The text below is the sermon as it was preached at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York this morning. The sermon uses the bagpipes and the flute as instruments representing different kinds of moving music as an analogy for John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. The sermon audio is available here. And, yes, I am aware that you can have bagpipes at weddings and flutes at funerals…so don’t let that distract you from the point. Next Sunday’s message will be on Luke 9:28-36, entitled, “Waking Up to the Glory of Christ.” Next Sunday is Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday. The Sundays during Lent will continue exploring Luke’s Gospel through Easter.
Music is so powerful. It can change your mood to sadness or to joyfulness. It can vibrate through you and get into your bodily memory such that at times when you aren’t even listening to any music you find yourself humming a tune or tapping your foot without even thinking about it. Good movies know how to engage our bodies through a score that is often playing in the background. The kind of movie it is will even determine the kind of music you hear and likewise the instrumentation. The apostle Paul was well aware of the power of music, saying that we are to address one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:20). In fact, different music is appropriate for different worship settings or even different parts of the service. For example, musical selections and instrumentation might be different for a funeral than it is for a wedding. We might find the bagpipes playing Amazing Grace especially fitting at a funeral and find flutes or violins playing something upbeat and joyful especially appropriate for a wedding. Or again, instead of reading a prayer of confession the prayer of confession could be sung to a mournful tune like those sung at a funeral because we are truly sorry for our sins and lament them. But after we have heard the pronouncement of pardon a prayer of thanksgiving could be sung with a tune like those sung at a wedding because we are thankful for our salvation in Jesus Christ. In fact, perhaps music in worship should often follow the pattern of history: we begin joyfully like the creation that God called good, move to lamentation because of the fall of man into sin, then to hymns of thanksgiving for our redemption in Christ Jesus, and then to all-out praise looking forward to Jesus coming again. With this in mind, let’s read about John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. Indeed we will see that Jesus described John’s ministry as singing a dirge (a funeral song) and His own ministry as playing a flute.
- The children of God’s wisdom hear a dirge about our sin and weep.
- The ministry of John the Baptist was a ministry of singing such a dirge. He sang a funeral song that moved tax collectors and many others to weep but the Pharisees did not weep. John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). His followers were not to be unaffected, emotionless, and cold – they grieved because of their sins. This prepared them to receive Jesus Christ. It appears from the text that John was beginning to have some doubts about Jesus because Jesus was not bringing in the final judgment. He needed reassurance because he had been playing the funeral song and the end had not come. Instead, John had run into resistance not only from the Pharisees but also from King Herod. Herod like the Pharisees and the lawyers (these being religious lawyers regarding the law of God) would not cry for their sins. These leaders rejected the purpose of God for themselves. They even hurled false accusations against John – saying he would not eat bread or drink wine and so he had a demon (7:33). They said that his call for crying and lamentation was the cry of a crazy man. These were people who were supposedly experts in the Hebrew Scriptures but sound as if they’ve never read the Prophetic book of Ezekiel. As Jesus might say, in Ezekiel’s day they were the people calling Ezekiel insane. John the Bapist called for the people to cast themselves upon the mercy of God because they deserved the wrath that is to come. And unlike the Pharisees and scribes and King Herod, most of the people and even the tax collectors heard this message and wept. They recognized the right response to hearing a song that could easily have a mournful bagpipe accompaniment. And having been baptized by John, they declared God just.
