Get Ready for God
Luke 3:1 – 20
Get Ready for God
I wonder how you go about getting ready for someone to arrive at your house.
We received a phone call the other day, some friends was coming round, they were going to bring us dinner, and I looked around at our house, with toys spread everywhere, on every available surface, and I thought “we need to quickly get ready!”
Maybe you’ve had that experience, you know what the frantic tidy-up is like! , Getting ready for someone’s arrival! Not that you’re trying to impress that person with how neat your house is, you literally just want there to be a flat surface for them to sit on.
I once read an interview with a journalist who follows the royal family, and they said that they imagine that the Queen must think the whole world outside of Buckingham Palace must smell like fresh paint! Because every time the Queen goes somewhere, she walks into a building that has been freshly painted in anticipation of her arrival!
We have some sense of what it is to get ready, for someone important to turn up.
And this part of Luke’s gospel is about preparing for a visitor. Not an unexpected visitor. Quite the contrary, really. It’s about preparing for the arrival of a very expected visitor.
And maybe if you have a child in your family, they complain sometimes about how long they have to wait for things, wait for you to finish talking so they can go home from church, all of that kind of thing,
Well the Jews to whom John the Baptist ministered in this part of the Bible, had been waiting even longer for their visitor.
Jesus turns up in world history
We saw last week that the end of 2 chapter brings to an end the part of the story about Jesus’ childhood, and so now we move into the next section, with its focus on Jesus’ public ministry. And even though Jesus doesn’t get mentioned by name in this first part of chapter 3, it’s pretty clear isn’t it that one of Luke’s goals in these verses, is to firmly establish the fact of Jesus’ ministry unfolding in a particular place in world history.
Those of us who have been around in the weeks that we’ve been looking at Luke’s gospel so far, are not at all surprised to see these historical notes, are we?
Luke gives us a number of hooks so we can be sure of the historical reliability of what he’s saying. And of course, for his original readers, somewhere around 62 AD, these particular historical connections would have been absolutely familiar, even if, to us, it’s a bit of a jumble of names and places that don’t mean a whole lot.
We’ve probably heard of Tiberius Caesar,
We almost certainly know of Pontius Pilate, he even makes it into the new Risen movie I mentioned in the email news this week
And we’ve heard of king Herod,
But notice that Luke locates this event in history for his readers, by referring to the reign of the ultimate Roman authority, the emperor,
The local authorities and rulers,
And also the Jewish leaders.
It’s like Luke is saying, “no matter who you are,
Regardless of which part of history you’re familiar with, whether it’s the Roman empire,
Or the local political,
Or the local religious history,
You can be assured that Jesus’ ministry took place among people, and alongside events that you’re familiar with.
Today, if we were to try doing something similar, to describe, say something that happened this week, to locate it in history so that people in years to come would know when it happened, and have assurance that it happened,
We’d say it was when Malcolm Turnbull was Prime Minister,
Don Pyke was coach of the Adelaide Crows,
And it was during the time that Donald Trump was running for President in the US.
See, instantly, bang! We’ve located the event in history,
People for years to come will know exactly the era we’re talking about.
And the idea is, that if you were new to the good news of Jesus, you could go and ask someone, “Were you in Galilee during the time of Herod?
Did you hear about things in Judea while Pontius Pilate was governor”?
But the list of rulers and authorities in the first 2 verses also shows us that Jesus’ ministry, launched as it was by John’s ministry, as we’ll see, unfolded in a time of great complexity on the regional stage,
And great uncertainty for God’s people Israel.
There are 7 rulers listed in those 2 verses, all of whom overlapped with some of the others in some way.
The word tetrarch means someone who rules over a quarter of a kingdom, but it came to be used for any, fairly minor king. One of the Herod’s was replaced by the Romans, he was so bad, and they also stuck a new governor in the region.
And Luke, although he refers to 2 high priests, he uses the singular in his original language, because there really couldn’t be 2 high priests!
The Old Testament law specified that there was to be one high priest. So this gives us the warning that something is not right among God’s people. Annas the high priest was kicked out of office by the Romans in about 15 AD, 5 of his sons became high priest after him, before eventually this man, Caiaphas, who was Annas’ son-in-law was installed as high priest by the Roman governor!
