Public Domain, Circa 1512-16, The Yorck Project (2002)-
The Message and Ministry of John the Baptist
Fruits of Life Change
Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. Luke 3:7-8
From the fruitless, John required fruit. From a brood of vipers, he demanded an answer. From complacent religionists, he called for a willingness to get real. Just because they had enjoyed the benefits of covenant, it did not mean that could not be replaced. Everyone is dispensable – even those who think they are not.
Multitudes had come to be baptized. John was not impressed with his own ability to draw a big crowd. Crowds filling space do not equate to revival. Something more was necessary.
If he had had a headquarters to report to, his report might have been quite impressive, but as we said, he was not impressed. He was looking for something more because God is looking for something more.
John was preaching the possibility and necessity of life change.
Why did they come? Was it a curiosity? Was it a desire to follow the crowds? Was it a fad? Or was it fear of being left out or worse – wrath?
Some come out of wrong fear and some out of right fear. If you do not know the difference, read the book of Proverbs or visit the Grand Canyon. Right fear is awe and reverence; wrong fear is manifested in fight or flight reflexes. It is concerned only with self preservation and avoidance of trouble.
John knows there is something more and so should we. Fruits of repentance are those changed attitudes and deeds that reflect faith in the possibility of life change. They grow out of lives that have been moved by a deep desire for a more fruitful life.
Abject terror will not change our hearts. Judgment is real, but fear of judgment will not, by itself, bring us to repentance. God can do that inside of us and He is ready and willing to do so, but we must desire it and believe that it can happen.
And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. - Luke 3:9
Once a thriving industrial plant, the factory had ceased to be productive. Chaos was the order of the day. Supervisors could not predict who would show up for work and when. Even the unions were in a state of panic.
The problem was attendance. It was the first time I’d ever heard of an adult business with an attendance committee. People were not showing up for work; but neither were they quitting or getting fired. Because of contractual clauses, they were remaining on the company and union roles and bleeding both dry in benefits.
They wanted to be employees, but they didn’t want to show up for work. They wanted the benefits of employment, but none of the obligations. They didn’t even show up.
That is the way John viewed the “generation of vipers” who came to be baptized. Some of them wanted the benefits of association with God and the symbols of covenant relationship, but they did not see the relationship between that and being useful.
Fruit trees exist to bring forth fruit. That is their nature and that is their function. God’s people exist to bear fruit as well. It is both the nature and function of covenant people to be useful in the kingdom of God.
John was harsh. He knew what orchard owners did with barren trees. They cut them down to make room for more productive crops. He considered it presumptuous of people to think that they should be allowed to continue being useless and not be replaced.
Remember that John was preparing the way for the Lord. He was the voice that God used to flatten hills and make crooked roads straight. And he was telling it straight. He, like the law, was a schoolmaster to prepare the way of the message and messenger of grace. His role was to amplify the need for repentance and make it plain that God was not pleased with the status quo.
We need to hear this word today. God wants our lives to bear fruit. If they don’t we are simply occupying space on Heaven’s roster. Show up!
Asking the Question
And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? - Luke 3:10
John got the response that he must have hoped for. It was the right response. It was the only logical response from a people who had been touched and pierced by the penetrating Word of God:
“What shall we do?”
It is a word of hope and desperation. It is a word that reflects sincerity and contrition. It agrees with The messenger of God that all is not right and needs to be made so.
What shall we do when we look at our lives and see no fruit? What do we do when we realize that we are part of the problem, obstructing rather than constructing, reaping benefits without bearing responsibility, failing to live out the true purpose of our lives?
What do we do when it becomes clear that we are keeping our names on the roles, but doing nothing to be productive?
We ask the question.
When we ask the question, we take a giant leap forward because it is pregnant with contrition and intention. The question opens us to what God wants to do in us and through us. It expresses repentance and prepares us for adventure.
We can be more, do more, experience more, receive more. When we ask the question, we are on the verge of discovery that the real benefits of covenant relationship are intertwined with its obligations and opportunities for service. The real privileges come with embracing our calling.
What we must do is ask what we must do.
