You Will Have Joy
Question for you: If you could have lunch with any person from anywhere in history, who would you choose? You get one hour with any historical figure you want, who would that person be?
You’ve probably heard a question like that before. It’s a great icebreaker question. Just a few weeks ago at our Community Group meeting Jon Fuehrer asked us all this question and back then I said the apostle Paul. But for the record, this morning I’m changing it to Luke.
I would love to have lunch with Luke because I love Luke, and one of the things I love most about Luke is how consciously deliberate he is as the writer of the Third Gospel. Luke actually tells us at the beginning of the Gospel how he wrote it. Luke says in verse 3 — following Matthew and Mark — he says: “It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account.”
This means that Luke did his homework; he assembled his sources; he organized all the details; and then he wrote this Gospel. And therefore when we read this Gospel and we see and observe certain details, that’s exactly what Luke means for us to do — and that’s especially the case when it comes to the birth narrative of Jesus.
Luke gives us more details about Jesus’s birth than any other Gospel, and so over the next four weeks during Advent, Luke 1 and 2 is where we’re going to be, and the plan is to just follow Luke’s orderly account.
Meet John the Baptist
That means that today we’re looking at John the Baptist. All the Gospels talk about John the Baptist, but Luke backs up and even tells us about his conception and birth, and that’s because there are some key things about John the Baptist that Luke wants us to know.
There are actually two main things, and they have to do with witness and joy. These are the two parts of the sermon, and let me just tell you upfront what I mean here.
When I talk about the witness of John the Baptist, I’m talking about his mission. This is the thing he was supposed to do. John was sent as a forerunner to Jesus. He lived to point others to Jesus.
And then second, when I talk about the joy of John the Baptist, I’m talking about his purpose. This is the ultimate effect that his witness would have. John lived to point others to Jesus, and why did he do that? This reason is joy.
So there is witness and joy. John’s mission and purpose. That’s what we’re looking at this morning, and then we have two points in each of these parts. Let’s pray and we’ll get started:
Father, thank you for the Holy Scriptures. Thank you for this book that is a treasure chest for us — thank you for its encouragement and correction; thank you for its wisdom and instruction; thank you for its wonder and its power. And this morning as we gather in worship, we now open this Book and we long to hear your voice. We confess that this indeed is your Word, that we are your people in Jesus, and that you are at work among us by your Spirit. Accomplish your work in Jesus’s name, amen.
Part One: The Witness of John the Baptist
So we’re starting with the witness of John the Baptist, and there are two things to know about his witness.
John the Baptist was strange just like we should expect.
I think that for most people who know anything about John the Baptist they know that he was strange. John the Baptist was a prophet sent to pave the way for the ministry of Jesus, and in the Gospels we see that John the Baptist came preaching repentance and he was baptizing people in the Jordan River, and he was odd. John lived in the wilderness and wore a tunic made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt wrapped around him, and he ate locusts and wild honey. Which means that his appearance and his diet was different from most people.
But not only that, John the Baptist also won an audience with the most unlikely people.
On the one hand, John had Pharisees and Sadducees — the Jewish leaders — coming to him for baptism (see Matthew 3:7).
And then on the other hand, he had a following from tax collectors and soldiers (and they were the most hated people in that day by the Jews living in Roman-occupied Judea).
The Jewish leaders burdened the people with laws; and the tax collectors and soldiers oppressed the people with their authority; neither of them liked one another; and yet John preached to both and baptized both.
And it wasn’t just them, John also warned the people. John told the Jewish crowds — he spoke to the crowds who were oppressed and said that God’s judgment was coming on them if they did not repent. He told them their ethnic privilege would not save them.
But he didn’t stop there. John the Baptist also spoke out against the Roman authorities. John rebuked Herod for his immorality and evil, and Herod ended up throwing him in jail.
So whether you were Jewish or Roman, rich or poor, strong or weak, religious or irreligious, John preached to everyone, and he was really nobody’s man, and that’s what made him strange. But he was strange in all the ways we should expect. And Luke gives us the best explanation for this.
