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December 27 lesson: Called to Prepare

December 14, 2020
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Called to Prepare

Winter Quarter: Call in the New Testament
Unit 1: The Beginning of a Call


Sunday school lesson for the week of Dec. 27, 2020
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard


Background Scripture: Matthew 3 (NIV)
Key Verse: This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” (Matthew 3:3)

Intro for teacher

You may have noticed that I use different formats to write the lessons. Various formats are helpful; some lessons need a different format to convey their meaning. This lesson is most helpful when we examine the major terms in the text.

Terms in the text

1. “In those days:”

We pass over phrases like this one and fail to ask the very important question: What was it like in those days?

Judea in Jesus’ day: The nation was culturally divided. The people in Jerusalem and the surrounding area looked in condescension upon the Galileans in the northern areas. The Galileans were mostly fishermen, masons, and other types of laborers. Jerusalem is where the power, wealth, and religious leaders lived. However, it must be remembered that many of the masses lived in and around Jerusalem and many wealthy and powerful people lived in the north. The Sanhedrin consisted of 71 Jews, with a High Priest as head. The 70 were patterned after the 70 elders that ruled with Moses as their leader. Rome allowed the Sanhedrin to rule over all Jewish religious and civil affairs. They were not allowed to execute anyone. It is for this reason that Jesus was sent by the Sanhedrin to Herod. The High Priest was usually a political appointment and was chief officer of the Sanhedrin. You might remember Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin. Upon Jesus’ arrest in the garden he was taken to the Sanhedrin. The Sadducees were lawyers like the Pharisees with very different beliefs. They believed humankind had total free will yet also believed God knew what was going to happen. God had foreknowledge. They were founded around 167 BC. They believed in God’s rule over everything and gave great authority to the oral Torah. The Pharisees believed God could be worshipped outside the temple. When the temple was destroyed in 70 AD the belief concerning worship made the teaching of the Pharisees more relevant. They wanted the overthrow of Rome from Judea, as did the Sadducees. It is important to know the disciple Simon was a Pharisee when we study the apostles.

One of the major, powerful similarities was the desire to rid the nation of Jesus.

The major differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees were as follows:

The Pharisees believed in the supernatural; the Sadducees did not. The Sadducees did not believe in heaven, hell, angels, or demons. The Sadducees were very secular and did not believe in the resurrection of the body. The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife. Our years on earth are all there is. In contrast, the Pharisees understood Scripture literally. Therefore, it isn’t accidental the God called a Pharisee named Saul on the Damascus Road rather than a Sadducee. A Pharisee could more easily believe in the supernatural appearance of Christ.

One of the major differences was in social status. The Sadducees came from noble families of wealth. Thus, the Sadducees were connected to Roman political power. The Sadducees held far more political power than the Pharisees. In contrast, the Pharisees were more connected to common people.

The shared beliefs of the Pharisees and Sadducees were as follows:

The Jewish people believed they were accountable to God in every aspect of their lives. Thus, both the Pharisees and Sadducees were very important to the Jewish people. They were not priests. Both were lawyers; that is, they were experts in Mosaic Law. They were also experts in interpreting the Law. Many wonder how the Mosaic Law grew from 10 commandments to approximately 612 laws. The expansion came through “interpretation.” When the decalogue stated we should not take God’s name in vain, someone asked, “What does ‘in vain’ mean?” If we are not to work on the Sabbath, what is considered work? As culture and society progressed, the need to understand how the Mosaic Law applied became important. The Pharisees and Sadducees were important in this interpretation. This meant they exercised great power over the Jewish masses.

Roman power: Rome was by far the dominant power in the world. Though the Sanhedrin and two sects of lawyers ruled and exercised power over the Jewish people, the Jewish people, led by the Zealots, regularly revolted and protested against Roman rule. The people of God, from the lineage of Abraham, could never allow a foreign, Gentile power to rule over them. The Zealots continually attempted to incite the people against Rome. They believed in the use of arms to expel Rome. They also despised Jews who sought peace and cooperation with Rome. They did not become a “group” until around 66 AD. Zealots in Jesus’ day were men who were very zealous in their desire to lead an army against Rome. Who did they believe would lead the army? The Messiah. Judas Iscariot was a member of these discontents. When he realized Jesus was not going to lead a militant army against Rome, he betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. One of the more important examples of Rome’s power was the constant taxation of the Jews. Remember, Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem to be counted for taxation.

