Tomorrow evening begins Yom T’ruah, the Holiday of Trumpets, more commonly known as Rosh HaShanah, and with it the High Holidays and the beginning of the new year 5779. My hope is that it won’t be a “new year – same old” scenario, but rather that Adonai will continue transforming us from the inside out, causing us to walk in His ways all the more, and to become more like Messiah Yeshua Himself.
But that isn’t a given. There’s the matter of your cooperation. Because positive change doesn’t just happen automatically, though we might wish it were so… as this story illustrates:
Back in the 1880’s a family from the remote mountains of Tennessee visited a large eastern city. They arrived at a hotel and, for the first time in his life, the father found himself standing outside an elevator. He watched as an old, haggard woman hobbled on, and the doors closed. A few minutes later the doors opened again, and a young, attractive woman stepped out. The father hollered to his youngest son, “Billy, quick – go git yer mother!”
If you liked that joke too much, and now you’re feeling guilty, the good news is that we’re entering the season of repentance. This morning, rather than talk about the High Holidays, I want to read the account of John the Baptist and his message, and the setting, and the various responses from different groups of people, and have us consider what we can do to prepare our hearts for this important season. We’ll be reading Luke, chapter 3. But first, let me share two passages from the prophets: one from Isaiah, and the other from Malachi. Roughly 300 years apart.
A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God”. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; and let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley; Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind will see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 40:3-5).
This, of course, wasn’t a literal call to build an interstate highway, nor what the pseudo-scholar author Erich Van Daniken claimed were instructions to build a landing strip so that extraterrestrial astronauts could land their spacecraft. The clearing the way, raising up of valleys, leveling of hills and smoothing of rugged terrain were metaphors; Isaiah summoning Israel to repent and jettison the sin in their lives in advance of the arrival of the glorious Messiah. And it came to pass, as the apostle John wrote, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory; glory as of the one and only…”
And listen to the words of Malachi:
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts. “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like launderer’s soap” (Malachi 3:1-2).
Yochanan the Immerser – better known as John the Baptist, was the one about whom Malachi prophesied; the messenger who would clear the way for Messiah’s first appearing. And when the Lord Yeshua appeared, and walked into His Temple, He meant business. He dealt decisively with those who had corrupted it. To the downtrodden and poor, He was gentle and kind and brought healing; but to those in the religious establishment who were corrupt and oppressive, he was indeed like a refiner’s fire.
So let’s take a look at the ministry of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness and clearing the way for Messiah, summoning all Israel to repentance. Turn to Luke, chapter 3.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Anyone familiar with First-Century Israeli history knows that this was a turbulent time, and this list of powerful, godless Roman rulers and notoriously corrupt Jewish leaders attests to the fact. Against this backdrop of tyranny, corruption, and darkness, God sends a man to shine the light of truth.
Even his name, John the son of Zechariah, is apropos. Zechariah means “The Lord remembers” and Yochanan means “The Lord is gracious”. We are told that the word of God came to him baMidbar in the Judean desert… just as it had for the prophets of old, especially Elijah, who spent considerable time out there. And in the pattern of the ancient Jewish prophets, John summoned the people to confess and repent of their sins, and to be publicly immersed as a sign of their commitment to do so, as well as to signify their embracing of his teaching. The essence of John’s message was that the divine Messiah, the Messenger of the Covenant, was shortly to appear, and that Israel needed to be in readiness for that Day.
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’”
Luke quotes directly from Isaiah 40, which we read just a few minutes ago. But Luke slightly rewords it. Instead of “the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all mankind will see it together,” he writes, “and all mankind will see God’s salvation”. The fact that the wording isn’t identical shouldn’t disturb you. The paraphrasing of Scripture (a targum if you will) was an accepted Jewish practice; one which the rabbis themselves frequently employed.
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! (this was not exactly a ‘seeker-sensitive’ church) Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 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. 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.”
In his own account of the Gospel, Matthew specifies that it wasn’t to the general crowd that John spoke so condemningly, but rather to the group of Pharisees and Sadducees who had come out to the Jordan to see John; not to seek God, not in sincerity, not in repentance, but to scrutinize. They were there as a fact-finding committee, reporting back to the Jewish authorities what John was teaching. It was to that group that John directed his ferocity.
And what was John’s teaching? The Gospel! Namely, that God’s wrath stood ready to be executed. He put it this way, “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.” That’s the bad news part of the Gospel. But there is good news also: men may instead experience God’s great mercy through faith and sincere repentance. But this was to be no game of charades; the evidence of genuine repentance is a changed life. Because talk is cheap. So he said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
And if those Pharisees and Sadducees imagined that their yichus – their pedigree (noble ancestry), being the privileged descendants of Abraham, was sufficient to save them, they had another thing coming. They were gravely mistaken. No one gets into Heaven on the basis of their ancestry!
You can just imagine the reaction John’s words evoked. Now, on the one hand, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the ones to whom he directed the warning (and one may infer from the rest of the Gospel that for the most part they blew him off), but the crowd, most of whom were there for the right reasons, would have taken his words to heart, and they would have been alarmed. And that’s what we see as we come to the next few verses.
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.”
Everyone there was being summoned to repentance, but notice that repentance entailed different things to different people. And that’s because repentance isn’t the same thing as simply having feelings of guilt or remorse. Repentance demands a change of behavior; observable, measurable change in our conduct.
