The One Who Prepares the Way
Passage: Luke 3:1–3:20
How do we prepare to meet Jesus?
There used to be a show on the National Geographic channel called “Doomsday Preppers”. They would find people who were preparing for doomsday situations that may cause the end of civilization, including economic collapse, societal collapse, or an electro-magnetic pulse that takes out all things that run on electricity. A company called “Practical Preppers” would analyze how well they were prepared and offer suggestions for improvement.
While this show represented extreme examples of people preparing for crisis situations, there are websites and organizations that have more reasonable advice for how to be prepared for emergencies. The Red Cross is one of them, suggesting people get an emergency kit, make a plan for what to do in an emergency, and to be informed about disasters that could occur in your area. One site lists these examples of crisis situations that you should prepare for:
- You have an unexpected big expense or layoff that blows your tight budget
- School and work is cancelled due to a crippling heat wave
- The electrical or water grid goes down for a few days
- A nasty hurricane floods your city for a week
- An epidemic is spreading and you’re quarantined to your home (does this sound familiar?)
- Civil order breaks down with mass unrest in the streets
- A nearby city is attacked by an enemy (https://theprepared.com/prepping-basics/guides/emergency-preparedness-checklist-prepping-beginners/)
Are you getting anxiety hearing this stuff, thinking "I need to go home right now and start prepping?” Some people look at this stuff and think “That will never happen to me.” Some people want to be prepared for anything. That’s how I am.
If someone could have told you beforehand that there’s going to be a global pandemic that will shut down the state of IL and the country in March of 2020 with a two month long stay-at-home order, would you have done anything differently? Do you remember what the shelves looked like last March? No toilet paper, no meat, no hand sanitizer. People prepared.
Katie and I used to watch “The Walking Dead” together which is a show about humanity’s survival after a zombie apocalypse. So for fun, Katie and I have discussed how we would survive a zombie apocalypse. Where would be the best place to go? What would we need? Who should come with us?
There are lots of things we prepare for: a test, a job interview, a big trip. You may prepare to lose a job or to have a big expense by saving up an emergency fund. You may prepare to die by creating a will or buying life insurance. You are probably preparing to get old by saving for retirement. You prepare for something to go wrong with your car with car insurance. You prepare for something to go wrong with your health with health insurance.
The point of preparing is to be ready. Are there any disasters you aren’t prepared for? Here’s a question: what’s the most important thing to prepare for? What’s the most important thing for us to be ready for? The day we stand before Jesus is the greatest thing we can prepare for. How much thought and effort are you putting into preparing for that? What if your relationship with God is headed for disaster? How would you know?
Today we are continuing our sermon series in The Gospel According to Luke called “To Seek and To Save”. The first two chapters of this gospel account have focused on the birth and growth of Jesus and his cousin, John. These two people fulfilled specific roles in God’s plan of salvation.
God’s salvation will come through Jesus but there’s a problem. Many in Israel were not ready to meet Jesus. The people of Israel thought that they were good with God, but they weren’t. They thought their biggest issue was an external one: the Roman Empire that took over their land. But it wasn’t. Their biggest issue was an internal one: their own hearts, their way of relating to God, their way of relating to others. John prepared the way for Jesus by waking them up from their complacency. They thought God’s judgment would be for all the other people, but not for them. John woke them up to the reality that they were in danger of God’s judgment so they needed to prepare themselves for Jesus’ coming.
Today’s passage focuses on John, who is later known as John the Baptist. John’s role is to prepare the way for Jesus - to get people ready to receive him as their king - and then step out of the way. John gets people ready to meet the one they’ve been waiting for. Do you think you are ready to meet Jesus? What would prepare you?
Introducing John (3:1-6)
The first two verses place John in a specific historical setting by giving the name of the Roman Emperor, government officials and religious leaders. From this we can date the beginning of John’s ministry to around A.D. 29, give or take a year. But this also introduces John as a prophet. Many prophets in the Old Testament were introduced by telling us the kings they prophesied under, whose son they were, and that the word of the Lord came to them. This is what Luke does for John. These prophets were God’s spokesmen, calling God’s people back to him and warning about the consequences for their sin if they didn’t. This is exactly what John does.
Verse 3 summarizes John’s ministry:
3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3)
There are three takeaways from his statement. First, the place where John is baptizing is significant: the Jordan River. The Jordan River marks the eastern border of the land of Israel. When God rescued the people of Israel from Egypt, they were led north through the wilderness to the east side of the Jordan River. They had to cross this river to enter the land that God had promised to them. Crossing the Jordan River marked their entrance into the land and the beginning of their conquest of it.
