Sunday, January 20, 2013

The King's Arrival (Luke 3: 1-38)

"Jesus called the other day to say he was passing through and wondered if he could spend a day or two with us," writes Doug Mendenhall.  "I said, 'Sure. Love to see you. When will you hit town?' I mean, it's Jesus, you know, and it's not every day you get the chance to visit with him….That's when Jesus told me he was actually at a convenience store out by the interstate. I must have gotten that Bambi-in-headlights look, because my wife hissed, 'What is it? What's wrong? Who is that?' So I covered the receiver and told her Jesus was going to arrive in eight minutes, and she ran out of the room and started giving guidance to the kids—in that effective way that Marine drill instructors give guidance to recruits.…

My mind was already racing with what needed to be done in the next eight—no seven—minutes so Jesus wouldn't think we were reprobate loser slobs. I turned off the TV in the den, which was blaring some weird scary movie I'd been half watching. But I could still hear screams from our bedroom, so I turned off the reality show it was tuned to. Plus, I turned off the kids' set out on the sun porch, because I didn't want to have to explain why they were watching that show to Jesus, either, six minutes from now. My wife had already thinned out the magazines that had been accumulating on the coffee table. She put Christianity Today on top for a good first impression. Five minutes to go.

I looked out the front window, but the yard actually looked great thanks to my long, hard work, so I let it go. What could I improve in four minutes anyway? I did notice the mail had come, so I ran out to grab it. Mostly it was Netflix envelopes and a bunch of catalogs tied into recent purchases, so I stuffed it back in the box. Jesus doesn't need to get the wrong idea—three minutes from now—about how much on-line shopping we do. I ran back in and picked up a bunch of shoes left by the door. Tried to stuff them in the front closet, but it was overflowing with heavy coats….We live in the South; why'd we buy so many coats? I squeezed the shoes in with two minutes to go. I plumped up sofa pillows, my wife tossed dishes into the sink, I scolded the kids, and she shooed the dog. With one minute left I realized something important: Getting ready for a visit from Jesus is not an eight-minute job. Then the doorbell rang.  [Doug Mendenhall, "Getting Prepared for the Arrival of Jesus," (9-24-09)]

I want to be ready for the King’s arrival.   In Luke 3: 1-38 we learn how the world was being prepared for Jesus's arrival, how God’s people were being prepared, and how the King himself prepared...and it took more than eight minutes.

(i) The world situation: How the world was being prepared for the King’s arrival (1-2, 18).  Luke names no less than six powerful rulers in and around the time of Christ’s public ministry in Roman Palestine.   The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar was one obvious way to date the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry; but one day it would be Jesus’ birth and approximate age, and not the reigns of emperors that would recalibrate the calendars of the world.  It was well known that Tiberius' predecessor, Augustus Caesar, announced to the world that his reign was “good news,” that his power was that of  “a savior” and his birthday was that of a god; yet Luke seeks to remind us that although power and authority seemed to eminate from Rome and from there hope and salvation, the true Savior and King was just emerging in the politically insignificant land of Judea.

It was not Judea that was serving the interests of Rome as an occupied territory, but it was Rome that was serving the interests of God as it unknowingly prepared the way for Jesus’ public ministry and the spreading of his message.  Never before, in the history of humankind had so much of the world been unified under one basically just gov’t.  The Romans called it the Pax Romana, and it enabled citizens to travel freely and safely throughout the known world. Never before had there been such a network of roads that facilitated safe and rapid communication & the spread of the gospel: the first worldwide network. Never before had the Jewish belief in one God had such world-wide influence…having gradually spread throughout the Empire after the exile and dispersion of the Jewish people five hundred years earlier (721, 597BC). Never before had there been a universal language like Greek that was understood across the Empire, much like Latin, or English functions today.  

But all of this historical background is prologue to the main clause, that “the word of God came to John….”  As we have said, the real news was being made by God and his word…coming first through John and embodied in Christ. These self-proclaimed gods and authoritarian rulers were preparing the world for the words and works of the true King who came to rule not by force but through the power of his sacrificial love.  God’s greatest work often begins in small, unexpected ways.  I can’t help but point out that on the same day we are inaugurating our president to a second term…it is Dr. King, an ordinary pastor speaking and working against racial injustice, who has a legacy that will far outlast any chief executive's term of office.  It’s a reminder of the power of Christ and his kingdom… which though seemingly weak and insignificant…continues to redeem hearts and reshape peoples and nations across the millennia.

(ii) The prophet’s challenge: How God’s people were being prepared for the King’s arrival (3-20) John came preaching a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins.  Luke reminds us of Isaiah 40:1ff“A voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord….every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low….”  It was the practice of eastern monarchs whenever they began an expedition, especially through barren or inhospitable country, to send couriers or a company of soldiers ahead of them to make bridges, or find fording places over streams; to level hills, or clear forests so that his armies might pass through.  John was calling his people to prepare for the King, but how?  

