Zephaniah 3.14-end; Isaiah 12.2-end or Psalm 146.4-end; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18
O Lord Jesus Christ, who at your first coming sent your messenger to prepare your way before you: grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready your way by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in your sight; for you are alive and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
COMPARISONS can be useful in shedding light on interesting differences. Luke’s portrait of John the Baptist preaching and baptising resembles Matthew’s treatment at many points (Matthew 3.1-12). Both of them use dramatic figures of speech — “brood of vipers” (Luke 3.7, Matthew 3.7), the axe “lying at the root of the trees” (Luke 3.9, Matthew 3.10), worthiness to untie or carry the Messiah’s sandals (Luke 3.16, Matthew 3.11), and the “winnowing fork” that will separate the wheat from the chaff in the final judgement (Luke 3.17, Matthew 3.12).
Matthew, however, suggests that Pharisees and Sadducees were among those seeking baptism (Matthew 3.7), while the only categories Luke singles out are tax-collectors and soldiers (Luke 3.12, 14).
The ensuing dialogues differ markedly. Matthew has John haranguing the Pharisees, and they will be likened to vipers on two other occasions in his Gospel (Matthew 12.34, 23.33).
Luke does not concentrate on this group with anything like Matthew’s vehemence. His description of the scene at the Jordan presents something kinder and more encouraging. His Baptist, like Mark’s (Mark 1.1-4), is the announcer of a new order, and his preaching has stirred up a genuine will for radical and life-changing repentance. But that is only the beginning.
Besides baptism, there is action to be taken to effect this change, and it sounds remarkably practical. To the crowds in general, most of whom are adequately clothed and fed, he recommends sharing these essentials (Luke 3.10). Addressing the tax-collectors, he urges a just and honest system of collection (Luke 3.12). For the soldiers, his guidance is not to abuse military power or to try to make extra income by intimidation (Luke 3.14).
John is using these opportunities to say something about the transformation not only of individual lives, but of the character of a whole society. Generosity and equity should be governing principles, and the particular cases of those who have authority to operate systems of taxation and civic order sharpen the focus.
In changing their practice, they are learning and exemplifying a lesson about human worth. By recognising the dignity of others, their own dignity and integrity become recognisable. This is part of God’s purpose of re-creation. Later, when Jesus discusses John’s baptism, he will point out that tax-collectors accepted it, but Pharisees and lawyers rejected it, and so “rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (Luke 7.30).
Luke, perhaps, turns away from Matthew in telling this story, in order to forge a stronger connection with the story of the first moves towards the emergence of the Church. Peter, newly empowered by the Holy Spirit, will also answer the question: “What should we do?”
His conversation is with the stricken Jerusalem audience whom he has confronted with their complicity in Jesus’s death, and his encouragement to them is to accept the promise of the Spirit, which God offers to them and their children (Acts 2.37-39).
Here, too, baptism has practical outworkings in a more generous community, formed by people who have recognised in Peter’s preaching their separation from God’s hope for them. They have found a way to a new relationship with God and with each other (Acts 2.43-47).
What makes these baptismal events (Luke 3.7; Acts 2.41) more than admirable essays in social reform is the guarantee of Jesus himself, whose life and death will add a vast depth of meaning to the essential elements of water, fire, and Spirit.
He deliberately chooses baptismal language to talk about his impending death (Luke 12.49-50), and the linear structure of the Gospel should not prevent our re-reading John’s promise of the baptism with “Holy Spirit and fire” which his successor will give with these words in mind. By the time Peter preaches in Jerusalem, the fire of suffering has become the light of the resurrection and the sign of the Spirit.
Transformation is a dominant motif in Sunday’s Old and New Testament readings. Zephaniah’s prophecy of a journey out of exile, to a restored Jerusalem, tells of fear translated into confidence, lameness transformed into health, and outcasts gathered in their own city (Zephaniah 3.15-16, 19).
A nation under judgement will be reconciled to God, and lamentation on both sides will become rejoicing (Zephaniah 3.14, 17). Paul, writing from prison to the Philippian Christians, also insists on rejoicing. The community may have problems to negotiate, but the most important assurance has been given to them already: “The Lord is near” (Philippians 4.5).