Luke 3:1-20 (click to display NIV text)
December 16, 2012 (Third Sunday in Advent)
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“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.’ “
We have been talking in this season about Holy Light, and fire is a type of light. It is light that refines or purifies. John uses the word “fire” twice in what he says here. He says trees that do not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. And he says that the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
The first mention of fire has to do with the role of John; he is a prophet who came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. He combined preaching with an action. There was a call and then a response. For John, repentance is primarily a matter of making changes in your life. While there is godly sorrow for what one has done or failed to do, the meaning of repentance does not have to do with feelings, it has to do with turning around, with changing behavior in your life. Joel Green says John’s message is “Turn your backs on previous loyalties and align yourself with God’s purposes.” The ritual act of baptism is “a resounding rejection of old ways of living and a ready acceptance of God’s will.”
John speaks into a time that was very corrupt. Luke goes out of his way to name a number of the rulers of the day who were known for being greedy and violent. He mentions Tiberius Caesar, the emperor who deported all the Jews from Rome. The reign of Tiberius was characterized as “a period of pure terror.” Pilate, the governor of Judea, was known mostly for “his briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injuries, frequent executions without trial and endless savage ferocity.” The others he mentions were no better. Those behaviors came to be more common in the society. The children of Abraham began to act like children of poisonous snakes. There was a general need for repentance, for a change of behavior.
When behaviors are changed, the purposes of God are embraced. Joel Green writes, “John’s primary interest is in calling people out of normal social existence in order to align themselves fundamentally with God’s redemptive purpose.” When people experience forgiveness of sin, the whole community is restored.
John speaks specifically to three groups of people. He tells the crowd as a whole to share their resources with the poor. He tells tax collectors to stop cheating people. He tells soldiers to be content with their wages and not to take from people. These are changes of behavior that define repentance.
The crowd that came to listen to John must have largely been made up of people who had some financial resources. He calls them to share what they have with the poor, and to do that in significant ways. Giving becomes personal and relational; it draws us into awareness and also leads us into ministry.
Giving to those in need helps you to see God and to agree with God. Giving is an obligation in the Christian life. If we do not share with the poor or show mercy to those in need, then God becomes hidden, and our understanding of God becomes distorted. We are responsible to give, and to be intentional and discerning about our giving. This opens our hearts to God and prepares us to receive his mercy and grace.
Tax collectors in John’s day would bid on particular tolls or duties to be responsible for, and then pay the government a certain amount, keeping whatever else they could collect for themselves. The system was vulnerable to corruption. Imagine driving on the tollway to Chicago and having to stop and negotiate a fee with each attendant along the way. There was a temptation of the toll collectors to make life work in their favor. John tells them to charge what is fair and no more.
In our consumer society we are tempted and pressured to love goods more than we love God. We are tempted by what the world offers to try to make life work in our favor. When we live for goods, the purposes of God can seem foolish. The will of God can easily get squeezed into the margins. We rob God to pay for our desires.
The last group John speaks to were the soldiers. Probably these were soldiers in the service of Herod. In that time, and in many places in the world today, soldiers are tempted to take what they want from a local population. John says to them, “Be content with your wages.” They are to protect the people and not plunder them.
Any time you are given power or authority, there is a temptation to take what you want from others. This can happen in many ways, and always has its roots in feeling discontent with life. If you don’t feel properly rewarded or recognized you can feel justified in taking a little extra for yourself.
John calls all these groups of people to baptism. He calls them to change their behavior so that they could see God’s salvation and be prepared to receive it. John is not the Savior. He is the voice calling people to repent and get ready to receive the Savior.
Was John successful in his ministry? Did people who were baptized actually change their behavior? Did hearts become open to God’s will and purpose? Were they ready to receive the Messiah? In reading Luke, I find a number of people who exhibited changed lives, and people who readily accepted Jesus. I wonder if they had been influenced by John. I wonder if some of them might have been baptized by him. There were fishermen in Galilee who quickly left their nets when Jesus called them to follow him. How could they make such a big decision so suddenly? Luke tells of tax collectors, people looked down upon by society, who joyfully receive Jesus and are quick to introduce him to their friends. We think of Levi who becomes a disciple and Zacchaeus who throws a party over his repentance. There is Simon the Zealot, not a soldier, but one presumably with a weapon and with some power. He becomes a disciple. There is the faith of the Centurion, a Gentile soldier who trusts Jesus completely. And Luke tells the story of the Good Samaritan, one who truly understood how to give to one in need, and to give significantly. Maybe John had influence on them. They seem able to embrace the purposes of God. They are models of repentance, of new behavior in the light of God.
Jesus the Messiah brought a new type of baptism, one with the Holy Spirit and fire. This was seen at Pentecost when the Spirit came on the believers and tongues of fire rested on their heads. This is the holy light of fire, not a fire of judgment, but a light for illumination. Those believers received from Jesus grace for their journey. He is the Messiah, the Savior, and his Spirit is the comforter. Those who are baptized into Christ, who believe and receive him, move from death to life, move from worldly lords to serving Christ the Lord. They receive the Christ light.
This is a time of repentance, of preparing our lives, of receiving the grace of Christ, of believing in the Son of God by faith, that we might know the forgiveness of sin and live in newness of life.