In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
As we enter the third week of Advent, I hope that we are all taking the time to remember what the season means. The passages that we’ve been looking at have been, in one way or another, focussed on the promise. Last week we talked about how the promise is contained within, or revealed through, judgement. Our passage today continues that theme, but it also expands it. So our Advent passage today is from the gospel of Luke. And we’re going to set it into the context of why Jesus came, and why Jesus comes.
Our passage today centers on a story with John the Baptist. Earlier in the gospel, when the angel is speaking John’s father, John is identified as a prophet with the spirit of Elijah. And in particular, we see that John’s role was to announce, and to prepare the people for, the coming of the Messiah. In the passage immediately preceding our passage today, Luke quotes a passage from Isaiah, applying it to John the Baptist.
3:4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
John, here in our passage today, is speaking to the crowds who are gathered before him to be baptized. Presumably, these folks were Israelites (“We have Abraham as our father”). And, as the one who is to announce the coming of the Messiah, his words were probably not at all what they expected.
Again, the people to whom John was speaking were Israelites. These were the people who had defined their entire identity by being the people God had chosen.
7:6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
God had chosen Abraham’s descendants, led them out of Egypt, led them into the promised land, and kept them through exile until His promise would be fulfilled. The Israelites knew that, even though their lives, their history, was not what they had thought it would be, that still God had chosen them for His purposes. And so they held onto the hope of the Messiah through whom the promises of God for Israel would be fulfilled.
So John’s message – which was a message of the coming of the Messiah – was not what they expected. They expected that when the Messiah came, Israel would take their place as God’s favoured people. They would overcome their oppressors – the Romans, the Persians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians – and take their place as regents (lords) under God. Instead, what John told them was, “It’s not going to be like you think.” What John tells them is:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Essentially, what John tells the people is that lineage doesn’t mean anything. He tells them that the title, “children of Abraham,” doesn’t guarantee belonging. This would have been shocking to the Israelites, especially those who counted their “Israelite-ness” by tracing their lineage back to Abraham ( cf. Paul, in Philippians 3). John goes on to tell them:
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
Again, John’s message is unexpected to the Israelites. He tells them that the Messiah will separate the wheat from the chaff and the chaff will be thrown away and burned up. Again – John is talking to Israelites, to the people of God, here.
What John is telling the Israelites, in a very harsh way, is that not everyone who is Israel is part of the people of God. Not everyone who can trace their lineage, who holds the title, belong to the kingdom. For John, what matters is that, those who claim to be God’s people, take care of the poor and powerless. What matters is that those with power use that power to take care of people who have none. The ethics of the kingdom demands that the people who claim to be part of that kingdom work for justice, peace, and equity. This should have been no surprise to the Israelites; and it should be no surprise to us.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
As you probably know, Jesus makes many statements like this. He frequently accused the religious leaders of missing the point and leading the people astray (by likewise missing the point). He tells the religious leaders in Matthew 23:
23:23“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
Jesus is repeating themes that will be continued in the New Testament and are rooted in the Old Testament. For example, Micah 6:8 has become something of a rallying cry for some Christians. It says:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Malachi 3 says:
5 “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.
And Jeremiah 22 says:
3 This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
In short, Jesus seems to be telling the Israelites that the coming of the Messiah is not going to be what they thought. The things that they relied on didn’t mean anything if they weren’t taking care of the things that God cared about – the poor, the neglected, the widows and orphans, the homeless and displaced. Their sense of calling didn’t mean anything if they didn’t remember what they were called for. They could only be called kingdom people if they actually lived the principles of the kingdom.
So What Now…?
As we’ve discussed, Christmas can be a weird time. One of the ways that Christmas is weird is that we try to remember the significance of Christ’s birth while at the same time we’re immersed in a society that worships consumerism. The entire culture of Christmas is designed around getting what we want. We make lists of things we want; we go shopping for what we want; we tell our kids that if they’re good boys and girls, they’ll get what they want; and if we don’t get what we want, we’re disappointed.
Now desire isn’t inherently wrong, I think. But I think the problem is that Christmas has become about getting what we want. This part probably seems obvious to most of us. But I think the further problem is that, for the people of God, Jesus has become about getting what we want. We have become like the Israelites who think the coming of the Messiah means that we will finally get what we want.
Inasmuch as that’s what we think – on whatever level – like the Israelites, we might have missed the point of why Jesus comes. Or, to phrase it another way, why did Jesus come? He did not come to give us what we want; and He didn’t come to give us what we think we deserve. He did not even, strictly speaking, come to “take us to heaven.” Simply, Jesus came to establish his kingdom. Jesus came to take his place on the throne.
And His kingdom is a kingdom of justice, peace, grace, and love. And those who claim to be kingdom people are called – invited – to live as if the kingdom actually matters. We are called to care for those who desperately need to know that the way that the world tells them things are is not the way things are supposed to be. And we are called to proclaim that the way things are is not the way things are always going to be. Because the king is coming. The king is coming to fulfill His kingdom.
This is what we wait for. This is what we hope for. And this is what we work for. That God’s kingdom would be on earth as it is in heaven. And this is what Christmas is about. And this is what we anticipate – and celebrate – during Advent.
The king is coming.