Preaching Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Today's gospel lesson is a study in contrasts. There is John the Baptizer, a fire-breathing dragon of a man, screaming into the wilderness of our world the command, "CHANGE!" We all know the world needs changing. John makes us know as well that we need changing. "What shall we do?" we ask him. He tells us in essence, "Clean up your act!"
How many times have we promised to clean up our acts? Today's sermon comes a week after many of us have made our New Year's resolutions. How well are we doing only a week after we have made them? My guess is that while a few of them may still be intact, most of them will already have been broken! Let a few months go by, and they will all be in tatters. Yet next New Year's we will make them again. It is a kind of "insanity" according to a definition I recently read: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting that sometime you will get a different result.1
The truth is, we cannot clean up our own acts. While John seems to bring the new wind of change so that people wonder, "Could this be the Messiah?," what he himself acknowledges is his powerlessness to make things new. T.W. Manson says of John:
...how lonely and tragic a figure he was...On the background of the Gospel we can see the magnificence of his failure. For his was the last supreme effort to make an unworkable system work. It was the last great attempt to carry out a wholesale religious and moral reformation within Judaism, to enforce the law of righteousness, to compel people to be good...it was the last effort of the traditional Jewish legal religion to vindicate itself by producing changed lives. It failed, and where it had failed the gospel succeeded and took its place.2
If Andy Warhol was right that the time was coming when we will all be famous for fifteen minutes3, John's true greatness is that in the midst of his fifteen minutes of fame he points the crowds away from himself to look for another. John says, "All I am doing is baptizing you with water as a sign of your desire for change; but one far more powerful than I is coming, one so great I am not worth to remove his shoes and fetch his slippers. He will baptize you as well--but his baptism will have in it the new wind of the Holy and the blazing fire of purification."
If there is a puzzling line in the text it is verse 18, for it tells us that this prophet of uncompromising sternness who promised, in essence, a Messiah who would come and separate wheat from chaff, "with many other exhortations...proclaimed the good news to the people." What was good news about a Messiah with a winnowing fork in his hand? John's image of Jesus is both wrong and right. He pictures him as a "shape up or ship out" sort of Messiah--those who haven't shaped up by the time he comes will be shipped out by him. How is this good news, we may ask. In fact, how is this news at all? This is the old system of trying to clean up our acts in the face of the coming judge! It is the old insanity revisited.
So, preachers, you must answer the question today, "How is this good news?" It is both good and bad news because the one who comes is proclaimed by a heavenly voice at his baptism (v. 22) to be both the king of iron of Psalm 2 and the suffering servant of Isaiah 42. The spirit descends on him, the spirit that has been absent for so long. "The time of barrenness and judgment is coming to an end," says Joachim Jeremias. "...the salvation history of the past has not only been taken up, but has been transcended...with the new activity of the spirit the time of salvation has begun...The eschatological return of the spirit means that God will remain with his community for ever, to complete his saving work. The eschatological presence of the spirit thus represents a new creation."4
How is the coming of the Spirit good news? Well, how does it come? It comes not as an all-consuming fire of judgment, but with the flutter of bright wings. It comes on the wings of a dove. I like Chrysostrom's reading of this.
...why in the fashion of a dove? Gentle is that creature, and pure. ...For so, when once a common shipwreck had overtaken the whole world, and our race was in danger of perishing, this creature appeared, and indicated the deliverance from the tempest, and bearing an olive branch, published the good tidings of the common calm of the whole world; all which was a type of the things to come. For in fact the condition of men was then much worse, and they deserved a much sorer punishment. To prevent thy despairing, therefore, He reminds thee of that history. Because then also, when things were desperate, there was a sort of deliverance and reformation; but then by punishment, now, on the contrary, by grace and an unspeakable gift. Therefore the dove also appears, not bearing an olive branch, but pointing out to us our Deliverer from all evils, and suggesting the gracious hopes.5
There is power here for change. Peter tells Cornelius and his household in our second lesson, "...how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him" (Acts 10:38). The self-confessed powerlessness of John is replaced by the power of this one who wades into our world like a servant but for whom the heavens open like a king. His power, as we will see in Luke 4, has no devilish design to it. Instead it bears the shape of a cross.
Martin Luther tried to be Supermonk as a way of blotting out his sins. He would make his list of sins, run and confess them to old Father Staupitz. The power of his absolution seemed to wear off on the way down the hall. He tried to pummel himself into a new shape with the devotion of a dieter who has sworn off chocolate, but he saw in the mirror the same old Luther. The question which haunted him was how he could find a gracious God. Today we would ask, "How do I find the power to change?" Staupitz told Luther, "Look to the wounds of Christ." The answer is the same today.
1. Conrad Lowe says a psychiatrist friend said these words to him. He is quoted in Parables, etc., Volume 14, Number 6, 1994, p. 4, published by Saratoga Press, Box 8, Platteville, CO 80651. 2. T.W. Manson, The Servant-Messiah (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1977), p. 49. 3. Quoted in Familiar Quotations, John Bartlett, edited by Emily Morison Beck, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 15th edition, 1980, page 908. The exact quotation, found in the catalogue of his photo exhibition in Stockholm (1968), reads: "In the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes." 4. Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus (Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1971), p. 82. 5. Saint Chrysostrom, Homilies On The Gospel Of Saint Matthew, in A Select Library of the Nicene And Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (T&T Clark, Edinburgh, and Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, First Series, Volume X), p. 77.