The general message to the people was to be open-handed and generous, not tight-fisted and greedy. By the way, did you ever wonder what Yeshua meant when he said “If your eye is bad/evil, your whole body will be filled with darkness, but if your eye is good, your whole body will be filled with light”? He wasn’t talking about physical vision. And it wasn’t about shooting a nasty look at someone. In ancient Israel, saying that someone had an ‘evil eye’ meant that person was stingy and greedy and cold-hearted – tight-fisted with others. Someone having a ‘good eye’ meant that they were kind-hearted and generous – open-handed.
Now let’s be clear about something: John’s words were not a call to socialism. There’s nothing here about giving X percent of one’s income to the government, who will then set up programs to clothe and feed and redistribute everything. It is a call to individual generosity and compassion toward the poor.
Here’s another aside: some people think that by voting a certain way they’re showing compassion. I’m sorry, but filling in a little circle on a ballot isn’t how you do ‘compassion’. Authentic compassion means you take out your checkbook and even though it hurts financially, you write a check; or even though it means sacrificing precious free time, you go and personally help others.
Yeshua said we would always have opportunity to give to the poor; if we’re going to be honest about it, isn’t it our collective failure as the people of God to do this that gave rise to these massive, woefully inefficient government programs?
Luke tells us that different groups of people specifically asked John what they should do. The first group named were tax-collectors – second only to the Roman government as a group hated by the Jewish people. Tax collectors worked for the Roman government, seizing tolls and levies on anything and everything. But because the tax collectors were fellow Jews, they were regarded with contempt; and all the more, because they frequently extracted much more than the quota. To this group, John said not to collect anything more than what was required. A person has the right to try to earn a living, but greed is incompatible with the Kingdom of God.
The next group of people named were soldiers. They also came to John, asking what repentance meant for them. What did they need to do? First of all, you need to know that these weren’t Roman soldiers. Remember, this was a Jewish movement; these were Jewish people coming out to the Jordan. So… Jewish soldiers? How does that work? The Roman government permitted the Jewish religious authorities (in this case, the Sadducees who held jurisdiction over the Temple) to appoint guards – Jewish soldiers, as security for the Temple mount.
To these Jewish soldiers, the message was to cease from the abuse of power for personal gain – there was to be no extortion. They were to be content with their pay. It was the same principle as the instruction to the tax-collectors and to the crowd in general. The bottom line is that the acquisition of wealth must not be the animating force in the life of God’s people. There is nothing wrong with having money; but if we have food, clothing and a roof over our heads, we should be content and if we have a little extra, we should be generous with others.
There is a good reason why the Bible says so much about money. It’s because in this fallen, sinful world we are so easily preoccupied with it. Money itself is a neutral thing; there is nothing inherently good or evil about it. The question is one of proportion: how many of our waking hours are occupied with the pursuit of it? And when we have it, what kind of stewardship are we employing? Sadly, most people are living beyond their means, and as a result are anxious. The solution isn’t scheming how we can get more and more money, but to reexamine our needs, discern the difference between needs and wants, and learn to be content with less.
Luke goes on to describe the scene at the Jordan; a scene of great anticipation!
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (and at this moment, I imagine him turning to look at the Pharisees to say…) and with fire. 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.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
A couple of thoughts about this. First of all, expectation is a good thing. But truth must take priority over emotion. John made it very clear that he wasn’t the One. It isn’t enough to be sincere in your excitement, if in fact you’re believing the wrong things. Truth, fact, reality – these are what matter in terms of our beliefs.
Take note also of John’s disposition. He is humble! He may the focus of attention at this point, but he doesn’t let it go to his head. He knows it isn’t about him. In fact, he sees himself as even unworthy to be Messiah’s servant! And this from the greatest of the prophets – of whom Yeshua Himself said, “Among those born of women, there is no one greater than John!” We need to learn from his example. There is no place for prideful self-importance in the New Covenant.
And again, notice the reference to fire. Fire refines – it burns away impurities, and leaves precious metals like gold and silver pure and beautiful. But that fire doesn’t feel very good, does it? Discipline isn’t fun, but it is necessary, and if we’ll receive it as from God’s hand, it is a good thing, as the writer of the Letter to the Messianic Jews attested: All discipline, for the moment, seems not to be joyful but sorrowful, yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
But we can’t do this in our own strength. We are all called to repentance, to turn from our sin and make the necessary changes in our lives. and I want to stress that this is the work of the Holy Spirit. God is the One who must do this work in our lives. All that is required of us is to be yielded to Him; willing – cooperative.
There is a direct correlation between genuine faith, the anticipation of Messiah’s coming, and the resolve to do what we need to do to be ready for His appearing. It involves repentance from those things in our lives that aren’t right, and we know it. It involves real-world, real-time changes in our use of time and money.
In conclusion, as we approach the High Holidays, we have a choice, just as the people of Israel had a choice in the days of John the Baptist. Will we be like those who came in sincerity, confessing their sin and adjusting their priorities? They are the ones who experienced joy, and who could look forward with hope, not dread, to Messiah’s coming.
Well, He’s coming a second time. What will it be for you this time around? Business as usual, or a dramatic, God-given transformation, and the joy that comes with it? That ball is in your court. When that great shofar blast from Heaven is sounded, what will it mean for you: Salvation and eternal joy, or shame and eternal separation from Adonai, and judgment? Let’s ponder this, and maybe take some additional time on our own to revisit John’s preaching in the wilderness as the High Holidays approach.