by Chris Ritter
It has been a rough week for the United States of America. Some of my pastor friends have announced they are scrapping their planned sermons in order to address what is happening in our nation. But I am not doing that. Today’s message is already strikingly relevant. What the church needs in America is a radical re-focus on Jesus. So it is very appropriate that we are in a series taking us through the life and ministry of Jesus. My prayer is that the Body of Christ will have the mind of Christ.
Our teacher is Dr. Luke, the author of the longest account of Jesus’ life and ministry in the New Testament. Let’s give our attention to the Word of God:
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:Luke 3:1-18 (NIV)
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
Political drama is nothing new. Luke opens Chapter Three with a description of the rulers in place as John and Jesus begin their ministries. The Herod that ruled when Jesus was born had ten wives, some of whom he married to cement his tenuous rules as a Rome-friendly Jewish King. He killed his wife Miriamme, a princess of the previous dynasty, for alleged adultery and attempting to kill him. (Back then they didn’t have elections. They had poisonings.) Herod killed two of his sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, for a perceived political rivalry and for knowing about the poisoning attempt. Another wife, the mother of his heir, was suspected to know about the assassination plot and his heir was demoted.
Herod accomplished great things during his reign (like expanding the temple and completing, but he did so in such a way that he feared there would be rejoicing at his death. To prevent this, he ordered his sister to gather all the eminent men Judea in the Hippodrome and slaughter them on the day of his death… just so there would be weeping when he died. This order was never carried out.
When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided into four parts… tetrarchies. The son placed over Jerusalem fell out of favor with the emperor and the Holy City fell under direct Roman rule. Pontius Pilate was the governor. Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, ruled Galilee while is brother, Phillip, ruled east of the Jordan. Phillip was married to his niece, Herodias, and they had a daughter named Salome. Herodias divorced Phillip and married his brother, Herod Antipas. John the Baptist was publicly critical of this marriage, which led to his arrest. There was enough fear of God in Herod Antipas that he deferred executing John and he instead kept him in prison. During a lavish dinner party, however, Salome danced before her step-father/uncle in such a pleasing way that he granted her a royal wish. Coached by her mother, she requested the head of John the Baptist of a platter.
The backdrop of this political intrigue creates dramatic relief with the ministries of John and Jesus who proclaimed God’s glory and kingdom in a way so detached from their own self-interest. Human history has always been littered with self-interested leaders and golden calves. Jesus would bring a definition of power and glory so different than those shaped by human sin and ambition.
As prophesied to his father, Zechariah, John’s ministry would be about turning hearts back to God. He seems to have had an interesting upbringing. Luke 1 tells us that he was “in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” (Luke 1:80). John seems to have not participated in the priestly duties of his family. Like the prophets of old, he was shaped outside civilization. Some had tried to connect John with the Qumran community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. This Jewish sect rejected the priesthood in Jerusalem as illegitimate and lives separately awaiting the Messiah. Excavations have revealed pools for ritual washings. Was this the origin of baptism?
Fire in My Bones
But John’s ministry started with a divine call: “The Word of God came to John.” (Luke 3:2). This is the same language used in the Old Testament for the beginning of a prophet’s ministry. The Word of God begins to burn inside a man or a woman until they can no longer remain silent. Jeremiah described it this way:
But if I say, “I will not mention his wordJeremiah 20:9 (NIV)
or speak anymore in his name,”
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot.
The Gospel of Matthew is famous for pausing to mention how events in the New Testament are a fulfillment of prophesies in the Old Testament. But Luke does this, too. Here in Chapter Three he reminds us that Isaiah, hundreds of years earlier, spoke of a voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way!” This voice in John the Baptist.
Old Testament prophets like Elijah were described as coming out of the wilderness and into the cities to proclaim God’s message. But people came out of the cities, villages, and towns to hear John preach in the wilderness along the Jordan. This was a grassroots movement. We learn later that the established religious leaders were jealous of it and spoke against it.
I began ministry in the late 1980’s and this was the dawn of the “seeker sensitive movement.” Since the church was designed to connect people with God, we were told that we should remove barriers that kept unchurched people away. Keep the message positive… no hellfire and damnation stuff. The music should be high quality and upbeat. Churches were built that looked like secular auditoriums and not churches. Eliminate the trappings of religious ceremony. Preach messages relevant to the felt needs of people’s lives. Let them leave feeling a little better about themselves.
