John the Baptist Luke 3:1 -20
Well, what a freaky character! Can you imagine saying to your friends, ‘We’ve got this really good speaker talking about God,’ and John turns up in his animal skins and calls them a brood of vipers! In fact when he says it, it sounds as though he is talking to you as well! It is a pity we don’t have any pictures, because my imagination runs wild when I try to think what he must have looked like, smelt like, been like. And so abrasive! People do say we need preachers like that today, but they generally mean other people need preachers like that; but John was addressing the religiously respectable as well as others. I guess today he would be described as a fundamentalist who was taking faith in God just a bit too seriously.
Well there is no doubt that he was ascetic in his lifestyle: no creature comforts and luxury food for him. He is clearly associated with the prophets of the Old Testament. There hasn’t been a message from God for about 400-450 years and then John, the miraculous baby, turns up in the desert. Like the prophets he is bold, he is outspoken, he is tough and he is sure of his message. What is more the message is for everyone. This voice in the wilderness is cast in the mould of Isaiah and the quote from that prophet comes from chapter 40. John isn’t supposed to be a fulfillment of the prophecy, but the one to who points to the Messiah. Like the prophets who called Israel to repentance and expected them to show the fruits of repentance or judgement will fall, John also looks to the future when judgement will come. But this doesn’t need to be a fearful time if people respond to the Word of God. Like the prophets of the OT, John falls foul of the local ruler, because even Herod didn’t escape the sting of John’s tongue: he had him jailed.
So this freaky preacher comes with a call to repentance, symbolised by baptism for the forgiveness of sins. There are two words there which I don’t believe were anymore acceptable then than they are today. The first is repentance. This word basically means do a 180 degree turn and walk away from those things that separate you from God. Give up on an old lifestyle, habit, attitude and adopt one that is compatible with your status as a child of God. The problem with this word is that involves a judgment by someone else on your lifestyle. In this case it was John on the lifestyle of the Jews and gentiles who came to him. In our world the cry would go up, ‘What right have you got to judge me?’ and quite rightly so. God hasn’t called us to be judges of others and he didn’t call John to be one either. God did send John to call people back to himself. John doesn’t pass judgment, but calls people to examine their relationship with God and does make practical suggestions, which we will look at later.
The second unacceptable word: sin. Now in spite of all my years as a Christian, it is still easy to see sin in this way: getting drunk, having an affair, fiddling the books, being violent; very stereotypical. This is what other people do and not me, so I’m ok. However, I forget the times when I am selfish, greedy, a glutton, only acknowledge God on a Sunday, gossip about others, deceitful – all of which in God’s eyes are just as equally sins. In fact I forget that sin is quite simply not following God’s way and doing my own thing. The call to repent is a call to examine myself in the light of God’s standards, to realise I fall short and then to receive the opportunity God gives to be forgiven and begin again. My sin may be obvious or not so obvious: the call is the same. The call to repentance has a purpose, because it is in preparation for the arrival of the Lord who will come in judgement and rightly so.
Let’s look at what John says. ‘You brood of vipers…’ Well that’s a welcoming greeting. It’s a bit like going for a medical and the doctor saying, ‘You typical example of a couch potato! Who warned you that you’d have a heart attack if you didn’t get down to see me?’ We wouldn’t be best pleased and would probably change our GP. What John says was really offensive to those people who saw themselves as the brood of Abraham, and probably equally offensive to those who weren’t Jews. John was implying things about their parentage. To be associated with something implied something about your nature and behaviour. It’s like when a new child was introduced to my class and they had a certain name and I thought I knew straight away what I was in for, because I knew the family.
Most of this crowd were probably Jews, part of God’s chosen people, but John was saying that their lifestyle didn’t reflect that. Again, reminiscent of the prophets who challenged the ancient Israelites about their exploitation of the poor, their impatience for the Sabbath to be over so they could make money and their chasing after other gods. And after all that, relying on the fact that they were the chosen people and that God would rescue them.
John’s challenge is to bear fruit in keeping with repentance: the same challenge the prophets presented in the past. And his advice is very practical – you can’t rely on your Jewish heritage. Just as God raised up a nation from someone who was apparently too old to have children, so God could do it again. If people don’t respond then they can expect to be cut off, just as the Israelites of old found themselves in exile. The advice he gives is quite practical and not rocket science. He could have said to them, ‘Go and read the law, it’s all there.’ But he makes it plain:
- If you are wealthy and have plenty, share with those who don’t. This hearkens back to the Law of Moses that was concerned for the widows, the orphans and the aliens; laws relating to gleaning that enabled them to live and support themselves.
- If you are in business, be honest and don’t fiddle the books. Reminder of the law again – do not steal, do not deceive.
- If you are in a position of authority, don’t abuse it. Do not bear false witness and don’t pervert justice.
These should have been characteristic of the people of God. They were called to be a light to the nations, to draw people to the living God, to live differently, to show that their faith in God impacted daily living, relationships, all areas of life.
