John the Baptist Prepares the Way. We looked at the pericope that begins with the first verse of chapter 3 of Luke, and ends with verse 20. As the announcement of John’s birth begins the nativity stories in chapter 1, so does the story of John’s public ministry introduce Jesus’ public ministry.
It was a sparse, sparse crowd at the men’s Bible study Wednesday night. But as I prepare for and teach this scripture, the more I warm to it, despite having taught Luke many times in my adult life. Some sort of fresh idea always breaks through the familiar scripture - or at least some neglected place in my spirit is nourished by what Luke has to say.
What strikes me about this passage is how the people "came out" (verse 7) to hear John preach. They came out of Jerusalem, they came out of their towns, and their villages, they came out of their routines and their comfort zones, into a rural area to hear a man call them a "brood of vipers", challenge their ideas of tribal salvation, and baptize them with a "baptism of repentance", in preparation for the coming of the Lord.
Why would they do that? Were they so dry, so parched spiritually? Or bored and with time on their hands? How did they find out about John? He was apparently unconnected with any religious institution He had no wealth and lived strangely. Did he remind people of the Old Testament prophets? Did he ring some bell implanted by childhood stores of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the others? We could say that "God was working in their hearts", but to me that is often a pretext for not worrying the scriptures for more particular answers, and is not helpful to a half-believer, of whom there are many in our Bible studies and churches. (I’m often one of those. Half on a good day.) I think they knew they were in trouble, just as all of us do when we are honest with ourselves. God plants that "uh-oh" in us. We know that there is something wrong.
So they came out, and John called upon them to repent. They "came out" of lives that were so full of routine that their cognitive powers were parched and nearly stunted. By "cognitive powers" I refer to the whole menu of ways that we perceive and understand. I think routine is an enemy of our cognitive powers. And routine works in a perverse way, it makes you think that you "know" something because you are familiar with it. Often being "familiar" with something means that you have left off thinking about it any longer. I am certainly "familiar" with Carol. But being satisfied with that could be the death of our romance. As a citizen of Jerusalem, I am familiar with being a Jew; I am familiar with the Messianic scriptures; I am familiar with it all. Boring.
And in a busy life, in between familiarity, we have a lot of stimulus in the urban world, the sort of thing that keeps you pre-occupied and unconnected. I walk across the street plugged into my iPod and don’t see the traffic (which could be of mortal imporance). I take off the iPod, sit at my desk, and see a host of new emails on my computer. The phone starts ringing, people drop in, I drink coffee, go to lunch with the WSJ, the routine starts again back at work - more emails, phones, people, but now I am running out of caffeine or energy or something. I am winding down, getting too tired to think. Etc. Etc.
But if I can "come out" of all of this, maybe there is something God has to say to me. Maybe he is in there underneath all the noise and pre-occupation. I heard about this fellow who sounds like a prophet, out there in the country; let’s put together a hamper of food for lunch and go out there. Let’s get away from this and have some time away, for ourselves. Maybe we can hear something of what the universe has to say to us.
"Repent", as I understand it, means "turn around". We are fixed on our lives by routine and noxious stimuli. We are pinned down, like a butterfly on a specimen board. Here is a call to turn ‘round, turn away, look at what’s behind us, where there is no routine, none of man’s pseudo-creation, where there is . . . what? Do we dare turn around and see?
John called on his listeners, their having come out, to turn around and many apparently did. At least they undertook the ritual, they were baptized. Now what’s next?
John says, Look out! He’s coming! Coming up behind you! Turn around quick! You've never seen anything like this before!