Pastor Chris Tweitmann
During the season of Advent,
in anticipation of the celebration of Christmas
all the way to the conclusion of the festivities
with the observance of the 12th Day of Christmas,
otherwise known as Epiphany, we reflected on
the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke.
That brief journey now becomes extended as we purpose
to remain directed by Luke’s well-researched and detailed account
of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Our plan is to read and absorb every single verse written by Luke.
Because our goal for this sermon series is to be reminded
and perhaps even to rediscover, the most important and influential person in all of human history who also happens to be the Creator
– the Beginning and the End of all life as we know it.
A lot of people these days invoke the name of Jesus,
claiming to speak for Christ.
Millions profess to believe in Jesus and thus,
to be following Christ in how they live their lives and interact with the world.
But the question is, how much of what is being said,
what is being done or not done in the name of Jesus,
actually is faithful to who Christ is, to what Jesus was all about?
And the only way to properly answer that question is
to go back to the source – to encounter Jesus
– not as we’ve remade Him in our own image –
according to our preferences, politics, or values –
but as Jesus revealed Himself – His character, His teaching, His priorities – to us as recorded in the Bible.
Step by step, let us learn from the first-hand experiences
of those who first followed Christ so that we can know Jesus rightly,
know Jesus better – better than we know ourselves.
Because the promise of the Gospel is
the more we know Jesus, the more we know ourselves.
And the more we know ourselves,
the more we will understand why Jesus is the only One
we should be following – to whom we ought to devote our lives.
And the more we are devoted to Christ – following Him,
the more we will not only talk about Jesus, but also act like Jesus.
And the more we look like Christ, the more people we come to know,
to believe, to rely on, and follow Jesus too – with every breath
and with every step they take from here and to life beyond death.
In the end, isn’t that the point of together being the Church
– the Body of Christ?
So we begin today with a person whose vocational goal
was not to advance his own brand
and make a name for himself but was instead to decrease in prominence so that Jesus might increase in visibility and singularity.
A man whose sole aim in life was to get out of the way
in order to prepare the way and point others to Jesus.
Now this special someone had the distinction of
being related to Jesus – of being his cousin.
And yet, John or as he came to be known, John the Baptist,
– living out in the wilderness, dressing in little more than a garment
made of camel hair with a leather belt, and
subsisting on a regular diet of locusts and wild honey,
initially sounds like one of those strange, eccentric family members
from which we tend to distance ourselves.
But Jesus had a different take on his cousin.
By Jesus’ own declaration,
John the Baptist was the greatest man living at that time.
That’s high praise coming from Jesus.
Therefore, we best listen carefully to what John has to say… (TEXT)
We are introduced to John
against the backdrop of the times in which he lived.
Luke, as a good historian, reminds us of the reality of Roman occupation
as he names the seven ruling powers of the day.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…”
The Roman Emperor Tiberius is identified along with many of the figures
who will become the key players in Jesus’ eventual arrest, trial, and execution:
Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea
the three younger sons of Herod who being subordinate to Rome,
rule over the remaining provinces of the splintered, former Jewish nation,
and the chief priests, Annas and Caiaphas, presiders over
the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem.
Following centuries of Israel being divided up and dominated
by the empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and now, Rome,
after many generations have passed in the deafening silence of heaven,
hundreds of years after the final message of God given through the prophet, Malachi
that one day someone would be sent in the spirit and power of Elijah,
Luke asserts this promise
as finally coming true in the arrival of John the Baptist.
“…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah
in the wilderness.” – Luke 3:1
The word of the Lord comes not from the political or religious establishment or as Jesus will much later remark, from someone dressed in fine clothes sitting in an expensive palace.
“Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” – Luke 7:24-26
No, God’s word comes outside the margins of worldly power,
beyond the fringe of civilized society – in a place where it is least expected
and yet, has been found before: “in the wilderness.”
Luke reinforces how the word of the Lord coming to John
out in the wilderness is a fulfillment of a promise formerly given
through the prophet Isaiah.
“As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’” -Luke 3:4-6
In the story of God and God’s people, the wilderness is more than
the designation of a location; it is the place where the Lord resets things,
where the Lord forms and shapes His people.
Hence, John’s message being delivered here in the desert
is to be understood as a call to return to God – to come back to square one – to begin again, anew, afresh in the relationship.
That this call sign is not at all strange but all too familiar is
evidenced by the throngs of people who journey out
to the wilderness to hear John speak.
As both the hopeful and the curious as well as a few critics
come to listen to what he has to say, John’s message isn’t what normally draws a crowd – or at least leads to them sticking around.
Those who yearn for the peace of Jerusalem and the unification of their nation don’t hear a word about making Israel great again – about someone else to blame – the powers that be – for all their problems.
No, those who come all the way out to hear John
end up themselves receiving a harsh rebuke.
