With the turn of the calendar, from one year to another, many of us celebrate not only a new year, but of course mark it with New Year’s Resolutions. Everything from getting in shape, to losing weight, from getting organized to being more disciplined when it comes to spending and saving money, to falling in love and prioritizing time with friends and family, to being on our phones less and calling Grandma more.
All good things of course. It’s a time of renewal and resetting and rededicating yourself to what matters most.
The sad and unfortunate thing though is that these resolutions don’t last that long, do they? We probably know this intuitively through our own experiences from year’s past, and yet the data backs it up.
Though we start strong, for example, more gym memberships are purchased in January than in any other month, for those who track their progress via fitness or dieting apps, those same apps will show you that it’s likely somewhere between the third week of January and the second week of February, that there’s a decrease in activity and increase in fast food consumption, an increase in alcoholic beverages purchased, along with pizza and ice cream and a decrease in the juice cleanse sales that had their moment of fame just weeks before.
For many of us, it’s a time of renewal and rededication, a time of resolutions and new starts, and yet, and I include myself fully in this one, also a season of tepid and meager results.
We all hope for a new year to bring about a new you, but yet more often than not a new year means the same you, just a slightly older, significantly colder, you.
And so the questions I want to put before us this morning are to get us to consider…
How do we change? What does it look like biblically speaking? And maybe, most importantly, how do we find the power, the source, for real and transformational change, both for this year and in the years to come?
This morning we continue on in our sermon series in the Gospel of Luke and in our passage this morning we find the people of Israel at a similar moment in their history as you and I find ourselves here today – a season of renewal and rededication of their own, as John the Baptist is baptizing crowds of people in the Jordan River.
You might recall as we journeyed through Advent and studied the birth narratives of Jesus, that we were in fact also introduced to the prophet John, who we have come to know as John the Baptist.
Luke began his gospel not by immediately jumping into the story of Jesus and his miraculous birth, rather he began his gospel by introducing us to John.
And it was to Zechariah, John’s father, that the angel Gabriel told him about this John that he would go on before the Lord, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
This would be John’s mission and purpose and sacred privilege – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. After all, there had been 400+ years of silence, 400+ years a prophetic word from the Lord, and so just in the same way that Luke’s Gospel began with John, not Jesus, so too does this next section of Luke’s gospel, where we fast forward past the birth narratives, to now their respective ministries as adults, and here we find, John carrying out his mission, he’s making ready a people prepared for the Lord and helping people get spiritually ready for Jesus’s arrival.
And he’s doing so in a particular place that is particularly significant in its historical background to the people of Israel. Where it says, in verse 3, John went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And as he preaches this message, he’s baptizing people in the Jordan River, of all places, the very river that God’s people had to cross years and years before in order to enter into the Promised Land. And before they entered the Promised Land, they were called and commissioned and charged with obeying and following and trusting God, and to represent him to the world around them.
If you’re familiar with the Old Testament story, they, well, failed miserably, like third week of January kind of failure. And here they are, at the Jordan River, again, as John baptizes person and after person, it’s a renewal movement of sorts, a rededication ceremony of sorts, a new year’s resolution kind of moment. John is helping the people get spiritually ready for Jesus’s arrival, to soften their hearts, to encourage them to rededicate themselves in their relationship with God, so that when Jesus finally comes on the scene, they’ll be ready.
And yet, as hopeful as all that might sound, as the crowds come to be baptized by John, John says something rather alarming and seemingly off putting, saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Wow, not exactly the “Welcome to Worship, we’re so glad you’re here” message that just about every church strives for when people walk through their doors. I can’t say John would be the first choice to serve as a greeter.
And yet, as strange and as off-putting as his words may sound, John has a purpose to what he’s saying, where he’s likely sensing that some of the people who are coming to be baptized are simply coming for sheer ritual of it all, with no real meaning or purpose behind it. They see other people doing it, they see that it’s the popular thing to do, but yet they have no desire for it to have any deeper significance to their life.
You may have noticed the peculiar phrase earlier, that John was preaching a “baptism of repentance.” A baptism of repentance. It’s a peculiar phrase that we rarely see again.
Repentance is a loaded word that sometimes gets a bad reputation, conjuring up images of fire and brimstone, or a person handing out tracks that proclaim that the end is near so hurry up and repent.
And though there are elements of truth to that, repentance, though sometimes painful and difficult, is actually much simpler and sweeter than that. It simply means to turn around. To turn away from our sin and everything in our life that separates us from God and to turn towards him. To turn around. To change direction.
