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This is not quite “the journey is the destination.” It is more like “Getting there is half the fun.” Perhaps it would be better to say something like, “It is important how we get there.” It is important how we prepare or how we anticipate. There are two occasions in the Christian year in which we take time to get there. The first is Advent/Christmas. The second is Lent/Easter. I learned recently of a family for whom it is a practice never to throw celebratory surprises (like a surprise party or a surprise trip). People, of course. Come down on different sides of the surprise party question (ie. “Do you like them or not?”) For this particular family, they make plans and let everyone know about the plans in order that everyone might enjoy the anticipation. So let us anticipate these weeks before Easter. Let this be a time of preparation for us – for our hearts (and I mean not simply in the emotive sense but in the Jewish sense of the heart as the centre of our being). How many times have we come back to the story of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? The Gospel writers. The Good News writers. For some of us it’s many many times. For some it may be our first time. No matter what our own experience with and knowledge of the good news of Jesus, may these next few weeks be a time of renewal and rebirth.
May we never get used to the good news of Christ or take it for granted or skate past it. Dorothy Sayers was an English crime writer/poet/playwright. She wrote this: “To make of his story something that could neither startles, nor shock, nor terrify, nor excite, nor inspire a living soul is to crucify the Son of God afresh.” This is serious stuff, and we want to be people who take the good news of Jesus seriously, no? Lent means “springtime” literally. Renewal. New life. Rebirth. I want that. Do you want that? We often think of Lent as a time of giving things up or as a time of penitence or repentance. As someone has said, “Lent is an opportunity, not a requirement. After all, it is meant to be the church’s springtime, a time when , out of the darkness of sin’s winter, a repentant, empowered people emerges. No wonder one liturgy refers to it as ‘this joyful season.’” There are two things going on during these weeks, and really, may they go on every week for us. The first is an inward look – asking God to enter into those rooms of our hearts that need restoration (very much like spring cleaning – and may we think of this as we do our spring cleaning). The second is a recognition of those events which we will mark from Good Friday to Easter Sunday – that in his death on the cross and rising on the third day, sin has been overcome (our going-wrong has been overcome). Forgiveness is at hand.
We will be journeying through the Gospel According to Luke. We will be asking questions like what is the relationship of Jesus to the church? What is the relationship of the church to the larger world? What is the definition of the gospel, the good news of Christ? What are the economic and social implications of this good news? What is Jesus all about, and what does it mean to follow him?
Let us be blessed by the anticipation as we make our way with Jesus through the Gospel According to Luke. Of the three Synoptic Gospels writers, Luke is the one who most takes his time as he begins. Reading Mark has been compared to jumping into a pool off a diving board – Mark gets right to the action. Matthew draws things out somewhat – he takes 48 verses to get to get to the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry/career. Luke leads us into the story as if we were wading into the ocean through shallows. It is fitting, then, that we look at a story of John the Baptist this morning as we begin. John’s purpose was one of preparation. John’s father Zechariah said this about him just after little John was born – “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways…” (1:76) May this story of John prepare us this morning, let’s ask God for help as we look at it.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysianias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wildnerness.” (1-2) Right from the get go, there are two things in opposition here. One is the powers that be. Political power brokers like the Emperor and his regional representative Pontius Pilate (who we will meet again). Local puppet governors like Herod and his brother Philip – sons of Herod the Great who we remember from the Christmas story. Religious rulers like Annas and Caiaphas in Jerusalem, who we will meet again. All of them characterized by traits like cruelty, incompetence, self-interest (imagine!), manipulation, collusion, backroom deals, symbiotic relationships among leaders for mutual-benefit.
The powers that be. The power brokers. The power brokers were broken.
In the middle of this is a people crying out for help. A people crying out for deliverance. In whom do we put our trust? In whom do we hope? Not John, but the word of God came to John. The word of God has the power to call things into being. The Word of God has the power to reverse things – to turn things upside down. The Word of God has the power to fill valleys, to make mountains and hills low, to make the crooked straight and rough ways smooth. Mary believed in the great reversal brought about by the one she was to bear that she sang about it as if it had already happened. Listen to her song – “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” (1:51-52).