“John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him,
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” -Luke 3:7-9
Being addressed by John as a “brood of vipers” and warned of
becoming like trees that are “cut down and thrown into the fire,”
those who gather are told – the problem is not “out there;” it’s “in here.”
All our troubles are not because of “them”
– whoever we define “them” to be;
all our troubles are of our own making
– because of a shortcoming to which we all fall victim.
If we listen carefully to John and read between the lines,
that universal shortcoming is living for ourselves at the expense of others
– of cultivating in defiance of God, a self-serving existence,
that in benefiting no one but ourselves ultimately proves to be fruitless.
John, in preparing the way for Jesus’ arrival, is laying the groundwork
for a similar theme and caution that will be heard in Christ’s teaching.
When Jesus comes to town, all our claims of our individual rights,
of our personal autonomy and freedom will not be affirmed.
They will be challenged. They will be rebuked.
Christ will both teach and Himself show, the measure of a person’s life is in one’s willingness to love and serve others
– even to the point of laying down one’s life for another.
The way Jesus will size things up,
those who are the closest to the Kingdom of God
are not the ones who give from the riches and privileges
they perceive they can spare;
those who are closest to the Kingdom of God are
the ones who are willing to give away
and sell all they have been given for the sake of sparing another’s life.
John, in his desert sermon,
even goes so far as to address the religious objection
– those who claim immunity, those who assert an exception
based on their profession of faith.
“And do not begin to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” – Luke 3:8
He rebukes a commonly held notion of salvation by genetic descent,
those who would presume to fall back on:
“We have Abraham as our father…”
therefore, nothing else matters. We’re all good.
John rejects this argument not just through what he says
but the action he is taking out in the wilderness in the Jordan River.
One of the questions that comes up with John’s appearance
is what he is doing and why he is doing it – in terms of baptizing
those who come out to hear him – the majority of them being Jews.
It’s a head scratcher because while ritual purification through water
had precedent in Judaism, it was done as a regular,
continuous act of cleansing that one performed before an act of worship.
It was not a one-time action.
However, it was a practice within Judaism for non-Jews, Gentiles,
to undergo ritual purification to become part of the faith.
In other words, if what John is doing – his baptism – was connected to
how proselytes, converts became a part of the faith of Abraham,
then John – not just with his words but his actions –
is declaring to his audience of presumed religious insiders
that they are in fact, outsiders – no better than pagans (Gentiles).
He is doubling down on his insistence that religion by birth
– being born into the faith – even professing that faith as one’s own
– isn’t what matters.
According to John, the only evidence of a living faith
is the fruit or lack thereof witnessed through one’s life.
And again, John is just setting the stage here.
For when Jesus comes on the scene,
he will make the exact same rebuke and assertion.
Sadly, John the Baptist has becoming something of a caricature.
His preparatory sermon for the coming of Christ has been reduced to
the cry of a single word, “Repent!” and has been translated by the Christian community into the stereotypical image of a person
holding up a sign or wearing a sandwich board
with this word while standing on a street corner.
It is both an image and a form of witness that does not appropriately represent John or the Gospel – the One to whom John the Baptist points.
For while John’s words are full of the warning and threat of judgment,
he also extends God’s invitation and offer of forgiveness.
“He went into all the country around the Jordan,
preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
– John 3:3
And this is what is sorely lacking in street corner evangelism of our day.
For there is rarely any mention of forgiveness on all our Christian signs and sandwich boards – save for perhaps being buried
in some isolated scripture reference that has to be looked up.
There is rarely if ever any grace present in the countenance and demeanor of those who hold up or wear such signs as they glare and perhaps even shout at those to whom they are speaking.
Instead of extending an invitation and laying the joyous expectation of meeting Jesus, what is being communicated is an indictment of guilt and shame, of judgment and condemnation.
But John’s cries, out in the wilderness, are not a wild rant – some religious guilt trip – seeking to guilt and shame his listeners into obedience.
No, the heart of his call for repentance is an invitation to grace
extended with eye towards the fulfilled promise of forgiveness.
This coming gift of forgiveness to be received through Christ,
must, however, be embraced via repentance.
Repentance, as John outlines it, as being more than
a complete change of mind or the declared intent of
walking in a new direction – towards rather than away from God.
Repentance is an ongoing realignment,
a daily reorientation in being God-centered rather than self-centered
– a regular rootedness that bears visible fruit.
It’s important to notice that individual, spiritual cleansing
– getting right with God- is not the end of John’s message.
For John, while baptism – this baptism of repentance – is the start;
discipleship – following the way of the Lord
– is the next and ongoing step of faith.
That there is a next step to be taken is clear to those gathered
as after being baptized, they each ask John, “What then should we do?”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked…
…Even tax collectors came to be baptized.
“Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
…Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
-Luke 3:10, 12, 14
John’s answer is telling.
