Monday, December 21, 2015

Luke 2:40-52 – In the Temple…

Lesson Focus:
From the beginning, Jesus lives in a tension between his God-given mission and who the world would have him be.  Whether we know it or not, we live in this tension, too. 

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lesson students should:
1.     Understand that, just like you and I, Jesus experiences growing up.
2.     Understand that Jesus is caught in the tension of who God has called him to be and who the world, or his family, might hope he will become.
3.     Realize that we too live in the tension between what God has called us to do and become and what others might hope we become. 

Catching up on the story:
This week’s passage is the final story in Luke’s infancy narrative concerning Jesus.  Up to this point in Luke, we’ve heard the foretelling of both John the Baptist, and of Jesus.  Both men will be born in extraordinary ways.  John will be a gift to an elderly couple who had long thought that they would not have children. Jesus will be born to a woman who was not married and who had never been with a man.  Both births are foretold by angels. 

We should be familiar with Luke’s birth narrative for Jesus.  It is one of the longest and fullest presentation we find in the Gospels.  Of course, Jesus is born in Bethlehem and is tenderly wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger.  His birth announcement is written in the sky by stars and angels, and delivered to shepherds.   At his presentation at the Temple, elderly prophets proclaim the significant role that Jesus will play in the life of Israel. This is the last time we will see Jesus for 12 years.  

The Text:
This week’s passage begins and ends with a statement about Jesus’ birth and maturation.  Luke tells us, in verse 40, that Jesus, after his presentation at the Temple, grows up and becomes strong (presumably in body) and filled with wisdom.  This statement, along with the one that takes place at verse 52, forms an inclusio or literary bracket around a statement or story.  In this way Luke marks the transition from Jesus as an infant to a growing boy at the beginning, and from a child to a man in verse 52. 

Some have speculated that a statement that Jesus grows in wisdom and divine favor might detract from Jesus’ nature as a perfect human.  In order for Jesus to take on all of our humanity he must experience all of it, even the parts where we grow.  Here, Luke is telling us that Jesus, just like you and I, experiences the growth and discovery that is common to all humanity.

The Passover Festival: 2:41-45
Every year Mary and Joseph made the trip from their home in Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival.  Passover was the celebration of God’s greatest act of salvation for his people up to that point: their escape from Egypt.  The Passover Festival was also one of the festivals that Jewish men were required to keep in Jerusalem.  Of course, by this time whole families came to celebrate the Passover (Marshall, 126).

There is no reason to think that this was the first time that Jesus had accompanied his parents on this journey.  The journey, during this twelfth year, is significant.  At twelve years of age Jesus would be beginning to make the transition into adulthood.  While Jesus would not have formally been considered an adult until the age of 13, he would begin to prepare for full inclusion in the religious community during his twelfth year (Nolland, 129).  By being a pious family, Jesus’ earthly parents were preparing him well to undertake his God-given mission. 

The Passover Festival would have been eight days long.  Normally, not everyone who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem would have stayed for the duration of the Festival.  Indeed, it was not required that they do so.  Jesus’ family, however, has stayed until the festival has concluded. 

It was normal for families, on a pilgrimage such as this one, to travel in large groups to and from their destination.  It is very likely that the traveling party would have been comprised of extended family, neighbors and friends.  Traveling in Jesus’ day could be very dangerous, especially at night.  Going as a group also lessened the amount of stress and preparation that each individual family would have needed to make.  

We are told that the traveling party sets out from Jerusalem to Nazareth but Jesus is not with them.  We are not immediately told why Jesus stays or what he was doing, only that he remained and that his parents did not know it.  Before we get too rough on Mary and Joseph, who after all have been tasked with ensuring that the Savior of the world makes it to adulthood, we need to realize that it is very possible that Mary and Joseph believed that Jesus was with relatives or close friends for the day. 

On that first day of travel from Jerusalem they might have noticed that he was not there.  The text gives us the sense that they began to check with friends and relatives during the journey, but could not be sure he was not with the traveling party until they made camp that first night.  It is at this point that they decided to travel back to Jerusalem.  Where else could he be?