- And this continues to be an important part of the Christian experience. We pray the psalms of lament in the Hebrew Scriptures including laments about the reality of death and laments about our sins. This isn’t evidence that we’re crazy; we’re saying that God’s wisdom is right. Death disturbs us but we refuse to live in denial of death. Nor do we live in denial of our sinfulness and our sins. We know that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). For many of us the law of God prepared our hearts to receive Jesus Christ. We looked into the law as a mirror and saw ourselves as it described sinfulness. We saw just how ugly we were before God. We were moved to tears. We showed genuine remorse for how we had served other gods, worshiped according to our own wisdom, misused the name of the Lord, desecrated the Sabbath, dishonored authority put over us by God, hated other people made in the image of God, lusted after other people for our satisfaction instead of finding our satisfaction in God, stole from others and so from the Lord, lied about other people in the presence of God as our witness, and were not content with what God provided us but coveted our neighbor’s things. Having broken all ten of these Ten Commandments, we saw how we had offended God and how God would be just to condemn us forever. We wept. And God gave us the gift of faith and we found joy and peace. Unlike the experts of God’s law, the law drove us to Christ. And it continues to do so. Children and adults alike, we learn to weep for our sins in worship. We have a time for confession of sin in our worship service for this very reason – we all need to be moved by the song of John calling for us to repent. Thus the Christian life is one of continuing to turn from sin and to turn to God. (And having confessed our sins to God, we recall or read or hear the promises of God for those who trust in Jesus Christ for salvation and so we move from singing laments to singing hymns of thanksgiving. Our own personal story of faith reflects the movement in the gospels from John the Baptist to Jesus. For…)
- The children of God’s wisdom hear Jesus playing the flute and dance.
- The ministry of Jesus was to play the flute like at a wedding. Jesus played a song with flute and drums and even joyful musical shouts to the Lord and the people and even the tax collectors danced but the Pharisees did not dance. The funeral song of John the Baptist moved off the stage and Jesus moved onto center stage in the drama of salvation. And when Jesus came on stage He was playing the flute–that is, He did and said things that made God’s children dance. His followers were no frozen chosen, they were the blissful blessed. As Jesus says to the disciples of John, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Luke 7:22-23). Those are words for dancing. The blind could not see to dance without tripping, but now they have their sight and can rejoice with dancing. The lame obviously could not walk let alone dance but now they can leap for joy and dance around for all to see. And we could say something similar for each of those examples Jesus mentioned. It was a time of rejoicing and thanksgiving to God for salvation – deliverance from diseases, plagues, evil spirits, blindness, lameness, skin diseases, deafness, the grave and poverty. That was the message Jesus wanted the disciples of John to take back to him. As Jesus explained to the crowd, John had a different purpose in the drama of salvation than Jesus. John was known as one under a Nazirite vow from the womb and therefore he abstained from eating at feasts and from drinking wine. He fasted and abstained from alcohol because he was singing the funeral song. Jesus did the opposite. Jesus ate at feasts and drank wine. Jesus drank wine because wine represents joy in Scripture. He was playing the flute. Each one played the song that God had given them. But the religious leaders of Israel accused them both of sin for doing these opposite styles of music. They said John has a demon since he did not eat bread or drink wine. And they said that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard because he ate at feasts and drank wine. Of course, their accusation against Jesus was also false. He was not a drunkard – He did not even get drunk. But He did drink in moderation for joy. Thus while the Pharisees rejected the purpose of God both when they heard John sing a dirge and when they heard Jesus play the flute, the people and even tax collectors declared God just.
- We are called as Christians to hear the dirge and weep and then to hear the flute and rejoice. Indeed, having gone through a dirge with the confession of sin we are ready to eat and drink in thanksgiving at the Lord’s Table. Likewise, having mourned our sins we are now to dance before the Lord for our salvation from sin in Christ Jesus. It is quite disturbing that some churches speak out against dancing and argue that Christians should never have a drop of alcohol. Churches that forbid all dancing for joy and that forbid all drinking of alcohol have substituted the traditions of men for the commandments of God. That is a very serious error indeed. I personally don’t drink alcohol at all, but it isn’t for religious reasons. Especially since the Lord’s Supper included wine when Jesus served it. We have seen Him perform the miracle of turning water into wine. And Jesus says in this very passage that the Son of Man, referring to Himself, came eating and drinking. But whether you drink or not—after all there are many good reasons why someone might not want to drink alcohol—we as Christians are to leap for joy and rejoice. All of the children of wisdom rejoice and leap for joy at the sound of the good news of Jesus and that sound of rejoicing is only going to get louder. Hallelujah! Amen!