Luke 3:1-16; Malachi 3:1-6; Philippians 1:3-11
You can listen to this Sermon HERE
On this Second Sunday of Advent we hone in on Luke 3:1-6. Today my approach will be to move slowly through the Biblical text and just ask it four basic questions, through which we might learn a few truths that God will impress in our hearts today.
The first question is …
The Gospel writer, Luke, was an author with an eye for detail; especially in regard to the historical setting of the life of Jesus. He wants us, his readers, to know that what he is writing is an accurate history … something that truly happened in an actual historical, political and religious context.
This passage, relating the ministry of John the Baptist, begins with a list of the political and religious elite of the day.
If Luke was writing today, he might have said, “In the 1st year of the reign of President Ramaphosa, when Helen Zille was Premier of the Western Cape, and Dan Plato mayor of Cape Town – in the final days of the term of Bishop Michel Hansrod, and during the ministry of Dave Howard in Claremont …”
Of course, the people he actually names in order to locate this event in historical context were:
- Tiberius – who was the Roman Emperor (who succeeded Augustus);
- Pontius Pilate = who was Governor of the Roman Province of Judea;
- Herod, Philip and Lysanias – who were appointed by the Romans as “Tetrarachs” – in reality Jewish “puppet kings” of various parts of Israel.
- The high priests Annas and Caiaphas. These are interesting characters because Annas was actually the previous high-priest and he was succeeded by his son-in-law Caiaphas. However Annas remained the real political power behind the high-priesthood. That’s why, when Jesus was arrested, in John 18 we read that he was taken first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas the high priest.
So, back to Luke 3 … where, having just listed the who’s who of public life in Judea, Luke says, “The Word of the Lord came to…”
Who do we expect the Word of the Lord to come to?
To Annas? To Caiaphas? Maybe to the King or the Governor or the Emperor?
But no! The Word of the Lord came to John. John? Who the heck is John? Oh, sorry, John, son of Zechariah. Zechariah? Who the heck is Zechariah? John, son of Zechariah. He is on a list of the who’s who … but he is a totally obscure nobody!
Worse than that. If we cross-reference Matthew we learn that John used to dress in camel-hair clothing with a leather belt, and a diet of locusts and wild honey. John, son of Zechariah is an obscure, nobody, weirdo!
And yet … the Word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah.
Now I think God want us to see two things here, under the heading of “WHO?”.
- First thing: If you see yourself … or are considered by other people … to be an obscure nobody or a weirdo … you must know this: God LOVES to use the weird, the weak and the obscure … because while people look at the outward impression … God looks at the heart. Do not think for a moment that God cannot or will not use you because you feel like an outcast … a nobody … or a weirdo. You may, in fact, be JUST the kind of person God is longing to use.
- Second thing: When you and I see someone else who looks or sounds like they are just weird, obscure nobodies … we had better sit up and take notice of the content of their actions or speech … because the Word of God came to John the Baptist … NOT to Annas, Caiaphas, Herod, Pilate or Tiberius. Just because the messenger seems weird … obscure … or a nobody … does not automatically mean that they are to be ignored or side-lined. God LOVES to use the weird, the weak and the obscure.
So that is WHO … and those are some thoughts to ponder about John the weird, John the obscure, John the nobody … who later gained fame as John the Baptist.
Now, of course this is closely related to the WHO. The Word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah. We would expect that the Word came to him in the Caesar’s Palace … or in the Temple … or in the Synagogue. But again, we are surprised to read, “The Word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (v.2)
The wilderness was a place of danger from the unyielding heat and lack of water … from the wild animals and bandits. It was a place of barrenness, it was somewhere the Israelites believed that demons roamed. It was a place for madmen and lepers.
And yet the wilderness was also a massively important place for the people of God. God met Moses in the burning bush in the wilderness. God led His people into the wilderness to prepare them for the Promised Land. God gave the Ten Commandments in the wilderness. David fled to the wilderness to escape Saul. Elijah fled from persecution by Ahab and Jezebel into the wilderness. And when Jesus was later to be prepared for His ministry, the Holy Spirit led Him into the wilderness.
You and I do not really want to be in the symbolic wildernesses of life … in the place of danger, fear, anxiety, and stress …the place of lack … of need. We avoid the wilderness places of life.
And yet there is something vital here we must not miss. In Luke 1:80 we read a very important fact about John the Baptist: “And the child grew, and became strong in the Spirit, and he lived in the wilderness … until he appeared publicly to Israel.”
John did not go out into the wilderness because he had a word to speak. He went out into the wilderness … and when he was there … God gave him a word to speak.
You see, the wilderness … the place of difficulty and danger … the place of attack and anxiety … the place of loneliness and lack … is precisely the place where God loves to be … to draw near to people … to meet with us and be with us.