He called them to turn from religious hypocrisy: "Don’t claim Abraham as your father, hiding behind your ethnic and religious pedigree…God can make children of Abraham from stones."  He called them to a baptism of repentance and to a symbolic washing away of their sin in preparation for the King’s arrival. Understand that Gentiles who wanted to become members of Israel were told to be baptized but that Jews were not ordinarily baptized.  So why was John calling Jews to be baptized?  John was saying that Jews as well as Gentiles were equally in need of repentance and God’s mercy and forgiveness! He was reminding them that their ethnic background and family history as Jews did not automatically make them acceptable to God.  Just as we would say that church attendance or the faith of our parents or grandparents’ does not automatically make us true followers of Christ.  John challenges each of us to personally turn toward God in humble surrender. 

He called them to turn from social injustice:  The spiritual life does not end with good feelings and nice experiences with God…it manifests itself in a new way of relating to others, a new compassion for those in need, a new sense of responsibility to make right those things that have gone terribly wrong.  In particular, we must use the power of wealth to help those in desperate need: “Whoever has two coats or extra food must share with anyone who has none.” Indeed, "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  Dear children, let us not love in word or tongue but with actions and in truth" (1 John 3: 17-18).

He called them to turn from dishonest or unethical work.  Tax collectors who were notorious for extorting money from the people, were challenged to collect no more than the amount prescribed; and soldiers who used their power to “shake down” the defenseless and take their money with threats were told to be satisfied with their wages.  Notice that John, and later Jesus, did not call people to leave their jobs… but to do them in a way that pleased God.  If you were a tax-collector, be a good tax collector.  If you were a soldier, be a good soldier.  Serve God where you have been placed by him…influence the world for God right where you are.   

All this which John proclaimed Luke calls “the good news” (18).   In a world of so much bad news, our world is hungry for good news, and we have good news to share.  There have been some good news stories over the past year…(1) 2 billion more people have safe drinking water as of 2012.  (2) There were three major cancer breakthroughs, and one was discovered by a 12 year old. (3) Burma elected a Nobel Peace Prize winner as their first democratic leader after spending much of the last 20 years under arrest.  (4) A special needs student was elected Prom King in San Diego, and (5) India had its first polio-free year.  We love good news because there are so many things in this world that are not good…that are downright bad, and we know that because we see the bad within ourselves.  As Christians we trust in a God who wants to share the best news of all with us…that we can be healed of our badness; that we can be carriers of the good news of Christ's love and saving grace to the world.  We’ve been looking at how the world, and God’s people were being prepared for the King’s arrival… but now Luke explains how the King himself prepared for his arrival.  He took a bath in the Jordan River…

(iii) The King’s baptism: How the King prepared for his arrival (21-23).  In the midst of this massive movement toward God…one comes to join John at the Jordan: Jesus of Nazareth.   Why did Jesus come for baptism if he was the Messiah and without sin?  Why did he take a bath if he was not dirty?  Jesus came for baptism in order to identify with this movement toward God.  He came in humility, not as one above the fray or frailties of human beings, but as one of us.  He came not to flaunt his glory, but to empty himself of it.   

I’m reminded again of the prophetic words of Isaiah who spoke of the coming of the Suffering Servant who would “bear our infirmities and carry our diseases”, who would be “numbered with the transgressors” though “he had done no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth” (read Isaiah 53).  Jesus, from the very first numbered himself among the transgressors, he ate with tax gatherers and sinners, he identified with us because he loves us and came to help us.

Yet as he was baptized, something extraordinary happened that reminds us that Jesus, while he came for baptism like everyone else, was not just like everyone else.  For the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus is declared to be the true Son, who from the beginning is in a true relationship with God. 

Here we see the awesome circle of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  For as the Son comes for baptism, the Father speaks, and the Spirit rests upon him.   You and I were created to share in the loving  fellowship of the three-personal God. When we receive the King’s baptism, and filled with God’s Spirit, we are united in Christ with that circle of God’s eternal love.  For “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17: 23).  I had the opportunity to lead someone to Christ this week who was facing a crisis. As I read from the Bible to him he asked me to read more.  He was hungry for God’s truth.  At one point I read from Romans 8 and he asked me, “Why did I not understand that before, and now I do understand it?”  He said it with a genuine sense of awe and curiosity.  I assured him, it is the Holy Spirit helping you to hear the truth of God’s love for you.  As I was driving to see him…I was feeling a spiritual battle taking place within my own soul: “You won’t be able to help.  You’re too late.”  But while I was with him he said, “I want you to know that you are helping me, that what you are doing right now is helping me to face this.  Thank you for taking this time with me.”   I came to minister to him, but through him Christ was also ministering to me!  

Who are the people in your life who have spent eight minutes or eight years loving you, challenging you, who have pointed the way, who have led you to Christ, who have encouraged you or said the difficult things that helped you walk more faithfully as Jesus’ disciple? May God use you to do the same for someone else this week…to take at least eight minutes to help prepare the way for the King’s arrival in someone’s heart and soul.

King Jesus, we want to be prepared for your arrival today. Thank you for the prophetic word that challenges us to turn from the things we know are wrong and to walk humbly with you “who came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” We want to turn from religious arrogance, injustice, and personal apathy, seeking your forgiveness for all our many sins. We confess that we need to be cleansed, not by water or pious words alone, but by the baptism of your Holy Spirit. Clear the highway to our hearts, and enter in with your grace and truth, that we might boldly and faithfully follow you in this new season.  Amen!  

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