John is taking people back to where Israel got its start. Just like they went through the waters of the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land, so now John is having them enter the waters again through baptism. John is telling them, “We need to restart. Things are so messed up, we need to reboot this nation. We need to go back to our roots and begin all over again. And anyone who wants to do that should go back through the Jordan River.” If we wanted to start a movement to renew the United States, perhaps we’d pick a significant place from the birth of the nation. Maybe we’d go to Independence Hall in Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence is signed. Maybe we’d go to the harbor where the Boston Tea Party occurred.
Second, John is calling people to repentance. Water cleansing was used in certain Old Testament rituals and some other Jewish groups used baptism as well, but John’s use of baptism is different. John’s baptism is called a baptism of repentance, meaning his baptism signifies or is a symbol of repentance. What is repentance? The basic meaning of the word means “a change of mind”. You can think of it like a U-turn: you are going one way but you turn around to go a different way. That’s repentance. John’s baptism is a symbol that someone has turned around from the way they are going.
Third, the baptism of repentance is for the forgiveness of sin. This act of repentance, of turning around, allows one to experience the forgiveness of their sins. In repenting you turn from sin and a self-centered life and turn to God.
Baptism is a symbol for all of this. It’s a symbol of forgiveness because it’s a picture of cleansing. It’s a picture of a fresh start and new way of living as someone turns from living for themselves to living for God. Later in the Bible, it is connected with the death and resurrection of Jesus because you are dead to sin and alive for God. You are buried in the water then rise again to new life.
Verses 4 through 6 show us how this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins fits in with God’s plan of salvation. These verses are quoted from Isaiah chapter 40, where Isaiah steps into the future and begins telling the people how God will bring them back from exile. God will comfort them and take care of their sin. Then it goes on to say what Luke quotes here in verse 4:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
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.’” (Luke 3:4-6)
John is the one preparing the people for the comfort, peace, and forgiveness of God. John’s message is intended to give hope to the low and humble and to humble the prideful. In this way, a highway is made for God’s salvation to be seen and received.
John’s Message: Judgment and Fruit (3:7-9)
Verse 7 through 9 describe John’s message that prepares people for God’s salvation:
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.” (Luke 3:7-9)
John’s goal here is to get the people to see that there is a disaster coming to them that they are not ready for. These people are not ready to see the salvation of God. Their hearts aren’t prepared to receive the Messiah coming to save them. Why? They think God’s judgment is for the Gentiles, the nations, those people. Not them. They think they are good with God. They think they have nothing to worry about. But their problem is that they have misplaced confidence.
John describes the judgment as “the wrath to come.” This is not God exploding with out of control anger but his stand against all that is not good, sinful, selfish, and idolatrous. John warns that God’s judgment is coming. In verse 9, he uses the image of an axe already set up by the trees. God is looking over the trees to see if they have fruit. And if they don’t he will cut them down and throw them into the fire. The question to them is: are you bearing fruit in your life? Are you growing the fruit of righteousness and holiness? Are you growing the fruit of loving God and loving your neighbor? What does your life look like?
But the problem is that these people think they are safe from God’s judgment. Why? John tells them, “Don’t say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’” They think that just because they are part of the family of Abraham, they are good with God. This is their misplaced confidence. They are confident that they are on good terms with God because of their family lineage. “We are the chosen people of God.” But John wants to wake them up and show them that everything isn’t ok. People who don’t think they need saving won’t rejoice in God’s salvation. John is showing them their biggest need isn’t salvation from the Romans but salvation from themselves.
First he calls them a brood of vipers. I wonder what a preaching class with John would be like: “Here what you need to do: start off by calling people venomous snakes. That really gets their attention.” “Brood” could be translated as “offspring” and their confidence is in the fact that they are “offspring” of Abraham. But John calls them children of snakes: they look more like venomous vipers than Abraham! Snakes would also flee from their holes when there’s a fire in the desert and John characterizes the judgment as fire.
Second, John says “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” In other words, God is able to take something as dead, cold, and unresponsive as a stone and make it a child of Abraham. In other words, God can make anyone with a hard heart into a person of faith like Abraham!
Third, John exhorts them to bear fruit. In verse 8 he said, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” Who your daddy is doesn’t matter if you aren’t living for God. It also does them no good to go through a religious ritual like baptism but not start living differently. The judge is going to be looking for fruit.
How might we have misplaced confidence? Perhaps we’d say “I’m a Christian” and we feel confident before God because we identify as a Christian. Perhaps we’d say “I trusted in Jesus by praying a prayer when I was ten years old” or whatever age. Perhaps we’d say “I was baptized at the age of whatever.” Perhaps we’d say, “I attend church services. I give faithfully. I serve and help out. I pray and read my Bible.” Perhaps we feel confident because we go to the right kind of church and we believe the right things, not like all those other people who have it wrong. But all of these give false confidence. It is misplaced confidence because none of them can make us right with God. They are relying on something other than God and the Judge is looking for fruit.
