January 6, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for January 8, 2017.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d rather listen.
John (and Jesus) go to work
At the end of our lesson last week, Jesus was an infant. Cradled in the arms of an old man named Simeon, who was singing his praises. And heralded by the widow prophet Anna.
Our story today takes place, according to Luke 3.23, when Jesus was about 30 years old. In the meantime, Luke has only told one other story about Jesus. How twelve-year-old Jesus snuck off from his parents for several days to talk shop with the theologians in the temple. We have no record of Jesus’ awkward adolescent phase. And I’m sure they were awkward for Jesus just like everyone else. After all, Heb. 2.17 says he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, and that includes the hormonal haywire that afflicts us all in our teenage years.
But Jesus doesn’t really come into our story today until it’s nearly over. First, Luke has to tell us about another guy. The last time Luke mentioned him, he was also an infant with an old man singing his praises. Now he is grown up, and Luke wants us to know what has become of John. The child God gave to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah in their old age.
Zechariah had been left speechless after the angel Gabriel told him his barren wife would conceive a child, right about the time they’d be creeping into their dotage. But when John was born and named, old Zechariah found his voice again, and burst into song. You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, he sang:
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
You will tell his people how to be saved
through the forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1.76-77)
And now Luke shows us that things are headed in the direction Zechariah’s song predicted. John was out on the banks of the Jordan River, going before the Lord to prepare his way and telling people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins.
And Luke wants us to know it wasn’t just Zechariah’s song John fulfilled. It was also ancient prophecy. Luke wants to be sure we know it was John Isaiah was talking about when he wrote: A voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord”; so that “all humanity will see God’s salvation.”
A new Exodus
Luke says John proclaimed good news to the people. That might seem strange to us, because much of John’s preaching probably sounds more like threats and insults. He threatened that a fiery baptism was on its way. The ax is already at the root of the trees, he said. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. He even called the people, You children of snakes! But they just ate it up, and kept on coming. So obviously, they must have heard something we might miss.
Like when John called them children of snakes! The next thing he said was: Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? When young snakes first hatch, they huddle together somewhere safe until they mature. But if danger threatens, they scatter. That’s what John saw when all those people came to him to be baptized. They were like baby snakes who sensed danger and scattered into the wilderness, looking for some kind of refuge. Notice, too, that John asked them who warned them to escape. Not what, but who. The implication is that God has somehow alerted them that they need to leave “the comfort and security of their daily lives”  and heed this voice crying in the wilderness.
So when John tells them, The ax is already at the root of the trees, he’s only telling them what they already know, deep down. These are people with a strong sense that things have gone deeply and tragically wrong in their lives, in their land, and in the world itself. The crowds who flocked to John must have felt the same way we do when we sing that old gospel song: I can’t feel at home in this world anymore. They knew the tree was rotten, and they were ready for it to be chopped down. When John appeared in the wilderness, it really was good news they heard. Because John was telling them that God saw the same things they saw, and was doing something about it. It was good news to them, because John let them know that when those rotten trees were hacked at the root, they didn’t have to go down with them.
Because the good news that John proclaimed to the crowds was nothing less than a new Exodus. Luke wants us to know that John fulfilled the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a voice crying out in the wilderness. When God had rescued Israel from slavery and despair and death in Egypt, he’d led them home through the wilderness. What’s more, Isaiah first spoke those words to the remnant of Israel when it was time for them to leave their exile in Babylon. When Isaiah prophesied that the valleys would be filled; the mountains would be leveled; and every crooked way made straight; he meant that God was making a way for his people to come home. Isaiah proclaimed a new Exodus.
And now John proclaims a new Exodus. The good news that God is on the move again to save the people. Just as God had rescued them from Egypt and Babylon in times past. Now God is rescuing people from sin and guilt and shame and despair and fear. Enemies as dangerous and destructive to human life as Egypt or Babylon. Baptism was their Red Sea crossing. Into a new life of freedom. Where God’s people can serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, as Zechariah had sung. God chose John to guide those who were in the shadow of death onto the path of peace (Luke 1.75-79).
Abraham’s new children
Luke says John called for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Now, baptism was a relatively new innovation among the remnant of Israel. You can search through the Torah and the prophets, and you’ll find some instructions for ritual cleansing. But you won’t find any command to be baptized—fully immersed as an act of repentance.
In those days, typically it was Gentile converts to Judaism who were baptized. It was part of their integration into the people of God. Cleansing them from their pagan uncleanness so they could live freely in God’s household. It was part of how you became a child of Abraham. So it’s fascinating that John was telling Jewish folks they, too, needed to be baptized. Because that implies that they’re no better off than Gentile sinners. That could easily be taken as an insult, and I’m sure some did.
But many who heard John’s voice crying out in the wilderness heard his call for repentance and baptism as good news. Because the crowds who came to John were full of people who were hated and shunned by their neighbors. They didn’t hear John saying they were cut off from God. That’s what all the popular preachers told them. They heard good news that there was a way back to God. So when John said, God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones, what they heard is, God is doing something new. God’s not living in the past—God is looking toward a future where your ethnic pedigree and who your daddy was has nothing to do with your standing in God’s household. Now being a child of Abraham depends on the content of your character, not your ethnic or religious pedigree.
John was saying: You have been children of snakes. But you can be children of Abraham: Faithful. Loyal. Righteous. And just. All of you. Even the tax collectors.
John led them through the Red Sea crossing of baptism, and on the other side, he taught them how the new, true children of Abraham were called to live. He told the crowds: Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same. In God’s household, Abraham’s children share. No one has too much while someone else goes without. Everyone has enough. Did John’s good news require some sacrifice? It sure did. But the world is full of people going hungry while other people get fat. It will be different in God’s family, among Abraham’s children.