Each of his responses is contextualized to the person asking
– specifically, to their role/function in society.
Be they tax collectors or soldiers, John admonishes them to do their job properly – without bending the rules and abusing their authority.
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely
—be content with your pay.” -Luke 3:13 -14 12, 14
And yet, before a society back then, where much like today,
corruption, exploitation, and abuse are normative
– assumed and passively accepted,
the “fruit” to which John points is even more radical than
simply doing one’s job properly.
His general direction to “the crowd” in verse 11,
“John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
about the faithful distribution of possessions
– sharing with those in need
– is not about giving others a hand-out
but lifting everyone to a position of social equality.
And by implication, the rejection of corruption
– manipulating the system for one’s own gain,
and the refusal to abuse one’s power
– not using violence for one’s preservation –
are not only a code of conduct for tax collectors and soldiers.
We are all called out to repent of this kind of living.
Our shared, daily reorientation is to act justly, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly before our God.
For John, systemic change is not a matter of electing the right leaders
or passing the proper laws.
Cultural change, life change, societal change
is fostered by the acts of individuals
being changed by the grace of God
and no longer playing by the rules of a faceless, bureaucratic system
– a “that just the way the world works” mentality.
Cultural change, life change, societal change
is fostered by the acts of individuals,
who being changed by the grace of God, instead witness to
the dawn of in-breaking Kingdom by living the way God is remaking this world to be.
John’s sermon echoes the songs of his youth.
Mary’s Magnificat – to which he leaped for joy in utero.
His father, Zechariah’s Benedictus – sung over him
on the very day he was circumcised and named.
John’s message, as the preamble to the announcement of
the Kingdom’s arrival by Jesus, will stand in continuity
with the living sermon – the good news –
that Christ will preach both through his words and his deeds.
And that good news is we look to
and worship a God of judgment AND forgiveness.
Our tendency is to jump straight to the Lord’s forgiveness.
But we can’t appreciate the gift of that forgiveness – that grace –
as well as the fruit that ought to be borne of it,
if we don’t take to heart the reality of God’s judgment.
We often fear God’s judgment, but God’s judgment is a good thing
because it means God cares, God intends, God is committed to
righting the wrongs of this world – to remedying
the sufferings of those left vulnerable, the victims, and the downtrodden.
For those who have no coat,
for those who have been cheated out of their wages,
for those who have been beaten down by the powers that be,
God’s judgment is not something to be feared; it is the reason for hope.
Those who ought to fear God’s judgment
are those who continue to prioritize their own sense of power and privilege over the wellbeing of others.
For as John makes clear and Jesus will later reinforce
God’s judgment is against those who practice and perpetuate injustice
– who wrong the Lord by wronging their neighbor.
If we step back, nothing about this news should be all that surprising.
John, and later Jesus, are merely directing all of us
to practice nothing more than the Law requires
– loving God through loving each other as God loves us.
But the good news that John begins to introduce is
the judgment we deserve for the Law we fail to fulfill is
not without the possibility of forgiveness.
And the forgiveness God offers to us comes not just with a pardon
but also with the power of grace
– the means to break free of our addiction to self,
the guidance and strength to be able to love and serve others
like the Lord loves and serves us.
No one is beyond this gift of forgiveness,
the opportunity for repentance, and the transformation of one’s life.
Jesus will repeatedly demonstrate the validity of this invitation and promise by associating with tax collectors and sinners
– going to their homes and eating with them.
Much to the shock and chagrin of the so-called pious and religious.
In fact, Jesus will visit the home of one of the most notorious perceived outsiders — a person presumably beyond hope, Zacchaeus,
a chief tax collector whose wealth is due to defrauding others.
But as Zacchaeus responds to the call to repentance
and the invitation of salvation, Zacchaeus will find
both the inspiration and the strength to give half his possessions
to the poor and pay back anyone he has defrauded fourfold.
After which Jesus will announce, “Today salvation has come to this house,
because he too (Zaccheus) is a son of Abraham.”
It will be just as John proclaims here, that even from hearts of stone,
God is able to raise up children of Abraham.
“For I tell you that out of these stones
God can raise up children for Abraham.” -Luke 3:8
Even tax collectors and sinners (like us) are not without hope
– beyond the reach of the Gospel.
But let us hear and understand John carefully and clearly.
The first step in following Jesus, the first step into the Kingdom of God,
is not belief. It is not confession; it is repentance.
Don’t misunderstand. Belief, confession matter.
To confess belief is to acknowledge that there is a Kingdom
– the one and only true realm of all life, meaning, and purpose
– and that none of us are the lords of it. That only Jesus is.
To confess belief is to recognize that all our other so-called kingdoms
are pretenders to the throne – death traps
from which only Jesus can save us from ourselves.
