During the season of Epiphany as we ask the question “Who is Jesus?” we will be exploring the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. We’ve seen baby Jesus and talked a little about his early life, but starting in the book of Luke chapter 3, we meet grown-up Jesus. Like I said last week, there will probably be very little new content for you in these stories. If you’ve been to church at all ever, you’ve heard stories of Jesus. But over the next several weeks, I invite you to let Jesus surprise you a little bit. Maybe open you minds to seeing him in a new way. The best way to do that is to stay in the story that Luke is telling. Try not to pull in details from other gospels; try not to get ahead of yourself. As we explore together on Sunday mornings, just be in the moment with the story as it’s told to us.
And to that end, our story this morning doesn’t even start with Jesus. It’s starts with John the Baptizer. In fact, Jesus doesn’t even show up in this story until the last two verses. But if we are going to think about who Jesus is, Luke invites us to start with who John says Jesus is. So let’s get into it. This is the gospel of Luke chapter 3, verses 1 through 22.
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 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.
Right from the start Luke sets his story in the context of political and religious power. But that’s not where God shows up. God shows up in the wilderness, away from the centers of power. God is doing something outside the power structure, something different, something new.
It begins with John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a prophet called by God to offer all people a baptism, which would signify their intention to change their hearts and lives and their desire to be forgiven of their sins.
Forgiveness is that word “release” that we’ve talked about a couple of times. The person who is forgiven is released from the weight of their sins. Luke is now going to connect John’s calling to the wider history of Israel.
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.’”
Here Luke quotes Isaiah chapter 40 to connect John the Baptizer with the expectation that someone would show up before the Messiah to get things ready. Within that quote we see some of Luke’s favorite themes of transformation: rough and crooked roads become smooth and straight, low spots are filled in and high spots are leveled; and another favorite theme of inclusion: ALL PEOPLE will see the salvation of God.
Now we get into what John was actually saying and doing:
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. 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 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.”
Harsh, huh? This is not how they teach you to preach in seminary. You don’t start by lambasting the people who are coming to hear you. But John does. He takes them to task for assuming that their heritage would guarantee their spot in the Kingdom of God. And he reminds them that it’s not their pedigree but their actions that matter. And amazingly, the people respond. They want to repent and change and so they ask for more guidance.
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even toll collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
This is what John says it means to live in a way that demonstrates that their repentance was real: Share. Even if you don’t have much, share with someone who has even less. Don’t lose your power to abuse others, even in the little ways that you can get away with. Even if you maybe even think you can justify it. And be content. Here’s how the people respond to this:
The people were filled with expectation and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 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. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
Luke wants it to be very clear that John is not the Messiah. But I’m so taken by how this passage ends. After all the stuff about vipers and wrath and trees being chopped down and chaff burned with unquenchable fire— after all that, Luke says that John exhorted the people and proclaimed good news to them. We’re gonna come back to this. But let’s finish the story.
But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
Luke isn’t interested in telling this story. His goal with this comment is to wrap up John’s ministry before he introduces Jesus’ ministry.
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.
Here we have this beautiful moment of a voice from heaven, the voice of God the parent, claiming Jesus as a beloved child, expressing delight in Jesus before Jesus has even begun his ministry, before Jesus has DONE anything! A reminder that God loves us not for what we do, not because we earn God’s love, but simply because we belong to God. The way we love our children. Not because they earn it. But just because they are ours.
So. What do we do with that whole story? On this Sunday, January 10, as the season of Pentecost begins, when Christians around the world are celebrating the baptism of our Lord, after a politically turbulent and disturbing week, when once again our systemic racism is on full display. What do we do with this story that many of us have heard dozens of times? What do we do with this story as we try to figure out, “Who is Jesus”?
I’ll tell what it is for me. As I’ve studied with these verses this week, I continue to be caught by the combination of judgment and affirmation. Because those are not things that the American church in general is very good at combining. We think they need to be separate, so much so that many churches specialize in one or the other. But they aren’t separate in this text. John gives some really clear warnings. He makes demands. He insists that the coming of the Messiah is going to have consequences. And he doesn’t back down from that. And yet, the people are filled with expectation. They wonder in their hearts if he is the Messiah. And the text says that John used many other exhortations, which can also mean encouragements, entreaties, comforts, and urgings— to proclaim the good news.
