In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’ “
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”
Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
We have moved forward in time, and again Luke sets the scene. Most of these names are familiar to us – these are characters we will see again. For now, however, they are merely part of the backdrop. The significant event is that the word of God came – to John, whose parents we met right at the beginning of Luke’s story. The word of God came – and John acted. He went and preached repentance for forgiveness of sins. Why? Because he was preparing the way. The imagery used in this quotation from Isaiah 40 is of a king approaching – all the roads are prepared ahead of his arrival. Here it is John, preparing the way not physically but in the matters of human hearts. Repentance for the forgiveness of sins – and the sign John uses is baptism.
Baptism was not a new practise, and for the Jews it signified a cleansing ceremony for Gentile converts. The shocking thing about what John is doing is that he is baptising Jews – a ceremony used to cleanse the outsiders – the Gentiles. This is emphasised by his words – being descendants of Abraham will do them no good. That pedigree means nothing. Again, this is shocking! We, with our cultural specs, don’t immediately cotton onto this. He tells them – God’s chosen people -that they can easily be chopped out of Abraham’s family – because God can raise children of Abraham even out of the stones. If they do not produce ‘fruit in keeping with repentance’, this pedigree means nothing. Repentance, which leads to forgiveness, is needed. And repentance, like many things, is shown by its fruit.
For the Jews in this passage it is not enough to be willing to be baptised – their lifestyle must be affected. Baptism is a signifier of something – not the thing itself. John’s baptism was a baptism which signified repentance, but more was needed. And so John offers practical, specific answers to their questions. Tax collectors and soldiers in particular had a degree of privilege in society that others did not – they had more opportunity to take advantage of others. So John’s answers to them went right to the heart of their lifestyles. If we are truly sincere about something, it affects the way we live – it permeates our lifestyle. It produces the corresponding fruit.
John’s preaching is only the first instalment, as he prepares the way for…someone else.
Reflection: There are words we say which are heavy with meaning, but if not shown in attitude or action, they become meaningless and empty.
Words like “Sorry”. And “I love you”.
Words like “I believe”.