Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
With each passing day, the message grows more urgent. Get ready! The time is growing shorter. Don’t be caught off guard! Now’s the time to get it done! If you don’t act now, you’ll regret it! It’s only going to get harder. You’re taking a big chance if you wait too long!
These messages have been appearing everywhere. Who can possibly ignore them? On the back of every catalogue. In the subject line of a myriad emails. Order now! Get your shopping and your shipping done before it’s too late!
It’s like all the merchants of the world are all students of John the Baptist. Right? He was filled with an entrepreneurial spirit and spoke with the kind of conviction that only a true believer can achieve. He knew the right location to get his message out with maximum drama and effect. John filled people with both dread and hope. A potent motivating force.
Location, location, location. John drew crowds to the banks of the Jordan River. Naturally. It was always the place of division. Between unclean and clean, unholy and holy, secure and endangered.
The Jordan was not just any old body of water. It was moving and therefore living water. It was storied water, where God had led Israel to cross over from old ways to new ways.
Crowds showed up too and who can know why they came? For some perhaps it was curiosity. Others were looking for a fresh start. They don’t seem to have come in plain fear of God’s wrath. They came to be washed by John in the river, admitting their need for a new beginning.
John had an interesting theme. Come to the Jordan! All are welcome. So, possibly they were astonished when John called them all the offspring of vipers. He invoked a coming wrath. Oddly enough, John didn’t say that it was God’s wrath.
Perhaps John intended to prepare people for what was coming in the current of civil unrest that was growing across Judah. Groups of people with mixed religious and nationalistic ambitions were skirmishing with Rome. It would all culminate one day in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple accompanied by pain, loss, and sorrow. It was a future that would require much faith.
In this moment however, John went on to say: you were washed into all kinds of amazing new possibilities. Go, be fruitful for God’s sake! This new life that lay before God’s washed people had nothing to do with any kind of advantage they were born into. So what if they belonged to the family tree of Abraham and Sarah by birth. God knows what every tree produces, and those that fail to be fruitful will be destroyed in cleansing fire.
John came to prepare the people for a new encounter with God. He would stop at nothing to get the people moving toward God. And it worked. That day and presumably every day that John put his message out there, people came.
John was not a typical prophet. He was accessible, down to earth, and practical. Just look at his counsel.
When the people asked, “What then shall we do?” John encouraged them to live less anxiously. What do you need with two coats? There’s someone out there who’s cold. What do you need with an extra loaf of bread or bottle of olive oil? There are hungry folks who could use it.
Think about it! This is completely opposite the message that says you need to load up your closets and shelves with extra everything because…God is coming! John proposed completely reasonable, non-anxious, and actionable ways of preparing for God.
This crowd was amazingly diverse. There were tax collectors, and soldiers too. While we know that the tax collectors were Jews working for the Roman Empire, most assume that the soldiers here were Gentiles, not Jews.
But John the Baptist drew a Jewish audience. The hope for a messiah was not even a Gentile idea. Recent scholarship has shown that there were indeed faithful Jews who served in the Roman military. This would later include Tiberius Julius Alexander, the capable general who led the successful Roman response to the Jewish revolt.
What sort of crazy hope or curiosity brought these folks who worked in professions which certain parts of society saw as less desirable? John had a positive word for them too. Be honorable in what you do to earn your living. It was all so utterly do-able.
We are conditioned to hear this Gospel about John the Baptist in tones of dread. But Luke himself said that, “With many other encouragements he proclaimed the good news to the people.” This was good news. And not in the sense of, yes this is going to be painful, but you’ll thank me for it later.
To all the people filled with expectation, John said, a gift is coming! A sandal-wearing wonder worker who would do more with the Holy Spirit than John could ever do with water. A deep-cleansing Savior. Burning like a fever to make ashes of all that destroys us from within. Utterly consuming the unproductive chaff of our lives, generating fertile soil for the good seed of the future to grow in us.
If John is a song to the world, it’s not warning. It’s not, You better not shout, you better not pout, You better not cry, I’m telling you why… John the Baptist is God’s love song. He’s a song of anticipation.
Like Zephaniah and Paul, the message of John the Baptist was ultimately based in confident hope for better things to come. “The Lord is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” “The Lord is near. Do not worry…”
John the Baptist is God’s voice singing to us. God’s song rises above all mean-spiritedness, all discontent, all cursing, all possessiveness, all vindictiveness. Shhhh! Listen! You can hear it now: Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let every heart prepare him room.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.