First, notice his parents — John the Baptist’s parents were Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Luke tells us in verse 5 that Zechariah was a priest in the division of Abijah. This is a priestly division that goes all the way back to the days of King David. In 1 Chronicles 24 the priests were divided up into different serve teams, and they had a serve rotation they used to fulfill their priestly duties — true story. And Abijah was in the eighth division (see 1 Chronicles 24:10, 19) — and Zechariah was in that same division.
And then Elizabeth was one of the daughters of Aaron, and Aaron of course was a son of Levi. Aaron was a priest going all the way back to Moses. So both Zechariah and Elizabeth were descendants within Israel’s priestly line. They both have this rich heritage in Israel, and verse 6 tells us that they were both “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” These are the parents of John the Baptist.
Second, notice the predicament of his parents — Verse 7 says that Zechariah and Elizabeth “had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were advanced in years.” So here is a couple living faithfully before God, within the covenant of promise, but they are barren, and they are old.
Does that sound like anything you’ve heard before?
It sounds like how every good story in the Old Testament begins!
It means this couple and the birth of their son is right in line with what we’ve seen before in the Bible.
Third, notice the pattern of Elijah — When the angel Gabriel foretells Zechariah of John’s birth, he says in verse 16:
… he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah… (verses 16–17)
In all the Gospels John the Baptist is considered to be a prophet in the spirit of the prophet Elijah. John is God’s messenger sent to prepare the way for Jesus, and Isaiah had first prophesied about this messenger (see Isaiah 40:3); and then later Malachi prophesied about this messenger and called him Elijah (see Malachi 3:1; 4:5) — and so the Jewish people were waiting for this messenger; they knew he would come before the Messiah; and then Jesus in Matthew 11 says that John is this messenger and that he is the Elijah who was to come (see Matthew 11:9–15).
So John is in the pattern of — and he has the power of — Elijah. And that actually explains his clothes. Because in 2 Kings 1:8 Elijah is described as wearing a garment made of hair with a leather belt around his waist. And so anyone who knew the Old Testament would have known that John the Baptist was dressing like Elijah. And then when it comes to his diet, eating bugs and honey was not typical, but it also wasn’t unheard of.
In that day, there were some Jewish monastic communities who lived in the desert and ate the same things. You may have heard before of the Qumran community (this is where we get the Dead Sea Scrolls). These were small numbers of holy people who lived off the desert, isolated from others, and John the Baptist would have probably fit in with these guys. So John the Baptist was strange, but people had a category for him. That’s what Luke tells us.
But what made him strangest of all what not his appearance; it was not his diet; but it was that he was so fiercely loyal to God. John is a prophet like Elijah, born within the priestly line — which means John speaks for God from within a lineage of Israelites who have represented God.
John the Baptist was amazingly, fiercely loyal to God.
And we especially get that sense the more we look at Elijah. If John is in the pattern and power of Elijah, what was Elijah like?
Well, the go-to story about Elijah is in 1 Kings 18. Here’s the situation: Israel had turned away from the Lord to worship the false god Baal. Queen Jezebel had slain the prophets of the Lord, and the prophets who were not killed were hiding for their lives in caves; there was a severe famine in the land; and then when King Ahab encounters Elijah he calls Elijah the “troubler of Israel” (see 1 Kings 18:17).
Ahab calls Elijah the troubler of Israel, and Elijah’s like:
Me? You think I’m the one who has troubled Israel. Look around for a minute, man. You’re the problem here.
And then Elijah steps up and challenges King Ahab and the 450 prophets of Baal to a showdown, to prove that the Lord is the true God. It is one of the most epic and courageous scenes in the entire Bible. Elijah was fiercely loyal to God — and he was considered to be trouble.
Just like John the Baptist was considered trouble. Just like we should expect for anyone to be considered if they speak on behalf God to a people who reject him.
Like with Elijah, John the Baptist was fiercely loyal to God in a context of people who had rebelled against God. Things had veered so far off course — society was so far out of touch with God — that when someone like John spoke the truth of God it disrupted the entire ecosystem of values.
John the Baptist had a following, but he was also very disliked.
The witness of John the Baptist was as strange as it was faithful, and that means …
The witness of John the Baptist is a model for our own.
We can’t read about the witness of John the Baptist and not think about our own witness — Luke doesn’t want us to. We as the church have a similar mission because we also have a priestly and prophetic function in our world — we get to point people to Jesus (just like John did) — by representing God to others and by speaking God’s truth. That’s what we do as the church.
