These are days of great division. Wherever we look, whether within Christianity or the secular world, we see people taking stands on this, that, or the other issue. It was already becoming a polarised world before the pandemic, especially in politics and religion, but it seems worse now.
The world John the Baptist stepped into was also quite polarised, with divisions running deep within society. You may think I am referring to that big division between Jew and Gentile. Actually, I am referring to divisions within God’s people, the ones coming to John in the wilderness for baptism.
One big issue dividing people in our day is how to deal with the pandemic. In John’s day the issue was how to deal with the Roman occupation. There were four main lines of thought represented by four main groups:
- The Zealots – let’s fight the Romans!
- The Pharisees – let’s keep God’s law and wait for God to bring judgement on the Romans.
- The Sadducees – let’s work with the Romans.
- The Essenes – let’s do our own thing because we are better than the Romans, and the rest of the Jews.
When John the Baptist arrived on the scene, he challenged those deep divisions:
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,Luke 3:3-6 (NRSV)
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘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 be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
What is easy to miss here is that John was calling everyone to repentance. Everyone needed to focus on God and get baptised, cleaned up, so to speak.
People would have been prone to following divisive ideas on what was needed to prepare for the Lord’s promised return to his people. For example, If you were of the same opinion as the zealots, then you think everyone needs to prepare by training for a fight, for God expects us to fight the Romans on God’s behalf. On the other hand, if you were of the same opinion as the Pharisees, then you think that everyone need to prepare by training in righteousness, keeping the Old Covenant to the letter, for then we can expect God to fight the Romans on our behalf. John the Baptist was calling for something deeper:
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”Luke 3:10-14 (NRSV)
Particularly striking is John’s instruction to the tax collectors who had the task of collecting taxes on behalf of the Romans. John didn’t tell them to stop colluding with the enemy. John didn’t pick sides in a political fight. John did call for the very same type of thing we find central in the teaching of Jesus, the focus on matters of the heart, like generosity, integrity, and not taking advantage of others. The teaching of Jesus on character, reflected by John’s call to character, transcended which political group one might belong to. It still does.
When the question was raised as to whether John might be the messiah, the one people expected would rescue God’s people from the Romans, John was quite clear that he was not:
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”Luke 3:15-17 (NRSV)
John was clear, he was baptising with water, meaning everyone should take a look at their relationship with God, cleaning off any dirt. No one got a pass based on what side they took on how to deal with the Romans.
John was clear, the messiah will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. The Holy Spirit looks forward to the Day of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit which we read about in Acts, chapter two. Fire refers to judgement.
Judgement? What judgement?
A clue to what that judgement is can be found in the baptism of Jesus:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”Luke 3:21-22 (NRSV emphasis added)
That Jesus is spoken of as the Son of God, the one with whom God was well pleased takes us back to thinking of that foundational moment for God’s people, the exodus from Egypt:
Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.”Exodus 4:22-23 (NRSV emphasis added)
That son was indeed let go, but he did not always worship the God that rescued him. Reading through the rest of the Old Testament, whether reading through the historical books, or the call of the prophets to get back to God, we discover that the nation of Israel was a son in whom God was not always pleased.
No doubt the divisions running deep among the people in John’s day, were not be pleasing to God. No doubt the call, from the Zealots, for violence against the Romans was not pleasing to God. No doubt the call, from many Pharisees, to a shallow form of righteousness that did not address the problems of the heart, was not pleasing to God.
Judgement did come. Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome in AD70 following a rebellion against Rome. Everyone had to face the music, no matter their political or theological positions and posturing. Jesus told his followers to have nothing to do with it and flee to the hills. While people expected that the messiah would rescue Jerusalem from Roman control, instead Jerusalem faced judgement and everyone, Romans included, were offered a different, and better, kind of salvation in Jesus.
So what does this have to do with us?
Great energy was expended in John’s day on fuelling political and religious divisions. Nothing was gained by it in the end when the Romans brought the hammer down.
The people of John’s day would have done well to let John’s baptism by water clean off their passion for their divisions. Perhaps we should rethink how much energy we are putting into division in our day. Will what we fight for today really matter at the return of Christ? Are we really walking with Jesus? Or are we walking with a divisive group? We don’t want to be so passionate about the things that divide us that we are not walking together with Jesus in faith, hope, and love.
John the Baptist called people to a baptism of repentance, a change of mind. Is there anything we need to repent of?