Did you notice that soldiers came to John and John didn’t make any distinction? They could receive the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The expectation was still that they would bear fruit in keeping with repentance. They could have been soldiers from Herod’s court or Roman soldiers responding to God. What a challenge to live godly lives in those circumstances, but the difference they could make if their lives were changed.
Did you notice that the tax collectors – despised people – were also included. And what a difference they could make if their lives were changed. It is also interesting that he doesn’t tell anyone to change their occupation. what we see here is another aspect of the preparation of John: no-one is excluded from the kingdom if they turn to God in repentance. Reading the gospels, there are often harsh words directed at the religious establishment; but even they could start again if they were willing.
So what is the relevance for us? We need to listen to the voice of God and respond. Don’t sit for hours waiting upon God wondering what you should be doing and how you should live your life. Don’t wait for hours for a voice from heaven when God is shouting loud and clear through the Bible. If we don’t hear, if we don’t respond then we are like the character James describes in his letter… (James 1:22-25) It is so easy to read and hear, agree and then do nothing; to come on a Sunday and hear ‘good teaching’ and go away satisfied and knowledgeable, but no change occurs in our hearts and lives. We don’t have to do anything to earn a place in heaven because Jesus has done that for us. But as James says, it’s pretty hard to demonstrate you have faith if it doesn’t change how you live and relate to others.
- If we are wealthy – and I would suggest that compared with the vast majority of people in the world we are all wealthy – then we should be sharing with those who have nothing.
- In our workplace, principles and practices should be above reproach and if necessary deals are dropped if they are dodgy, or an action is refused, because following Christ is more important.
- If we are in a position of authority our principles and practices should be above reproach and we should be known for fairness to all and justice in decision taking.
- If you are facing challenges and dilemmas in the workplace or at home and need support, seek it from the family here at Emmanuel. Part of the role of the church community is to love and support each other.
In calling people to repentance, John isn’t setting himself up as a new religious leader. In the advice he gives those who ask him what they should do, he draws on the teaching of the OT. In Luke’s account, we have people asking whether or not John is the promised Messiah and he seems to have overheard this, because he points to the one who will come after. He points away from himself to Jesus and it is in John’s gospel that the Baptist identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
All the gospels have John declaring his unworthiness compared to the one who was to come. In M,M and L he makes the point that the Messiah will baptise with the Holy Spirit and in M and L the Spirit is linked with fire. Now I believe that the the HS wasn’t being given and isn’t given so we can have warm fuzzy feelings, perform amazing things and distinguish between first and second class Christians. The Spirit comes to change people and empower them to live as followers of Jesus Christ and to do his work. The empowerment of the Spirit led the disciples into difficult and challenging situations, because they were being faithful to Jesus and not going to deny him. When the Spirit descended on Jesus, M,M and L tell us that the he was then led into a time of testing. The empowerment of the Spirit is to strengthen, encourage, build up and enable us to be the people of Jesus as the church collectively and dispersed throughout the week. In Luke as in Matthew, the gift of the Spirit is linked with fire. They could have been thinking of the events of Pentecost, but also fire is a metaphor in the OT for the presence of God and his cleansing judgement. The fire of the Spirit comes cleansing believers because the Spirit is the presence of God in our lives.
This brings us to the urgency of John’s message. ‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance because judgment is coming. Produce fruit in keeping with repentance because one is coming who will sift the wheat and burn up the chaff.’ The implication was that there were those who sat back and said, ‘I’m a Jew. I’m ok.’ and would be surprised when the axe struck. It could be the same for those who say ‘I belong to a Christian family, I go to church, I’m ok,’ but who have never responded to the challenge to repent, turn to God and receive forgiveness. The example I’ve used before is that if you are born in a garage, it doesn’t make you a car. Part of the problem in the past of living in a so called Christian country has been that people have believed that made them Christian. That is part of the problem of the image of Christianity among non-Christian nations: national Christian faith does not commend itself.
If you are born to a Jewish family, you are a Jew. If born to a Muslim family, you are a Muslim. If to a Hindu family, a Hindu. But just because you belong to a Christian family or Emmanuel Baptist Church, doesn’t make you a Christian. Uniquely for Christianity, everyone has to make that choice to follow Jesus Christ for themselves. If you like, you are automatically opted out and consciously have to take the step of repentance and faith in Christ for yourself. Now is the time to respond personally to the offer God gives of turning around and receiving forgiveness. The good news is that judgement doesn’t have to be fearful, because we have been given the opportunity to return to God.
We are still on the threshold of the New Year. We have celebrated the birth of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Are you going to respond to him and put your faith and trust in him? Are you going to allow the Holy Spirit to cleanse and empower you to enable you to bear fruit in keeping with repentance? We don’t do this alone: we have the promise of the Holy Spirit in our lives and we have the family of the church to love, support and enable us to step out in faith in the one whose sandals none of us are worthy to untie.