Here’s what I think. I think God doesn’t have a problem combining judgment and good news. I think we do. I think God is very clear on how creating a new world includes defining what will NOT be part of it. God is able to balance welcome and inclusion with decisive action to exclude things that aren’t welcome.
But we struggle with that. In part because most of us aren’t very good at nuance. We’re also really fragile and scared. For us judgment feels like violence. And we meet violence with violence. For us, judgment just begets more judgment. You want to point out the things I’m doing that aren’t in line with the Kingdom? OK, fine, then I’m going to point out the things you’re doing that aren’t in line with the Kingdom. Jesus himself tells us not to judge lest we be judged. See how that works? Judgment begets judgment. So for us, it’s very hard for judgment to feel like good news. Good news for us means safety, which means acceptance, which means not being challenged and not having any of our shortcomings pointed out. Judgment feels like violence. Good news feels like affirmation. So we can judge or we can affirm. But we really have a hard time doing both.
Which is why it’s really great that judgment is not our job! Look at the text. Nowhere in here does it say that the people of God are the ones holding the axes, ready to chop down the unfruitful trees. We are not the ones separating the wheat from the chaff. God is. We may not be able to judge and affirm at the same time, but God can. God’s judgment is not violent. It’s not about punishment. If you look at the text, God’s judgment is about clearing out things that have no usefulness in the Kingdom of God. God doesn’t hate the trees that aren’t producing. God doesn’t hate the chaff. They just are not serving the purposes of God’s work in the world, so they get cleared away.
That’s very different from how we judge others, which is why we have such a hard time understanding and living into this story. When we judge others, we judge their worth, their character, their intrinsic value as human beings. We are angry at them and we do want to chop them down and burn them up. I do. That’s honestly how I feel. That’s how we do judgment. Based on someone’s actions, we decide whether they are valuable to us (and thus we assume valuable to God) and if they aren’t we chop them down and burn them up with our words and our actions. And we feel very self-righteous about it. But friends, that’s not God’s judgment. Which is why it’s not our job.
We are only responsible for responding to God’s invitation for ourselves. We are responsible for bearing fruit worthy of repentance ourselves. We are responsible for examining our own lives, allowing God to sift us, separating the wheat from the chaff in us, and allowing God to burn the chaff in our own lives. We are responsible for opening ourselves up to God’s judgment so that God can cleanse and purify and prune as needed so that we can bear good fruit.
That’s what repentance is about. We allow our sins to define us. We focus on our failures. (Or we try to hide our failures and only acknowledge our successes, which is just another way of focusing on our failures.) We need to be released from that, and that’s what forgiveness is. In the whole gospel of Luke, the word translated as “forgiveness” is the word “release.” That’s what God offers us: release. And the way we access it is through repentance. Repentance is more than thinking. We aren’t going to be able to think our way out of this, or we would have done it already. Repentance is a change of heart and mind and will, it’s a change of action. Sam reminds me that in AA they say we can’t think our way into right acting. We can’t think our way into right acting. But we can act our way into right thinking. There’s no such thing as repentance in your mind. It’s bigger than that. And when we get it, when we DO IT, we experience release from our sick preoccupation with our sins, and frankly with other people’s sins too. And it’s God’s affirmation of us, knowing that we are accepted and loved before we do anything, that gives us the courage to change.
God’s affirmation of us is beautifully depicted in the baptismal moment of Jesus. We all need to know that we are beloved, that God takes delight in us. Because when we know that someone loves us deeply and has our best interest at heart, we trust that person when they tell us what needs to change in our life. God’s affirmation of us as God’s beloved children does not mean that God is going to gloss over the things we do that are out of line with God’s kingdom. God’s affirmation of us gives us the safety and strength we need to change our actions as well as our hearts and our minds so that we can be released from the weight of our sins. That is what we receive in our baptisms.
So who is Jesus, in this story? Jesus is the Beloved, who can both judge and affirm, offering us release from the weight of our sins. Amen.