And so here’s the question for us: How would we feel if people thought about us the way they thought about John the Baptist?
What if we were considered strange?
See, in John’s day — like in our day — there were all kinds of different groups within their social strata. There were different identities and different tribes and they each had their different distinctives, but none of them claimed John — now John was more similar to some than he was others, but nobody owned him. Only God owned John the Baptist, and he lived that way, which means he annoyed a lot of people. There were people in every group from every side who were bothered by John the Baptist … because that’s what it costs to be owned by God alone.
And what if we lived that way? Would we pay that cost? If our faithful witness means people think we’re strange and they don’t like us, are we okay with that?
Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. It certainly was that way with John the Baptist, and we can learn from him.
And this where we get to joy. John’s mission was his witness, but his purpose was joy.
Part Two: The Joy of John the Baptist
Joy is actually theme in Luke’s Gospel, and we see it right away with John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah in verse 14, talking about John, “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.” And then, a little later in this chapter, the pregnant Elizabeth goes to meet her cousin Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus, and when the baby John the Baptist gets close to the baby Jesus, he leaps for joy in the womb (see Luke 1:44). And then when John the Baptist is born, verse 58 says the Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives, because of God’s mercy to her, they rejoiced together with her (Luke 1:58)
So the foretelling of John’s birth was about joy, and John himself, before he was even born, was leaping for joy, and then when he was born everyone who knew about him had joy. Joy is a big part of John’s story, and let me just say two things about it:
The joy of John was because of Jesus.
John the Baptist existed for Jesus. His one job was the prepare the way for the Messiah, and that was said about him right away to Zechariah. Gabriel said in verse 17 that John was to “make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
And then when John grew up, he was so clear about this in his ministry. He was emphatic that he was not the one, that it wasn’t about him. He was here to point people to Jesus — and so he said: Jesus must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30). He said that Jesus is so much mightier than me that I don’t deserve to bend down and touch his shoestrings (Luke 3:16). He said I’m just baptizing you with water, but Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Luke 3:16). I’m just the setup guy; Jesus is the closer. Jesus is the greater. Jesus is the better.
And Jesus is the cause of joy. John brought joy only because he pointed to Jesus.
People celebrated and rejoiced at John’s birth because of the hope it pointed to. God was finally — after all these years of darkness — God was finally sending his Messiah. Just like he promised. This is it. John is here, and he’s paving the way. John made people happy because of who came after him.
It’s kind of like when you’re in a crowd of people, and someone in the distance waves at you.
Have you been there before?
This happened to me a while back at the kids school. …There was an event, and there were crowds of people moving around, and the herd I was in came to an open hallway, and down at the end of the fall there was another group, and someone threw their hand up and was really excited and started waving, and I thought I knew them, and of course it’s rude not to wave back — so what do you do?
Well, I smiled and waved back. And right when I started waving I noticed this other parent emerging from by left and they pass me and they’re waving back and then they both meet in the middle and hug, and I just scratch my head. This one parent at the end of the hall was not excited to see me; she was excited to see the person behind me — and that was the whole life of John the Baptist.
If John went anywhere and he saw joy, he’d duck out of the way. People were always waving at Jesus, and John knew it. It’s not about me; Jesus is the joy. And the same goes for us.
Okay, there’s one more thing to say about joy, and this is the last point, and I think it’s the most important.
John the Baptist introduced a joy that transcends fear.
So joy, I think, is a theme in Luke’s Gospel, and so is fear — and this is one of the things I’d ask Luke at lunch. Because it’s amazing how often we see joy and fear together. And I want to show you this.
Look first in verse 11. Remember that Zechariah was performing his priestly duties and suddenly an angel appeared to him (the angel’s name is Gabriel). So Gabriel speaks to Zechariah, and verse 12 says:
And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.
So that’s fear. Zechariah is afraid of this encounter. But notice verse 13.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah…”
So first there is fear. Then there’s the command not to fear. But then look at verse 14. Gabriel says:
And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.
So if we put them all together it’s:
the words not to fear;
and then there’s joy.
Fear / don’t fear / joy.