It seems that Annas still exercised significant power and influence behind the scenes, after Jesus’ arrest he was taken first to Annas, it’s interesting to note, and perhaps some of the Jews thought of him as the real high priest, but Caiaphas was the one who the Romans wanted to be in charge, and so they dealt with him.
If it all sounds very confusing, and muddled, and unclear, like a recipe for disaster and dissatisfaction among God’s people, it was! And really, I haven’t said the half of it!
To list 7 rulers, who to differing degrees tried to exercise influence over the same part of the world,
Who, to differing degrees, squabbled among themselves as to who had which rights and authority,
And whose names, almost without exception, became synonymous with intrigue, nepotism, wickedness and violence.
It all gives us the clear picture, that things are not as they should be for God’s people.
God’s people are oppressed under foreign leadership,
Their kings are not kings from the dynasty of King David, who had ruled over God’s people in the past,
Even the high priest is a puppet, installed by the occupying Roman authorities, so what hope is there for the people of God?
What hope is there, that God’s people can be the nation God wanted them to be, a light to the other nations of the world? What hope is there for that, when they can’t even govern themselves?
What hope is there for the nation’s relationship with God, when their high priest, the one who acts as the intercessor between the people and God, shouldn’t even be in that role, and the whole time there’s another man in the background, also trying to be high priest?!
What hope is there, for God’s people?
John speaks God’s Word to Israel: Repent and be baptised
Well, there is hope, because God has sent a prophet.
John, who we call John the Baptist, is pictured here first of all as prophet, someone who speaks God’s Word, in the same sort of vein as the Old Testament prophets.
See, from the middle of verse 2, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness, He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
John’s call to ministry, the word of God came to John, in an echo of the call of God on the lives many of the Old Testament prophets.
Just to pick one, Hosea, who was a prophet to the Northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BC. Hosea 1 verse 1, The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.
It’s the same in Joel 1:1, Zechariah 1:1, and many others. This how the ministry of an Old Testament prophet is introduced.
Although actually, you might recall that John’s prophetic ministry had begun some 30 years or so earlier, when, 3 months before he was born, John leapt in his mother’s womb, at the arrival of Mary, bearing the as-yet unborn Jesus.
Even then, John was at his task of announcing the arrival of Jesus.
But here Luke presents the beginnings of the primary part of John’s ministry, by establishing him as one in that line of Old Testament prophets.
Someone has come to speak God’s Word, to God’s people. And if that motley list of leaders in the first 2 verses tells us anything, it’s that God’s people could do with a prophet who will speak God’s word into their situation.
And Luke tells us about both the location of John’s ministry, and the his message. John starts in the wilderness, verse 2, and his ministry is focussed in the Jordan valley, which included plenty of areas of wilderness. And John is an itinerant you notice, he didn’t have a regular pulpit where he preached from every Sunday, he went into all the country around the Jordan.
John was so widely known, his message heard by so many people, that even the historian Josephus, recording history for the Roman government, feels it necessary to include something about John the Baptist in his writings.
So we know John’s location, what about his message? Well, Luke tells us, doesn’t he? He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
That is, John told God’s people Israel, to repent, to turn around, to turn back to God.
Remember, these were the people who were supposed to be demonstrating to the world what it looks like to live under God’s gracious and generous rule. But they weren’t.
And so John calls on people to repent.
The idea of repentance is a major theme in Luke’s writing. The idea that people who are far from God, need to turn away from that way of life, and turn towards God, is something that he emphasises over and over, in fact he uses the verb repent, and repentance, the noun, more than the other 3 gospel authors combined!
Luke wants us to know, if you’re out of step with God,
If you’re not living according to God’s pattern for life,
Whether you’re Jew, as is the case here, or a Gentile, a non-Jews, as he shows us later in the story, what you need to do is repent. Turn to God.
You can’t just add something extra into your life,
You can’t just get a little bit of religion.
You can’t rely on family or friends to kind of carry you over the line, we saw that last week looking at Jesus’ family.
The only thing you can do, is repent.