Perhaps we’d say, “But those things I do are fruit. I’m doing them for God.” Let’s see what kind of fruit John says God is looking for.
Application of His Message: What Repentance Looks Like (3:10-14)
As people realize they need to make a change, three groups ask John “what should we do?” First, the crowds ask, and John tells them in verse 11: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” (Luke 3:11) John’s answer to them is a general exhortation to generosity and love for one’s neighbor. Their stuff is not only to be used for them but for other people’s good.
Second, tax collectors ask, “Teacher, what shall we do?” John responds in verse 13: “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” (Luke 3:13). You had to buy the right to collect taxes. Wealthy Romans would purchase this right then hire tax collectors to do the work. In order to make their money back, they’d charge the Roman tax then a surcharge on top of that. Tax collectors could also charge more to make more money. John tells them not to charge more than they are authorized to charge. Tax collectors weren’t liked by anyone. Gentiles didn’t like them. Jews especially didn’t like them because they were seen as traitors working for the Roman Empire and making money off their own people. What’s interesting is that John doesn’t tell them to leave their profession but to transform how they do it.
Lastly, a group of soldiers ask what they should do. These are probably Jewish soldiers, perhaps the bodyguards of the tax collectors. John tells them: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:14) It would be easy as a soldier to use your authority and power to get money out of people. Again, John doesn’t tell them to leave their profession but to transform how they do it.
Repentance and the fruit that should come with it ought to reach down into the normal, everyday activities of our lives. John calls people to a deep, transformed way of living.
Does your relationship with God change your everyday activities, even how you work? If you asked John “what should I do in order to bear fruit in keeping with repentance”, what might he say to you? What would he say to a teacher? Or a retired person? Or a stay at home mom? Or whatever profession or station in life you find yourself?
These actions express mercy, generosity, and justice. They reflect God’s own character toward us. Do you reflect what God is like in every activity you undertake? Does his influence show up in every nook and cranny of your life? God is not interested in us blocking out an hour on Sunday for a church service. He’s more interested in how we live the other 167 hours of the week. The fruit God is looking for isn’t to have certain parts of our day or week dedicated to him but a whole life dedicated to him.
The Christ: Judgment by Threshing (3:15-17)
After these questions, a different type of question comes up regarding who John is. John was a powerful preacher starting a renewal movement in Israel. It would be natural to wonder: “Is this guy the Christ - the one we’ve been waiting for?” Knowing people are asking, John clears up this question. In verse 16 he says:
“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.” (Luke 3:16-17)
John shows that the Christ is greater than him in every way. First, the Christ is greater than John as a person. He is mightier than John and John is not even worthy to serve as the Messiah’s servant untying the strap of his sandals.
Second, the Messiah’s baptism will be greater than his. John baptizes with water but the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. There are different options on what this could mean, but my view is that it refers to the two effects of a response to Jesus. Receiving Jesus leads to baptism with the Holy Spirit but rejecting Jesus leads to fire or judgment (see verse 9 and 17).
Third, the Christ is greater than John because he is the actual Judge while John only warns about the judgment. In verse 17 John uses the image of threshing to describe the judgment. When the grain harvest was brought in, it would be dumped on a hard floor outside. Then it would be crushed so that the outer layer would be broken off from the kernel inside. Then someone would take a winnowing fork and throw it up in the air. The wind would blow away the outer layer, the chaff, and the grain would fall to the ground. This would separate the wheat from the chaff. John says this is what the Christ will do in the judgment.
Verse 18 through 20 summarize and tell us where John ends up:
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. (Luke 3:18-20)
John doesn’t stop at exhorting the general population. He also corrects Herod, the one ruling over the region in which he is doing his ministry. And this gets him locked in prison where eventually he is beheaded.
The summary in verse 18 tells us that with many exhortations, John preached good news to the people. Is that how you would have described what John is doing? Would you have called it good news - gospel? What is the good news? John isn’t telling people about Jesus’ death for their sins and resurrection. He’s preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. There’s forgiveness for how we fall short but also life change.
Maybe you’re thinking: this sounds like I’m saved by what I do. My effort and actions are what make me right with God. Here’s how this works. Jesus is a King and to be part of his kingdom and share in its benefits, he needs to be King of your life. That makes sense right? The only way to be forgiven is if Jesus is Lord of your life and the fruit shows that he is. The Reformers in the 16th century said: Salvation is by faith alone but the faith that saves is never alone; there’s fruit with it.