Okay, now let’s look at Mary. In verse 26 Gabriel visits Mary to foretell the birth of Jesus, and when he appears and speaks to her, verse 29 says,
But she was greatly troubled.
It’s the same word used with Zechariah, except with Mary it’s just more intense. Mary was greatly troubled.
But then verse 30:
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary…”
God is going to fulfill his promise; the king is going to be born; his name is Jesus. And this is a lot for Mary to take in, but she trusts in God, and later in Chapter 1 she sings a song of praise to God, and she says right away in verse 46:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
So it’s first fear, then don’t fear, then joy.
With the Shepherds
And then skip ahead a little later to the night when Jesus was born. There were some shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and guess how the shepherds responded to the angel? Luke 2, verse 9 says:
“they were filled with fear.”
Then verse 10. What did the angel say?
And the angel said to them, “Fear not…”
But why? Why shouldn’t I be afraid? I’m just a shepherd, and I have a lot to be afraid of.
But the angel said:
Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.
Fear / don’t fear / joy.
Our Fears in This World
We see this in Luke’s Gospel. It starts with John the Baptist. And then we see it with Mary and then we see it with the shepherds, and I think we’re supposed to see this pattern not just because it’s part of the story, but because this is just how life goes in this world.
So much of our experience in this world has to do with fear. If we slowed down and thought about our day moment by moment, the amount of different fears we deal with is almost overwhelming.
In fact, I think that most of the hard things that we go through in life always comes back to fear. Every single one of us has issues with fear at some level — and we call it different names. We might call it worry or anxiety; we might call it stress or busyness, but whatever we call it, it all comes back to a kind of fear. And the underlying fear to all other fears is the fear that God is against us.
That’s what is so terrifying. Is God really for me? Does God really love me? Does God even care about me?
Deep down that is our greatest fear — and it’s been the greatest fear of humans going back to Genesis 3. And so over and over again in the Bible we see what God says to that fear. God speaks into our fear and he says: don’t fear.
But he doesn’t just tell us not to fear, he doesn’t just tell us to stop the fearing, but he replaces our fear with the promise of joy. God lifts our heads and he comforts our hearts: I am for you. And I love you. And I will be enough for you.
And this is not emotional abracadabra. He doesn’t just drop a sentiment on us. But God says: Don’t fear because joy is coming. You don’t have to live in fear today because joy is guaranteed tomorrow. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning’ (Psalm 30:5).
And it will be joy. It will be all joy. True and lasting joy. That is our future, and we can have that right now in Jesus — because Jesus right now is the definitive word from God to us: I am for you and I love you. And I am enough for you. That’s why Jesus died for you. That’s why Jesus was raised from the dead for you.
The Last Chapter of Luke
And it’s really interesting in the last chapter of Luke, in Luke 24. This is after Jesus has been crucified and then risen. The disciples are all huddled together in a house, and they’re in despair, but in Luke 24, verse 36 Luke says that Jesus himself appeared, and he stood among them, and he said “Peace to you!”
And do you know how the disciples responded?
Verse 37: They were “startled and frightened."
And do you know what Jesus said to that?
Jesus said, in verse 38,
Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.
In other words, Jesus speaks into their fear and he says: “Don’t be afraid. It’s me.”
And then he unfolded for them the plan of God to save the world. The crucified one is now Risen, and the forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed to all nations (see Luke 24:44–49).
And then what did the disciples do?
This is the very end of Luke’s Gospel. Luke says:
And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Fear / don’t fear / joy
It’s all because of Jesus, and I want you to know, this morning he offers that to you. That’s the message of this Table.
The bread here represents the body of Jesus broken for you, and the cup represents the blood of Jesus shed for you.
This Table is the reminder of Jesus’s death, and the purpose of his death is that we don’t fear — it’s that the greatest enemy against our souls has been defeated, which means however dark and difficult it gets, Jesus lives now as our joy. And we have him. And he gives himself to us again and again at this Table.
And so this morning as we serve the bread and the cup, I know that there’s a lot of fear in our hearts. There are so many hard things going on in our church, and so this morning, as you take the bread and cup, I want you to hear Jesus’s words to you: “Don’t be afraid. It’s me.”
If you trust in Jesus, if you are united to him by faith, that is his word to you, and we invite you to eat and drink with us.