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The Transforming Touch: The Heart Inflamed

John 1:19-34

My friend, Jim Jones, shared this little story with me:My friend, Jim Jones, shared this little story with me:

It seems that a certain associate pastor was assigned to do the childrens’ sermon one week in church. He began by asking the question, a risky thing to do when dealing with children! He said: “Say, have any of you kids ever heard of John the Baptist?” There was silence. Well, he was getting nervous; with gathering alarm, he asked again: “Are you sure none of you have ever heard of John the Baptist?” A little boy in the back of the group shouted out: “I never heard of John the Baptist, but I have heard of Jesus the Presbyterian!” And, needless to say, the congregation erupted in laughter, and that was the end of the childrens’ sermon for that week.

Of course, most of us have heard of John the Baptist, but, I dare say, that not many of us have heard of Girolamo Savonarola. He lived in Italy in the late 1400’s. His parents would say later that they could tell from early childhood that he was destined for something different in life. He began to study the Bible at an early age. He dedicated himself to living a very austere lifestyle. He ate only the barest amount of food. He slept on the hardest of cots. He was born into a time when the church was filled with corruption, and he decided that his calling was not to preach in cathedrals, but to preach at cathedrals. He didn’t live very long. After eight years of speaking out against the wrongs which existed in the church, the religious leaders of the day decided that the church would be better off without him. He was hung; his body was burned; and his remains were tossed into the River Arno.

Interestingly enough, the judicial board, who rendered the death sentence, had written into the verdict these words: “Even as John the Baptist was killed, so must Savonarola be killed.” Appropriate wording, because Savonarola and John the Baptist had a lot in common.

Both men never knew the joys of family life. Both lived outside the church, rather than within it. Both died a tragic death at an early age. Both prepared the way for others: John the Baptist for Jesus Christ; Savonarola for Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

Somewhere in America today, there is another Savonarola. Somewhere in America today, there is a life being honed razor sharp and a voice being prepared to speak by the power of the Spirit of God. God does that in every generation, and He will do it in this generation, as well. Seldom are such prophets honored. Seldom are such prophets popular. Oft times, they die tragic and lonely deaths, because, while they speak as the voice of God, people hear them as the voice of the Devil.

Yet perhaps at no time in our nation’s history have we more needed a voice like that of John the Baptist or Girolamo Savonarola. Perhaps at no time in our history have we more needed someone to deliver the barefisted, hard-hitting message of God’s power and purity and peace. I suppose that’s why I am so drawn today to these verses in John 1. Here we encounter this one who was a child of the wilderness, one brought up in desert places. He learned lessons from the stones that covered the mountain heights and gained wisdom from the waters of the Dead Sea. He covered himself in camel’s hair secured by a leather belt. Never a razor had touched his hair, never a drop of wine had touched his lips. His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. He would never have passed a course in public relations. The fine art of tact and diplomacy was beyond him. He had no college degree. He was a student at only one school, the school of silence. He was the product of only one teacher, the Spirit of God. But that made all the difference. His name, of course, was John the Baptist. Now I’m going to trust you to read his whole story in John 1 and 3 and Mark 1 and 6 when you get home today, and you’re going to trust me to tell you what it says. Deal? Here, then, are three observations we draw from his story…

One: We don’t have to conform to the world in order to convince the world.

So here came this wild and woolly denizen of the desert, screaming a message which could be summarized in a single word: Repent! Hardly the kind of person who could blend in with the crowd. Yet, there was something about the presence of this man in the world that caused people to take notice, to flock to hear him, and even to follow him. It says in Mark 1 that people from all over Jerusalem and Judea were “going out to him.” Some scholars calculate that as many as six million people heard the message of John the Baptist. What was it that drew them? This, I believe. Sometimes a holy heart is a winsome heart. Therefore, I would declare that the secret to reaching the people of our world for Christ is not to be like them, but to recognize who it is we are trying to be like and to be like Him in the midst of them.

A couple of years ago now, some high schoolers went to their biology class for the first time. The teacher began the class with these words: “Are any of you Christians?” A handful of them put up their hands. He said: “I’d like for you to stand.” The students stood. He looked at them and said: “I want you to know that I have read your Bible, and I want you to know that your Bible is wrong. It’s just a confused and confusing book.” One of the young high schoolers then said: “Well, sir, you need to know that the Bible is God’s letter of love to His children. If you are confused by it, it’s because you’re reading somebody else’s mail!”

It’s time for us as Christians to stop trying to be like the world, to stop trying to conform to the world, and, instead, dare to be different in the midst of the world. Here’s the point. The way for you to make a difference in your neighborhood is not to preach a sermon, but to love your wife. The way for you to make a difference in your office complex is not to pass out tracts, but to be the one who volunteers to do what no one else wants to do. The way for you to make a difference in your school is not to quote scripture, but to refuse to drink alcohol at the party. The way for this church to make a difference in this city is to care for the lonely, the needy, and the hurting.