Even the tax collectors came. They’d been selling out their own people to the Romans. John told them: Collect no more than you are authorized to collect. But that’s how tax collectors made their living! If they stopped collecting more than what they’d pledged to the government, they’d be poor! Yes, but they’d also be part of God’s family, where everyone shared. They’d be among Abraham’s children, in a household where everyone has enough.
Luke says soldiers came, too. Were they Herod’s police force—Jewish soldiers? Or were they Roman imperial soldiers—Gentiles? Luke doesn’t say. But to John it was all the same, remember? Jews were no better off than Gentiles unless they started acting like children of Abraham. And when they came to be baptized, John told them: Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay. Stop shaking people down. Stop harassing the poor communities. Stop extorting people and taking bribes. But won’t we look weak then?, they might ask. No, John would say. Then you’ll be true children of Abraham, and God will be on your side.
I don’t think we give John enough credit. Seems like his baptism of repentance paved the way for many to become children of Abraham. John cleared a path for anyone to be baptized into Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female (Gal. 3.28). John’s baptism was already extending God’s welcome to those who felt unwelcome.
Baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire
John preached the Good News of God’s salvation, but he wanted the people to know that he was not that salvation. He’d only come to prepare the way. I baptize you with water, he told them. But the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
The Holy Spirit is mentioned very early on in the scriptures. Gen. 1.2 says while the earth was still without shape or form; and it was still dark over the deep sea; that God’s wind—or Spirit—swept over the waters. Likewise, after the great flood, when God remembered Noah, all those alive, and all the animals with him in the ark; God sent a wind—or Spirit—over the earth so that the waters receded (Gen. 8.1). In the biblical languages, the same words mean both wind and spirit. So we see that God’s Spirit plays an active role in creation and renewal. The Spirit gives life and sustains life. The Spirit empowers, and the Spirit renews.
Fire is often a means of God’s judgment in scripture. Think Sodom and Gomorrah. But fire also purifies and refines. Sometimes in the scriptures, fire both judges and purifies. For instance, 2 Pet. 3.10-13 warns of a day when the heavens will pass away with a dreadful noise, the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth and all the works done on it will be exposed. But the point of that fire isn’t just to destroy. This fiery judgment also burns a path for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
It seems that John was thinking along similar lines. He promised that the one who came after him would clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out. The husks are destroyed by fiery judgment. Those represent sin and shame and disease and oppression and violence and greed and fear and despair and death. They will not endure God’s holy fire. They will have no place in the world to come—the new heaven and new earth. But the wheat is mercy and and kindness and creativity and generosity and love and life. And those will endure and thrive in the new heaven and earth, where righteousness is at home.
In our readings today, we heard David’s cry of repentance: Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me! This is also what those who came to John to be baptized were asking for. And this prayer was answered by God’s promise through Ezekiel: I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you (Ezek. 36.26). The one John prepared the way for baptizes us in the Holy Spirit and fire to refine and renew us. To give us a new heart and a new spirit. That’s the Good News of God’s salvation. And John wants the people who hear him to embrace God’s salvation now in repentance.
Purifying the waters
John has promised the crowds he’s only preparing the way for God’s salvation. One more powerful is coming to baptize them, not only in water, but in the Holy Spirit and fire. And as if on cue, that one emerges from the crowd. When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized, Luke says.
The way John was talking him up, you might think Jesus would appear and immediately start calling down fire. But no. Jesus comes to be baptized along with everyone else.
For a long time, the idea of Jesus being baptized was sort of a head-scratcher for me. After all, John called for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. But Paul called Jesus the one who didn’t know sin (2 Cor. 5.21). And Hebrews insists that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin (Heb. 4.15). If baptism is connected with repentance and forgiveness of sin, why would Jesus—who didn’t sin—need to be baptized?
Some early Christian teachers insisted that Jesus was baptized to purify the waters. “The reason why he was born and baptized, was that he would purify the water by means of his passion,” one of them said.  That may sound like a strange reason for Jesus to be baptized. Until you consider that they’re probably speaking metaphorically. They didn’t mean that when Jesus was baptized, he literally cleaned up all the pollution in the Jordan River. They were thinking of the stream of human history, polluted by sin and sorrow and death. Jesus’ baptism was simply part of him being immersed into that stream. Being fully human, being made like his brothers and sisters in every way, as we heard earlier. When Jesus is plunged into the stream of humanity, the sin and uncleanness in it don’t pollute him. Instead, he purifies the stream. He purifies us. He takes our sin and sorrow and death to the cross, and it goes down in the grave with him. And when God raises him from the dead, sin and sorrow and death stay in the grave. That’s the Good News of God’s salvation.
So Jesus’ baptism makes our baptism possible. Because in his baptism, he joins us in our humanity. Just as he did by his birth and his death. And now we are baptized into Christ, joining him in his birth, baptism, death, and resurrection. And so we can share with him in God’s victory over sin, sorrow, and death. The victory of forgiveness over sin. The triumph of mercy over judgment. The defeat of death by life. That’s the Good News of God’s salvation.
After John baptized him, Luke says Jesus was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” Next Sunday, we’ll find Jesus in the synagogue, reading from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor … (Luke 4.18). Which further confirms what Luke has been trying to tell us all along. The Good News of God’s salvation moves from the bottom up, not the top down. But that’s next week’s lesson. Point is, Luke has recorded for us the precise moment when Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit to preach good news to the poor.
It was right after he was plunged into the same waters as the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and those who cried out for God’s favor. In other words, people just like you and me.
He didn’t save us from on high.
He got right down in that dirty, muddy water with us.
 Justo L. Gonzalez, Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 49.
 Ibid., 53.