Herod Antipas was appointed King of Judea by Rome. He was also called Herod the Tetrarch. He died not long after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He seemed to be uneasy in ruling Judah. This uneasiness was visible in his reluctance to crucify Jesus, only to later change his mind.

Another group that influenced Jewish life in Jesus’ day was the Scribes. The major responsibility of the Scribes was to make a copy of the sacred scrolls. They took this responsibility very seriously. They copied an O.T. scroll one letter at a time. Eventually the Scribes became authorities on Scripture and tradition. They were well respected as learned men of the Jewish faith.

Do you often feel like one of the masses and like you are little more than a number? Today we have social security numbers, passwords, car tags, etc. Does this make it more difficult for you to believe in your uniqueness and specialness to God? Is today’s culture more secular or religious? Is it secular with religion playing a small role in our world? Or is it religious with the secular being consigned to a small role? What do you think about people of faith who want to combat the major threats to faith through violence? In today’s culture, much like the culture of Jesus’ day, there exists a division between the secular belief that there exists no supernatural or life after death. Do you find the secular interferes with your faith, making you reluctant to share Christ? Do you believe the secular can inform faith? Can they coexist? How?

2. John the Baptist

He is most likely the most colorful character in the early days of Jesus’ ministry. He is a Nazarite. The term Nazarite meant consecrated and set apart. Nazarites did not cut their hair (though they could let their locks grow), drink wine (or eat or drink anything made with grapes) or wear normal clothing. To remain pure, they could not touch bodies, graves, or even family members. A Nazrite could serve as a Nazrite for a specified term. How long they would remain apart from the culture depended upon time they stated in their vow. There were specific steps to becoming a Nazarite. But, our purpose in this lesson is to understand that these men made a vow to God to come out, be holy, and live apart. Some became a Nazarite that God might answer a prayer, like giving them a son. However, John the Baptist was a Nazarite to fulfill his calling to proclaim the coming of the Lord. Many people in the early church believed John the Baptist was the incarnation of the prophet Elijah. The Old Testament claims Elijah could pave the way of the Lord. Jesus himself identified John as the Elijah to come. Some believed John was led by the spirit guide of Elijah. The most popular view is that John was much like Elijah and had an Elijah-like personality.

Scripture teaches we are in the world, but not of it. Are the specific times when you felt you had to come out and be different? Can you share them? What purpose was accomplished through disassociating with the world?

3. Repent

If we were asked to identify the major theme of John’s proclamation it would be repent. Repeatedly John calls upon his audience to repent. Repentance requires true, lasting regret. I rarely preached sermons on specific sins. I preached on the state of sin which is different from a single action. Why? Because people almost always know their sins! Most of us are aware of the many sins in our life. When we encounter Christ, we are even more enlightened. Jesus said rodents race toward the dark because light will expose them. Even so, when we encounter Jesus and the Holy Spirit, we can either remain in the darkness that haunts our souls, or we can move into the light of God. The light will always expose our sins, and we become far more aware of them. Jesus said in John 3:20, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” For the seeking person and the faithful Christian, we seek forgiveness and a new beginning. The easiest way to understand repentance is to think of turning. True repentance involves a 180 degree turn in order to move in the opposite direction. Repentance means to turn from the world and toward the Kingdom of God.

I found a paragraph in Wikipedia that defined repentance very well. It reads “The repentance (Greek word metanoia) called for throughout the Bible is a summons to a personal, absolute and ultimate unconditional surrender to God as Sovereign. Though it includes sorrow and regret, it is more than that. In repenting, one makes a complete change of direction toward God.”

In your walk of faith, does repentance play a major role? Can you identify a significant moment when you turned from darkness into light? Does the Body of Christ to which you belong proclaim, “Repent and come to Jesus?”