They Were Amazed: 2:46-47
When they arrive in Jerusalem they spend some time looking for him.  On the third day of looking (day one: travel from Jerusalem, day two: travel to Jerusalem, day three: looking in Jerusalem), they find him in the temple.  There he was sitting among the teachers of the Law soaking up their teaching and asking his own questions.  The educational model used by teachers in that day was very dialogical.  Teachers would have used questions posed by their students as a springboard for significant teaching. 

Jesus was not just participating in the discussion as other might have been.  Jesus amazed all who heard him with his understanding of the Law and the answers he gave.  In fact, the Greek word which both the NRSV and the NIV translate as “asking them questions” can imply that Jesus was asking questions that probed and were intended to illicit firm decisions from the Rabbi’s (Marshall, 127).  Indeed, Jesus has grown in wisdom and maturity, and he will grow even more by the time we meet him as an adult in chapter 3.

Why Have You Treated Us Like This? 2:48-51
Finally, Mary and Joseph discover Jesus in the Temple.  Those who are parents are sure to understand Mary’s frustration.  I’m sure that Mary and Joseph experienced both relief, anger and frustration upon finding Jesus.  I’m also sure that many parents have uttered Mary’s words in verse 48, “Child, why have you treated us like this?”  Even parents of young children are often amazed and confounded by the behavior that their children exhibit.  Parents of adolescents surely know how Mary feels.

Mary wants to know why Jesus would do such a thing.  Why would he cause his parents such great anxiety?  This question sets up the tension in the text.  Certainly, Mary and Joseph have done a great job raising Jesus.  The have provided him with an environment in which he can grow and mature as a person of learning and faith.  They are a pious family who values the story and practices of their faith.  Mary’s reference to Joseph as Jesus’ father also highlights the tension in the text. 

The tension is, in some ways, normal in the life of adolescents.  It is the tension of belonging to two different worlds.  For normal, non-Son of God teenagers, the tension exists in finding one’s own identity apart from the one created for them by their parents.  The tension here, in this text, is not that normal tension, but the tension between the pious life of his human family and the call of his heavenly Father. 

Jesus’ response to his mother highlights this tension, “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  Two things need to be noted here.  First, I do not believe that Jesus’ response is one of frustration or disappointment at his mother’s rebuke.  Rather, Jesus’ response is one of surprise and astonishment.  “Surely,” Jesus wonders, “you should know that this is where I need to be!”  The Greek phrase translated here by the NRSV as “must be” and as “had to be” in the NIV carries with it the sense of necessity.  Jesus is really saying that “it is necessary” for me to be in my Father’s house.”  This phrase, “it is necessary” in Greek, is employed regularly throughout Luke and Acts to indicate what must take place in order that God’s plan of salvation can take place (Green, 156).  In other words, Jesus is telling his mother that in order for God to do all that needs to take place so that salvation can come to the whole world, he must be in that place.  Mary, for her part, fails to understand what Jesus is saying.  She will, however, continue to wonder at what her son says and does.    

Second, Jesus is not negating the wonderful formation that he has received at the hands of his human family.  He is, however, declaring, even at the age of twelve years old, which “father” must take prominence in his life.  Jesus is declaring that his Father is the God of the Temple, the same God who brought Israel up out of Egypt and established them as God’s people in the Promised Land.  Jesus’ first recorded words in the Gospel of Luke are words that establish who Jesus is and to whom he belongs.       

So What…?
We are constantly under the same tension as Jesus is here in this passage.  There is always a pull from one side, be it our family, our friends, or the culture to which we belong, that seeks our allegiance.  On the other side, we have our heavenly Father calling us to posture ourselves so that we can do his will.  Sometime we are the ones caught in the tension, other times we are the ones causing it.

We may not know that we are placing this tension on our children.  I was lucky.  The call of God in my life to become a minister of the Gospel did not put me at odds with my family.  They fully supported my call, sacrificing financially so that I might receive the proper education and training.  I wonder though, as parents and friends of children, teens and young adults, if we are really willing to always be supportive of our children when they express God’s call on their life?  It doesn’t have to be a call to full-time ministry, it may be a call to enter a helping profession that won’t earn them the kind of money we think they should make, but that actively places them in position to bear witness to the Kingdom of God. 

