The Voice Crying in the Wilderness
In Chapter 2 we were confronted, along with Joseph and Mary, with a Jesus who doesn’t quite fit all of our expectations as to who and what the Messiah was to be. In response to that confrontation with the unexpected St. Luke called us to “treasure up” all these things in our hearts, as Mary did, and to ponder them as he unfolds the story of Jesus’ ministry. Now, in Chapter 3, Luke brings our attention back to John the Baptist. John and Jesus have grown up. John embarks on his ministry to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways”. And, brothers and sisters, in John’s ministry we see more confrontation, but John takes it to a deeper and more shocking level. God’s kingdom and God’s Messiah are about to break into the world, but the people aren’t ready for them. The people think they’re ready for them, but they’re not. And that’s why God sent John to prepare the way and as John confronts the people to prepare them for Jesus’ ministry and for the coming kingdom he confronts and prepares us too. Again, he calls us out of a complacent faith in a “tame” God and he calls us to something higher and deeper and more revolutionary than we might expect.
In verses 1 and 2 Luke puts these events on the calendar of history, but as before, this is more than just a raw date; in giving us this list of geopolitical leaders he us gives a bigger historical and social context. He writes:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
The raw date is a. d. 28 or 29, but to Luke what’s more important is the oppressive political and religious regime of those days. Tiberius was the son of Augustus. He was known for his ruthless political witch-hunts. Luke and his original readers would have thought immediately of Tiberius’ later years, after he had gone insane, and when his reign had degraded into a time of terror. And whereas Ceasar and Augustus were declared gods after they had died, Tiberius wasn’t willing to wait. In the eastern part of the empire he was already being worshiped as divine. This was the man who ruled the world as John and Jesus began their ministries. Pontius Pilate was the prefect of the province of Judea. Philo tells us that he was “inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness.” He was corrupt and so were the officials who operated under his authority. At various times he forced the emblems of emperor worship on the people of Jerusalem, he stole from the temple treasury—the Jews hated him. Herod and Philip were corrupt “wanna-be” Jewish “kings” who ruled under the authority of the Romans and were as corrupt as their masters. Herod’s ambition was to be the great Davidic king; he was overhauling the temple and wanted to be seen as a new Solomon. And Luke even tells us about Annas and his son-in-law, Joseph Caiaphas. As the high priest Annas had established a corrupt priestly dynasty. When he stepped down he made sure his five sons followed him and Caiaphas, his son-in-law. They controlled everything to do with the temple and the upper echelons of the priesthood. Again, as he’s done before, Luke paints a very vivid picture of the desperation of the Jews. As we might look at the sorry state of the world around us and plead, “Come, Lord Jesus!” They would plead for the promised Messiah. They were desperate for deliverance. The problem was that most of the Jews were looking for the wrong sort of deliverance and looking for it in all the wrong places.
And so Luke says that into the middle of this mess the word of the Lord came to John. Not to Caiaphas, the high priest, but to John. And the word of the Lord came not to the temple, but to the wilderness. The Lord bypassed the very place everyone would have expected his word to be heard. Right from the beginning, John’s ministry is going to confront God’s people. It’s going to meet them where and how they least expected it.
And the “wilderness” is important beyond simply not being the temple. Luke says in verse 3:
And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
It’s not so much that John “went”, but that he continued his ministry, travelling in the wilderness around the Jordan and proclaiming the word that had come to him. This might not mean much to us, but the identity of the Jews had been forged in the Exodus from Egypt and they were waiting for a new exodus and a new Messiah who would, like Moses, lead them out this new slavery—who would rescue them from the likes of Tiberius, Pilate, and Herod. God had met them in the wilderness and had given them his law. They’d been baptized into his covenant as they passed through the waters of the Red Sea. Forty years later when they’d entered the promised land to conquer it, that covenant had been renewed as they crossed the Jordan on dry ground. And now the word of the Lord comes to them through John in the wilderness and calls for a new baptism, this time in the Jordan. Everything about this proclaims that this is that new exodus the people had been waiting for. The Lord had finally heard their cries and had come to deliver them. Luke even sums up John’s ministry in the words of Isaiah:
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:4-6)
Luke quotes Isaiah 40:3-5 to describe John and to emphasise his role in preparing the people. The path needs to be made straight, valleys filled and hills flatted to make way for the Messiah so that he can lead his people out of slavery. And yet in this new exodus, John doesn’t just confront the king; he confronts the entire nation. Tiberius, Herod, and Caiaphas might have been the cruel masters, but the people had brought this slavery on themselves. It was the result of their not having been faithful. They were living under God’s discipline. Through the prophet, Malachi, God had spoken to the people: “Return to me, and I will return to you”. He had warned them that they were living under his curse because they’d robbed him; they hadn’t followed the law as they should have. The Pharisees understood this. This is why they were so zealous in calling the people to faithful observance of the law. Their thinking went something like this: “If we’re faithful in keeping the law and if we stop compromising with foreigners and pagans, God will return and deliver us.”
