Sermon: On Baptists and Prophets

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Sunday, February 15, 2017
First Lutheran Church of Logan Square

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John 1:29-42
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

(I never finished translating this sermon, nor got to preach it, as I was quite sick for several weeks)

Today, we celebrate the legacy of a great leader and prophet – a visionary who led a movement that forever transformed his nation. His name was John the Baptist. Just kidding. We are, of course, talking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

However, it does seem profoundly fitting that we should celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy with a reading about the prophet John. In many ways, Dr. King was a prophet very much in the line of biblical prophets like John:

Both John and Dr. King were men with powerful and inspiring visions. In our gospel reading for today, John talks about seeing the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove. And in the language of visions, he cries out to the crowds, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Dr. King actually borrowed a lot of biblical images in his visions. He quoted the prophet Amos when he said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” In his very last speech, he declared that he’d “been to the mountaintop” and that, like Moses, he had seen the promised land.

Dr. King and John were both incredibly powerful public speakers. Huge crowds of people followed John out to the wilderness to hear his messages about repentance and hope that the promised Messiah was coming soon. Many of Dr. King’s speeches have become so iconic that every American can quote at least one line of them. Without even thinking about it, I bet nearly all of you can name his most famous speech off the top of your heads.

With their words and actions, both John and Dr. King inspired massive movements of people that long outlived them. Dr. King was a central figure of the civil rights movement. This movement granted millions of people their constitutional rights as citizens and residents of this country, and it has inspired countless other people to continue to be active peacemakers and to work for justice. John heralded the way for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And more than two thousand years later, billions of Christians the whole world over continue to find hope and inspiration in his prophetic witness.

God sent John into the world to give people hope and reassurance and to inspire them to repent and change their hearts. God sent John to prepare the way for God’s own coming into the world.

God has been sending prophets to this world for thousands and thousands of years. These leaders and teachers of faith have instructed and motivated and inspired God’s people throughout history. They have stood as faithful witnesses to the work of God in the world on behalf of God’s beloved children.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most recent in a long line of prophets that stretches back before recorded history. He and his message are a reassurance to us that God is still active in this world, that God still stands firmly on the side of those who are oppressed. God’s heart is for justice and so God raises up the prophets to speak out against injustice and to inspire those who have the power to do what is right. Because – as Dr. King wisely observed – “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Today, we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. As we honor him, we should also honor the ancient prophetic tradition of which he is part – the men and women throughout history who have spoken God’s words of justice and hope to the world. And there is no better way to do that than to let their example and their words continue to inspire us. We shouldn’t let the ideals of peace and freedom and justice that they spoke about become things of the past, but keep them alive and fresh. We must keep the prophetic flame of their inspiration glowing in our hearts.

If we listen, we will find that the prophets are still speaking to us. And if we look, we will see that God is still very much at work in the world.

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