9 December 2012Luke 3:1-6
"He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." (v.3)
Despite Luke's detailed background in verses 1-2 we are not able
to date this passage precisely, but it does reveal the messy and
complicated political and religious situation of the time. The
Romans had been around in the region for about 100 years: they
exercised direct rule in some areas (including Jerusalem) while
others had weak but vicious local rulers reporting to Rome. There
had been uprisings, some of which had been brutally
Into this, John the Baptist appears proclaiming the word of God. Luke has told us lots about John in earlier chapters to show us that he is going to be special, but what John does here is intended to shock us. It probably doesn't - baptism is not considered outrageous in our culture even if Christians do not always agree about it. For Jews though, the shock was that baptism was not normally for them but for gentiles (non-Jews) who wanted to convert to Judaism.
By baptising Jews, John is telling them that because of their behaviour and their situation they need to seek to become Jews again. They need to accept that they are separated from God's people and they need to re-join Judaism. For John that means they need do what gentiles do when they want to be accepted by Judaism - that is repent, be washed clean and then show radical changes in their behaviour.
This passage is highly challenging for Christians yet we rarely talk of the key challenge. Instead we get caught up in the detailed process on who, how and when we baptise. So we miss the point, which is about what needs to be challenged in our society. How should it happen and what is the role of the Church and Christians?
During this season of Advent it is easy to become sentimental about preparing for Christmas and easy to hide in the busyness. But when we read this passage in that way we can miss the impact. This is not simply the preparation for the nativity. Advent is not a season for soppy decorations, but for hard challenges. Where are today's John the Baptists bringing us back to God?
- If John the Baptist were to appear in your road today what would he be saying?
- How does a demand that you repent and seek forgiveness make you feel?
- If suggesting baptism to Jews was outrageously shocking, what do you think might be expected of you today that you would find equally shocking?