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Voice in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-14


It is a rather consistent pattern: the prophets tended to be dwellers in the wilderness. Perhaps it is so because they can hear God so much more clearly there, away from the pressures and bustle of the city. Whatever the reason, John was there.

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, "THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, 'MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT. 'EVERY RAVINE WILL BE FILLED, AND EVERY MOUNTAIN AND HILL WILL BE BROUGHT LOW; THE CROOKED WILL BECOME STRAIGHT, AND THE ROUGH ROADS SMOOTH; AND ALL FLESH WILL SEE THE SALVATION OF GOD.'" So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? "Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father,' for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. "Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." And the crowds were questioning him, saying, "Then what shall we do?" And he would answer and say to them, "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise." And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than what you have been ordered to." Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, "And what about us, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."

(Luke 3:1-14 NASB)

The word of the Lord came

John is, of course, the last of the Old Testament (i.e., old covenant) prophets. It is fitting therefore that he should be in the wilderness, as they were. But in this we have some notes which may be heard today:

  • Please note – “the word.” There is no sense of ambiguity in this; God makes it perfectly clear to him what must be done. As we shall see, this is in keeping with his message of repentance.
  • Please note – “of the Lord.” This is not the wild imagining of John, nor the latest consensus of political correctness. It is God’s message; the prophet is there to deliver it.
  • Please note – “in the wilderness.” It’s where you look for prophets – usually crying, one way or another. Do not expect the word of God to come to you through the functions of this world.
  • Please not – he did not simply hear the word; he did it.

John’s Message

John preaches a “baptism of repentance.” We can examine these two words to our profit (pun intended) as well:

Physical immersion

Man is a hybrid animal, an amphibian – both material and spiritual. These two natures are not separate, so therefore that which happens in one realm affects the other. Baptism is the material sign of repentance. It is the picture of washing the filth off your body – getting rid of what is foul. But it has one other meaning here which we might miss.

The ceremony for accepting a Gentile as a Jewish proselyte used baptism as well. The implications of this are radical; as Jesus said, you must be born again. John is telling them they must do what a sincere proselyte would do. Can we see through their eyes?

  • This would be an act of humility – one which would place a life-long Jew on the same level with a Gentile who had just converted to Judaism.
  • This would be a new beginning – a welcome thought to the repentant sinner, but repugnant to those sure of their position.
  • This would also tell the people that God does not play favorites. The Gentile proselyte is baptized; so are you.

The spiritual parallel is repentance – the art of making a spiritual U-turn. What is this thing, repentance?

  • It is an admission of guilt. You don’t repent if you’re not guilty.
  • More than that, it is the attempt to set matters right – you want to atone for what you’ve done; you seek the forgiveness of those wronged.
  • It is not merely ceasing to do evil; it is replacing evil with good.

And, please, it is not merely individual. We are responsible for our own actions – we are also part of a society. There comes a time for repentance by a people, too.

The spoken word

Shall we see what the man has to say?

“you brood of vipers”

This has two very disturbing implications to the Jew of this time:

  • The viper would immediately remind them of Satan. John is, in effect, calling them children of the devil. (Christ will do likewise). It seems that he is not complaining of just one particular sin, but their sinful lives.
  • Worse yet, it seems to be hereditary (brood). How can a man change his heredity? If I’m a hereditary sinner, how can I escape it?
“who warned you?”

Whoever warned them, it obviously wasn’t Satan, the head viper. But this warning shows us other things:

  • Somebody warned them. In our era, this is the function of the Holy Spirit. God sent the prophets of old and last His Son to turn us from our evil ways. He does not leave us to figure it out on our own.
  • Which, of course, means that we needed the warning, right? That carries two implications: first, we deserve it (we’re sinners). Second, if we don’t repent, we’re going to get it.

And what are we going to get?

“the wrath to come”

A preacher of my acquaintance was always fond of saying, “God is angry with the wicked all day long.” None of us would deny that justice has not found full fruit in this world. There are many who owe Saddam Hussein much. But even with the worst of sinners, God desires repentance, which brings a man close to God.

So God desires justice; he is patient and waiting – but not forever. The day will come when he will judge the living and the dead – the Day of Wrath. The day in which the evil get what they’ve been asking for.

Our Defenses

If we are accused of something, we have essentially three choices – defend our innocence, admit our guilt, or render our excuses. John anticipates such a defense, or excuse. Their defense is simple: we are the chosen people of God.

