We are entering the season of Epiphany. It is a time to celebrate the ways in which we see God’s light shining in the world. Jesus is one of those lights.
In the first chapter of Luke we read the story of John’s birth. John was a cousin of Jesus. At his birth, Zachariah, John’s father gives him a blessing:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The blessing is also a prophecy that John will be the one who goes into the world to prepare people for the light of God. John’s mission is preparation.
In chapter two of Luke we find a description of Jesus given by a man named Simeon. Simeon was a religious Jew who spent time praying in the temple. He had a sense that he would not die until he had seen the messiah—the chosen one sent by God. On a particular day, he is drawn to the temple. It happens to be the day Jesus is brought for circumcision. Simeon spots Jesus and recognizes him as the messiah with this prayer to God:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
In Luke’s gospel, right from the beginning we find Jesus’ mission as bringing light into the world. It sets the stage for everything that is to happen next. In Luke’s gospel Jesus grows up in Nazareth. It’s close enough that every year his family travels into Jerusalem for the Passover festival. We hear the story of Jesus wandering off and listening to the scholars and priests in the temple and his parents leaving without him and then having to go back and look for him.
The next time we read about Jesus, he and John are both adults (Luke 3:1-22). John has been living in the wilderness and preaching a message of repentance and forgiveness. The central part of this passage has to do with John’s message. He’s just as radical as Jesus as he prepares people for the message of Jesus. John recognizes that he is only laying the groundwork for Jesus and that the people who come to him need a radical shift in understanding.
John starts with name calling. We all know that if you want someone to hear what you have to say, you shouldn’t start with insults. John needs a bit of work on his communication skills but he is passionate about his message.
It was believed by many in the Jewish faith at the time that because Abraham was the ancestor of faith and the Jewish people were descended from him biologically, nothing more was needed. John asserts that the lineage that matters is not one of biology but of morality. John’s argument is that it doesn’t matter who you are descended from, if you are not living in a moral manner then your faith cannot save you.
And then John offers some specific examples of what this means. “If you have two coats you must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors John said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” For soldiers John offers this advice: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” The behavior John describes goes against accepted behavior. People grumbled about the wealthy who had too much while others were cold and hungry. People grumbled about the tax collectors but it was normal for them to collect more than they were entitled to. People grumbled about the soldiers but when someone threatens violence how can you resist? Does this sound familiar?
John was calling the people to repent. One of my favorite definitions of the word repent is “being in the same situation behaving differently.” In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens we might identify Scrooge with all the people who have come to hear John preach. They don’t really think there’s anything wrong with their lives and they are content and comfortable. These are the people who live their lives saying “Bah humbug” when the world doesn’t meet their expectations. Scrooge experiences the ghosts of his past, present and future Christmases. As he examines his life he realizes that he has not lived up to spiritual or moral expectations. He can’t go back and change what has passed but he can change the future. Scrooge needed someone or something to shake him awake so that he could repent. He is still living in the same city. He still interacts with the same people but his attitudes and behavior towards them have changed.
Like the ghosts speaking to Scrooge, John is asking his listeners to look closely at themselves and to ask themselves whether or not they are the moral descendant of Abraham. John was concerned with whether people were living out the expectations of the prophets. In order to be a spiritual or moral descendant of Abraham, John expected people to look out for each other—especially the most vulnerable. He expected that people would do what was right. He expected that even soldiers would not take advantage and not use more violence than absolutely necessary. Baptism was a sign of adoption into this spiritual or moral family.
What might John expect of us before we are baptized into this spiritual family? We are always invited to share what we have with others in a variety of ways. It’s easy to share with family and friends but harder when we are asked to share with people who talk differently from ourselves, who believe differently from ourselves, who look different from ourselves or who live a different lifestyle from ourselves. The temptation is for us to say, “we will help them so they become like us” or “if they were like us we wouldn’t need to help them.” If we think like this, we’ve missed the point of both Jesus and John’s message.
Those of us who have been around the church for a long time might identify with a sense of entitlement, like John’s listeners who were biologically descended from Abraham. John wouldn’t necessarily have been impressed with those credentials as he prepared people for Jesus and he wouldn’t necessarily have appreciated our credentials as long-time church goers unless we were also following the message of the prophets. If we go back to the beginning of this reading we see John’s frustration coming out in name calling and insults because they haven’t got it. They want the feel good religion or maybe it’s the novelty of being baptized by the exotic desert preacher. I know that sometimes people only want to come to church to feel good or to connect with their friends. Maybe baptism is something we do because our parents were baptized here. But being part of a faith community is about being part of a spiritual family. We don’t get to choose family. We don’t get to choose who sits beside us in the pew. We are expected to care for other family members—remember that God’s family includes everyone.
Jesus’ baptism is almost an afterthought in this story but it is important to the story because it ties Jesus directly to John, to the Jewish prophets and their moral and spiritual faith. Our own baptism is important because it reminds us that we are part of God’s family. It also reminds us that we have a spiritual and moral responsibility in our faith to follow Jesus’ path—not just with words, not just in name but in our life and actions.