Today’s passage is Luke 3:1-20:
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas andCaiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,[a]
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
7 He said therefore 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 in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to 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 shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics[b] is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. 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 barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
Heralds come before royalty. In the movie Aladdin, the magical genie, voiced by Robin Williams, trumpets his announcement:
Make way for Prince Ali
Say hey! It’s Prince Ali…
And in marches Aladdin, newly made over as Prince Ali, coming to the palace to meet Princess Jasmine.
John the Baptist was the herald. Jesus was the coming king. And John the Baptist’s job was to announce to Israel that her Messiah was coming, to prepare their hearts for him.
God was starting to turn the world upside down. Isaiah’s language of mountains flattened and valleys raised up meant reversal. We’ve already seen that theme in Luke through the words of Mary of Nazareth and Zacharias. John does not privilege Jews for being biologically related to Abraham (3:7 – 9). Rather, ‘all flesh’ (3:6) will see what God will do. See what? The salvation of God (3:6): Jesus himself. That’s the second time the word ‘soterion’ is used in Luke’s story; the first time was by Simeon in the Temple when he saw the infant Jesus (2:30). So people are going to ‘see’ Jesus in a similar way Simeon did.
The seismic revolution Jesus brings shows in how we acquire and deal with money. This gets practical right away, doesn’t it? The average person needs to share their things and care for the poor (3:10 – 11). Notice this is not: ‘tithe 10% to your local church.’ Rather, it’s: ‘give up to 50% away directly to the poor and those in need.’ The second and third responses refer to the political situation.
Jewish tax collectors worked for the Roman government by collecting taxes from their fellow Jews. Since they made their living charging extra, John tells them to effectively not make any money (3:12 – 13). They absorb structural injustice in their own paycheck and lifestyle. They have to (get to?) depend on other Jews again, for support. This is different from how we typically handle social injustice. We tend to tell people to get out of certain careers. Maybe that’s appropriate at times. But John perceives that the political reality is not just going to change overnight, so tax collector vacancies will not be filled by others. Those in the position can lighten the burden. But it will cost them.
The Roman soldiers would have felt similarly. They were probably instructed by their superiors to extort the Jews and just take things. But John the Baptist tells them to bow to a higher authority – God – and disobey their commanding officers if the officer tells them to extort money (3:14). Again, the kingdom of God requires absorbing injustice in one’s own paycheck.
With John, there are stirrings of a new kingdom community being born. We can respond with gladness, or reluctance. That’s why divine ‘fire’ can be either a positive or negative experience. It is positive in connection with the Holy Spirit in 3:16 because the Spirit purifies us from within. Or it can be negative in connection with our reluctance and resistance in 3:9 and 3:17 because fire destroys wood. John uses ‘fire’ like the Old Testament writers did. God is a purifying fire. If you welcome God purifying you, you experience Him as a blessing. If you don’t, you experience Him as torment.
Think about the way you feel like God is reshaping your view of people, structural injustice, and money. Praise God for that and sing a worship song. Read Psalm 112. Even if you find it hard at the moment, like if it causes conflict in you or conflict between you and your parents/social group, cultivate His desires, and ask God to help you desire His revolution.
Mako Nagasawa is Director of the New Humanity Institute. He, his wife Ming, and their two children live in a Christian intentional community involved with urban ministry in Dorchester.