Getting the message right – Getting the message out
When writing to Theophilus, Luke did his preparations and research into the life of Jesus and anchors it in time and place. We meet Zechariah the priest during the reign of Herod, king of Judea. 6 months into Zechariah’s wife’s pregnancy the angel Gabriel goes to a young woman named Mary. When Quirinius was governor of Syria, Joseph and Mary go to the city of David, the ancestral town of Bethlehem. And now in 15th year of Tiberias Caesar, when Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea, and others are mentioned, Luke continues to set the stage before the man Jesus walks onto it and he now presents us with the person of John the Baptist. With Luke we have no additional commentary on John’s sartorial elegance or dietary preferences – instead the Word of the Lord comes into the desert and we are given his message – in fact the quote from Isaiah would describe John simply as “a voice” – ‘prepare the way of the Lord’.
The Old Testament people were not deaf to such messages. After all, they knew themselves to be God’s chosen people – certainly more important than the other nations – all those Gentiles – the goyim (which even sounds discriminatory). However their problem was their familiarity with such messages – which were part of their history as prophets had come and gone – and so the subconscious might say: Oh, here we go, God’s sending another prophet, what do we do now? What hoop do we have to jump through this time? The problem with familiarity is that it can become easy to go through the motions, be outwardly compliant but inwardly asleep or worse, rebellious. Just look at the Old Testament and you will find examples – as well as looking around you.
John’s message of repentance wasn’t new but his action of baptism would have been confronting. The Jews did baptise – they performed proselyte baptisms to cleanse the Gentiles in preparation for circumcision and making them Jews – and John was calling for the children of Abraham to be baptised. Ok, so that’s challenging – treating Jews as if they’re Gentiles – but even then it seems that the programmed mindset clicked into place and they were still thinking ‘we’re the favoured ones – after all we’re children of Abraham’, and so John screams – we imagine – at the crowds, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” This voice wants to be heard for what he’s saying. And repentance – real repentance – can’t be done going through the motions.
And you know you’ve been heard or the words have struck something when you get a reaction – maybe a bite, maybe a question, maybe a change in behaviour. “What should we then do?” And John teaches what a repentant lifestyle looks like in different contexts – for those who have extra, for the tax collectors, for the soldier, and even for the ruler, the powerful – in John’s case, Herod, the tetrarch, over his shenanigans with Herodias – because Herod acts as if the rules don’t apply to him.
We presume people heard what John had to say – and those with two tunics shared one, and the tax collectors acted honestly, and the soldiers ethically. What we do know is that Herod heard John – and he wasn’t going to repent – instead he had John locked up in prison – from where (outside of this text) John will die and only be remembered for his message, as a voice.
We, too, live in a certain time and place – during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II in the North / East Anglia / Essex / but it is far too simple to suggest that we are modern John the Baptists. Strictly that would imply that we are still waiting for the Lord to come and we’re still busy preparing the way but for us that is not the case! John clearly told those who heard him that he was just a voice – he wasn’t the Christ who would come and refine and clean – thresh and burn – baptise with the Holy Spirit. When in prison he asked Jesus of Nazareth if he was the one and the reply came back – look at what was happening – the blind could see, the lame could walk, the deaf could hear, and the good news is preached to the poor. The Word of the Lord was still coming into the world – only now it walked and talked on two legs – and John’s summary of Jesus clearly reveals God at work: Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
John was the last of the prophets who waited and we are those people who believe that the Word made flesh comes to people – a baby in Bethlehem, the Son of God rising out of the Jordan river, the King of glory entering his capital and being lifted up, sitting on a throne, crowned as King of kings rescuing and saving all people – seen through faith. Jesus came into our world to battle the power of sin that ensnares and poisons us, the demonic that pollutes and deceives us, the pandemic, sickness and death that terrorises us, and our own sinful flesh that betrays us and he broke their holds over us. His blood and his word of forgiveness prepare us to receive him and he washes us clean for life with him as he recreates us, gives us new life, and then walks with us as we live it.
The Christian lifestyle in this world remains one of repentance – a daily returning to the cross, to the voice that speaks his Word, to visible words of water, bread and wine – as Jesus continually works on our lives and helps us live life to the full, to the glory of God the Father. “What then should we do?” Resist and struggle with sins, pummel our body with his Word, seek reconciliation when evil is done to us, act justly and do not presume that because we are Lutheran and know good theology that we can then live as your own boss, ready to trot out the formula answers if required but not letting that love and grace of God have a say in “the real world”. Live watching for Jesus reappearance – on the clouds in glory – not fearful – but expectant, trusting his message of love and salvation which strengthens us for discipleship. And live ready to be a voice for someone who hasn’t heard Jesus – not really – whose ears are full of preconceived notions or fears or whose minds are cluttered with general assumptions and who truly needs someone to speak to them personally about sin and grace, about a cross and the man who died on it, about his first words to humanity – to each person (“I love you!”) and about an empty tomb and his return in glory so that that person – that individual – might ask “What then should I do?”.
The followers of Jesus live out repentance – the only revival that truly grows the Church – personally, in the congregation, and in the world – which might result in others meeting Jesus or us in the doghouse or prison or sometimes both. Each generation of the followers of Jesus are not the world’s moral police but rather they call to their generation to live with God’s anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus – the one who prepares us for life with him. And when the truth of the cross hits home and we hear ‘then what shall we do?’ we will listen and advise cautiously while at the same time encouraging them to worship and regular reading of Scripture because the Holy Spirit, given in Baptism, will be their deepest guide. And the Holy Spirit will always take us to the cross as our starting point and daily repentance marks each day.
- Luke 3:1 - 20