I don’t think John the Baptist got the memo. He told those coming to hear him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John called them a pile of hissing, evil snakes. It is accepted truth in our culture that new beginnings begin with positive self-esteem. But John has a different understanding. New beginnings start with self-awareness, not self-esteem. Pride is not the doorway to good beginnings… humility is.
John wanted people to see their need for God’s divine grace. There is a word for the type of spiritual turn that he wanted to see in people: Repentance. Some think of this word as a negative, but it is really the most positive concept imaginable. Repentance is a moment of turning away from ourselves and toward God. It is not turning over a new leaf, it is stepping out of the darkness and into God’s light.
The religious teachers of the day taught that being right with God was a process of meticulous law-keeping. You needed to look like them, talk like them, and act like them. This was a performance-based righteousness that left people out. John made repentance immediate and accessible. All we need to do is turn. You can take a million steps away from God, but it is only one step back. Baptism was a tangible sign of this inward turn. It was a “spiritual bath” to set them on a new course. John exemplifies a truth that shines clear throughout Luke’s Gospel: Lost people matter to God.
Personal and Specific
Real repentance is personal and specific. Notice how people sought to relate their repentance to their everyday lives. They asked John what they should do next. His advice was abundantly practical.
I notice our culture of obsessed with billionaires. Around Christmastime, it was announced that Jeff Bezos is the new Santa Claus. As the founder of Amazon and world’s richest man, he has all the toys. With his tracking software, he knows what you want. Because he has every home bugged with an echo device, he knows if you have been naughty or nice. But this month Bezos was dethroned as the world’s richest person. Elon Musk took that seat as the price of Tesla stocks soared. We look at Gates, Buffet, Zuckerberg and the like and we all agree: They should be generous.
But look at John’s advice: Let the one who has two shirts, share with the one who has none. Owning two shirts is an incredibly low standards for generosity. I have never met a homeless person that did not own more than one shirt. How many shirts do you own? I counted this week and decided I need to give some away. All you fat cats with more than one shirt need to do the same.
What’s going on here? Generosity is not something attained by the wealthy. It is fingerprint of a gracious God upon a transformed soul. No matter how poor you are, you can be generous. Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will point to a widow giving two tiny coins and declare that she is the most generous person in the room. The amount you give is not relevant, it is your heart desire to give more because God has given so much to you.
Hated tax collectors came asking John what to do. He told them not to take more than required from the people. Soldiers asked what they should do. John told them to be content with their wages and not extort money from people. John gave them practical ways to exhibit generosity, integrity, justice, and contentment. Their repentance should affect how they do business, how they treat their neighbors, and how they sleep at night.
John called this “the fruit of repentance.” Repentance is simply a turning. Fruit is produced as you walk a new path. In Luke 6, Jesus would proclaim that you will know people by the fruit their life produces… just like you know a tree by the kind of fruit is hanging all over it.
It is difficult for us to realize today just how famous John the Baptist was. In many ways, he was more well-known that Jesus. He led something of a national movement back to God. People began to openly ask if he might be the expected Messiah. John told them flat out: I am not the one.
True leaders point away from themselves and toward something greater. John points to Jesus. “One is coming after me who sandals I am unworthy to untie.” John’s calling was not to attract people to himself, but to draw people to Jesus. John told them that the Messiah is ready to step onto the scene. John can baptize with water, but the one coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
The image John chooses for Jesus is an interesting one. He describes him as a “winnower.” A winnower is someone who threshes out the grain. When stalks are brought in from the field, they are taken to a high, flat, level place called a threshing floor. You want to thresh when the wind is blowing. The thresher takes a winnowing fork and throws the stalks into the air. The light chaff and straw are blown to the side for later burning. The heavier grain falls at the feet of the winnower and is gathered into the barn.
As Messiah, Jesus will dance with the Holy Spirit in the same way a winnower dances with the wind. He will sort things out in a conclusive way.
John wanted the people to see this time of spiritual disruption as an opportunity to fall at the feet of Messiah. As we sing in the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgement seat.” And then comes the call: “Oh, be swift, my soul to answer him; be jubilant, my feet. Our God is marching on.”
What an important message for us in our own time to political turmoil. Look to Jesus, not any earthly Savior. Fall at Jesus’ feet. Be self-aware. In humility realize our need for divine grace. Turn to God and show forth the fruit of repentance.
Have you, in humility, turned to God for his grace? Are you baptized? Are you looking radically to Jesus and seeking to be more like him every day? The same turn John preached about is available for each of us in this very moment.