"Fire & Fruit: John the Baptist's Recipe for Reform"
Luke 3:7-18 Dec.13/09 3rd in Advent
JUST DRIFTING THROUGH LIFE?
Winter certainly arrived in full force this past week, complete with 'snow days' for school and road closures. To each day's routine we add the ritual of clearing away snow. In the middle of the night, even through our house isn't on the highway, we can hear the rumble of the snow plow's heavy blade as it clears County Road 4. Then early in the morning the PUC truck clears our street. That means it's time for me to fire up our little tractor to blow the driveway and shovel the walkway. After all, we don't want to be blocked in, cut off from the road by a big drift - we prefer being able to get out and have access through the snow.
The heart of John the Baptist's message is like that, too - but the blockage here is not drifts of snow but damaging sin. God wants to be able to get through to us, not blocked by our sin and the evil He abhors. The prior verses in Luke 3 recall Isaiah's prophecy that the New Testament sees fulfilled in John the Baptist: "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 mankind will see God's salvation." (Lu 3:4-6) Mountains need to be lowered, the crooked made straight, in order for people to be saved. This is the background for the radical and urgent style of John's preaching: as v3 says, John came "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Clear away the drifts blocking you from God! Confess and deal with those sins so they can be forgiven and you can be saved!
Baptism in water such as the nearby river symbolized a washing away, a cleansing, getting rid of the dirt of wickedness. 'Repentance' is literally a change of mind, a totally different attitude and view on life, a paradigm shift, turning over a new leaf. 'Forgiveness' means release, removal, a relaxing of the disease of evil in our lives. We need God's cure, or we're damned.
John's message to the people of his day, then, was this: clear away the spiritual blockage in your life that's a barrier between you and Holy God; a blockage due to false idols, wrong values - what we might call 'fraud gods'.
FACING UP TO THE FRAUD GODS
John grew up in the wilderness, influenced by the Holy Spirit, without a lot of human interaction. He had no interest in trying to please people or court their favour. He dressed ruggedly and didn't mince his words. As if he had some kind of spiritual night-vision scope, he could see and target the darkness and strongholds hidden in people's lives. And he wasted no time persuading them of the urgency of them getting right with God before it was too late.
V7, "You brood of vipers!" You snakes! Who tipped you off to flee from the coming wrath? (As if he were almost disappointed that these crooks were going to escape judgment!) As John knew, the wrath was justly deserved.
If they really wanted to deal with their devilishness, this was not a time for presumption or complacency. They had no time to spare, or to put it off and come back tomorrow. V9, "The ax is already at the root of the trees..." - they're about to "be cut down and thrown into the fire." Today, we might use the sound effect of a chainsaw being started up and revved - danger is at hand!
Luke summarizes this section very strangely in v18: "And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them." The word 'exhorted' is literally 'paracleted' (same word used elsewhere for the Holy Spirit as Comforter, Counselor, Helper). The King James Version translates it "and so comforting them"...We'd hardly call that kind of talk 'comforting' - more 'disturbing' or 'shocking'. And Luke calls this 'preaching the good news': how is this 'paracleting' helpful or good news?
John taught that a key was available to clearing away or forgiveness of or release from sin: a baptism of repentance, turning around in your heart and soul and mind, your inner being. But unless you change your thinking and attitude, you're going to just keep on getting stuck in the same old sin traps. We need to see the 'fraud gods' for what they are: false comforts that actually set us up for hell.
One 'fraud god' John takes aim at is FAMILY. V8, talking to Jews here now, "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." The Jewish lineage, the pure breeding they took such pride in, did not matter one bit to God relationally. He was not impressed by their patriarchal pedigree.
There's a danger in presuming that, because we come from the right family, our clan is established in the community, been pillars in the church over generations, our parents have a good reputation - there's a danger in presuming these things that we suppose on that basis, our background, we don't have anything to worry about before God. We're smug in our righteous relatives. If so, John has news for us - "God has no grandchildren." Our parents' faith is truly a valuable background but it doesn't matter a hill of beans unless we choose to trust God ourselves. We need to humble ourselves before God, allow Him to level the mountain of our pride in trusting in our fleshly background.