In light of that, John’s call of repentance makes sense. The people needed to turn away from sin and from idols and from compromise. But that John called them to repentance through baptism indicated the real seriousness of their problem. On one hand, ritual washing or baptism was part of how cleanliness and purity were restored under the law. John’s baptism draws on that imagery. The people needed to be purified and made clean again. But John’s baptism took it a step further. The kind of baptism John was performing was the sort of thing that gentile converts underwent when they converted and became Jews. And so John’s not just saying that the people need to be made clean again; he’s saying that through their lack of faith and their disobedience—through their lack of submission to God and to his ways—they’ve essentially ceased to be Jews in any meaningful sense. They might as well be gentiles who need to be baptized and brought into the covenant from the outside. This is what John gets at in verses 7-9. He doesn’t pull any punches.
He said therefore 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? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John hits the people in the two places they found their greatest security before God. His baptism confronted their security in being the people God had brought out of Egypt and taken through the Red Sea. He’s told them that they need a new baptism. Now John confronts the security they found in being the sons and daughters of Abraham. If nothing else, they could always fall back on the inheritance that the Lord had promised them through Abraham. John responds to that assurance with an empathic “No!” “You rest secure in having Abraham as your father. No! You’re a brood of vipers. Abraham’s seed was to be the Lord’s means of delivering the world from sin. You might be biological children of Abraham, but spiritually you’ve become children of the serpent!” They’ve put false security in Abraham; they’ve forgotten that Abraham was God’s son by faith. And John warns them: As God gave children once to the childless Abraham and his barren wife, Sarah, he can give children to them again. He can turn the lifeless stones of the wilderness into new children for Abraham. This might be John’s way of pointing to the gentiles: “Even the spiritually dead gentiles can be given faith by God, making them into what you’ve abandoned.” But there’s hope in that too: If God can give life to lifeless stones, he can restore life to the fallen sons and daughters of Abraham. And so John calls them to repentance with a powerful warning. Yes, the “wrath to come” is here. The Lord has come with his axe to cut down the trees not bearing fruit and to cast their dead wood into the fire. Judgement is here, but that’s all the more reason to repent.
What John’s saying is that when the day of the Lord comes—and it’s coming “even now”, he says—when that day comes, the Lord will deliver the children of Abraham, but he won’t be looking at anyone’s genes or family tree. No, he’ll be looking for those people who show their response to his grace by bearing fruit and who have lives that demonstrate their fellowship with him.
And we see what that fruit looks like in verses 10-11. The people responded to John’s proclamation the way we see people throughout the Gospels responding to divine confrontation:
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”
“What should we do?” they ask. And John gets very practical. At it’s most basic, the law distils down to two commandments: love God and love your neighbour. Israel’s problem had always been that she showed token love to God; she went through the motions. All the while she was repeatedly condemned for overlooking, if not outright oppressing the poor and needy. Israel went to church on Sunday, so to speak, but she didn’t live out her faith the rest of the week or, if she did, it didn’t go beyond a kind of private piety—she didn’t manifest the kingdom. Judgement is coming and the people ask, “What should you do?” John tells them to repent. Submit to God’s plan and to God’s ways instead of fighting him and demonstrate your love and submission to him by showing love to your neighbour—and especially to your neighbour who is in need. John’s warning to them is a warning to us too. We’re prone to failing as the Jews had. God did in fact raise up children for Abraham from the dead stones of the gentiles. We’re evidence of that. And yet how often do we turn that inheritance into little more than tokenism and private piety. We think we’ve fulfilled God’s commands by avoiding personal sin, by tithing, by involvement in church activities, by reading the Bible and praying, and yet our faith and our love for God often don’t make it out of the private sphere. The kingdom may be in our hearts, but we’re just quietly waiting for Jesus to come and take us home as if his kingdom is strictly a heavenly reality. We forget our calling is to manifest and spread his kingdom to the world in the knowledge that when he returns all creation will be restored and subjected to his kingdom rule. The duty of God’s people has always been to live out that future reality here and now and to call the world into it. And so John gives some very practical advice to the question, “What shall we do?” His baptism wasn’t just about private repentance from sin; it was about submitting to God and to his plan and to carrying his kingdom to the world in meaningful and practical ways like feeding and clothing the poor.
Tax collectors and soldiers came to him and to them John gave even more practical ways to live out the repentance that his baptism represented.
Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:12-14)
Tax collectors were notorious for collecting more than they had bid and lining their pockets with the excess. Soldiers were notorious for enriching by taking advantage of their power and authority. And yet some of them came to John for baptism. They were ready to repent. John tells the tax collectors to stop fleecing the people. He urges the soldiers to live out their repentance by doing their jobs honestly: no more extortion, no more shakedowns, no more bribes. Tax collectors and soldiers were two classes known for corruption and abuse of authority, but as John responds to them we can see how repentance works out in practical ways for everyone. It means that if you’re going to claim love for God, you need to demonstrate it by loving your neighbour. It means that if you’re going to claim to be a citizen of God’s kingdom, you need to show your citizenship by living according to the kingdom’s rules.
All John’s talk of impending judgement and of repentance prompts more questions. Could he be the Messiah?