If we were Mary, would we have been so supportive of Jesus’ call in life?  Would we have actively worked against him to ensure that he is able to live a long and safe life?

Our children, if we raise them right with the help of our church family through the power of the Holy Spirit, will find themselves needing to decide where their ultimate allegiance lies.  For some of them, God will call them to do things that we would rather not have them do.  We should rejoice when this happens because it means we have helped them into a posture that has allowed them to hear the voice of God.  We should also release them into the very capable hands of God even when it is unclear that doing so will bring them harm. 

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text? 
    1. God in Christ Jesus is setting his face firmly toward his mission.  Nothing will keep him from doing the will of the Father.  Indeed, he will constantly put himself in a posture which will help him know the will of the Father and be obedient to it. 

  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. The salvation of our children almost entirely depends on our willingness to give them back to the God who gave them to us.  It is so very important that, like Mary and Joseph, we raise our children in a pious environment that enables them to heave the voice of God calling them in life.  We must then not be afraid when we discover that they are being obedient to that call, even when it might lead them to do things and to go to places we might not think are best. 

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. We need to be utterly and entirely concerned with the spiritual formation and education of our children, not just our biological children, but the children of our friends and neighbors.  They depend on us guiding them into a relationship with their heavenly Father so that they might one day be obedient to him like Jesus was.    

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
1.     What do you think Luke means in verse 40 when he says that Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
2.     What is the Passover Festival and why was it an important celebration for the Jewish people? 
3.     Is it important that Mary and Joseph go to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Passover Festival?  How might this have helped Jesus grow and become strong and filled with wisdom?
4.     How would you have felt if you had traveled a day’s journey and discovered that your child was not with you? 
5.     In verse 48 Mary chastises Jesus for staying behind.  Was she right in doing this?  How might you have responded differently? 
6.     Read Jesus’ response in verse 49. Do you think his response was one of frustration or shock at his parents’ lack of understanding?  Why? 
7.     The “must be” of Jesus’ response could really be translated as “it is necessary” that Jesus be in the Temple.  Why would it be necessary for Jesus to be in the Temple?
8.     This passage displays for us the beginning of the tension that will constantly exist in Jesus’ life.  It is the tension between his God-given mission and what the world would have him become.  How does Jesus deal with this tension in the text?  How does Mary deal with this tension? 
9.     Have you ever experienced this same tension between the call of God in your life and someone else’s expectations of you?  If so, how have you handled it?  Have you ever been the one placing this tension on someone else?  How did you resolve the tension?        

Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997)

I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1978).

Luke 1:39-56 –Mary’s Song of Hope

Lesson Focus:
Mary proclaims what God has done in the past because she understands that what is happening in her now is a continuation of God’s faithful saving acts toward his people.  It gives her hope for the future. 

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Understand that Mary’s song is a testimony concerning God’s past faithfulness
2.     Understand that remembering God’s past saving actions gives us hope for the future
3.     Be encouraged to constantly remember God’s saving acts in hopeful anticipation of Jesus’ final coming 

Catch up on the story:
In the very early stages of this narrative, Luke has been weaving together two separate yet connected story lines.  The first story line is that of the elderly couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah.  They are from the priestly line of Aaron and yet are unable to bear children.  Zechariah, while working in the Temple one day, gets a visit from an angel proclaiming that the couple will soon give birth to a son.  The son’s name will be John and he will be no ordinary person.  He will be the one who will prepare the way for the Messiah.  Zechariah fails to believe and so loses his ability to speak until the baby is born. 

The second story line is that of Mary, a young woman who is engaged to be married to a man named Joseph.  Mary, who is a virgin, is also visited by an angel telling her that she will become pregnant, too.  Only, this pregnancy will not come about by the normal way, but will be a blessing from God.  Again, the boy she will bear, Jesus, will be no normal son; he will be called “Son of the Most High” and will sit on the throne of his ancestor David (1:32-33).  Mary receives the news with more faith than Zechariah does, yielding herself as a servant of God. 

