Gospel: Luke 3:7-18
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
There is no “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” in the story of John. He was a firebrand. But there is nothing there that is not present in what Jesus says later in the gospel! The basic, down to earth ethic of Jesus is there. We might note that Jesus is not meek and mild either, in any current understanding of those words. In fact, as Loader comments, Luke draws explicit parallels between the two men.
Luke has described the birth and infancy of John and Jesus in matching parallels in Luke 1-2, from annunciation to circumcision and growing up. There is no mistaking that Jesus is the greater, but the parallel structure gives the clear message that the two belong together and that what John says is to be taken seriously. (http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkAdvent3.htm)
After the to Luke, which places Jesus firmly within a political context, in time, space, and history, that point is being reinforced through the one who heralds him: Bear fruits worthy of repentance. The gospel is not, to use a phrase from our time, a head trip. It is about living the life just as much as understanding and subscribing to an idea.
Repentance is not about changed emotions, but about changed ways of living. John Petty
There is a clear precursor of Jesus’ inclusiveness in this story. John not only tells people their relationship to Abraham will not save them. He shows that even the people we love to hate, are included in God’s plan. Tax collectors and soldiers were among those who came not only for baptism, but lived it out with repentance. John Petty expresses the conditional nature of this nicely (my italics)
[I]t is possible for even tax collectors and soldiers to change their ways and "bear fruits".
John provides some historical data that illustrates the radical nature of the gospel.
Then, Luke says that "even tax collectors" had come to be baptized, a surprising twist. Tax collectors were chosen by bid. The job would usually go to the highest bidder, who would pay for the privilege up front. In turn, they would pass on the cost of their bid to those from whom they collected various taxes. Abuse was rampant. Yet, "even tax collectors" are struck by John's message. They even call John "teacher"! They, too, wonder, "What might we do?"
John replies, "Do not exact more of what is appointed to you."
To repent as a tax collector would mean a fundamental change in attitudes and actions. This is no easy, or surface, repentance. Luke is not only giving us a lesson about how God’s grace is accessible even to “out groups” who we don’t like. He is also telling us that even the people most unlikely to repent, from a practical view point, can repent. When I read the story, the implicit challenge, then, is “How real is your repentance, Andrew, compared to the tax collector?”
I remember a college lecturer saying that the stories of John are an apologetic against groups like the Mandaens, who revered John the Baptist. These stories make it clear, with words placed in John’s mouth, that he is not the One. He is not the Messiah. However, there is more to John’s role in the drama than this. John shows us Christianity is not only repentance (changing direction towards God’s intended direction for us as humans) and living appropriately. Otherwise John would be Messiah. There is something more to hear from Jesus.
I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Fire is something we are not comfortable with. Fiery judgment is too much associated with extremist and un-compassionate (un-merciful) religion. But fire is also, in Luke, a sign of holy spirit. It is a blessing. Fire purifies and removes the impurities, or dross, of life.
This is one of those places where the art of religion is paramount. Too far one way, we descend into tribalism. We construct a vengeful God not worthy of worship, who is simply a projection of our own hatreds and fears. Too far the other way, and we become indiscriminate. I use that word very deliberately. It is fashionable to say we are “wishy washy and stand for nothing,” which almost implies something needs our support. It also implies a certain combativeness. What I mean is that we need the ability, and the practice, of discriminating what is good and appropriate.
In John’s words, indiscriminate means we won’t know whether we are bearing fruit worthy of repentance, or not! Under John’s baptism, when is enough enough? When do we become extremist? How do we discriminate? When are we avoiding the challenge of John?
The Greek text does not say “the Holy Spirit and fire,” just “holy spirit and fire.” In the Greek there are no capitals. See John Petty for a brief discussion. We come from a heritage which strongly and popularly imagines “God” as a person; that is, too often (perhaps secretly or unconsciously) as a sort of disembodied figure in the sky. How much does that blind us to imagining of holy spirit in other ways that may be appropriate?
In Hebrew, holy has the sense of being separate and set apart. (eg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred)
In Greek, hagios comes from “hagos (an awful thing); sacred (physically, pure, morally blameless or religious, ceremonially, consecrated)” (http://wesley.nnu.edu/gnt/ use the lexicon for Luke 3:16)
Our English origins of the word holy, have connotations of "free from injury, whole" and hale (as in hearty) from the Old English halig. ()http://www.takeourword.com/Issue082.html
There is something more to hear from Jesus. He will baptize us with holy spirit and fire. Is this awful thing, this set apart, hale-whole breath of God a different spirit? A different consciousness which begins in that difficult repentance of John (and Jesus,) but transcends and cuts through the dross of the everyday to something more.
Finally, there are two verses, left out of the lectionary, which are connected with the story of John, and end it for the moment.
19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Herod, the symbol of the power that Jesus confronts, reacts in the only way that Power knows. We know how the story ends for John, and for Jesus. The only question remaining is which spirit we will follow.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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