That is the pathway to forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
First repentance, then baptism
It’s interesting that even Josephus, the historian I mentioned, seems to have picked up, that John’s baptism was something that came after repentance, that it was something the Jews did to say “I’m one of God’s covenant people,
I want to be a faithful Israelite,
I turn from my life of putting myself first,
And turn to God.
Have a listen to what Josephus records in his history. John was a good man, and commanded the Jews to lead righteous lives, to act righteously towards each other and in piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; In his view this was a necessary preliminary, if baptism was to be acceptable to God
Even the not very religious guy writing history for the government could tell from what John was saying that it wasn’t getting baptised that made you right with God, but that once you had been made right with God, it was good to get baptised.
Which is a good reminder for us, though we aren’t the Old Covenant people of God,
We are not Israel, those John was calling to repentance, and yet we also practice baptism, and we also have other things that serve as the identity markers of our faith.
If you’re a Christian, you go to church. The Bible tells us that absolutely clearly. We are specifically commanded not to give up meeting together.
If you’re a Christian, you give your money, deliberately, generously, and to the point of sacrifice to the work of the gospel. There is no escape from that responsibility as a Christian.
If you’re a Christian, you use your gifts, for the building up of others, for the building up of the body.
If you’re a Christian you pray,
If you’re a Christian you listen to God’s word, you submit yourself to what God says in the Scriptures .
Those are all things we do because we’re Christians, which, I imagine, most of us are.
We do these things because God has brought us to himself in Christ Jesus,
Because we’ve been adopted as children, to pick up that language we used last week.
But we don’t do any of these things in order to get into a right relationship with God,
In order to become God’s children.
There are things that my children do, because they’re my children. At the moment we’re going through a stage, where they like to put ice down the back of my shirt.
Now, they don’t do that to any of you, well at least I hope they’re not! Please let me know if they are, but they do that to me because of our family relationship. Because I’m their father.
After church today, if you try to put ice down the back of my shirt, that is not going to make you part of my family.
My kids do it because I’m their father, but doing that doesn’t make me your father.
So please don’t do it!
There’s no suggestion at all that people could be baptised, so that God would look favourably on them,
Or overlook some sin in their life.
As John, in the power of the Holy Spirit, preached to God’s people, the Spirit convicted them of their need to repent, and they demonstrated their repentance by being baptised.
A baptism for Jews?!
But there’s a sting in the tail of all this, that we tend not to notice because we’re so familiar with baptism.
Some of us have been baptised, again not as Jews, but as disciples of Jesus.
Most of us have witnessed a baptism I imagine, and so we probably think that this is a good thing! “Good on John for baptising people as a sign of their repentance!”
But actually John’s baptism is theologically loaded! Almost , red rag to a bull!
The Jews baptised people. So nobody was standing there looking at John baptising and thought, “What’s that thing that he’s doing with the water? We’ve never seen that before?”
No, they knew what baptism was, because the Jews baptised people.
The Jews baptised people who weren’t Jews, who wanted to become Jews.
So if you were from Egypt, and you heard about the God of Israel, and you thought, “Yes, I want to become one of his people.”
Then you could become a Jew, and you’d be baptised.
Someone who became a Jew like that, a foreigner, was called a proselyte, and so this was called proselyte baptism.
Yes, the Jews knew all about baptism;, baptism was what foreigners did, in order to become Jews.
And so do you see the sting in the tail?
John’s saying Jewish people need this sign, this mark, that they normally apply to people who aren’t Jews.
The implication is, without the repentance that this baptism symbolises, you’re just as far from God, just as far out of relationship with God as the nations all around you.
That’s an affront, to the sense of privilege that the Jews felt, because of the relationship that God had entered into with their ancestors.
See John teaches that every single person needs to respond to God themselves. Verse 8, 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
“Don’t think that God is going to be kind to you”, John says, “because of your national identity.
You have to come to God exactly the same way as everybody else does.”
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? I mean, it’s a pretty rough way to talk to people who have come out to hear you speak!
We know that Jesus referred to people in the same sort of language. But in the Old Testament, it’s God’s enemies who are called snakes, the Egyptians, and the Philistines.
