“The Word of God Came to John” (Luke 3:1-20)

Second Sunday in Advent
December 5, 2021

“The Word of God Came to John” (Luke 3:1-20)

Every year during Advent, we get Gospel readings about John the Baptist. Why is that? Well, John’s whole purpose in life was to prepare the way of our Lord Jesus Christ. Likewise, the purpose of Advent is to prepare for the coming of Christ. So it’s a natural fit: John the Baptist prepares the way during this season of preparation called Advent.

In today’s Gospel reading, Luke begins by setting the stage for John the Baptist’s ministry. He writes: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” And so our theme this morning: “The Word of God Came to John.”

But why mention all these guys, Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod the tetrarch, Philip the tetrarch, and Lysanias the tetrarch? These were all political figures at different levels of government. Tiberius Caesar, as the Roman emperor, was the most powerful man in the world. Rome ruled the world, and Tiberius was the latest in the line of Caesars. The emperor would have various local rulers governing under him in the lands that Rome had conquered. In the region of Syria or Palestine–which included what we know as Israel–the local ruling dynasty was the house of Herod. Herod the Great had been the ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth. Now, thirty years later, the territory had been divvied up into four parts–thus the term, “tetrarch,” “ruler over a fourth.” That’s where this other Herod comes in, along with Philip and Lysanias. In one of the four parts, the Romans sent in one of their own guys to run that area, and that was Pontius Pilate.

By giving us this string of names, Luke is telling us who the leading political figures were at that time. Then he identifies the leading religious figures, the top men in the Jewish religion: “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” Why is Luke doing this? Why is he setting the stage for John’s ministry in this was? Let me suggest three reasons.

First, this introduction tells us that these events actually occurred in history. This is not some myth or made-up fantasy. No, this is real, down-to-earth human history. It’s like we confess in the Creed: “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” If you go over to Israel, to Jerusalem or Caesarea, you can see actual archaeological artifacts with Pontius Pilate’s name on them, as the governor of Judea–the same Pontius Pilate that Luke mentions here. The point being: This stuff really happened! These events actually occurred in human history.

That’s the first point. Secondly, Luke is telling us that while all these big shots were sitting in their seats of power, the really big deal that God was doing went relatively unnoticed. “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” What’s truly important is what’s going on with the word of God. Where the word of God comes to man, that’s where the action is. It may not seem important compared to what’s happening in the halls of power, but this is really much more important. “The word of God came to John.”

First, these events happened in history. Second, what God’s word is doing is the truly big deal. Now third, by writing an introduction like this, Luke is telling us one more thing. He’s comparing John the Baptist to the prophets of the Old Testament. It’s the same style as an Old Testament prophet’s “call narrative.” For example, for the prophet Jeremiah: “The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.” Luke gives the same sort of introduction for the ministry of John the Baptist: In such-and-such year of the reign of so-and-so, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

What’s the point? Luke is saying that just like the word of the Lord came to prophets in the Old Testament, for them to call God’s people to repentance and faith in advance of a special visitation of God, so now the word of the Lord comes to John, for him to call people to repentance and faith, ahead of the coming of the Lord. Something big is about to happen, and God sends a prophet in advance to announce the news and to prepare the way.

The word of God came to John back then. And now that same word of God comes to us today. What is this word? It is a word of repentance, and it is a word of forgiveness. This is the word that came to John that he then preached. As our text says: “And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance and forgiveness: John proclaimed both, and so do we.

“The word of God came to John,” a word of repentance. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 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.” “Every valley shall be filled”: Are there places in your life where you ought to be doing things that you aren’t, low spots that need filling in? “Every mountain and hill shall be made low”: Are there high places in your life that need to be brought low, places of pride and being full of yourself? “The crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways”: What are the crooked ways in your life, the ways you rationalize and excuse your wrong behavior? What are the rough places that need to be smoothed out, in how you treat other people? Repentance needs to happen in your life.

This word of repentance is not some vague, general idea that we can leave as mere lip-service. “I, a poor miserable sinner,” we say. OK, but poor miserable sinners do poor miserable sins. Specific sins. Sins that can be identified. And John calls us on them. He says what repentance looks like in the particular. If you have plenty of the good things of life: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” If you’re a tax collector: “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” If you’re a soldier: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” And we can take this further. If you’re a student: “Do not cheat on your exams.” If you’re married: “Do not be mean to your spouse.” If you’re a neighbor: “Do not fail to help your neighbor when you have opportunity to do so.” Repentance gets rather specific. As John says, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” Don’t let your repentance be just a sham or a game you’re playing.

Bearing good fruits means you’ve got to be a good tree. And all of us are bad trees by our sinful nature, ever since our first parents ate from a tree they weren’t supposed to eat from. And bad trees produce bad fruit. They cannot produce good fruit, no matter how hard they try. So first you’ve got to become a new kind of tree. And that’s where the second part of John’s message comes in, namely, the forgiveness of sins.

“The word of God came to John,” and it is a word of forgiveness. You see, all of our bad fruits, our poor miserable sins, need forgiving. And that forgiveness is what God gives us. This is how we become new trees and bear good fruit.

John “preached good news to the people,” it says. We preach that same good news to you! The word of forgiveness came to John, and now we proclaim it to you! Your baptism was and is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. God buried that old sinful self of yours in the waters of Holy Baptism. Now you arise each new day as a new person, clean and washed and forgiven. Now you are a new tree. By the power of the Holy Spirit, you are able to bear good fruit, fruits in keeping with repentance.

You are a new tree, forgiven and fruitful, because of one tree in particular: the tree on which your Savior died. Christ came and died on that tree to win your forgiveness. John says of this Savior: “He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” Christ, the mighty Savior, was coming. He would be cut down in our place, taking the wrath of God we deserve for our sins. Jesus Christ died on the tree of the cross, for you and me, in our place. This then is the good news we preach: that you have forgiveness for Christ’s sake. What’s more, Christ our Lord baptizes you with the Holy Spirit, giving you faith and new life, making you a new tree to bear good fruit.

“The word of God came to John.” Luke is telling us that this stuff really happened in human history. He’s saying that the word of God coming to man, however “off in a wilderness” it may appear, is more important than all that the powerful people of this world are doing. And Luke says that the word came to John like it came to the prophets of old, showing that God was about to do a very big thing, in the coming of the Christ.

“The word of God came to John.” This word is a word of both repentance and forgiveness. This same word comes to you today. The word of God is calling you to repentance, telling you to bear fruits in keeping with repentance. The word of God is preaching good news to you today, proclaiming forgiveness, so that now you are free and a new kind of tree. And this word of God comes to you in the person of the one whose way John prepared: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The word of God came to John, and now it comes to you.

Published in: on December 4, 2021 at 6:57 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Great sermon as always

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