4. Prepare

In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

The audience of John the Baptist would have understood the call to prepare. They prepared for every rite and ritual. Washing and refusing to touch the unclean are just two of the steps involving being prepared. John himself became a Nazrite. From the way he dressed to the way he abstained from drink and certain foods, he prepared to pave the way of the Lord. John appears to know that his calling was directly related to the entrance of the Messiah into the life of Israel. Repentance is the major way we prepare ourselves to experience Christ. John called upon the Jewish people to repent, to come seeking forgiveness, holiness and love. John described Jesus as one superior. John believed he was not worthy to carry the sandals of Jesus. Whereas John baptized us with water, Jesus baptized with water and fire. Deut. 4:24 states, “for our God is a consuming fire.” Isaiah prophesied the tongue of the Messiah would be a consuming fire. (Isaiah 30:27). Fire is symbolic of judgement, the Holy Spirit, the consuming desire of God to redeem the world. Therefore, Jesus will baptize us in the very presence of God and the consuming desire to follow the will of God.

Do you prepare for worship? How? Why do you think preparation is important for the act of worship? Do you prepare for prayer? How? Do you prepare for the day to come? How do you prepare for important encounters with others?

5. Wilderness

John emerges into Jewish life from the wilderness. After the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. I found the following paragraph at www.enviornmentand society.org: The wilderness is a locale for intense experiences – of stark need for food and water, of isolation, of danger and divine deliverance, of renewal, of confession, of encounters with God.

This paragraph is very informative concerning the role of the wilderness in the Bible. The wilderness is the place where John experienced all of the above to some degree.

It is difficult in our modern age to find a place of wilderness. We are surrounded by noise, buildings, telephone and cable wires, etc. A place of silence, of calm, and of meditation continue to elude us. Still if we seek a place with great intent, we can find it. Most often a sanctuary or chapel is accessible. Personally, I encounter my sins and experience the wonder and love of God in Christ away from every distraction.

Do you have a place of wilderness where you pray and seek God? How intense and intentional has your search been? When do you seek the wilderness more than any other?

6. Baptism: What did John’s baptism mean?

Baptism has proved one of the major sources of debate in the church. Some denominations are founded in relation to their means of baptism. Let us first examine Jesus’ own baptism. Since John the Baptist called for people to repent and be baptized, baptism doesn’t seem to be a need for Jesus. He is sinless and there is nothing from which he needs to repent. So why allow a Nazrite to baptize the Son of God? Though some may disagree, and that is welcome, I agree with those who claim Jesus was baptized not for repentance, but rather to accept the calling to be Messiah. It is for this reason that God spoke and said, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.” I remember and entire seminary class in which we debated whether God could be displeased? Whatever the answer to that question, Jesus answered the call and God was well pleased.

Jesus was baptized because his ministry would be one of death and resurrection. Baptism is symbolic of both. When Jesus went down into the water, it represented his acceptance of death. When he rose from the river, he was accepting the promise of resurrection. The same is implied in all of our baptisms. Jesus’ baptism was Jesus’ coronation as King of Kings. As he rose from the water, the Holy Spirit came upon him. The Spirit was the anointing oil for royalty. Jesus baptism was unique and different in many respects from ours.

Our baptism is related to our repentance and acceptance of God’s forgiveness and the Holy Spirit’s power within to live an abundant life in Christ. It is at this point that we need to note the difference in the understanding of baptism by different theologies and churches. Many denominations believe our baptism is solely symbolic. It is the public declaration that we confess Jesus Christ is our Lord. However, denominations, like my own, associate baptism not with conversion, but with entrance into the church, and into years of preparation. After years of teaching and instruction, and at the age of accountability, usually around 12 years of age, they personally choose to make Jesus our savior and Lord. An infant is brought to the chancel and presented. The entire congregation and the pastor(s) make a vow to God to raise the child in the faith until the child can choose. The parents take a very precious vow to raise the child in a Christian home.

God’s grace is present when anyone is baptized. So, baptism is far more than just a symbol. Upon baptism the child becomes a preparatory member of the church. When they accept Christ for themselves, they become a full member of the church.

The baptism of infants is akin to Jewish boys being circumcised. The removal of the foreskin marked them as a child of Abraham. One day that child would have to accept Judaism for themselves.

Baptism is a time in which all of us, of various denominations, accept God’s call upon our life. We choose to present God with our gifts and graces that the Lord might use us in redeeming the world.

