Thoughts on the Word:
Luke 3:7-18 (NRSV)
7 John said 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? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11 In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12 Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13 He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14 Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
I have often been involved in conversations with people over the course of my life and particularly over the last several years who have this idea that Christianity teaches that in order to get to heaven all they have to do is be baptised and be 'good'. It is especially frustrating when the person expressing this view is someone who claims to be a Christian. Now I am not saying these people are insincere in their belief, I have found most are very sincere - they are however dead wrong. Another favourite often extolled by atheist evangelists is that people only believe in the Christian concept of God because they are afraid of going to hell - that Christianity's main recruiting strategy is to scare people into the Kingdom.
John the Baptist certainly didn't believe that fear was an acceptable reason to come to repentance and enter God's good graces... Lets examine what John has to say to this crowd who had come - apparently to repent and be baptised. John opens his address to the crowd rather scathingly... ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. John knows that those who have come to him are not there out of a genuine will to repent and come closer to God - they are there to simply avoid ' the wrath to come'. This is simply not good enough, and John demands genuine repentance, and a genuine changing of the heart which will bear the fruit of repentance. John demands not that they simply go through the ritual and be 'good', he demands that they genuinely turn away from their sin and display their new found faith in the way that they live. John's warning is clear, you can go through the ritual if you want, but if you aren't living your faith genuinely then... Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ You see John is warning them that if they repent to save themselves only, and don't live a life of faith, that they are wasting their time - they will end up in the same place. It is similar is it not to the message that James gives us in his letter - faith without works is dead.
Now like James, John isn't preaching that we can earn our way to salvation, rather he teaches us that when our motivation is right - when we are focused on God and not on ourselves, then we will bear fruit in our lives. When we are focused on God, we will share our spare shirt with the one with none, we will provide food for the needy, we will not extort and rob from those around us in order to serve our own needs. No, when we are focused on God and His Kingdom we see the futility of storing up wealth for ourselves at the expense of others, after all when we understand God's purpose and goal for humanity we also begin to understand his love for us, his forgiveness, and his generosity.
We are called by our creator and our saviour to live our lives in relationship with him. We cannot be in relationship with him if we are not living lives in alignment with his nature. We cannot be in relationship with God if we ignore the needy, for God teaches us to care for them. We cannot be in relationship with God if we ignore injustice - for God is just. John as he prepares the way for the Lord, is telling us something very very important about our salvation. Our salvation cannot be bought, and it cannot be earned. We will not be saved by being baptised if we don't have faith to accompany it. We will not be saved through turning up to church each week, or as so many do now by turning up at Christmas. We are saved by the grace of God through faith. Faith that is genuine (not a get out of jail free card) and which has its focus on God - and not on us.
John exemplifies this kind of faith, in all he does he takes no glory for himself, John understands that it is not about him. When the people begin to wonder at John's teaching and question whether he might be the messiah, John does not think to himself 'oh I must be doing a good job - I'm sure to get my ticket to heaven now!' ... No, John when the people begin to place their focus on him, to praise him, rather does what he always did - what he and all of us are called to do - he pointed to God. He even went so far as to say he is not worthy to untie the sandal of the one who is coming after him... this may seem a small thing in our eyes, but to John and his audience it had big implications. John was saying that he was not even worthy to be treated as a lowest ranking servant. Rather than thinking he should be rewarded for his work, John acknowledged that he was not worthy of the gift that was coming.
As we approach Christmas, it is a time for all of us to examine our own faith. Are we living out our faith in such a way as to bear fruit? Do others look at us and see people of faith or just 'nice people'? If John the Baptist were standing in front of you and you asked him what must I do?... what would he say to you?
John taught us that our focus, our lives and our faith must always be directed to God - and not to ourselves. We cannot earn our way to heaven through rituals and being 'good people', we must live a genuine faith, we must walk in accordance to the will of God and bear fruit for the kingdom. So as we approach this time of Christmas let us keep our focus on God and the coming of his Kingdom.
I pray that you will be richly blessed in the coming week,