A Sermon about ‘Nothing’

This is a message given to Tabor College combined chapel on 15th March 2107

Today I am calling this the Seinfeld message since it is a message about ‘nothing’.  What that ‘nothing’ involves will hopefully become clear as we go.  In the beginning of the book of Luke there is the story of the birth of John the Baptist.  At the end of chapter one there is a verse which seems somewhat like a throwaway line about John.  “And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:80). This seems like a passing comment before we get to the important stuff where John the Baptist actually goes and does something.  Later John the Baptist would call people to repentance and baptize Jesus.  That is the important action and that won’t happen until chapter 3 of Luke.  The ministry of John the Baptist does not take place for thirty years beyond chapter 1.  So what is so important about Luke 1:80?  What on earth was John the Baptist doing in the wilderness all that time?

To understand what John was doing in the wilderness we need to get some background to the man.  Before he was born there were promises made about him.  An angel appeared to his father Zachariah while he was ministering in the temple and said:

‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.  He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.  He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’ (Luke 1:13-17).

This short passage makes plain that John had a great call on his life.  He was called to a ministry that would change the nation of Israel.  For four hundred years there had been no prophets, but John would be the prophet mentioned in Mal 4:5 “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.”  His call was a very important one.  Even before he had been conceived he was called to DO great things and have a very significant ministry.  He was certainly not called to do nothing.  But according to Luke 1:80 he spent a long time in the wilderness, where he seemed to be doing nothing for thirty years.  What is going on?  Back to that later.

The promises given to his father about John were also pretty amazing.  He was never to drink wine or fermented drink.  This suggests that he was to be a Nazirite.  Instructions for Nazirites are found in Numbers 6, including the instruction to not drink wine or strong drink.  The Hebrew nazir means “dedicate oneself to God” or “consecrate” or “separate”.  Generally a Nazirite made a vow of consecration to God’s service for a specified period of time, grew his or her hair during that time, and then went back to normal life when the vow was ended.  However, John the Baptist was never to drink strong drink.  So his consecration to God was life-long.  To equip him for this task, he was filled with the Holy Spirit even from the womb.  God called him to his ministry even before he was born.

So shouldn’t he have immediately gone out and done some ministry.  He had the requisite things: a call and the Holy Spirit.  Yet he spent the first thirty years of his life doing nothing.  He did not call anyone to repentance.  He did not announce the Messiah.  He did not even do some small ministry like greeting people at the door of the synagogue or participating in a synagogue small group.  No he was in the desert for a long time, doing no ministry.  Does this mean that John was just plain lazy and disobedient?

It seems like John the Baptist was doing nothing for thirty years, but God was not doing nothing in the life of John the Baptist.  “And the child grew and became strong in spirit” indicates something very profound.  I want to speculate a bit about the word “spirit” in this verse.  There are three ways in which “spirit” is used in Luke’s Gospel: human spirit, evil spirit and Holy Spirit.  Now we are accustomed to being told which is which by the use of capital letters or small letters to distinguish between human spirit and Holy Spirit.  But the Greek does not actually make this distinction.  Only context can tell you this.  So I am suggesting that the verse might read “And the child grew and became strong in the Spirit” (as in Holy Spirit).  I believe that this is a reasonable idea since John was filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb.

If so then it tells us a great deal about what was happening to John the Baptist during his time in the desert.  He was doing no ministry, but he was being prepared for his very significant ministry to Israel.  So how was he prepared during that time?  Let me suggest some of the things that John the Baptist did while in the desert as he grew and became strong in the Spirit.

First, he listened to the voice of God.  It is evident that he did this because in John’s Gospel he testified about his mission this way:

“And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).

Listening to the voice of God is different to praying and it is different to reading the Bible.  This kind of knowledge of what God wants you to do cannot come from anything other than faithfully setting your heart to listen to what he says to you.  John had thirty years to learn this skill and he must have spent a long time out on his own just listening.  There are not many people out in the desolate places.  There was just John and God.

Second, he meditated on the Scriptures.  He grew up in a pious, priestly household.  He would have heard the Scripture read often.  He no doubt learned to read it for himself.  He may not have had scrolls out in the desert, but he probably had large chunks of the Bible memorised.  While he was in the wilderness he pondered the meaning of what he had read.  In his meditation on the Scripture he must have come to understand that he was “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him’” in fulfilment of Isa 40:3-5. He also thought about other passages which led him to grasp that the Messiah would come and baptise with the Holy Spirit.  There is no one passage in the Bible which spells this out, so he must have meditated on the OT passages for a long time.  He had to come to understand that these promises would be fulfilled in his own lifetime or he would not have known to proclaim the coming of the Messiah.

Third, He consecrated himself to the service of God.  He was called before he was born, but he could not rely on his parents to continually consecrate him to God’s service.  That is something that he had to do daily as an adult.  Every day he chose not to cut his hair and chose not to drink wine or eat grapes according to the vow of a Nazirite.  But more importantly, every day he gave over his will to the will of God in order to become the one who would announce the coming of the Messiah.  This was a continual decision.  His life in the desert was not one of ease.  He dressed in camel hair and ate crickets.  Hardly fun.  If he had not continually made the choice of obedience he would have given up his calling and become like everyone else.

Lastly, no doubt he prayed about the mission which he had been given before birth.  He had to wait for the right time to begin it.  He had to keep praying for wisdom and understanding about what to do.  He did not merely grow up, leave home and leap into ministry.  The time in the wilderness was a time of preparation for his ministry.  And it was a significant ministry.  The word from the angel before his birth made clear that his would be a powerful ministry to the nation.  After his death, Jesus said of him, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Luke 7:28).  The greater the significance of the ministry the greater the preparation time required for it.

What might all this have to do with us here today?  Some of you here today are in the desert places spiritually.  You have no ministry to do right now.  It seems like God has somehow forgotten the call he placed on your life.  All the doors are presently shut.  What are you supposed to do?  Nothing?  I suggest that this time in the desert is a time of preparation for the ministry which God has called you to.  It is a time to grow and become strong in the Spirit.  Paul prays something very much like this for the church:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:16-19)

During this time in which you are not ministering, trust that God is preparing you for something new.  There is no value in ministering in your own strength.  We know that we cannot accomplish God’s purposes in the flesh and yet we itch for some significance and something to DO.  But if God has you in deserted places then set your will towards obedience.  Like John the Baptist you can listen to the voice of God.  Listening takes practice.  It is easy to ask things from God and harder to simply listen to what he is saying to you.  It takes discipline to listen and it takes a decision to obey what you hear.

Spend time in prayer so that your ministry will be directed, empowered and enabled by the Spirit.  Pray about when to begin.  Pray for open doors.  Use this time to grow in relationship with God.  This is more important than any ministry you believe you are called to.  Spend time in the Bible.  Meditate on what it says.  Pray about its meaning.  Ask God to show you what it means for the ministry which you are called to.

Consecrate yourself to God each day.  Like John the Baptist you have been called to the service of God before you were born.  According to Eph 1:4 God “chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”  When you trusted in Jesus he gave you his Spirit.  But the fullness of the Spirit is something we are commanded to renew daily (Eph 5:18).  The Holy Spirit is not a possession, but a divine person to whom we must constantly submit.  The fullness of the Spirit must be maintained by prayer and obedience, by submission to the will of God and by asking for more of the Spirit.

It may seem like you are doing nothing in this time when you have not begun your ministry or when you are between ministries.  But God is not doing nothing.  Our choice must always be to cooperate with what God is doing in that time.

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