God loves the question and has an answer prepared, but He cannot or will not deliver it to us until we ask because we will not receive it.
The application to the Christian life is the call to serve – more so, to BE servants, available, cheerful, ready, willing, even eager to be co-opted into His program.
The good news is that God wants you. The questions is: Are we ready to ask the questions?
Live Simply and Share
He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. - Luke 3:11
Sometimes we are ready for a really complicated answer to the big questions and all we get is something like this.
It’s like Fulghum’s book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”
Live simply and share what you have.
We’d really like it to be more complicated than that – and in some ways it is. But this was a start. It would certainly be a major change for the folks John was addressing as it would be for many of us.
God always starts where we are. He doesn’t try to overwhelm us. He gives us small bites first and eases us into complexity and difficulty.
For instance, when Thomas wanted to know where Jesus was going and to understand the way, Jesus simplified it for him as if He was saying, “Thomas, you don’t have to figure it all out – All you need to know is that I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life. If you want to get to come, just come by me and only by me.”
He was simplifying things for Thomas and for all of us.
John is saying that he would like to see some small indicators that folks meant business – indicators of a change of heart and mind which he could call repentance. “Show me,” he declares.
What must we do? We must do something in character with heart change. Somehow, our lives, once moved by a new relationship with God, must reflect a transformation of values.
Suddenly, there is something more important than having more than we need. Maybe one coat is enough – or one car per driver or a few less toys.
Turning our lives over to God is not rocket science. It is not a burden that none can bear. The Christian ethic is simple: Live simply and share what you have. Do the right thing.
Zeroing In and Meaning Business
Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. - Luke 3:12
There are different things that different folks must do – but it is always very simple to take the first step.
Stop doing the most blatant thing you are doing wrong. In the case of the hated publicans/ tax collectors: Stop cheating.
To receive this message meant that they had to agree that they had been cheating – even extorting from their own people on behalf of a foreign power for their own enrichment. To do so would have been to come clean and mean business with God.
Life change for the publicans would be a radical departure from the norm. As simple as the command was, it was not easy. They had valued profit above all else like the “Ferringis” in Star Trek – a race of humanoids who were the most cunning and ruthless merchants in the galaxy. They lived by “The Laws of Acquisition,” one of which might be paraphrased, “Love is good, but money is better.”
The publicans had to learn that love is best and everything else is a distant second.
Part of repentance is to recognize that you are doing wrong and stop doing it. But we say, “I just can’t; It is too hard; it is too engrained into my identity; it is who and what I am.”
John says, “Hogwash! You can change. Life change is possible. Repentance is the norm. Stop cheating people.”
Every sector of society has its own inherent temptations to sin. Every individual has a unique set of hot buttons that create pitfalls and weaknesses of the flesh. For each of us, fruits of repentance take on a different color and flavor, but they all share one thing in common – Possibility.
We can do with God’s help and by His grace. The salvation that He wants all to see comes with the possibility of change. If we mean business, and zero in on our own vulnerabilities, we can embrace it.
Life Change in Public Life
And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, and what shall we do? And he said unto them, do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages. -Luke 3:13-14
There were men of influence and power who came to John to be baptized, men who wielded authority over common people, who carried the sword and were authorized to use it to subdue, torment, and enforce.
These men also had the capacity to abuse their power, to punish their enemies, to extract unfair compensation, to be bribed, to extort, ad to oppress. No one would challenge them. They had free reign to inflict violence and abuse people.
John tells these soldiers to be very careful how they used their power. They would need to humble themselves and realize that they were called to live by a higher power than that of their captains or their swords. Having power would no longer be a license for them to misuse it to their own selfish ends.
It is an awesome responsibility to have authority. It takes more grace to carry greater power. To be a covenant man or woman in a position of great influence requires fruits of repentance reflected in a servant’s attitude.
One’s coworkers and fellow soldiers/officers may not be willing or able to reinforce such life change. Only God can and he will.
We all have arenas of temptation that are unique to our stations in life. The same call is present for each: Bring forth fruits worthy of repentance: Stop doing what is wrong; live simply; share what you have; live for God.
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. – Luke 3:15-18, NRSV