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:15-17)
“No, I’m not the Messiah,” John says, “My baptism is with water. I’m just the messenger. The Messiah is coming and he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John was calling the people to repentance and preparing them for the transformation that would come with Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was the one with the power to bring life to those who had heard John’s call to repent. Jesus was also the one who would bring fire, which John uses as an image of judgement. For those who have heard the call to repentance, Jesus’ fire will purify and refine, but for those who have ignored the call, Jesus’ fire will bring destruction. John gives us an image of a farmer on his threshing floor, throwing his wehat into the air with a winnowing fork. The wheat would settle to the bottom so that the chaff could be set aside and burned. John is Jesus’ winnowing fork. John is stirring up Israel and, through his baptism of repentance, separating the wheat from the chaff so that Jesus can come in judgement. John’s baptism forces the people to make a decision: to repent or not to repent, and it prepares those who choose repentance for the Messiah’s ministry. John’s baptism puts the faithful in a place of submission to God and it restores an understanding of the covenant that makes them ready to hear the Messiah’s message.
And so as much as there’s a lot of confrontation, warning, and judgement in John’s message, Luke tells us in verse 18:
So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.
It wasn’t the news that many wanted or expected, but it was good news because it pointed the people to their deliverance. It’s never easy to hear about our sin and our shortcomings. It’s never easy to hear that while we thought we were pleasing God, what we’ve been doing has actually been actually displeasing. It’s never easy to be reminded that God isn’t in our pocket—that we can’t manipulate and control him or earn his favour. And yet this message that’s so hard for us to hear is truly the Good News. It’s hard to be told that you’ve got a disease, but you can’t treat a disease until you’ve got a diagnosis. Once you’ve got the diagnosis you can have a treatment plan and have hope restored—and true hope, not a false hope or a false sense of security. Even a negative diagnosis can pave the way for good news.
And yet not everyone took John’s good news well. Luke tells us specifically about Herod in verses 19-20:
But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
Herod had had an affair with his sister-in-law, after which she divorced her husband and married him. It was wrong on all sorts of levels and John apparently wasn’t afraid to confront Herod with his sin the same way he’d confronted the common people and the tax collectors and soldiers. Herod had a vested interest in the status quo and in his earthly kingdom. For Luke he exemplifies all those who oppose God; he exemplifies the chaff separated out by the winnowing fork. And yet we’re told that Herod had John thrown into prison. Later we’ll read that he had John executed on a whim. And we might wonder what gives. Again, Herod exemplifies those who oppose God and those who refuse repentance. His treatment of John points ahead to the reception of Jesus. The forerunners poor reception doesn’t bode well for how the Messiah will be received when he comes. And it might cause us to ask: How will his followers, how will all those who repent, be treated? With Herod, Luke brings us full-circle, back to the list of corrupt earth rulers. Their rule and empire is a rival to the Lord’s rule and kingdom. It’s from Caesar’s empire that John and Jesus call us. And while Caesar and his minions may lash back, Luke will show us that Jesus will have the final victory.
Caesar and Herod represented “the present evil age”—the age dominated by sin and death, the age inaugurated by the sin of Adam. But John gives hope. Jesus, the second Adam, burst into that evil age and by his death and resurrection inaugurated the “age to come”. He has defeated sin and death and in his own resurrection has given us the hope of our own future resurrection in a restored creation under his sovereign rule. And yet today we live in the overlap between the present evil age and the age to come. One is dying and losing power and the other is living and growing. John reminds us that the Jews failed to live as the kingdom people the Lord had called them to be. Because they failed, he sent his Son to fulfil in himself what they had failed to do. As a people they fell into condemnation. We have hope that God will someday give life to those dead stone and make them children of Abraham again, but in the meantime let us not fall into the same failure. We who have been grafted into Abraham are now called to manifest God’s kingdom in the world. He’s filled us with his own Holy Spirit that we might have the gifts needed for the task and that we might bear real fruit—the fruit of John’s repentance. He’s given us the task of building his kingdom as we await the return of the Lord. And yet we too often forget our calling. He has established his church as a colony of his kingdom here in this dying worldly empire. We’re the advance guard. But too often we hunker down inside the walls of the church waiting only for the day of escape, waiting for the King to swoop down and take us away to be with him. Brothers and sisters, that’s not our calling. Let us carry the kingdom of light into the world of darkness knowing that our King is on his way to lead us to victory and restore his creation. We do that as we let the light of Christ shine through us. We do that as we manifest our love for God in loving and caring for our neighbours. We do that as we are honest in our work and our dealings with others. We do it as we recognise that life in Christ is more than gathering with friends in the church on Sunday mornings and a life of private piety—it’s about making a real difference in the lives of the people around us. Never forget that we are those whom Jesus has baptised with his Holy Spirit. We are those full of light and hope. We are those with the good news of the kingdom.
Let us pray: Almighty Father, we thank you for the powerful witness of John the Baptist, who proclaimed the coming of the Lord Jesus and called the people to repentance. As John prepared the way for his first coming, let us be faithful in preparing the way for his second coming as we manifest his kingdom of light in a world of darkness. We ask this through him who is the resurrection and the life and our source of hope. Amen.