What does is mean to be powerful? Where does true power lie? John told the truth. John didn’t lie. May God grant leaders who tell the truth, especially in the church. May God help me to tell the truth. John told the truth. He wasn’t looking for popularity or notoriety. He had been given a word, and he spoke it. It seems counterintuitive in terms of typical church growth strategies. Don’t go to where people are; make them come to you. If they come, don’t provide a building or even seating. Don’t worry about how you’re dressed, camel hair will be fine. Call people things like “children of snakes” and warm them that judgement will come. Speak out against high-ranking officials and expose their double standards. Encourage those you lead to follow someone else. Admit, in fact, that you are entirely unworthy by comparison and that you must in fact, decrease so that they might increase. John told the truth. May we be emboldened to tell and live the same truth. John made the invitation. A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Baptism. John’s baptism symbolic of cleansing, plunging, being immersed fully in this leader for whom John was preparing the way. An outward mark of an inward reality – repentance. A changing of one’s mind. A changing of the way one understands. “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” as Dylan put it, “Make myself a new set of rules/Stop being influenced by fools.” Repentance or turning is something that we are called to daily, and it is more than a feeling. Someone has put it like this, ”Repentance is the fruit of a heart yielded to God. Not just regret because of sin’s consequences. Not merely remorse, the emotional sorrow of getting caught in sin. Repentance is an ongoing, conscious decision to turn away from sin and to pursue God’s plans. Therefore, repentance, like fruit, can be seen. The presence of fruit tells us the tree is alive, healthy, and fulfilling its purpose.”
“Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand” is how Jesus put it. Forgiveness is at hand. Wholeness is at hand. Renewal is at hand. Restoration is at hand. Deliverance is at hand. Turn. Every day. This turning should result in fruit. Following Christ is not about outward shows of piety or your religious pedigree. John warns those who are coming simply to cover their religious bases, to tick off their religious boxes, as it were. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (7-8a) Then “Even now the ax 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.” (9) John is not saying here that we are delivered/saved/forgiven by what we do. We’re saved by faith and the trust in the one who lived, died, rose again, ascended, and will come again. Repent and bear fruits worthy of repentance. Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the trees. John is not judging here. The ax is not chopping. The ax is just lying there. We’re living in the age of grace, the year of the Lord’s favour, as we’ll hear next week. John is not laying down any judgement here, but he’s laying down a warning. Bear fruits worthy of repentance because the bearing of such fruit is the other side of the repentance/faith coin. To not bear such fruit is to be as useless as an apple tree in an apple orchard from which no apples come. What would you do with such a tree but chop it down and use it for bbq? 😊
These words are being proclaimed in our hearing, so let us hear them. “What should we do?” ask the crowds, and that’s a really, really good question. Let us continue to ask it. “What then should we do?” The question is put another way in this cartoon from Pontius’ Puddle.
What, then, should we do? Paul keeps it simple. He doesn’t add any caveats or exceptions or “only in the case of” or “only if I remember,” or “only if I stay comfortable,” or ________. Justice is to be done by us in visible tangible ways. All of these ways for the interests of others, not ourselves. The rich were getting richer, and the poor were getting poorer. Something needs to be done. If you have too many clothes, give them away. If you have more food than you need, give it away. May God give us a strong theology of enough and a wisdom about what constitutes enough in our lives. Tax collectors- collect no more than the amount that is prescribed for you. Don’t cheat in order to gain more for yourself. Be a good citizen. Soldiers do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations. Do not use positions of authority to get what you want from people who are under your authority. Do not use positions of power and influence for self-aggrandizement and self-profit.
The people were wondering whether John might be the one to save them (v15), but we’re still in the preparation stage. The curtain is going to go up on the Saviour next week when we look at Luke 4. For now though, listen to John’s introduction (v16). One is coming who will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire. We’re not called to repentance and the fruits of repentance on our own. When Luke describes the coming of the Holy Spirit on the church, he’ll describe it in terms of fire. Fire not as something to be feared but as something that burns away those things that would keep us from God; fire that refines us just as fire refines silver and gold and turns it into something new and precious. May these weeks of Lent be a time of refining, of rebirth, and of renewal. As we’ve heard John’s words, may this be true for us all.