For example, the apostle Paul had the most impressive pedigree anyone could want. Listen to his evaluation of it in Philippians 3(4-8): "If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ...for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ..." Paul realized how much all those things he once took pride in, that he could rightly boast of, actually got in the way of knowing God on the basis of the gift of His Son.
So we can't assume we're OK with God because of our family. Conversely, though, this means good news for any who may be in the opposite situation. Having a poor or shameful background - maybe some skeletons in the family closet, or parents who were absolutely embarrassing - does NOT as such exclude you or prohibit you from being adopted into God's family. Think about Jesus' earthly ancestry as recorded n Matthew 1: it wasn't all glistening - there were cheats, harlots, and moral failures, including Jacob, Tamar, Ruth, David and Bathsheba, and Manasseh. So if your background is less than perfect, take heart: that needn't exclude you from joining God's family by faith in Jesus!
A second 'fraud god' is FINANCES. Wealth, success, and prosperity are not necessarily signs of God's acceptance and approval. As Ecclesiastes 9(11) observes, "The race is not to the swift...or wealth to the brilliant...but time and chance happen to them all." Your finances can be a FLUKE, and spiritually a deadly one, if that's where you find your security and your hope.
John was a big proponent of repentance, 'metanoia' in the Greek: what's that look like? What is some evidence that a person has truly repented? When the crowds asked John what they should do, he answered in v11, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same." That's tough medicine to swallow in a culture like ours that exalts capitalism, one's right to own and accumulate property. That's antithetical to the American way - or should we say, the North American way. Give away what you can to someone in need? Unthinkable! How counter-productive to supply and demand, how that would slap and sabotage the free market's 'invisible hand'!
The tunic was the less necessary undergarment, not the main robe or overcoat. Still John's point seems to be that we can manage without extras. A repentant soul doesn't mind getting by with just necessities. If we have food to spare, we ought to let someone else benefit from it. This answer has parallels in later verses with regard to finances: tax collectors are told not to collect more than required; John directs soldiers to be content with their pay.
Money can be a major stronghold that blocks us from trusting and loving God completely. If people came to the desert prophet expecting a pacifying pick-me-up, John went straight for their pocketbook! How we manage or hoard or share our wealth reveals much about our deepest values and where we find our significance and security. A repentant life is not focussed on accumulating stuff for oneself, but is freed up to become aware of and respond to other's needs. After Pentecost, Luke describes the early church folk this way: "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had." (Ac 4:32) That's repentance at work.
Faith frees me to acknowledge Jesus' Lordship over my finances; all I own is a stewardship for which I will give an account. It's not truly 'mine' in an ultimate sense. As David prayed when dedicating materials for the temple, "Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand." (1Ch 29:14) God's more interested in the condition of my heart; any treasure I have is a symptom of this, whether I count Him precious. Jesus taught, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Lu 12:34)
A third God is FINAGLING: I looked it up, it's in the dictionary - to finagle is to "act or obtain dishonestly". Tax collectors came to be baptized by John. When they asked what they should do, he told them (v13), "Don't collect any more than you are required to." Tax collectors were universally despised by the Jews of Palestine - partly because they were Jewish collaborators with the hated Roman occupiers, but also because they used their money-harvesting privileges to gouge the population; they were able to push the limit because they had soldiers to back them up. For instance, even dear old Zaccheus when he's converted admits, "If I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." (Lk 19:8)
You may not be a tax collector. You may not have impressive family background; you may not be wealthy. But perhaps you've learned to leverage your intelligence, your shrewdness, your slyness, your 'smarts'. You've learned how to work the system - from the schoolroom to the boardroom. If you've learned in life to trust in your own intelligence, that too may be a barrier walling you off from God, isolating you to an eternity of punishment away from His loving goodness. God who invented smartness in the first place is not impressed by human intelligence or wisdom. Through Isaiah God says, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isa 55:9) The Bible also asks, "Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1Co 1:20) Christ doesn't save on the basis of our IQ or wiliness. The smartest thing we can ever do is invite Him to be our Lord and Guide.