So, again, I think the Lord wants us to see two things here under the heading of “WHERE?”:
- When you find yourself inadvertently in a wilderness experience that you wish with all your heart and soul you could avoid … know this … you are perfectly positioned for a divine encounter that could change your life and destiny forever. Look for it. Look for God in your wilderness. He is there! Listen for God in your wilderness. He is speaking!
- When you long for a Word from the Lord … go to the wilderness deliberately. Go to the place of solitude and silence. Don’t try to seek out God and His Word in the place of success and noise and busyness and popularity. Don’t turn to the tele-evangelist who will send you a prophetic word for the $100 donation. Don’t turn to the Christianised horoscope of your daily word from God on Facebook. NO! Go to the wilderness of solitude and silence and seeking. Seek God’s face and seek God’s heart.
So that is “WHERE” and those are some thoughts to ponder when the wilderness moments come your way. But then, what about WHAT?
What was the Word of the Lord? Simple really: “John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
The Word from God to the people of John’s day and age was this:
- REPENT: In other words, turn away from your sinful behaviour and leave it behind so that you can turn to God.
- BE BAPTISED as a sign of your determination to start a brand new life of leaving sin behind and walking with God.
- YOU WILL BE FORGIVEN: John preached that if the people of his day would make that decision to REPENT … and cement that decision by BAPTISM … they would experience the washing of God’s forgiveness.
This is an age-old message that never loses its validity. This has always been God’s way. God who longs to be in an unhindered relationship with every human being, loves us too much to force us into that relationship. He loves us so much that he creates us with the freedom to choose.
All that John the Baptist’s Word from God was placing before the people of his day … and which it is still placing before us today is this: Make your choice today! Choose God! Choose Life!
God is not setting out loads of hoops for us to jump through. He is simply placing the choice before us: Here I am. I love you. I hold Life in all its abundance in My hand. But you have to choose to stop looking for Life in all the wrong places … and come to Me.
When Malachi prophesied the coming of John the Baptist 300 years before he arrived on the scene, Malachi highlighted some of the places the people of his day were looking for Life in all the wrong places. We read about them in the Daily Discipleship Readings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
- Some were looking for Life in sorcery … in magic that would manipulate the powers of the spiritual world in their favour.
- Some were looking for Life in sexual immorality and adultery … thinking that sexual pleasure would give them abundance.
- Some were looking for Life in wealth … and they were willing to lie, to underpay their workers, and to take advantage of the vulnerable widows, orphans and foreigners to enrich themselves.
John the Baptist came to call all people … us included … to no longer look for LIFE in these places … but to turn back to God and find true Life in Him and Him alone. How appropriate this call is in this day of:
- widespread sorcery – where spiritual healers and horoscopes and manipulation abound;
- immorality – where sexual indulgence is a mainstream form of entertainment;
- lust for wealth and power – which is pursued through corruption, state capture, fake news, and the oppression of immigrants and asylum-seekers;
- oppression of workers – where the payment of a minimum wage of R20 per hour is celebrated as some kind of victory for workers. Hello! R20 per hour. Who on earth can live on that?
It is as though John is reminding us that when we pursue LIFE through human means we end up on the road to DEATH instead … and he is issuing a LOUD call to turn back from that road and instead to turn to God so that we can truly be on the road to LIFE. And the good news is that God is ready and waiting to forgive us for our sins.
Through John the Baptist, God was holding out to His people the olive branch of peace.
The last question I want to ask of this passage is WHY?
The answer is found, I believe, in the passage Luke quotes from Isaiah 40:3-5. Why did John need to come proclaiming this message? Answer: To prepare the way for the coming of Messiah, Jesus.
It is not that Jesus needed the way prepared for Him … it is that people need the way prepared to RECEIVE HIM. A bit like the hymn “Joy to the World” says: “Let every heart prepare Him room.”
Because of God’s refusal to overpower our free will, the message of repentance will always precede what Isaiah calls the “salvation of the Lord”.
Repentance prepares the way for the Lord to come into our lives … it fills in the valleys and levels the mountains and straightens the paths so that Messiah can come and do His ministry in our lives unhindered! By repentance we offer Jesus free reign.
I love polishing silver. It was one of my chores as a child. Repentance is like applying the Silvo. Without is, you can rub all you like, the tarnish won’t come off. But apply that Silvo … leave it to stand for a bit … and suddenly the polishing rag does its magic!
When we repent and turn to the Lord He has free reign to save us from our sin and set us firmly on the path to LIFE … to refine us and purify us of all that destroys life … to purify us of all that tarnishes the image of God in our lives.
Repentance opens the door for Jesus to begin His work in our lives … and that work is a lifelong work. As Paul declared in Philippians 1:6 “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ” and he prayed that they “may be pure and blameless until the day of Jesus Christ”(v.11) But it all starts here with John’s message! Repent. Turn to God!