What Should We Do?
The last story in Luke’s gospel concerning the boyhood of Jesus is the episode in the temple when he is twelve years old. In chapter 3, we jump forward 18 years. Jesus is now 30 and about to begin his public ministry. But before he describes the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, Luke spotlights the Forerunner, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer.
The Ministry of John (vss. 1-6)
John’s appearance on the scene is marked (in vss. 1, 2) by the naming of seven men of importance; one emperor (Tiberius), one governor (Pontius Pilate), three kings (Herod, Philip and Lysanias) and two high priests (Annas and Caiaphas). But these luminaries of the Roman Empire are not important except as time markers. The real action occurs out in the wilderness -- “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (vs. 2).
It shouldn’t surprise us that the word of God bypasses the movers and shakers of the day and comes instead to a camel hair-wearing, locust-eating hermit living out in the wilderness. After all that seems to be an established pattern.
The following verses (3-6) gives a summary of the message of John. His message was one of “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (vs. 3). That is, the practice of water baptism as a sign of repentance. The idea is not that baptism results in forgiveness, or, indeed, that the repentance it symbolizes brings forgiveness. Baptism cannot save. Repentance cannot save. There must be atonement for salvation, but repentance is a necessary first step to receiving forgiveness.
Before salvation can be received there first must be the recognition that we need saving. We must first see that we are sinners – we must hate our sinful condition and determine to turn from it (repent). But then we must understand that we cannot free ourselves.
Luke’s quotation of Isaiah 40:3-5 places John in the tradition of other Old Testament prophets. Specifically, as a fulfillment of the promise of a forerunner who would come before the Messiah. John’s ministry would be to prepare for the coming of the Messiah by removing the obstacles and straightening the paths in human hearts for the entrance of the Messiah.
The Message of John (vss. 7-18)
Luke’s example of John’s preaching in vss. 7-18 show us that, like many of the prophets, John’s message was not easy to hear. He begins inauspiciously by calling his audience a “brood of vipers” (vs. 7) and then goes on to warn them of a coming day of judgment. All this talk of axes and fires is certainly unsettling, but John’s purpose is to demonstrate the necessity of true repentance.
True repentance must evidence fruit (vss. 7-9)
John warns them not to think that being dipped in water will protect them from the judgment of God -- nor will their proud heritage as descendants of Abraham. John says, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (vs. 8). Don’t tell me about your repentance. Show me your repentance!
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds (James 2:18).
Vss. 10-18 give us specific applications to the general teaching in the form of answers to questions from three groups. The crowd asks, “What should we do then?” John answers that if you have two shirts you should share with the person who has none and if you have enough food, you should share with the person who has none.
Surprisingly perhaps, there are tax collectors and soldiers in John’s audience. In answer to a similar question from these groups John tells the tax collectors not to swindle people, only collect what you are authorized to. He tells the soldiers not to use their authority to bully people and to be content with their pay.
I don’t know how this strikes you, but to me it seems a bit of an anticlimax. He doesn’t tell the tax collectors to stop being tax collectors or the soldiers to lay down their weapons. Here is John’s chance to really lay out a program of self-improvement for these folks and what does he give them? A first-century version of All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
“What do I need to do to show my repentance? Give all I have to the poor, move out to the wilderness, wear camel hair and eat locusts like you, John?” “No,” John says, “be generous to people less fortunate than you, be honest in your work, be kind to people and be content with what you have. We want to say, “Is that all you got? Could the fruit of repentance be so simple? So . . . ordinary?”
And maybe that’s the point. Real repentance – real change – Is not often expressed in grand gestures and heroic acts but in the simple, everyday values of generosity, honesty and justice. Maybe God is not calling us to do great things, but to do ordinary things in a great way.
If that seems too small to you consider what might happen if each of us determined with God’s help to be more generous, to do our work with integrity, to be kind to people and to be content with that which God has entrusted to us. True repentance is shown by a person serving God where God has placed him.
There’s an old African-American spiritual that says:
There’s a king and captain high,
And He’s coming bay and by,
And He’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
There’s a man they thrust aside,
Who was tortured till he died,
And He’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
He was hated and rejected,
He was scorned and crucified,
And He’ll find me hoeing cotton when He comes.
When He comes! When He comes!
He’ll be crowned by saints and angels when He comes.
They’ll be shouting Halleluiah to the man that men denied,
And I’ll kneel among my cotton when He comes.
John is very clear that he is not the Messiah (vss. 15-18). Some of the people were speculating that this powerful preacher might be the Promised One. But John is quite clear that he is merely the forerunner. The Messiah, when he comes will bring judgment separating the good from the bad just as a farmer separates the wheat from the chaff.
It is important for us to remember that we are not the show. We are, at best, messengers whose responsibility is to point people to the Savior. John was an effective and powerful preacher, and he was careful to say, “Don’t look at me. Look at Jesus.”
The Imprisonment of John (vss. 15-18)
The last two verses of our reading today remind us that telling the truth can be dangerous. John rebuked Herod Antipas for seducing and marrying his half-brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. It’s actually more complicated than that. Herodias was the daughter of another of Herod’s half-brothers. So, Herodias was both half-niece and half-sister-in-law to Herod. This was an abomination to Jewish thinking and a violation of the Mosaic Law. And so, John speaks against the marriage and ends up in jail.
This is instructive to us today. Don’t expect the world to love you because you speak the truth. In fact, expect the opposite.
Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil (John 3:19).
Evil and sin thrive in the dark and hate when the light of truth is shined in on them. The world is not going to thank us for speaking the truth. But we must speak the truth anyway even though it may be dangerous. Consider this: at the last judgment would you rather be John or Herod?