And with that definition in place, we can see how baptism and repentance work in concert with each other. In fact, as I was reviewing old notes from previous baptisms I’ve done, I couldn’t help but notice the turning / repentance-like language that characterize the questions that are asked of a person or parent when they or their son or daughter is baptized. And as I read these, maybe consider these questions again yourselves:
Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?
Baptism signifies and calls people to turn. A turning from and a turning towards. In baptism, we identify and give our allegiance to Jesus, uniting ourselves with him in both his death and resurrection, both in dying and turning from our sins and also being raised to new life through him.
And so what seems to be happening here as the crowds come to be baptized by John, is that John is sensing that some within the crowds want the baptism without the repentance. They want sweet and sacred sentimentality without the turning. They want the sacrament without the life change. And so John says to them, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
And if you thought that what John has said up until this point has been a little strange, well, it only continues, as the crowds then rightfully ask, “What should we do then?”
And John’s response is this: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
A nice idea, but kind of strange, right? It seems like the ultimate non-sequitur. What should these people do about this baptism of repentance? Well, in John’s eyes, they should donate items from their closet to the Bargain Basement or food from their pantry to their local Food Bank. It’s a little strange to say the least.
And yet, here John introduces a theme that will run throughout Luke’s Gospel, this repeated emphasis on stewardship and money and possessions. In John’s eyes, in Luke’s eyes, in Jesus’s eyes, our faith and finances are inextricably linked, stewardship and obedience, baptism and repentance go hand in hand.
In fact, here’s the third question, asked of someone at their baptism: Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying His Word and showing His love?
And maybe it’s by sharing out the abundance of what we’ve been given, by practicing generous stewardship, that we embody faithful discipleship, obedience to his Word and show His love to those in need?
So friends, maybe for today, the most godly thing you can do is incredibly simple. Simplify your belongings and give some of your abundance away.
Callie and the boys and I made the drive from Seattle to Dillon on Friday, and we finally made it home after 6 stops, 7 Starbucks coffees, 2 Costco Hot Dogs, 4 Caleb naps, 1 Noah nap, 35 gallons of gas and 12.5 hours in the car. And we couldn’t help but count one other detail - That we were coming home with far more than we left with. And of course, what else would you expect, with two little kids and grandparents that want to spoil them like crazy? And maybe you two are feeling the same thing post-Christmas. Friends, what might it look like to share what you have with those in need?
And I’ll ever so slowly finish with this …
I began this message wanting us to consider what change looks like biblically speaking. We kind of talked about that as we discussed the nature of repentance and the importance of turning away from our sin and turning towards Jesus, which is not a one-time event, but rather a lifelong posture.
And yet there’s another question that you and I often wonder about - how do we find the power, the source, for real and transformational change, both for this year and in the years to come?
We fail, we stumble, we fall short, we sin. New Year’s Resolutions and all of their joyful promises start strong, only to fizzle out and be virtually forgotten a few weeks later.
So how do we change and what’s our hope when we fall short?
Well, here I’m encouraged and find hope by a couple things that are mentioned at the end of our passage today.
The crowds are beginning to wonder if John is Messiah, and yet, John promises them that someone far greater than him will soon come and that he will baptize not simply with water, but with the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is the seal, the invisible mark that identifies the baptized person as belonging to Jesus Christ.
Presbyterian Pastor, Dr. Ron Byars says it like this, “The Spirit given in our baptism is, in fact, a guarantee that God’s love for us will not run out or fall short.” Baptism is not something that happens to you at the end of your life, as some kind of Christian lifetime achievement award, here’s what you get for being a good and obedient Christian all these years. Rather, it’s the fuel, the nourishment, the power, the foundation we need to live lives in honor of and devoted to the Lord.
And yet, even more, we see that Jesus himself is baptized too. Which is odd, because why would he need a baptism of repentance, what would he need to turn from? Well, nothing of course. Yet, although he needed no repentance or cleansing, Jesus identified with sinful people he came to save through his substitutionary life and death. Jesus’s baptism was a way for him to identify himself with sinful humanity.
All of which tells us that we are accepted by God not according to the strength of our own repentance and our ability to change, but rather through what Jesus did and accomplished for us through his death and resurrection.
Baptism is the beginning of something new, a new identity, a new reality, a new start. It’s a physical sign of a spiritual reality – that God has begun a new work in you, that he united you with Christ in both his death and resurrection, through the power of the Holy Spirit.