Posted in reflections

Luke 3:7-20 – The flip side of the gospel

Every coin has two sides. Properly preached, the gospel is no different. If one side of the good news coin is blessings, the flip side is reformation.

Luke 1-2 is the shiny blessings side of the coin. There, we learn of God’s promises to the people, of angels singing glad tidings and babies born to unlikely mothers. The tone is hopeful, like Isaiah 40:1, where God speaks comfort to the people.

Luke 3 turns the coin over. Blessings recede from view as the tone darkens. The voice of a rugged prophet echoes in the wilderness. Matthew portrays John the Baptist as a character more like Esau than Jacob. This is not a tent-dweller but an outdoorsman “clothed with camel’s hair around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 1:6). Some Jews of John’s day wondered if he was the reincarnation of a desert-dwelling Old Testament prophet like Elijah (Matthew 16:14).

Luke 3:18 sums up John’s preaching: “So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.”

What is this “good news” for John? It is a message of reform, both social and personal. It is repentance that produces the evidence of good fruit (3:8), a turning away from what is wrong and a firm commitment to do what is right.

Social reform

John’s preaching begins with a broad focus. The “salvation of God” (v. 6) shows up in dramatic ways. The “mountains” and “hills” being “lowered” (v. 5) echoes Mary’s song in Luke 1:52, where God “has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble.” God’s paths are straight paths (3:4). What is “crooked” must be made “straight.” (3:5). The LORD swings an axe that cuts down trees and throws them into the fire (3:9). Something is wrong on a broad scale, John insists, and social reform is overdue. Despite the apocalyptic images, David Neale cautions that this “reform” does not include rebelling against “the Empire” or “the corrupt Jerusalem temple aristocracy” (see Luke 1-9, in The New Beacon Bible Commentary, p. 96). Nonetheless, the image is of a message so powerful that nothing stands unchanged in its wake.

Personal reform

Reform on the societal level is accompanied by reform on the individual level. Cut to the heart by fiery preaching, the crowds anxiously respond to John: “Then what are we to do?” (3:10). To different groups in the crowd, John tailors a response:

To everyone: generosity — Do you own two shirts? Then give one to someone who has none. Likewise, food is for sharing, not discarding (3:13). The late Nazarene pastor Earl Lee spoke recommended “giving living.” Open hands make for open hearts, while hoarding betrays our lack of trust in God’s daily provision.

To tax collectors: integrity — Surprisingly, tax collectors were among those coming to be baptized. They asked the prophet: “Teacher, what are we to do?” John replied: “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to” (3:13). He did not tell them to quit working for the government as if government employ in itself was wrong. John was not against the payment of taxes, nor was Jesus (Matthew 22:21). However, tax collectors were only to require what Rome demanded and not line their own pockets.

To soldiers: upright conduct and contentment — Soldiers kept order, but this legitimate authority carried the illegitimate temptation to extort money (3:14). Policing powers are not given in order to enrich oneself. Abusiveness and repentance are antithetical. John the Baptist encouraged soldiers to be content with their pay.


The gospel is good news, yet the preaching of John the Baptist reminds us that there are two sides to the gospel coin. Besides the blessings of the Lord, there is also God’s requirement for social and personal reform. Repentance means forsaking sin, wherever it lurks, and cultivating practices demonstrating that where God reigns, darkness flees. Here are some things to consider as we relate John’s preaching to our own time.

  1. Christ transforms culture – In his 1951 Christ & Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr laid out ways that Christianity has traditionally related to society at large. One of the options is that Christ transforms culture. How well does the preaching of John the Baptist fit into that paradigm?
  2. Social and personal reform – While not advocating violent overthrow of Roman rule, there are unmistakable echoes of Old Testament prophecy in John’s preaching, an approach that underscored God’s concern for justice and the social reforms necessary for justice to be realized. Yet John’s message also called for personal reform as the evidence of individual repentance. Has the Church of the 21st century held these dual emphases together? What larger current justice movements have drawn participation from some churchgoers? How do you feel when you see churches asking for participation from its members to combat social wrongs?
  3. What are we to do? This is the question each group coming to John the Baptist to be baptized asked the prophet. As you’ve read Luke 3:7-20, what has the Holy Spirit been saying to you? What areas of your life and conduct is God asking your permission to reform?


All Scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible (Lockman, 2020).

Posted in parables, pastoral care

Parable of the trapped weaver

weaverMy wife and I live in a 3rd floor flat. This morning as we walked down the stairwell, we heard the noise of desperately flapping wings. A little weaverbird was trapped behind a closed window pushing with its beak against the glass, trying with all its might to open the window and escape. But all her efforts were in vain. Not wanting to get too close to the bird (which probably would have sent the already terrified  creature into cardiac arrest), we opened a nearby window.

I’m not sure what the attraction was for the weaver to fly into that stairwell in the first place. Likely, she came in through the gate at the bottom of the stairs. I’m no good at puzzles, but even I could see the solution. Freedom was as close as that slotted gate through which the weaver apparently had entered. To get out, she just needed to turn around and fly back to where she got in.