Of course, Mary and Elizabeth are related and the angel informs Mary that Elizabeth is pregnant as well.  These two initially separate story lines are now about to come together.     

The Text:

The Journey and Greeting: 1:39-45
It is not long after Mary receives the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that she sets out to visit her.  In those days, young women did not travel once they had been engaged to be married.  Normally, an engaged woman would remain secluded in her home until she entered the bridal chamber.  She certainly would not have left unaccompanied on what was possibly a seventy-mile trip (Green, 94-95).  We are given no specific reason for Mary’s trip.  The angel did not command her to go.  Nevertheless, her journey to visit Elizabeth fits with Luke’s general journey motif.  Narratively, it also helps the reader get a clearer idea of how these two story lines intersect and who the true hero of the story is.  Or, perhaps her hasty visit was an attempt to flee some of the shame that came with being a young unmarried woman who was with child. 

Mary arrives at the home of Elizabeth and offers a greeting.  Upon hearing Mary’s greeting the child that Elizabeth carries in her womb begins to leap for joy and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit.  We can assume that what fills Elizabeth now fills John, too.  The Spirit’s filling of Elizabeth and John enables them (and us now as witness to this event) to discern the significance of Mary and the child she carries.  As we will hear in Elizabeth’s speech, there is no doubt about the hope that is about to be fulfilled. 

Elizabeth’s Spirit-guided discernment also turns social custom on its head.  In her world, those of lesser standing, because of age and the like, travel to and visit those of greater standing.  The initial greeting is offered by the lesser person, too.  For her part, Mary acts accordingly, which causes Elizabeth to wonder why she has done so.  Elizabeth questions why such a good thing, that the mother of her Lord would come to visit her, has happened to her.  Elizabeth recognizes that due to God’s graciousness toward Mary, Mary is the one who is now the greater person in the relationship.  As a general rule, Luke’s gospel will constantly turn social norms and customs upside down.  This instance is but one of many. 
Elizabeth also offers Mary a blessing.  The word used here, “blessed,” is the same word that Jesus will use in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is a word that is “spoken over those who are judged to possess what is necessary for a joyful life and especially over those who are the recipients of God’s gift of redemption” (Green, 96).  Mary has truly been blessed by God as she carries this child who will be the savior of the world.

Mary’s Song: 1:46-56
In response to Elizabeth’s blessing, Mary sings a song that takes the form of a declarative psalm of praise (like Psalms 8, 33, 47,100, 135 and 136).  Mary’s song uses bits of psalms, hymns and scripture that she would have been familiar with since young childhood.  The song itself functions a bit like the songs in a Broadway or Disney musical.  Songs in those types of productions do not usually advance the narrative, but they do help the viewer understand what has already transpired and, perhaps, offer a bit of foreshadowing.  Thus, Mary’s song does not advance Luke’s narrative, but helps us understand the significance of the events that have already taken place.

Mary’s song begins with Mary stating that, on the deepest levels, in her “soul” and “spirit” she is filled with joy.  Throughout the Old Testament, the idea of joy is bound together with God’s future saving events.  As we have already seen with John’s prenatal leap of joy, the expectation is that God is about to act in a decisive and positive way for his people.

As is normal with psalms of praise, there is the declaration of praise and then the reason is given for the praise.  Mary’s reason for being filled with joy is that God has looked on her (and her people) favorably in the midst of their “lowliness.”  Lowliness in this context has to do with Israel’s position as an oppressed country at the hands of the Romans.  Luke also uses the term in significant connection with “the poor” in both his gospel and in Acts (Green, 103).  What is clear is that Mary sees her self and her people as being oppressed, poor and in need of God’s saving hand.  Now, she believes, God’s hand is going to act in a mighty way to reverse the situation. 

Beginning in verse 48 Luke begins to use a series of verbs (looked, done great things, shown strength, scattered, brought down, filled the hungry, sent away, lifted up) that in Greek are in the aorist tense, or a past tense that is undefined.  In some places this means the result of the action of the verb has continuing consequences into the future.  In the context of Mary’s song and Luke’s gospel, this string of verbs ties together a testimony about God’s faithfulness with the events that are now taking place.  Additionally, these verbs link what has transpired in the past to the hope for what God will do in the future.  The subject for each of these verbs is God.  God is the one doing the action. 