To confess belief in Jesus, in God’s one true Kingdom is
to recognize and acknowledge reality
– but not necessarily to live within it
– to abide in Christ.
Repentance is the first and repeated step forward
– not merely turning around or reorienting to true North
– but beginning and continuing to walk in the right direction,
to follow the singular path laid out for us by Jesus.
We dare not claim to possess God’s great gospel of love
unless we’ve heard and answered God’s call to repentance
– God’s great gospel of forgiveness.
Without daily answering the call to repentance,
we end up taking the love of God for granted – either exercising it cheaply
– transactionally – inevitably convincing ourselves we’re owed it
or getting stuck in the exhausting lie of trying to justify or earn it.
Another way to say this is true love is about commitment.
It is God’s commitment to love us which in turn inspires and empowers
our commitment to love God.
God only asks us to say, “Yes” to His proposal – to keep looking to,
listening, following, coming back to Him, to His love.
But true love is more than a decision.
True love is about a commitment and commitment is about change.
God does not change but God commits to change us.
We have to be willing – to be committed to being changed/transformed.
Repentance is daily coming back to our first Love
and committing anew to being changed by that Love
– to follow that Love and let that Love
– the love of God, the Love that is God, have its way with us.
Unrepentant people, unchanged people
always are fixated on their power and authority
– their rights and their freedoms
versus relying on God’s power and authority,
rather than sharing the freedom Christ gives
and advocating for the right of all persons
to be loved and cared for as Jesus intends.
Unrepentant people, unchanged people
attempt to invoke the judgment of Christ upon others
even as they presume to hoard the grace Jesus gives.
Unrepentant people, unchanged people
operate out of fear rather than love,
seeking to control, manipulate, and use others for their own gain,
their own sense of security.
Unrepentant people, unchanged people, tend to view their relationships
in terms of “How can you be useful to me? What can you do for me?”
But the repentant – those set free by the forgiveness of Christ,
those being changed by the grace of God,
as the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians,
no longer view others in this manner.
Knowing who they are in Christ,
secure in the promise of where Jesus is leading them,
the repentant empty themselves of their need to be in control,
of their need to be right, of their need to claim their privilege,
and instead, being filled, being empowered,
and transformed by the love of God,
view their relationships differently,
asking in the example and Spirit of Christ,
“How is God calling me to become useful to you?
What is the Lord calling me to do for you?”
John stands before us, beloved, preparing us once again to follow Jesus.
John stands before us declaring the introduction to the Gospel
– to good news that promises not only to change our lives
but to transform all creation.
The Gospel to which John points and prepares the way
stands in stark contrast
to the gospel to which many of us are putting our hope.
How can we tell the difference?
Well, the “fruit” of John’s Gospel,
this good news he begins to share is ethical
– highly practical and specific – and inclusive of others.
Whereas the “fruit” of what many call the gospel is
purely emotional and predominantly ethereal
– privatized, spiritualized, and individualistic.
As we look around at churches
that are a lot emptier and more significantly,
people who are walking away from their faith,
it seems clear that one of the deaths
we are experiencing due to the global pandemic
and rising societal polarization
is the death of the spiritualized, privatized Gospel.
It was on life support previously.
But now it is clearly dying. And it needs to die.
It deserves to die because it is a false gospel.
When the credibility of our words about Jesus fail to be matched
by the authenticity of our lived witness for Christ,
that’s not good news for anybody.
That’s just the same old fake news people can get anywhere.
The good news John introduces is the Word become flesh
– more than ideas or feelings of love, forgiveness,
peace, grace, mercy, and justice
– but love incarnate, forgiveness embodied,
peace extended with open arms,
grace that can tasted and seen at a table,
and justice delivered not blindly in a courtroom
but in visibly in practice through the righteous intervention
of those who stand up and speak up for the silenced and disenfranchised.
This is the true fruit of the Gospel – the fruit of the vine of abiding in Christ
– for which all the world deeply hungers.
While these actions are not the seeds of our salvation,
these good works are the fruit of our repentance
– of singularly following Jesus with each and every step of our lives.
This Gospel we proclaim isn’t good news
unless it is good news that we live and embody,
unless this news becomes more than good words and like Jesus,
takes tangible, physical form and becomes materially concrete
in how we live together day by day.
For the harvest of our true worship of the Lord is not revealed
in how many Sunday services, praise concerts, bible studies,
and spiritual retreats we yield in a lifetime.
The harvest of our true worship is revealed through
the fruit we yield in how we live in respect and service to others
– being particularly responsive to those in need.
Let us then, by the grace of God and the leading of the Spirit,
live lives marked by humble repentance and characterized by grace,
Let us forgive quickly and foster peace always.
Let us love extravagantly, share generously and serve with intentionality
together becoming the Body that Christ designed us to be,
to become the Gospel we profess to believe. Amen.