Now, to our ears, this sounds like no defense at all. But let’s put it in more modern terms: the unknowing hypocrite. Here, for your use, is my personal test for same. Consider the worship service on Sunday morning:

  • Do you walk out praising the sermon (“Great job, rev! Right on!”) knowing well that it will have no effect on your life? Glad that the preacher knows the difference between preaching and meddling?
  • Do you love the music we have – and its effect on your heart lasts no longer than the last note?
  • Are you willing to put something in the offering – but resent the word “tithe” as a reminder? Heaven forbid that someone should bring up the concept of a sacrifice!
“from these stones”

If we feel that way, John points out some simple facts. Adam, we are told, was created from the dust of the ground. The elements that make up our bodies are the same ones used in horses. God created Adam; if he wants to, he can raise up his children from stones. Therefore, our church heritage, our holy heredity, is God’s gift to us. God does not “owe” us anything.

Some of us, however, feel we have God in a box. He can’t discipline us; he can’t condemn us – look at how much work we’ve done for him. We forget that he will have mercy on those he will have mercy on. It is grace; his choice, not ours.

“axe at the root”

Over and again God warns his people: if you will not turn from sin, I will destroy you and raise up those who will honor my commandments. This phrase is awesome in its warning:

  • Note that the axe is at the root – the sign that the tree is destined to be completely eradicated. One prunes with a pruning hook, not an axe. This is destruction, not discipline.
  • The test of the tree is simple: Produce good fruit – or die.

The fruit of repentance

John now describes the good fruit the tree of repentance should produce.

Share your possessions

We sometimes skip this part. But may I point out a few little items about this tunic?

  • Note that the man who has two is to share – John is not talking to the rich who have a closet full of clothes. This example extends down to the least of us.
  • We might ask, then, what happens then? Suppose I do? Foolishness! Consider the lilies of the field; he will provide for you, too.
  • And, please, note the word: share. We are not to give with condescension, but with the warm heart of a friend sharing with a friend.
Honesty with money

Most of us are willing to be honest – until it costs. We are very good at justifying our petty frauds (the government will never know what I really gave to Goodwill). But do you not see the hypocrisy in this? We condemn our politicians (think of Gray Davis) for financial improprieties; little things that skirt the edge of the law. But we think ourselves clever for doing the same. Tell me, what kind of businessman do you like to deal with? The one who is just this side of fraud, or the one who is scrupulous about his honesty? Go thou, and do likewise.

The use of authority

It is a sad, but common, sight: the petty authority abusing his position. Sometimes it is for personal gain – those who have dealings in non-Christian societies often take for granted the bribe needed to get things through customs. Sometimes it is for self satisfaction – John here chastises those who would make false accusations (“He’s probably guilty of something.”) The issue is not the guilt of others; it’s ours. When we abuse the authority given us, it rots us out from the inside.

John’s cure is all too simple: contentment. These things are done because we tell ourselves that this civil service job doesn’t pay well enough, the rules of evidence are too strict – in short, something’s wrong, it’s depriving me and I’m going to fix it. You may fix it by breaking you.

Spiritual Fruit

You may have noticed that we have skipped over Luke’s quotation from Isaiah. John’s lesson is for repentance you can see; Isaiah taught a deeper lesson. His words are here so that you might know the spiritual side of repentance.

Spiritual repentance – what we must do

It’s stated quite clearly: we must make ready a place for the Lord. That place is in our hearts. Christ is the perfect gentleman. Note that when he tells us that he stands at the door and knocks, he’s not talking to non-Christians but to the church. He will not break in. He will wait for you to prepare a place for him within.

More than that is required: do not ask the Christ to come to you by the devious and twisted paths of the sinner. Don’t try to bargain with him, saying, “I need to hang on to this sin – but I’ll go to church every Sunday…” Make the path straight, for the Sinless One will not walk a crooked path.

Spiritual repentance – what He will do
  • He will eliminate the valleys – the downs and despair that come from the hopelessness of life without him. He fills our valleys with hope.
  • He will cut down the mountains – the mountains of our pride and self satisfaction.
  • He will make the crooked straight – turning you from one who is devious and knows every crooked way to one who is a “straight arrow.”
  • He will make the rough spots smooth – taking the froth of your rebellion and recalcitrance and turning it into the flow of still water, running deep.

Prepare a place for him; make straight the path to your heart.

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