Mary is proclaiming God’s faithfulness in the past.  Great things have been done.  He has shown mercy for those who wish to follow him.  God has shown the strength of his arm, he has brought down the powerful and lifted up those who have no power.  He has kicked the rich out while filling the poor with food.   All of this God has done because of the promises he has made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses, to David and to those who returned from the Exile. All of this God has done because of his faithfulness.

It would be easy to read Mary’s song as a complete reversal of fortunes where the rich become poor and the poor become rich.  “This is not to obliterate the powerful so that the lowly can achieve the positions of honor and privilege to which they previously had no access.  Rather, God is at work in individual lives (like Mary) and in the social order as a whole in order to subvert the very structure of society that supports and perpetuates such distinctions” (Green, 105).    

Taken as a whole, Mary celebrates God’s work in the past and identifies that what is taking place in her and Elizabeth’s wombs is a continuation of those mighty acts.  Salvation, which God brought in the past, is now present in Jesus.   

So What?
Advent should be for us a powerful time.  It should be powerful for us because we are reminded of all of the ways in which God has acted on our behalf in the past and the effects that those acts have on our present and our future.  The song that Mary sings, she sings because she remembers all that God has done, in covenant loyalty, for her and her people.  Her remembering helps her make light of what God is doing through her now.  Mary’s story is our story.  We are children of Abraham.  We are children of the covenant and God’s faithfulness to it.  God has shown mercy to us from generation to generation.  Mary’s song is our song too.
Our celebration of the birth of Jesus is just a few short days away.  It is a celebration that rejoices in what God has done through the past work of Jesus.  At the same time, however, it is a celebration that rejoices in the present work that Jesus is doing in our hearts, lives, and community here and now.  When we, as individuals and as a community of faith, focus on the past and present saving works of God our eyes are cleared to see the possibilities for the future saving works of God.  It sets aside the fear that we might have for the way our world is going and places in our line of sight a bright picture of what is to come, the Kingdom of God in its fullness.  And what is to come rests securely in the arms of the one who is coming again, Jesus Christ. 

Advent is a powerful time for us because in remembering the past our fears are casts aside and replaced with hope, and as the Apostle Paul reminds us, hope that is from God does not disappoint us.     

Critical Discussion Questions:
1.     What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
a.     God is continuing his plan of salvation for his covenant people.  What God has done in the past, bringing about salvation for those who are faithful, God will do in the present and the future.
2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     For both Elizabeth and Mary, their salvation and subsequent holiness is tied to their constant remembrance of the faithful acts of God on behalf of their people.  This allowed them to live in hope and the hope allowed them to be faithful and obedient servants of God.
b.     So often we forget what God has done in the past and our vision gets clouded by fear.  The fear steals our hope and faithfulness to God and keeps us from being obedient and hopeful about the future.     
3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     We should be a people who constantly retell the story of God’s faithfulness in the past, both through the biblical narrative and through the stories of our own lives.  God has been and continues to be faithful to us.  The phrase, “remember when God did this…” should always be on our lips.  It leads us to have hope and believe that what God has done in the past God will do again.   

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Mary sets out on a perilous three-day, seventy-mile journey to visit her relative Elizabeth.  Why would she do this?
2.     Why does the yet to be born John leap for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary arrives? What does this say about who John will be in relationship to Jesus?
3.     Elizabeth offers a blessing to Mary and wonders aloud why it would be that someone so important would come to visit her.  Why would Elizabeth wonder why Mary would come visit her?
4.     Mary’s song begins declaring that her soul and spirit are filled with joy.  The rest of the song outlines why she is filled with joy.  Make a list of all of the things that she describes in the song that God has done.  What portion of those things are done for Mary and what portion of those things were done for God’s people?
5.     Why would one who is miraculously pregnant with the “Son of the Most High” recount all these things that God has done in the past?  What connection is there between what God is doing through Mary and what God has done in the past as related in the song?
6.     In Advent we not only celebrate Jesus’ birth but we expectantly wait for Jesus’ coming again. How does remembering what God has done in the past (like Jesus’ birth) help us view and understand current events in our life and give us hope for future events?
7.     As a group, try and compose a poem or song which outlines all that God has done for you in the past.  Keep it as a reminder that as God has worked in the past, God will work in the future.
[1] [2]

[1] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, Sixth Impression edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997).
[2] I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978).

