Sermon / Pastor Terry Defoe / December 6th, 2015 / Luke 3:1-3 / Straight Paths
Our sermon text on this Second Sunday in the season of Advent is found in Luke’s Gospel, chapter three, verses 1 to 3:
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar … 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (N.I.V.)
Our sermon text this morning requires a bit of a history lesson in order to put a frame on the picture for us. The Gospel-writer Luke gives us a snapshot of the historical situation that's in place as Jesus’ ministry is getting started. Luke describes the historical situation when the prophet named John was preparing Israel for the arrival of the Messiah. God was at work behind the scenes in the world of that day. And that’s still true, of course, today. God is at work even when we're not aware of it. May God bless our consideration of His Holy Word this day so that we may hear it, understand it, and act upon it as well!
The Roman Empire was the dominant political power back in those days. Israel was, you might say, a very small cog in a very large wheel. The Roman Caesar at that time was a man by the name of Tiberias. And "Caesar," by the way, is just another word for “king.” Historians tell us that Tiberias ruled the Roman empire from A.D. 14 until his death in A.D. 37. Keep those dates in mind, if you would - A.D. 14 to 37. Apparently Tiberias was a military man - one of Rome’s greatest generals. In the latter part of his life, however, he became dark, reclusive and somber – the “gloomiest of men” by one account. We are told that Tiberias never wanted to be Emperor. And you can be sure that the God of the Holy Scriptures was the furthest thing from his mind.
All that was taking place in the Roman Empire, which covered a huge swath of territory in the ancient world. And in the Jewish province of Judea, in the Holy Land, the governor appointed by Rome was a man you know - Pontius Pilate. Among other things, Pontius Pilate was responsible for the collection of taxes for Rome. And his political masters expected him to keep order in Palestine. We are told that Pontius Pilate was governor in Judea from 26 to 36 A.D. Again, keep those dates in mind - 26 to 36 A.D. Pilate had an interesting relationship with the Jewish leaders. He had the power to appoint their high priest. And, as a footnote, historians tell us what we already know - that Pilate could be quite brutal. The Scriptures certainly bear witness to that.
There's more, but our history lesson is almost complete. Galilee, in the north of Israel, was ruled by the Tetrarch, Herod Antipas. When his father, Herod the Great died, his will directed that Israel be divided into four parts – four tetrarchs. Herod the Great, the father of Antipas, was the one who was in power at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod Antipas, the one we read about here in Luke chapter 3, his son, was the Herod confronted by John the Baptist after Antipas had divorced his first wife and married Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Herod Philip. Herod Antipas was a weak and indecisive man.
In addition to his including the political personalities of the day in our text for this morning, Luke also mentions some of the Jewish religious authorities. These were very important people, of course, because Jesus’ later conflict with them eventually led to His crucifixion. Luke wrote about two Jewish High Priests. The first was Annas. And the other was Caiaphas. Caiaphas was the High Priest Jesus was taken to after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Jewish High Priests were responsible for maintaining the religious status quo in Judaism. They believed and taught that the Law of God was the center of Israel’s faith. For them, keeping the Law brought life. They represented a religion in which the Law of God overshadowed everything else. The reality, however, the reality that Jesus would point out repeatedly, was that the Judaism of that day had become badly disconnected from God’s word.
So why do I tell you all this? Because all of this background information is the frame on the picture we’re going to be looking at this morning. The Scriptures tell us that when the time was just right, God sent a prophet – and the prophet's name was John. John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus. Like Jesus, John’s birth was foretold by the angel Gabriel. John was born just 6 months before Jesus. And he died about 6 months after Jesus’ ministry began. John’s ministry was quickly superseded by that of Jesus. Like a roman candle, John burned brightly, but only for a short while. In our text this morning, the Gospel-writer Luke show us that, in the world of that day, God was working out His Plan of Salvation. In the world of that day, and unbeknownst to most of the people, ancient Biblical prophecies were being fulfilled. Our text this morning gives us John’s job description. His task was to prepare Israel for the Messiah. His task was to straighten a crooked road – in other words, to straighten out the false teachings of the Jewish religious leaders. No easy task!
Luke chapter 1, verse 2 says that God’s Word came to John in the desert. In the Scriptures, the desert was often thought of as a place of quiet contemplation. It was a place where a person could get close to God. The desert was a place without distractions where God’s voice could be clearly heard. After his time in the desert, John went to the area around the Jordan River. And there, as we are told, he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
John's proclaimation began with a warning – with God’s Law. Martin Luther said that those who preach God’s word must properly distinguish Law from Gospel. Luther said that the Law should be preached to self-satisfied sinners - people who are kidding themselves about religious things – people with a false assurance about their relationship with God. On the other hand, the Gospel is to be preached to those who are concerned about their sins, and seek to please God. Because John started by preaching the Law, we know something about his audience. We know that they were self-satisfied. They had a false sense of security when it came to spiritual thing.
John called the religious leaders “vipers.” He reserved this strong language for those whose teaching was full of spiritual poison. The religious leaders taught that people could please God by their works, rather than by true faith in God. John warned the religious leaders, and those who were influenced by them, that they were not to depend on their religious pedigree. They were not made right with God just because they were the people of Israel – descendants of Abraham. They were made right with God by faith in the Messiah to come.
