Luke 3: 1-6 Sunday 9th December 2018 9:45 and 11:30am
By porthkerryandrhoose, Dec 10 2018 04:29PM
I’m going to start with an excerpt this morning from the 2001 film A Knight’s Tale, based on the poetic tale of the same name by Geoffrey Chaucer. In this clip, Chaucer himself, in the role of herald, presents this dramatic introduction of his knight at an important jousting tournament. You can view the clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpJIVfGcL6Y
If you had to perform an introduction, how would you do it? You might say ‘I’d like you to meet [name]. He/she is a [job title] or he/she likes [item].’ You might relay some important information about the person, or something that they have in common with the person you’re introducing them to. Of course, you also might be introducing someone for a specific purpose – Mary has come to audit the financial records; or Peter’s an inspector and he’d like to observe your class.
In our gospel passage this morning, Luke makes two introductions. First, he makes an historical introduction. He places John the Baptist’s ministry in a specific timeframe by naming the rulers of both the immediate and surrounding areas. This combination of political leaders dates the beginning of John’s ministry to AD 28 or 29. This historical context is helpful to our understanding of John the Baptist as a real person in history, not a mythical character. However, this isn’t the most important introduction that Luke makes. His second introduction tells us John’s purpose – why he was in that place at that particular time. Indeed, John’s purpose had been set out hundreds of years before; the words Luke uses in his introduction are not his own. They come from the prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 40. We’re going to look at what Luke says about John’s purpose and also explore Isaiah’s prophecy relating to John.
Firstly, what does Luke say about John’s purpose? In vv 2 and 3 we’re told ‘the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ John had been put by God in the country around the Jordan to call people to repent. The Jewish concept of repentance that John was preaching involved turning back to God with a contrite heart and there are echoes of this ‘turning’ throughout the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 8, Solomon prays that God will forgive his people ‘if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors and say, “We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly”’ And in Psalm 78, the writer laments the inconstancy in the Israelites’ relationship with God: ‘Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer.’ We can see from these verses, and others like them that repentance or turning was a frequent act. God’s people frequently needed to turn back to God with a penitent heart, admitting that the things they had done had displeased him and offering their praise and thanksgiving for the mercy he showed them.
As well as preaching repentance, John offered baptism, a symbolic washing, associated with the forgiveness of sins. However, this was not a baptism like the baptism of the Christian church. Christian baptism anoints believers with the Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised. John’s baptism was to help people prepare through repentance and symbolic washing for God’s salvation through Jesus. A person baptised by John was declaring themselves to be open to God and to following his ways.
And it is because of this preparation that Luke quotes from Isaiah 40 in the remainder of our passage this morning. The Isaiah passage is known as a pattern prophecy, speaking into many periods of history at the same time. These verses launch the second section of the book of Isaiah, which talks about how God will save Israel. As a contemporary message, the text spoke of delivering the people from exile. Luke, however, demonstrates that the pattern of saving is beginning again with John the Baptist. Earlier in his gospel, Luke likens John to Elijah. In chapter 1: 16-17 he says: ‘He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ In quoting from Isaiah now, Luke is showing how John the Baptist is fulfilling this prophecy. The call of the prophet is in vv4-6: “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 people will see God’s salvation.” The prophet is calling for creation to level the path for God to arrive. We might say that John’s fulfilment of the prophecy is in removing moral obstacles to God’s arrival. When John is call people to repentance he is clearing the way morally for Jesus to come and bring about God’s salvation. As we have seen in our study of John’s gospel, John does not bring God’s kingdom – he isn’t the Messiah himself. Rather, John announces God’s kingdom and points the way to Jesus, the true Messiah.
As I mentioned before, pattern prophecies relate to more than one time. I wonder whether the pattern of Isaiah’s prophecy, quoted by Luke in our passage this morning, has begun again? We live in times, yet again, when many people have turned away from God, or do not know him at all. Many have not heard the good news of Jesus, or do not want to hear it. As Christians, we are all called to be like John the Baptist, to prepare the way for Jesus today. In the approach to Christmas, this may be something that is particularly on your mind as you consider asking family, friends or neighbours to a service in church this month. I’m going to leave you with a recent blog from the Good Book Company, which talks about this very thing. You can read it here: https://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/blog/interestingthoughts/2018/12/03/why-increased-churchgoing-at-christmas-is-problema/