24 June 2010

Luke 3:1-17

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" (v.4)


On this day many churches celebrate the witness of John the Baptist, so we depart temporarily from the theme of the week. Luke tells of the beginning of John's ministry around the River Jordan and his central task of preparing the way for the one who will baptise with fire.

John is a strange preacher! Accusing those who come to hear you to be snakes and hypocrites is hardly designed to win over your congregation! In Luke's account, John tars everyone with the same brush. Compare this with the account in Matthew (3:1-12) where John speaks favourably to the crowd and only speaks against the religious teachers and leaders (the Pharisees and the Sadducees).

Luke clearly draws attention to the danger which threatens everyone - not just snakes and hypocrites. The tree is about to be cut down, the chaff burned in the fire. Appeals to religious ancestry or traditions cannot help. The coming Messiah does not remove this threat for he is the one who will baptise with fire in order to cleanse and purify. Only repentance will do.

Luke fleshes out what John's baptism of confession and repentance mean, in ways that are probably as surprising to us as they might have been to John's hearers. When they ask him what they should do (in verse 10) John becomes remarkably practical: share your food, give away one coat if you have two. To tax collectors and soldiers he tells them to do their work fairly and without malice. Do we expect something more earth shattering to make smooth the way of the Lord, to straighten paths and fill valleys?

John is, in one sense, simply continuing a basic theme of all the prophets: "what does the Lord require but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). John names what justice, kindness and humility are for his audience - simple acts of hospitality, equity, fairness and respect. Acts such as these level and straighten, heralding and preparing the advent of God. Why are we so surprised?

To Ponder

When you confess and repent do you have the kind of things John speaks of in mind?

Is it true that Jesus 'accepts us as we are' or do we ignore at our peril that he baptises with fire? Could it be both? What are your thoughts?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr David Hewlett

David is currently principal of The Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education in Birmingham. He is an ordained Anglican priest and is an authorised minister within the British Methodist Church - a relationship that he has valued enormously.