You probably heard this week that a home unit caught fire at Reynella, and a large number of snakes that were kept in the premises were thought to have fled the flames, and were unaccounted for. There was over 30 reptiles in total, including two of the world’s deadliest snakes, an eastern brown, and an inland taipan.
When the flames approach, the snakes flee in front of it. And that’s the illustration that John has here in his sermon, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
God’s wrath, his settled, personal, deliberate opposition to evil and wickedness is about to be revealed, and John says, left to their own devices, the people of Israel are in exactly the same boat as all the other nations.
They have to get ready, for God to turn up.
So for John to preach about baptism and repentance, is to preach about baptism and repentance in the light of God’s judgment, but also in the light of the imminent arrival of God himself.
John prepares Israel for God’s arrival
I’ve been saying all along that John’s ministry is one of preparation.
Here’s where this is made explicit.
Because Luke also shows us that John’s ministry was to prepare people for God’s arrival.
You’ll see the quotation from Isaiah 40 there. Luke presents it as the context for John’s ministry.
He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 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.
So John is not just a prophet who speaks God’s Word, but a fulfilment of God’s promise made through other prophets.
John has a foot in both camps,
In the world of promise, and in the world of fulfilment.
God had promised that he would one day come to be with his people. That’s what Isaiah 40 is all about.
But, just like my friends who rang up and told us, “We’re coming, we’ll be there in an hour!”, God had also promised, “I’m not just going to turn up unannounced, Before I come, I’ll send a messenger.”
There will be a voice out in the wilderness, calling on people to get ready for God to turn up.
And so we can see why Luke thinks it’s so important to tell us the geography of where John is. Because he’s in the wilderness.
He is the voice of one calling in the wilderness, calling on people to get ready for the Lord, that is God.
God’s salvation is coming, verse 6, and you don’t want to be caught unprepared!
Of course, for some of us, these words from Isaiah are quite familiar, as the words to Handel’s Messiah. And there will be a few among us who can’t hear these words, without also hearing the music that Handel wrote to accompany them.
In fact, in my preparation to teach on a section of the New Testament, each week I begin by translating the passage from the Greek language in which it was originally written. And last Sunday evening when I started translating this passage, I found myself just typing the words as I knew them from the Messiah, with the tune running through my head! So I had to stop myself and say, “No, let’s not write what Handel wrote, let’s actually do the job properly!”
Because these are words about getting ready for God’s arrival.
It’s not that, before God turns up, some earthworks are required. We need a few civil engineers, and a couple of bulldozers, in order to sort out the topography, and the road transport infrastructure.
No, it’s about setting things right. Making things as they ought to be.
As it happens, this song from the Messiah, evr’y valley, is famous for what’s known as “word painting” where the pattern of the melody communicates something of the meaning of the words. Every time the tenor sings the word crooked, he has to navigate his way across 4 different notes, just to sing that one word! It’s up and down and up again and all over the place.
That’s the point.
Things are all over the place,
Things are not as they should be,
It’s where this passage opened, with that list of competing rulers and authorities, and it’s the theme of John’s message to the people of Israel.
Things are not as they should be.
It will not be good for you, for God to turn up when you are in this state. Something needs to be done.
Things need to be put right.
And so John says, “I’m not the guy. I’m just the messenger.” Verse 16, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire
To baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire, speaks of Jesus’ ministry of purification from sin, and strengthening by the Spirit;, fire being the means of purifying a precious metal or something like that.
So here we’re told in no uncertain terms, that Jesus is God, coming to be with his people, bringing the salvation that God promised, but before he arrives, a messenger will come in the wilderness, to set the crooked roads straight, to get people ready for God.
And so John warns people of judgement, the picture of the winnowing fork , the chaff, the unquenchable fire, and yet notice that Luke can say, down in verse 18, that to warn of judgement, is to proclaim the good news to them
We might not think that judgement is good news. But if judgment is coming, then to be warned about it is good news.
And in fact judgement of sin and evil is good news in itself, because it says that sin and evil will be defeated,
That those who do evil won’t get off scot-free.
And so the final preparation for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, the eternal Son of God, has been made.