Not wanting to bear fruit as part of our relationship with God is like asking to be part of someone’s family without wanting to act like them or follow the household rules. Instead you are only interested in how rich they are. It’s like wanting to join a championship football team so you can have a Super Bowl ring but you don’t want to show up to practices.
John is waking people up from their sleepy, lazy way of following God to get them to see that they are in danger of the judgment. When the Messiah comes, he will be looking for fruit and he will separate the wheat from the chaff. Yes, he is God’s salvation but they shouldn’t assume they will be saved. They can’t put confidence in their ancestry.
Think about it this way. What is the purpose of an on-ramp when you are getting on the freeway? It gives you time to increase your speed to match the speed on the freeway. It slowly merges you onto the freeway. The on-ramp prepares you to get on the freeway.
John is creating an on-ramp for people to get on the path Jesus will call them to walk down. People are traveling the wrong path in life. They are trusting in the wrong things and they aren’t living with God at the center. John is calling them to turn around so they can get on the right path. John is preparing people to receive the salvation that Jesus has come to give. John is getting people ready to respond to Jesus’ message and to enter his kingdom. He’s getting them up to speed so they can merge onto the path of Jesus’ kingdom. He’s calling them to dethrone themselves so they can surrender to Jesus as their King.
How do you know if your relationship with God is headed for disaster? John tells these people:
- If your confidence is in your family lineage or religious rituals, then your relationship with God is headed for disaster.
- If your “faith” doesn’t affect how you live by growing fruit, then your relationship with God is headed for disaster.
How can we be prepared to stand before Jesus? Jesus will be looking for fruit and he will know who’s for real; he’ll separate the wheat from the chaff. Ask yourself:
- Have I let go of other sources of confidence before God?
- Am I turning from my sin and turning to Jesus as my Lord who forgives me and directs my life?
- Am I turning from living for myself to live with Jesus on the throne?
- Am I bearing fruit, looking more and more like Jesus and a child of God?
The point here isn’t to ask “how much fruit do I need before Jesus will be pleased with me”. It’s more about life orientation and lifestyle. It’s not about what your life looks like for an hour on Sunday but what it looks like the other 167 hours of the week. What’s it oriented around? Does it reflect the values of Jesus’ kingdom? Does it look like he’s on the throne or like you are? Whose kingdom do you live for: his or yours? Who are you turning to for confidence before God and guidance for how to live? In whom do you place your hope?
Forgiveness for the ways we fall short is available. But you can’t pick and choose what parts of God’s kingdom you want. Yes, there is freedom from the penalty of sin, but if you want that you have to want freedom from the power of sin and the presence of sin too. There’s no forgiveness without repentance because until you are ready to turn from whatever else you are trusting in to make you right with God AND turn from your sin and selfish way of living, you can’t be forgiven.
When we were flying to California several years ago, I accidentally packed my multi-tool in my carry on. When it went through the scanners at the airport, they took it out of my bag, showed it to me, and I had two choices: either board the plane without it to go on vacation with Katie or keep it and not board the plane. If I wanted to board the plane, I had to leave it behind.
Let’s say the plane is a relationship with God. It’s free to get on and it’s open to everyone but if you want to board the plane, you have to leave some things behind. You have to leave all other sources of confidence for a right relationship with God behind - Jesus is the one you trust in. You have to also leave your sin behind. You can’t pack a bag of the sin you want to keep while also desiring forgiveness for it. You also have to leave your crown and your throne behind: Jesus is now king of your life.
As a church we summarize all of this as surrender. It includes trusting in Jesus for forgiveness, letting him run our lives, and be the source of our hope. We let go of our way of doing things, our sin, our other sources of confidence and hope, and we surrender to him. But it’s a continuous process. The longer we walk with him, the more we see our sin, our selfishness, our false sources of confidence before God and then we surrender more and more of our lives to him.
What does it look like for you in your particular situation to bear fruit in keeping with repentance? What would it look like if Jesus was in charge of how you go about your day?
John’s role was to prepare people to surrender to Jesus as their King and that’s a role we have as well. We invite others to surrender all of life to them. How do we do it? Everyone knows there is something wrong and they are looking for a solution. How do they deal with guilt? How do they deal with shame? How do they deal with their shortcomings and failures? How do they deal with their selfishness? We invite people to give up their other sources of confidence before God. We invite people to leave their sin behind. We invite people to get off the throne of their lives and live with Jesus on the throne. We invite people to reorient their lives around him. There’s a judgment coming and if people keep going the same direction they are going, they are headed for disaster. It’s our job to warn them.
May we be a community that surrenders all of life to Jesus, repenting from our sin and selfishness while rejoicing in his forgiveness And may we be a community that invites others to do the same.