Friday, February 26, 2010

Luke 3

1 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— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
"A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
'Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God's salvation.' "
7 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? 8 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. 9 The ax 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."
10 "What should we do then?" the crowd asked.
11 John answered, "Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same."
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"
13 "Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them.
14 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."
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, "I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the thongs 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 he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."
23 Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph,
the son of Heli, 24 the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melki, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, 25 the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, 26 the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josek, the son of Joda, 27 the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, 28 the son of Melki, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, 29 the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, 30 the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, 31 the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 32 the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon, 33 the son of Amminadab, the son of Ram, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, 34 the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, 35 the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 36 the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, 37 the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel, the son of Kenan, 38 the son of Enosh, the son of Seth,
the son of Adam, the son of God.

Points of Interest:

• ‘during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas’—there was supposed to be only one high priest who served for life, but Annas had been deposed by the Romans (Illustrated Bible Dictionary 68; InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1998). Caiaphas, his son-in-law, is the new Roman appointee, but Annas is still high priest in Jewish eyes.

• ‘in the wilderness’—the wilderness is a place of spiritual preparation. Moses spent 40 years in the wilderness, as did the people of Israel on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. The prophet Elijah also went out into the wilderness, to separate himself from corrupt politics and to hide from a king who was trying to kill him. John may be imitating his predecessor Elijah, or even self-consciously fulfilling his role as ‘the voice of one calling in the wilderness’ (Isaiah 40, see below).

• ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’—repentance is recalibration, or turning around. John is calling the people to re-orient themselves away from their sins. The particular sins John focuses on are sins of considering oneself better than others by taking pride in status, or by taking advantage of position. As Mary says in her song earlier, God lifts up the humble. People who lift themselves up are heading in the opposite direction from God’s blessing. All it takes, though, to be forgiven this error is to turn around.

• ‘the words of Isaiah the prophet’—this is Isaiah 40: 3-5. It’s John’s job description. He prepares the path for God’s salvation, by warning people to get rid of anything that would get in God’s way. This is why John is calling people to repent: not to condemn them, but to help make them ready for the good things God wants to give them.

• ‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance’—the repentance John is recommending is not just words or intellectual beliefs; it should have a practical outcome in their lives.

• ‘coming out to be baptized by him’—baptism was a ritual cleansing performed by gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism, but John is baptizing people who are already Jews. Essentially, he’s saying that these Jews need to convert to Judaism. Amazingly, crowds of people submit to this crazy requirement. They must recognize him as ‘the voice calling in the wilderness.’ They realize that John has been sent to prepare the way ahead of the Lord, and they trust that he knows what he’s doing.

By baptizing these Jewish listeners, John is demonstrating that the Lord is coming to rescue those who make an active choice to welcome him, not to rescue by default anyone who happens to have the right religious or family background.

• ‘Even tax collectors’—tax collectors are never all that popular, but tax collectors in Roman Palestine were especially disliked: they got rich off of collaborating with the Romans and robbing fellow Jews. They were roughly analogous to gangsters running a protection racket. But John has awakened a spiritual sensitivity even in these worldly, hardened, corrupt men.

• ‘the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie’—John is saying he’s not good enough to be the slave of the one who is coming. The crowds are so impressed by what they’ve seen of John that they are hopeful he might be the promised rescuer, but they haven’t seen anything yet.

• ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’—John has been immersing people in mere water, but the one who is coming will immerse them in the very presence of God, a substance far more rare and valuable. We’ve already seen the Holy Spirit at work quite a bit in Luke’s story, inspiring prophecy in several people and causing Mary’s pregnancy; but the Holy Spirit falling on people was quite rare in the history of God’s interaction with his people. Before now, only a handful of prophets had ever been filled with the Holy Spirit in this way. But what Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, and Simeon have experienced is just a small taste of what is to come. Soon, many people will be positively drenched in the Holy Spirit.

• ‘he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire’—fire is very useful, and also dangerous. This baptism in the Holy Spirit is not something to take for granted; if you’re not careful, you could get burned.
Chaff, by the way, is what remains after the kernel has been separated out of the wheat. The coming of the Lord is like a harvest. Like any farmer, the Lord will keep what’s useful from his crops, and get rid of the rest. John’s message sounds pretty severe, and there certainly is a lot of sober warning to it. But Luke also calls it good news: his listeners still have the opportunity to make sure that they are the wheat, and not the chaff.

• ‘when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch’—Herod the tetrarch is the ruler of Galilee. Tetrarchs were a sort of lesser client king (a quarter-king) under the Romans. John’s model Elijah also got into trouble for criticizing his king’s relationship with his wife.
Herod does exactly what John has been warning people not to do: rather than repenting, he abuses his position to punish John. It doesn’t turn out well for Herod: his first wife’s father defeats him in war; the Romans depose him; and he’s sent away into ignominious exile.

• ‘the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form’—while John is baptizing Jesus with water, God baptizes him with the Holy Spirit. Jesus first receives from God what he will later pass on to others.

• ‘you are my son’—one way to think of Jesus’ baptism is that it is his formal commissioning into the role of Messiah. Remember that Messiah means, ‘anointed.’ Among the kings of David’s line, rather than a coronation ceremony they would have an anointing ceremony, in which a priest or a prophet would pour oil over the new king’s head. The oil symbolized God’s favor on the king and his authority being given to the king. At Jesus’ baptism, God himself anoints Jesus with the Holy Spirit rather than oil, and directly proclaims his favor. Jesus is the true Ruler from David’s Line. David and all of his other royal descendants were only symbols of the true king to come.

• ‘with you I am well pleased’—everyone else repents of their sins as they are baptized. At Jesus’ baptism, God proclaims that he has no need to repent.

• ‘the son of Adam, the son of God’—genealogies were cited in histories in order to connect the subject with well-known heroes. In this genealogy, we do indeed see that Jesus is in the lineage of David, and of Abraham. However, the genealogy doesn’t stop with either of these great men. Instead, it extends all the way to Adam. It’s as if the point of this genealogy is not to connect Jesus to the heroes of the past, but to connect them—and all of us—to him: everyone is in Jesus’ family. His story is our family history.

Taking it home:

For you and your family: In today’s passage, John calls his listeners to go through the steps of becoming Jews, even though they’re already Jews. It’s quite a humbling thing. In fact, God seems uncomfortably willing to ask us to do things that are very humbling all the time. Has God put something humble in mind for you? We’re not talking about simply feeling more humble, but about actually taking an action that seems embarrassingly basic. Maybe it’s admitting that you don’t understand something, or confessing that you’ve done something stupid, or re-learning a lesson that you really should know by now. Ask God for the boldness to take that humble action, and the faith to believe that when you do he will raise you up.

For your friends: Just like Herod, out of pride or even out of fear, we can be tempted to defend our bad choices and mistakes. Doing so only ever makes it worse. Pray for your friends, that they would be quick to acknowledge when they’re in the wrong.

For our city: If John is right, then good things happen in a place where people are generous, honest, and fair. Pray that these qualities would characterize our city.