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As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:15-22 ESV)
As in any crowd situation, it is the loud that gets our attention. We start from there unless otherwise directed. So it is interesting that in this Epiphany ‘time’ which means manifestation or appearance, our Gospel from Luke’s account gets us listening to John the Baptist. He’s the quintessential ‘tough guy’ – calls things has he sees them. His role was to declare God’s Word into situations – to prepare the way for the Lord – and he took the consequences that came. That’s our first point to note that God’s Word produces consequences in this world.
He declared the Messiah in terms of Malachi – the last book of the Old Testament – the Lord will suddenly be in his temple (Mal 3:1) and he is in the cleaning out business – a deep clean – refiner’s fire, fuller’s soap – caustic almost, thorough, stinging clean, purified and the target interestingly for Malachi were the priests and levites. Malachi continues (4:1) that all the arrogant and evil doers will be like chaff and they will be set ablaze. John the Baptist is quite clear that the Messiah is associated with the rescue of the faithful but there will also be a great and terrible judgement on the wicked (Mal 4:5).
And thus the key issue of life, living, and eternity is revealed.
Who is righteous?
Who is wicked?
Who says so?
To our ears, I suspect that John’s appeal to people sounds harsh – winnowing fork and unquenchable fire sort of stuff – but Luke mentions that through this and ‘many other exhortations’ John preached ‘good news’! The Messiah is coming and God will deliver his people. The good news doesn’t leave us unchanged – it affects us now. If it is good for us, it changes us. Herod and Herodias are mentioned, I think, to remind readers – Luke wrote this long after John the Baptist was executed – that they were the type of people used to getting their own way – telling people what to do and not being told what to do – and so they wouldn’t change their situation or behaviour. Consequently what is good news from God is heard only as bad news and they respond – fittingly according to Luke as per their character and usual behaviour or true-to-type – by imprisoning John. This is not an insignificant act because they are imprisoning God’s messenger and while Herod we know from other sources sought to keep John alive, when push comes to shove, God and his Word and his prophet don’t mean much to the pair of them. So here is another point worth noting that God’s Word can be dangerous for the speaker and the hearer!
So back to the situation at hand John the Baptist and Jesus. Based on what John is saying what do you expect the Messiah to be like? Big? Tough? Powerful? I think that’s the build up from John’s words.
What do we get? Well, Luke records Jesus’ baptism with little detail except the following:
(a) Jesus is in a group being baptised – there doesn’t seem to be a special spotlight;
(b) Jesus was praying when heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended;
(c) And the voice from heaven speaks to Jesus (“You are my beloved Son”) and it is simply guesswork whether anyone else noticed!
So we’ve got a wet dripping man coming out of the Jordan River. The stage is set, “Look out world!”. And if you keep reading, Luke then gives us a genealogy – a family tree. Ok, not quite what we were expecting … until you notice how far back it goes … to Adam, described as the Son of God! Luke is making it clear to Theophilus and all who read his letter that Jesus is to be understood as a second Adam. Then this Messiah wrestles the devil in the wilderness, goes back home to Nazareth where he is rejected and almost lynched! Later, John, in prison will ask, “Are you the one?”.
That question is still being asked.
Which God do I follow?
Whom do I trust?
We tend towards the charismatics, the powerful, the successful, the tough. Such characteristics imply security and give us evidence for our choices about whom to believe in, whom to trust. And in all these discussions about God and religion and what works, Jesus very often ‘slips by’, almost unnoticed. Invariably he has to be pointed out! I say it each First Sunday after The Epiphany – what does Jesus look like today? (‘Wet’ is not an answer!) Jesus is baptised by John therefore he is stating that he is a … sinner. That’s what John’s baptism was all about – repentance.
Only here is the mystery … we will later discover that Jesus wasn’t a sinner! What is happening now is part of God’s plan to rescue us and deal with the issues mentioned earlier. Who is righteous? Who is wicked? Who says so?
God in Christ has come into the world to save … sinners. Nice sinners. Law abiding sinners. Faithful in marriage sinners. Adulterous sinners. Secret sinners. Obvious sinners. Bold sinners. Cruel sinners. Young sinners. Old sinners. Moral sinners. Immoral sinners. Sweet sinners, Nasty sinners. Drunk sinners. Sober sinners. Bad sinners. Good sinners. We’re talking about people in rebellion against God. People who don’t trust him – or him fully – who keep him at a distance (often not explaining why and hiding behind ‘being good’ which invariably they are!). God is talking about people who miss the mark, the standard, who do wrong and don’t do right and ultimately it comes down to this – people who will die because death, according to God, comes only to sinners.
The world is changing quickly in terms of morality. The law of the land is trying to catch up and many people are saying ‘so should the Church’. The Church is starting to realise in the West that it is living increasingly in a foreign land and while it wants to live peacefully, she does live according to a different voice – follows a different ultimate authority and trusts someone specific, named, personal – Jesus, rather than John the Baptist.
What Christians have discovered – bad news and good news – that whether we are law abiding or just haven’t been caught, no matter whether the world says we’re good or bad, what defines us is the diagnosis and verdict that we are sinners because God says so. Now comes the mystery – possibly the greatest mystery of all – Christ only dwells with sinners! So at the font and the altar – just as we look at the cross – and as we hear God’s Word we hear two messages – about our sin and about God’s grace in Jesus. After a time we only want to hear about God’s grace because that lets us live more and more unchallenged or unchanged. But we need to hear two messages – law and gospel – we need to be aware of two dimensions that Jesus the Son of God became sin for us so that we sinners could become sons and daughters of God.
This declaration is not just a nice thought or sentiment but is our understanding of reality, of relationships, of behaviour (our behaviour – it is so easy to criticise everyone else’s!) and it is to shape each day. We are not alone – to face the days by ourselves or whomever we can get around us for a while – but in Jesus we meet God who knows us better than we do ourselves, who doesn’t play to our idea of things – after all, he uses words, water, bread and wine to come to us – but whose words in the Bible – no matter what we read take hold of us and can change us as we hear the two messages – yes, we are sinners so fight your selfishness and fears; but even more yes, Jesus has forgiven us, so follow him each day; trust him.
One day the world will see Jesus being loud and spectacular but for now he still can be easy to miss, he almost ‘slips by’ – almost hidden – but still present in words, water, bread and wine with us – the real us – not the public face us – the real you just where you are today; who you really are – and nothing can make him leave sinners or reject them. His love and forgiveness can lead us for another day; each day. And that’s a consequence of the Word of God worth pursuing.
- Luke 3:15 - 22