John told people that faith shows itself in actions. This, of course, is what Jesus Himself was talking about when he spoke about finding good fruit on a healthy tree. The healthy tree Jesus represents true faith. And just as a healthy fruit tree naturally produces good fruit, so genuine faith naturally produces good works. And here's a critical insight -- good works do not – and never could – save anyone from their sins. Only faith can do that. And that faith is God's gift. The crowd had a question for John. It's found in Luke chapter 3, verse 10: “What shall we do then?” John’s answer was simple. John said that, should true faith dwell in their hearts, it would be seen in their actions. Should true faith dwell in them, they would be generous with God’s gifts. They would serve others. When it comes right down to it, true faith changes people from the inside out. It’s not just something applied to the surface of our lives.
Several years ago, a TV commercial showed a couple making a purchase in a shopping center. When the clerk told them how much it would cost, the woman said she would pay with her credit card. Suddenly, hordes of barbarians surged into the store! They ran down the aisles yelling, with weapons drawn, heading toward the couple making the purchase. The point of the ad was that making yourself liable to finance charges on a credit card is like bringing on the barbarians.
As the barbarians charged past a clerk at the perfume counter, she sprayed perfume on them! But trying to transform a horde of bloodthirsty barbarians with a few squirts of perfume, isn't going to do the job. Similarly, faith in Christ changes us from the inside out. Faith brings with it a real and lasting transformation. Religion without faith in Christ cannot change the barbarian within us! Only a relationship with Christ made possible by God’s Word and the Sacraments transforms a sinner into a saint!
[Adapted from preachingtoday.com]
The crowd wanted to know if John was the Messiah. They had seen his dedication to God. They knew God was with him. They were impressed by his words. And by his courage. They took note of the baptism he brought. John set the record straight. He said, “I’m not the Messiah. My job is to get you ready to meet him." So what do you think? Are we ready to meet the Lord this Advent season? Donna Spratt of Melfort, Saskatchewan, gives this example, drawn from the youth ministry at her church. She says:
To start a discussion on core values, our youth pastor asked the teenagers: "What would you do if your doctor told you that you had only 24 hours to live?" The teens mentioned being with friends and family, and the discussion seemed headed in the right direction. But it all came undone when Jason, our 13-year-old, said, "I'd get a second opinion!"
Donna Spratt, Melfort, Saskatchewan. Christian Reader, "Lite Fare.” From www.preachingtoday.com
All right, then! But what if the second opinion said the same thing? According to John the Baptist, being ready to meet the Lord means knowing Jesus Christ as Savior - trusting Him unconditionally. For John, being ready means trusting Jesus to forgive your sins. It means trusting God's Son to reserve a place in heaven for you.
John the Baptist said: “The Messiah will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” That means that when you and I are baptized, God gives us His Holy Spirit. And what does the Holy Spirit do for us? Well, he enables us to have faith in Jesus. He enables us to recognize that Jesus died for our sins on the cross and was raised from the dead for our justification – so that we might be made right with God. The Holy Spirit enables us to understand God’s Word. The Holy Spirit fuels our Christian life. He's our motivator. He grants us gifts that help build up the church. According to John, the Messiah would be an instrument of God’s judgment, as well as of His grace. The Messiah would separate the spiritual wheat from the chaff. The wheat represents faithful believers, those who trust God through His Son. They will be gathered into a safe place by God – and that safe place is a picture of the church now and of heaven later. The chaff, on the other hand, represents those who do not – and will not – trust the Lord. They will miss out on God's blessings.
Our text reminds us that God is working behind the scenes in our world. And while God is working, the world of unbelievers carries on doing its own thing. Politically. Religiously. In every age and generation, most people are preoccupied, it seems, with everything but the will of God. John the Baptist is a key Advent character. His job description was simple - preparing Israel for Jesus by straightening out crooked religious thinking. And what did John receive for all his troubles? Well, throughout John’s ministry, some were ready to meet Jesus. But most were not. John was eventually thrown into prison, and, through a series of injustices, his life was cut short. But God’s plan of salvation had, by that time, been set into motion and nothing could stop it. John the Baptist is a wonderful example of absolute and unconditional trust in God. He did what God had called him to do.
God loves to give gifts to His people. His most important gift is His Son, the One who died on the cross to forgive sins, who was raised from the dead to bestow eternal life. Christian musician Kurt Kaiser says:
People have often said, "You could have made it in the secular music world – why didn't you pursue that?" But I'm not interested. Something my dad said to me years ago settled that question for me: "Whatever gift you have been given, it is your responsibility to burnish it, shine it, and to make it the best it can be; then give it back to the One from whom you received it."
Kurt Kaiser, notes on "Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs." Christianity Today, Vol. 37, no. 5. From preachingtoday.com
Good advice. Like John the Baptist, let's all take the precious gift of salvation God has given us by his grace. Let's burnish it. Let's shine it. Let's make it the best it can be. And then, let's give back to God.
The Scriptures clearly teach that without God’s gracious intervention through Baptism and His Word, the human heart is turned away from Him. But faith in Christ changes that. Faith receives God’s forgiveness. Faith makes us a new creation. Faith is given to us as God’s gift in Baptism. Faith is sparked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, working through the Word. During this blessed Advent and Christmas season, may God spark faith in our hearts. May he strengthen it, and renew it, and keep it strong - for this life and for eternity! May God grant it! Amen!
Let’s Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – Remind us that you are at work in our world – behind the scenes. Remind us that, when the time was just right, you stepped into human history, in the form of Your Son, so that your will might be done. Bless us with a faith that transforms our hearts and our minds. We thank you for the ministry of John the Baptist and for the Savior who followed him. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.