All around us are people just like that weaver. They once flew free, but somewhere they took a wrong turn. Now they are trapped behind the glass window of addictions. They push against the thick panes of alcoholism, drugs, gambling, or pornography. The longer they’re trapped, the more desperate they become. Through the window, they see the freedom they once knew and they long to enjoy it once more. But to get out, we too must retrace our steps to where we got in. To go forward, first we must go back.

Scripture has a lot to say about repentance, this change of mind and heart that is a prerequisite for freedom. Repentance is letting God turn us around and head us in the opposite direction. In Acts 3, God used Peter as the divine instrument of healing for a man crippled since birth, a man who used to sit begging at the Temple gate (see Acts 3:1-10). Now as the restored man jumped for joy, a crowd gathered out of curiosity. What would Peter say?

  1. It wasn’t me or my companion, John, who did this. It was Jesus (v. 16).
  2. Turn to God (v. 19).

Peter advised:

Repent then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord (Acts 3:19, NIV).

I suspect there were a lot of people listening to Peter that day who were every bit as trapped spiritually as that crippled man had been physically. Just as Jesus freed the man physically, he was able to free the crowd spiritually. But there was something they needed to do first. They needed to repent, to be willing to let a loving and powerful God turn them away from their sinful habits and attitudes and lead them in a new and better direction.

It takes humility to admit that we’re trapped, that the only way forward is to go back. Too proud to ask for help, like the weaver, we keep pushing desperately against the window pane, thinking we’re strong enough on our own to escape some other way. Freedom only begins when we admit we that we’re powerless to solve our problem alone.

Peter’s advice to the crowd that day is the advice we need now. God longs to free us from our sin, from the dead end of our addictions. With Jesus by our side, let’s retrace our steps and head in the opposite direction. Freedom is glorious, and it’s closer than we think.


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Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments

Forgive us, Lord, for we have sinned!

droughtThey’re triumphant words, a hymn I sang often as a child on Sunday nights:

‘Tis a glorious church, without spot or wrinkle, washed in the blood of the lamb.

You’d think that 123 years after Ralph Hudson penned those 1892 lyrics that we’d be much closer as the people of God to that vision. But when I look at the church today, I realize how dry like a desert we are, how broken, how guilty, how desperately in need of God’s forgiveness and cleansing. We have forgotten that 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 is addressed to a group of believers, the Thessalonians. God calls the church to be sanctified, to be pure in her culture and her systems, yet we have fallen pitifully short and the watching world has surely noticed that we are no different than they.

Forgive us, Lord, for we your people have sinned!

No denomination has a corner on the market on righteousness. Across the spectrum of churches, things are awry. There’s no need to make a laundry list of offenses. That list is added to every day in online newspaper articles or on social media, undercutting our sacred mission in the world.

Forgive us, Lord, for we your people have sinned!

We look around us at our culture and see it plummeting downward. Too quickly, we are ready to call down upon those who make no claim to Christian faith the fiery judgment of God. But have we forgotten that God’s judgment falls first upon us, the church? Peter reminded his readers:

For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17, NIV, italics added).

Acts 5:1-11 is the fearful story of Ananias and Sapphira. Because they misrepresented to Peter the price that they had received for selling their land, Peter warned Ananias: “You have not lied to men but to God” (v. 4). Later, to Sapphira he asked: “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” (v. 9). Because of the cover-up – their complicity in lying – both fell down and died, first Ananias then later – playing dumb – Sapphira. If nothing else, doesn’t this story teach us that harboring known sin in our lives has negative physiological effects upon us? If that is true for individuals, what effect upon the overall health of our churches is there when corporately we look the other way when there has been wrongdoing? Shall we be surprised should God one day look at us, his people, and declare:

Ichabod! The glory has departed (1 Samuel 4:21)?

The Psalmist wrote: “”Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:24, NIV).

My prayer first of all is for myself, that I will remain transparent before God, allowing the Holy Spirit to convict  me of sin, leading me to ongoing change in my heart and life. But can it stop there? As God’s people, the church, let us acknowledge where we have allowed wrong ecclesiastical practices to go unchallenged and unchanged. Only then can the spiritual revival we seek take hold and make us the holy people God wants us to be. Surely, only a transformed people can transform our world (Matthew 5:13).

Together, let us pray:

“Almighty God, we your people have merited nothing but your disdain. In word, thought and deed, we as your church have failed; we have sinned. Like a land in drought, we are spiritually dry. Again and again, we have sought to increase our power and wealth rather than lifting up the powerless and destitute. We have run after position and fame, forgetting that your son, Jesus, divested himself of his glory, becoming a humble servant. Grant that we your people may  see the sinful log in our own eye then trust you to remove it. Do not repay us, your church, according to our transgressions or we will surely be lost! Forgive us, cleanse us, and fill us anew with the love and presence of the Holy Spirit. Help us, we pray, as your church not to conduct business as this world does, but show us a different way, your higher way. Hear us, we pray, for it is in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, that we with humble repentance offer this prayer, AMEN.”


Image credit: Life is Bigger