A fourth 'fraud god' John exposes is FORCE. Some soldiers ask what they should do in v14; he replies, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely - be content with your pay." Don't extort - literally, to shake thoroughly, make tremble, terrify, or agitate. Weapons have a way of doing that. And don't 'accuse falsely' - don't slander or blackmail. Soldiers are trained and equipped in the skilled application of deadly force; when you don't get paid all that much, it's a temptation to take advantage of that deadly force to bully or intimidate civilians to give you whatever you want. Like those Afghan police with the prisoners handed over they were only suppose to interrogate, not torture. Force - having power over someone - can be a major stronghold.
A principal example of ungodly use of force in the leadership of the time can be found in Herod the Great and his descendants. Herod the Great killed his wife and 3 of his sons because of his suspicions they were treasonous. That family was full of intrigue, plotting, sucking up to Rome, marital liaisons for political advantage - like Herod Antipas marrying his brother Philip's wife Herodias, or Herodias' daughter Salome marrying her uncle then her great-uncle. This is how the most powerful people in the land operated - so aggressively that sometimes the Jewish kings had to be deposed by the Roman overlords or else the population would have revolted, they were bullied so badly. Now, if you're a simple soldier and you know there's such goings-on amid the higher-ups - what's to stop you from using your force likewise?
John knew God was not impressed or intimidated by force. Neither was the prophet: he boldly rebuked Herod for divorcing one wife to marry his brother's wife Herodias. Though it would eventually cost him his life, John remained true to God's standards, rather than caving in.
FIRE AND FRUIT: THE DIFFERENCE MESSIAH MAKES
John's medium was his message: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance is a change to another completely different attitude, an about-turn in your way of thinking - letting God not self be in charge. You're under new management, new Lordship. Now, if that's the case - if you're no longer to be controlled by these 'fraud gods' - then what?
John associates connection with Christ's coming with two signs in the lives of those who repent: the inner and the outer. First, v16, "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." At Pentecost people saw 'what seemed to be tongues of fire' separate and come to rest on each of the followers of Jesus (Ac 2:3). Fire thus means experiencing God's presence through the Holy Spirit in our inner being. Our hearts are warmed with His love, joy, peace, and other characteristics (Gal 5:22f). John says in v17 Messiah has his winnowing fork in his hand; "He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." That's true of sinners at judgment, also the fire testing the quality of each one's work as Paul describes in 1Cor 3(13). But it's also true of the Spirit's regenerative work inside us, burning up works of the flesh, incinerating the trash of old sinful habits.
What about you - do you know this 'fire' John was describing? Would those around you say you're 'on fire' for God - or are lesser passions driving you? In Philippians 3 Paul could speak of worshipping by the Spirit of God, glorying in Christ Jesus, and putting no confidence in the flesh (those 'fraud gods' we talked about earlier). What was Paul 'on fire' for? "That I may gain Christ and be found in Him...I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings..." (Php 3:3,10) Those are the aims that consume a heart aflame for its Saviour.
But repentance isn't just an interior job. Besides the fire, there's also unmistakable FRUIT. Luke 3:8, "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance..." V9, "Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down..." Here again the question is, What about you? What kinds of fruit are visible in your life to show you are living for Jesus and actively waiting for His return? If we were to poll those with whom you spend the most time, would they be able to spot any difference knowing the Lord has made in your behaviour?
A SNOWBOARDER'S 180 (SPIRITUALLY)
Since winning her first Nationals and US Open in 1991 at the age of 13, Janna Meyen-Weatherby has been a champion snowboarder. This August she secured second place at the New Zealand Open, and has been named by Snowboarder magazine as the No.1 Most Influential Female Rider of all time.
But five years ago, this champion of 4 Winter X Games used parties to hide from the depression and emptiness she felt inside. When her brother took her to church, Janna slowly began to see that God was missing in her life, and that she needed Him. This fall, at 32, she shared in a magazine that accepting Jesus into her heart was 'the best decision I ever made", allowing her to finally experience peace. Now, her perspective on snowboarding has changed dramatically. She says, "My relationship with God is my number one thing. I could win X Games for the 90th time or learn some great trick, but unless I'm right in my heart with [God], success in anything won't matter."
A champion snowboarder should be an expert when it comes to flips and turns. Repentance means we do a 180-degree-turn from going our own way to following God's way. Going our own way leads downhill to destruction. When, like Janna, we make Jesus our 'number one thing', God's fire and fruit released in our lives bring peace and lasting meaning where before there was only emptiness from the 'fraud gods'. Let's pray.