment, from John the Baptist to them, would be unnecessary – even insulting – in their eyes.

That’s the other thing about Crazy John that upset the establishment – the kind of people he was baptizing. Baptism at the time was a ritual for the conversion of Gentiles into Jews. If someone didn’t grow up in the heritage, but wanted to join the Jewish faith, they used the water ritual of baptism to symbolize that.

But here John is baptizing Jewish people! This is like us telling Billy Graham he needs to come forward for an altar call or offering to dunk our denominational leaders in the closest river!

Crazy John was insanely bold. He was causing not just a stir, but a revolution. Do we see that in our own lives – someone pressing us back on the Lord, reminding us again that we are incomplete without Jesus?

Think of all the humbling circumstances in life, of which there are many, and how they cause us to trust again in the one who created life. Think of even great evangelists like Ravi Zacharias who made such an impact for the kingdom and yet was helpless in front of his own addictions and secret sins.

We all need a Savior, we are all on our knees before him, brought there by life itself. We all need the healing waters of Crazy John, no matter who we think we are.

Crazy John lived upside down

But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. (Luke 3:16 ESV)

A century and a half before John, a Jewish revolutionary had started a successful revolution against the Seleucid Empire, who was the occupying power of the time. He’d started the movement by gathering the people in the wilderness to rally against the empire. Crazy John looked like he was doing the same thing again, this time against Rome.

Here he was, out in the desert, gathering the people. Needless to say, the people picked up his signals quickly and headed out to see what was going on. Crazy John caused a stir, even though this was not his ultimate plan. If he was like the rest of us, he might be tempted to cash in on the fame this offered him, however short-lived.

But Crazy John was just the right kind of crazy.

John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Luke 3:16 ESV)

Elsewhere, John had said:

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30 ESV)

Crazy John lived upside down. He didn’t want to see his name in lights; he didn’t want to grasp onto the unsatisfying fruit of fame. His greatest dream was to be part of God’s movement, and to disappear as soon as Jesus arrived.

Probably John’s most famous verse is “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23 ESV). These are the words of the prophet Isaiah, preparing for God himself to come through. Just after Crazy John quotes these words, Jesus arrives. John was announcing the arrival of God, and then almost immediately he disappears from the Gospels.

Crazy John was just the right kind of crazy. He lived outside of our expectations, he spoke bold truth to those in power, even to Herod, who eventually had him killed, and he lay it all down as soon as Jesus arrived on the scene.

What can we learn from Crazy John?

  • He spoke in riddles. Crazy John’s words talked about God’s judgment – the fact that we need a Savior because we can’t make it on our own. This is a riddle to us, who sometimes think we’ve got it figured out or at least that someone does. John’s punchline is that we don’t need a tune-up, we need an overhaul, we need to learn to live life from the One who created it.
  • He was insanely bold. John was a kind of free agent who spoke truth to all levels of society and even told the “professionally” religious people that they needed to meet God again. How do we live with this kind of boldness, standing up for those without a voice, living outside of the popularity contests and status seeking that run our world?
  • He lived upside down. Do we step off the stage when Jesus arrives? Or do we steal the spotlight and make it all about ourselves? It’s far too tempting, especially when we have a listening audience, to forget that we are only the opening act. But when we remember this, we live in freedom! We are freed from our insatiable egos to step back and watch what God will do.

Are we the right kind of crazy? There is a lot we can learn from the wild-eyed prophet who walked out of the desert one day wearing camel hair and eating bugs to become the herald of the King himself.


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