Injustice is not a modern phenomenon, for the Jews of Luke and Jesus day injustice was also a big issue. They were God’s people yet they were living under pagan Roman occupation. In fact they had spent the last 500+ years as part of one empire or another. And Israel had spent the last 400 years asking the same question and it’s found in Malachi 2:17 “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord and he is pleased with them?” or “Where is the God of justice?” Sometimes we echo that question, either generally as we watch the news asking ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ or specifically when we find ourselves facing yet another crisis and cry out “Why me, Lord?” Well Israel has been feeling like that for 400 years.
But God has not left them without hope, in fact God answered that cry, here’s his answer and it’s found in the very next verse in Malachi: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the LORD you are seeking will come to his temple…”
What is God’s answer to injustice? – I will come, but what has to happen first? The messenger has to come to get God’s people ready.
1. Getting ready to meet God - repentanceThe last time Luke told us about John he has just gone off into the desert and the people are asking “what then will this child be?” Now in AD 29 John comes into the public arena, not because he’s had enough of solitude, or he’s found himself, or the trendy spiritual retreat has ended but because (2) “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
John comes out of the wilderness because after 400 years of silence God speaks. Luke is quite deliberate in the way he words his account, that little sentence about the word of God coming to John son of Zechariah echoes the calling of the Old Testament Prophets, as does the list of leaders before it, and its there to make the point that God is once again speaking to his people as he did in the past through the prophets.
The prophets were covenant watchdogs, God’s rottweilers; warning his people, calling them to live for God. And John does exactly the same; he comes “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He comes to bring the people God’s word, but John also comes uniquely to get the people ready for God himself to come.
How do you get ready for meeting God? Well, John comes to get them ready and he does so by calling them to repent. Repentance is not just saying sorry, not just asking for forgiveness, repentance is about a radical reorientation of your life. It means turning away from anything that hinders wholeheartedly following God and turning to God in love and obedience. It means changing your mind about something and then changing your actions accordingly. A change of mind that leads to a change of action that is repentance.
That is what John is calling for. Who is John preaching to? The people of Israel, God’s people, he is calling on religious people to stop going through the motions, to wake up and live in the light of God’s promised Messiah who will forgive sins. John is God’s prophet getting the people ready for the Messiah, calling them to change and live lives that show they are looking for, wanting and waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. John is the one promised by Isaiah (4-6) and Malachi, the last prophet before God’s Messiah comes.
As the people come out to be baptised they are confessing that they are outside of relationship with God, that they need forgiveness, they need to change their mind and their living and saying they trust in the promise of the Messiah and salvation.
(7-9) What provokes that repentance is John’s warning; What is it? Judgement is imminent (9) and privilege and heritage won’t save them. When God comes he will judge injustice not just on a global scale but on an individual scale and what will matter is whether you are repentant, looking for relationship with God, loving and serving him wholeheartedly, and living and looking for the Messiah.
John calls people to come back to God and to do so by repenting because judgement is coming. The right response to God’s warning is for the crowds to recognise they are out of relationship with God and commit to change as they wait for the Messiah’s coming. Be warned, God is coming and he will judge so get ready is John’s message and the right response to that warning is to repent. The question is will I listen?
2. Practical repentanceJohn warns that God is going to deal with injustice and privilege, nationality, parents or religiosity can’t save, only repentance can. But what does repentance look like? (10) That’s basically the question the crowd ask John. “What should we do then?” or ‘what does repentance look like?’ John has already said that it means producing fruit but here he answers three groups with specific changes repentance and looking for the Messiah should produce.
In every case he answers in terms of loving your neighbour as yourself practically as a way of showing you love God wholeheartedly. Practical repentance looks like loving your neighbour at cost to yourself – that means sharing what you have with them. It means not cheating them and it means not extorting or lying (11-14). Notice John does not say to the soldiers and tax collectors quit your jobs, he calls them to see their jobs as part of their service for God. To live like this would stand out. For the tax collectors there was an elaborate system that enabled each to take their cut. But repentance means you live differently, living awaiting God’s Messiah means you change. For the soldiers false accusations and extortion were common place, but says John live differently.
Repentance is practical; repentance is a call to change, not just to ask for forgiveness but to live differently. It is not that their changing saves them, but it is the right response to the promise of salvation.
And (19-20) sets up a contrast. You either listen to John’s warnings and repent or you refuse to repent like Herod and you ignore or mute the warning.
The question for Theophilus and for us is am I prepared to repent, not to say sorry but to change my thinking and my living? Or like Herod will I mute the message?
3. God’s salvation comesJohn’s job is to warn, prepare, and get people ready. But his other role is to identify the Messiah, Jesus. (15) The people begin to wonder if John might be the Messiah, but John leaves no room for any doubt. He is just the messenger; he is the get ready guy. He tells them to look for one who:
a. is more powerful than he.
A Hebrew slave would consider it degrading to untie someone’s sandals. But John says I am not worthy to untie the Messiah’s sandals.
b. brings a better baptism
John’s baptism held out the hope, the promise of forgiveness the Messiah would bring, it called people to live looking for, longing for that era of forgiveness and relationship with God. The Messiah, Jesus, will actually bring that era of forgiveness with him and enable God’s Spirit to live in his people.
c. comes to judge
John baptised with water but Jesus baptism is with fire. Verses (17-18) explain what that means. Jesus comes to judge, to sort out and to divide. That is what the image of the wheat and the chaff is about; as the wheat is beaten with the winnowing fork the chaff, the bits you don’t want, fall to the floor. Jesus comes to separate to bring the fruitful, those who have repented, into the kingdom but to those who have not he will bring judgement.
Get ready John says salvation is coming, get ready because God is coming to end injustice and to judge. So what is the right response to John’s message? John’s call is to repent, to change your thinking and living, to live looking for God’s salvation, to look for Jesus. We live after Jesus coming, but John’s warning still stands, we can live in the reality of what John promises.
Peter takes up these themes on the day of Pentecost and he calls all people to recognise that Jesus is God’s Saviour and to repent and be baptised. Peter promises that if they do they will receive the Holy Spirit, or be baptised by the Holy Spirit who will enable them to live differently as they wait for Jesus to return to judge injustice.
Repentance is not saying sorry, it is acting differently; it is a radical reorientation of our thinking and actions. It means taking a different route. If you believe in Jesus, if you have repented of your rebellion against God then it must show. You will live expectantly and that means living differently. It means your work practices will be different as you serve God, it means your hold on things, money and possessions, is different as you use what God has given to love and serve others. How is your practical repentance?