The Preaching of John the Baptist
(Matthew 3.1-12; Mark 1.1-8; John 1.19-28)
1For 15 years Emperor Tiberius had ruled that part of the world. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was the ruler of Galilee. Herod's brother, Philip, was the ruler in the countries of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was the ruler of Abilene. 2Annas and Caiaphas were the Jewish high priests.
At that time God spoke to Zechariah's son John, who was living in the desert. 3So John went along the Jordan Valley, telling the people, “Turn back to God and be baptized! Then your sins will be forgiven.” 4 Isaiah the prophet wrote about John when he said,
“In the desert
someone is shouting,
‘Get the road ready
for the Lord!
Make a straight path
5Fill up every valley
and level every mountain
Straighten the crooked paths
and smooth out
the rough roads.
6Then everyone will see
the saving power of God.’ ”
7 Crowds of people came out to be baptized, but John said to them, “You bunch of snakes! Who warned you to run from the coming judgment? 8 Do something to show that you really have given up your sins. Don't start saying you belong to Abraham's family. God can turn these stones into children for Abraham. 9 An ax is ready to cut the trees down at their roots. Any tree that doesn't produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into a fire.”
10The crowds asked John, “What should we do?”
11John told them, “If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn't have any. If you have food, share it with someone else.”
12 When tax collectors came to be baptized, they asked John, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13John told them, “Don't make people pay more than they owe.”
14Some soldiers asked him, “And what about us? What do we have to do?”
John told them, “Don't force people to pay money to make you leave them alone. Be satisfied with your pay.”
15Everyone became excited and wondered, “Could John be the Messiah?”
16John said, “I am just baptizing with water. But someone more powerful is going to come, and I am not good enough even to untie his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17His threshing fork is in his hand, and he is ready to separate the wheat from the husks. He will store the wheat in his barn and burn the husks with a fire that never goes out.”
18In many different ways John preached the good news to the people. 19 But to Herod the ruler, he said, “It was wrong for you to take Herodias, your brother's wife.” John also said Herod had done many other bad things. 20Finally, Herod put John in jail, and this was the worst thing he had done.
John bursts onto the scene at a precise moment of history, in an exact locale: during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, along the banks of the Jordan River. Luke does everything short of giving us a fixed date and geographic coordinates.
Scripture never deals in vague, historical musings, but in hard, detailed realities. Ironically, it’s this very particularity that is the key to the Bible’s timelessness: John may as well be standing before you or me, sweat beading on his forehead, his camel hair jerkin giving off a pungent musk, his voice pitching up as he calls us down to the waters.
Because he is. His words are not just spoken to first-century tax collectors and soldiers. They are equally spoken to twenty-first century students and computer analysts and baristas and daycare workers.
“What should we do?” is our anxious plea. Whenever we really hear from God, that question confronts us, burns in us.
John’s answer is twofold.
Repent, he says. Change your mind. Think differently. See it God’s way. Quit hiding behind conventions and excuses and blaming. Quit absolving yourself with cheap alibis. Align your way with God’s way. Repent.
And “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” That’s how one translation renders verse 8. The CEV says it this way: “Do something to show that you really have given up your sins.” True repentance shows up. A change of mind always translates into a change of behavior. No one earns God’s forgiveness – it’s a gift. But when you receive that gift, it alters you in daily, earthy, practical ways: you become generous, honest, fair, thankful. Forgiveness frees you to do something. It shows up.
This is good news. God’s forgiveness is available anytime, anywhere, to anyone. It’s utterly free. But say yes to it, and nothing in you remains untouched.
You have shown me amazing grace. You are the God who forgives me completely and changes me inside out. Help me to do something to show that I really have given up my sins. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.