The messenger has arrived, urging God’s people, in the light of the imminent arrival of their king, and with an eye to the coming judgement of God on all sin and evil, repent, and show the reality of your repentance, in baptism.
Baptism isn’t the only sign of repentance.
And what John says in answer to the questions the crowd have when they hear of this judgment, shows that baptism isn’t the only sign of repentance.
There in verse 8, Produce fruit in keeping with repentance, and then gives some specifics. See there is not just one way, to demonstrate your repentance, to show the reality of your repentance.
I told you one thing my kids to because they’re in my family;, they put ice down the back of my shirt, but that’s not the only thing they do because I’m their father. Sometimes they bring me breakfast in bed! And I definitely don’t want any of you trying that!
But when John says to the people of Israel, you need to Produce fruit in keeping with repentance, he speaks of fruit in the plural.
Because of how the Bible translators need to phrase things so they’re not too clunky in English, we can’t see that easily, but the original word is plural, signifying many different fruits.
So unlike the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, where the word is singular, “this whole package of behaviours is the fruit that the Spirit of God will bear in your life, you don’t get to pick and choose”, here the idea is a plurality, there should be many different fruits, and perhaps the fruit that one person bears, will be very different from the fruit that another bears.
Don’t demonstrate your repentance by doing just one thing. Do many different things, produce fruits, in keeping with repentance.
And we’re probably supposed to think of producing fruit being an ongoing process. He doesn’t say produce fruit today, in keeping with repentance,
Or, for a week after you repent, produce lots of fruit.
He just says, “do it.”
Just , do it.
And he gives some specifics, not that this is intended to be exhaustive, but, if you like, Luke presents them as case studies, “Here are some example, of how to let your identity as God’s person bear fruit in your life.”
John applies his message to rich people, well, not super-rich definitely by our standards, are they? It’s just somebody who’s got 2 shirts!
But obviously that person has more than someone else.
How does Luke apply the message of repentance and judgement to the person with 2 shirts?
share with the one who has none
It’s the same for someone who has food to spare.
Tax collectors and soldiers ask, “well, what about for us? What should we do?
And here we see that each different situation in life throws up its own temptations,
Its own unique struggles,
Its own ways in which it’s easy just to go with the flow, and do what everyone expects, what everyone else is doing.
I take it that’s what collecting, more money than you are required to, and extortion, false accusations, and being discontent with your pay are all about.
That these are some of the primary, not the only, but perhaps the most basic, the most common, perhaps even the most tolerated sins to which people in these professions were prone.
But equally, each of these situations in life has its own unique opportunities to demonstrate the reality of repentance.
Which I think throws the question back to us. As God’s people who have come to him in the repentance that Jesus Christ makes possible through his death in our place,
He gives us a new heart,
He sends the Spirit, to turn our hearts to God,
What are the opportunities that we have, to demonstrate our repentance, our membership of God’s family?
Or if you’re not a Christian, Maybe you’re here because you want to find out about Christian things, and we’re really thrilled that you’re here, we’d love to help you think through t what it means to be a Christian.
But this would be a good question for you to ask too. “How would I demonstrate my repentance?
What would be the fruit of me turning from my way of living with me as number one, and turning to God?”
What would people see?
How would people know?
Being baptised would be a good one. But we’re saying baptism isn’t the only one.
What would be the fruit of repentance in your life?
What would God want you to change?
And there is very much an other-person-centred focus here isn’t there? It is so easy for us, to turn our eyes inwards.
To think that what matters is me, and my comfort, and my preferences, and what I can get for myself. The way the soldiers and the tax-collectors and others were acting seems to suggest that was exactly the problem back then, doesn’t it?
And we are by no means immune from that,
And we’re even able to spiritualise it,
To spiritualise our preferences and our desires, and yet John’s case studies are all practical examples, of how God’s person will relate to others,
Give up things, for others,
Constrain their own behaviour, for the sake of others,
Even to resist what was expected, tolerated, or socially acceptable, for the sake of others.
Friends, what are the fruits, plural, of repentance, that we could bear?
We, as a family, the fruit we would want to produce together?
What is the fruit that we can bear uniquely, in our situation in life?