Can you express how special your baptism and confirmation were? Do you greet each day as a day to walk in your calling? Do you have a special sense that you are a child of God, and an important one?

7. Holy Spirit and Fire

Initially fire represented the presence of God. It was easy to understand why fire was a chosen symbol for God’s people. Fire is light, powerful, consuming, captivating, purifying and it earns a fearful respect from those who try to touch it. Hebrews 12:29 states “Our God is a consuming fire.” Fire was not only a symbol of the divine in Judaism and Christianity, it is a symbol for the gods of other faiths. Quite often fire is used to denote God’s purifying anger and judgement.

Fire is the perfect symbol for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the presence of God who indwells the Christian. The heart, soul, and spirit are ignited with the light of God. The Holy Spirit empowers us to walk in holiness. Fire and darkness have no romance. Wherever fire exists, darkness must flee. Therefore, the Holy Spirit draws us toward confession of any darkness that has moved into the heart. Notice that Jesus did not enter into his ministry until his baptism by John. Upon accepting the call to be Messiah who would live, die, and live again, the Holy Spirit then anointed Jesus as Messiah. However, the Spirit’s descent upon him publicly coronated him as Lord and King. The Holy Spirit indwelling Jesus leads to questions about the trinity. Again, the trinity remains beyond our comprehension. However, the Bible, history, tradition and personal experience allow us to accept the reality of the trinity through faith.

John was baptizing people that they might repent and prepare for the Lord’s coming. Jesus never personally baptized anyone. His disciples however, baptized people with water and the Spirit.

When we discover that God indwells and that we are the “temple of the Holy Spirit,” is our life altered and transformed? Personally, make a private list of behaviors you must shun as one indwelled by God. Take the terms light, power, consuming, captivating, purifying, and reverential fear and share how the Holy Spirit has used them in your life and the life of the church.

8. “The Kingdom of Heaven is near.”

The Kingdom of God is most often associated with heaven. It is heaven, and so much more. We often use phrases such as God in in heaven, or Jesus sits on the throne. There is nothing wrong with using these terms. We all need something concrete to help us understand the eternal. However, in reality, God is not in heaven. Heaven as a place implies boundaries, walls, and gates. God is greater than all! God is over and beyond walls and thrones. The throne cannot hold God. Can God reveal himself using the normal things in our life? Absolutely! Yet, we must always be aware that God is over and beyond anything we can see or imagine.

The Kingdom of God is not a place. It is an eternal reality through which God reigns. God may not sit on a throne but he is still King of Kings. God may not be confined to a space, but his does not make him unapproachable.

In theology school we used the phrase The Kingdom of God is here, but not yet. The Kingdom of God has been moving in all of human history. It came in its fullness in Jesus Christ and is here with us right now. Still, it is not here in all of its glory. Sin still exists. People still hate each other and every knee has not bowed or tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. We can experience God’s Kingdom moving in our life and the lives of others. Yet, there is coming a day when the reign of God shall appear in all of its glory. It will be a new heaven and new earth. (read Rev. 21)

John was announcing that in Jesus the Kingdom of God is here. He implores all of us to get ready, and repent, for we going to experience God’s grace and judgement.

God is readying our lives for the coming of Jesus Christ in all of his glory!

Summation

John the Nazarite was in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. As he preached, he became known as John the Baptizer. His proclamation involved calling us to prepare for the coming Messiah. We could actually see and touch the Kingdom! John called us to repent and prepare for the tangible incarnation of God. God in Christ would walk with us toward holiness. It would prove a holiness not so much based on the Mosaic Law, but rather on the love of God. A loving heart will be a holy heart. Jesus was baptized by John. His baptism was his acceptance of the call to be Messiah. It was his incarnation as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The Holy Spirit descended upon him. The Spirit was the anointing oil. Anointing oil was used to consecrate those called into the service of God. The span of our life involves walking with Jesus, who reveals to us the Kingdom all around us, and the Kingdom to come.

Prayer

Father, help us to know our own hearts so that we can be ready for your Son’s return. Help us bear the fruit you have called us to bear and to be strong in telling others that your kingdom is near, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. (From the teacher’s manual)

Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at craigrikard169@yahoo.com.

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