St. Francis of Assisi once invited a young novitiate in his monastery to accompany him on a preaching mission to a nearby city. The young man was thrilled at the possibility of preaching alongside the great saint. As they entered the city, Francis of Assisi would stop and visit with the people along the way. And then they made their way down into the marketplace, and, there, in the bustling crowds, Francis would talk to the mothers and speak to the fathers and love on the children. The young preacher kept thinking that, at some point, Francis would stop and begin to preach. He never did. They headed back to the monastery. As they entered the gates, the young man said: “We never preached a sermon.” St. Francis of Assisi replied: “My young friend, we began preaching the sermon the moment we entered the city, and we preached it the whole way through.”

Mark this down: how we live is the message we give. A holy heart can be a winsome heart. There was something about John the Baptist that made people say: “I would like to be able to live a life like that.” We don’t have to conform to the world in order to convince the world. We don’t even have to conform to the world in order to convert the world. How we live is the message we give.

Two: We don’t have to know all the story to tell the story.

John the Baptist was, of course, the cousin of Jesus. But there is no evidence that John ever met his cousin Jesus, before that occasion when they encountered one another on the banks of the River Jordan and Jesus asked to be baptized. But that one encounter was enough. At thatpoint, John had no idea of all that Jesus was and is. He had no way of knowing all that Jesus would do in the future. Yet, when he saw Jesus, he said: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He didn’t have to know all of the story to tell the story. So much for the myth that says that you have to know all about Jesus in order to talk about Jesus. So much for the myth that says you have to know all the stories and doctrines of the Bible before you can talk about the stories and the doctrines of the Bible.

I am much influenced by a potent word from Leonard Griffith, who said: “The spiritual sufferers of our day need to be told about Jesus. They do not need to be propagandized with vague theological theories about Him; they do not even need to be bombarded with Bible verses; they simply need to hear His name.” We don’t have to know all the story to tell the story. We don’t have to know all that there is to know about Jesus in order to simply speak His name. For His name, when spoken, has incredible power. Here is what is true: there is no situation or circumstance in life where it would be wrong to simply mention the name of Jesus, and there is no person you could engage in conversation any time, anywhere, for whom it would be a bad thing to hear the Saviour’s name. The manner matters to be sure. We don’t have to beat people over the head with the things of the faith. We don’t even have to coerce or even cajole them. All we have to do is to mention the name of Jesus and to never stop mentioning His name, for in His name is the power of God unto salvation.

As I look back over all that has happened in my more than twelve years with you, my thoughts dwell first and foremost upon those individuals who have discovered what John the Baptist discovered: that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior from sin. I think about people whose lives were lost, twisted, aimless, hopeless, but in whom now there is hope and joy and purpose and purity, through the power of the Christ who makes life over again. This is what is of ultimate importance. This is the greatest miracle of them all. Live transformed by the touch of Jesus Christ. That’s the truth that came singing from John’s heart when he said: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” That’s the song we Christians have to sing. Humankind is lost in sin. Calvary is the answer to that sin. Jesus Christ is the way to salvation. That’s all we really need to know. We don’t have to know all the story to tell the story.

Three: We don’t have to do it all to do a lot.

When John F. Kennedy was President, he called the White House gardener one day and said that he would like to have an oak tree planted on the south lawn of the White House. The gardener replied: “Why, Mr. President, don’t you understand that would take a generation to reach full growth?” To which the President replied: “Then, for heaven’s sake, plant it today!” You see, you don’t have to see it all to see it begin. You don’t have to do it all to do a lot.

John the Baptist didn’t see it all or do it all. His life ended in a jail cell in Herod’s castle, and his last question was one to Jesus: “Are you the One who is to come or shall we look for another?” You see, he died without ever knowing if he’d been right, without ever knowing if he had made any significant contribution to the world, but where would we be without him? Just look at what he taught us. He taught us that if we are humble before Christ, we can be courageous before anyone else. He taught us that if we get on our knees before Jesus Christ, we can walk like a king before anyone else. He taught us that once we yield to Jesus Christ, we never have to yield to anyone else.

I believe that the greatest tragedy in the Christian church today is the cowardice of its pulpit. Most ministers today wouldn’t damn a church mouse, let alone a society and a culture desperately in need of repentance. Dr. Sam Schumaker, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, was a preacher whose pulpit always had power. He was an Episcopalian who wore a clerical collar, sometimes jokingly called a “dog collar”. Someone once asked him why he wore that “dog collar”, and he replied: “I wear this “dog collar” to show people that I have a Master.” That was the secret of the power of his pulpit. That’s where his courage came from. And that was John’s secret, too. Once we have yielded to Christ, we never have to yield to anyone else. We don’t have to do it all to do a lot.

Well…

When Savonarola decided to go to Florence to speak out against the wrongs of the Church, it was a long journey. He had no food and no money. Some people gave him bits of bread along the way, but it wasn’t enough. When he reached the city of Florence, he was so weak and undernourished that he fainted at the gates of the city. He was roused up by a tap on his shoulder. He would later say that, from that moment on, he never quite knew if it was a stranger or an angel; but whoever it was gave him a basket of food. He ate and felt the strength return. As he then got up and turned to walk into the city, the stranger (or the angel) said to him: “Do not forget the task to which God has sent thee.” Savonarola never forgot. John the Baptist never forgot.

May we never forget, either.

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