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Luke 3:1-17 –Bear Good Fruit!

Lesson Focus:
Baptism, the repentance that takes place before it, and the cleansing and rising to new life that takes place in it, are meaningless if they are not followed by the bearing of “fruit.” 

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Understand that John the Baptist is a prophet like the prophets in the Old Testament who were to prepare the hearts and minds of God’s people for his coming.
2.     Understand that John’s call for followers of God to produce fruit is not just for the newly converted but for those who have been Christian a long time.
3.     Discuss what it looks like to produce good fruit as Christians. 

Catch up on the story:
The stage has been set for Jesus to appear on the scene as an adult.  We have heard all about his birth and what people are saying he is and what he is to do.  It is obvious to those who have read Luke’s story to this point that something great and expected is going to come from Jesus.  Before we meet Jesus, however, we meet John who is called the Baptist.  In the words and actions of John we will get a good idea of what Jesus is going to do.  John, it seems, is the last of the prophets pointing the way toward Jesus.

John, if you will remember, is the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth who were at an old age and unable to have children.  An angel visits Zechariah while he is working in the Temple and informed him that he would be the father of a special boy.  This boy will grow up and help prepare the way for God’s salvation to enter the world.     

The Text:

A Voice from the Wilderness: 3:1-6
John’s own birth was something of a miracle, marking him as a significant character in the story.  Luke begins this section with John by giving us a bunch of clues to his actual historical and social location.  Luke has done this in such a way as to make his readers draw a connection between John, what he will do and what he will say, with the prophets that Israel has seen before.  Many of the Old Testament prophetic books begin in similar fashion.  There is no doubt in Luke’s mind that John is a prophet who is to prepare the hearts and minds of God’s people for his arrival. 

Luke also tells us exactly what John is up to, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  We are not told much about the actual nature of John’s baptism, how he performed it that is. This leads us to believe that what Luke (and John) find important about the event is not how it is carried out, but rather that what is happening before, during, and after the event. 

Baptism was not unknown in John’s day; it would have been one of the rituals a gentile would need to go through to convert to Judaism.  As such it was seen as an outward ritual signifying the washing away of sins.  Like other similar Jewish ritual washings, the symbolic action would have been deemed ineffective without a corresponding change in inward attitude and external behavior. (Marshall, 135).  Luke connects John and his baptism within the general flow of Old Testament prophecy.  He does this by quoting Isaiah 40:3-5.  John is the one whose voice is crying out from the wilderness urging people to ensure that things are ready for the coming King.  At the heart of the quotation is a desire for the hearts and minds of God’s people to be ready for his coming.  

You Brood of Vipers! 3:7-10
There is no need to understand this section as all taking place at one time and place.  It is rather likely that there were many opportunities for John to baptize people and to proclaim to them who he was and for whom he was preparing the way.  John obviously had enough popularity and name recognition that people were coming in waves to be baptized by him. 

Verse 7 begins with John announcing to the people what exactly it is that they are to be doing.  As prophets do, John knows the context of his people, what they will say, and the difference between what they think they want and what they really need.  John knows these people are seeking something –repentance and salvation– and they think it can be found in John’s baptism.

Just what they thought they were being saved from is different than what we commonly understand salvation.  While it is true that many were seeking freedom from their sin, the sin of the people was also thought of as having consequences for the nation as a whole: political consequences.  For some time leading up to the time of John, Israel had been ruled by the Romans.  It was common to think that this Roman occupation was a result of Israel’s unfaithfulness and what was needed was a new Exodus of sorts.  If Israel turned and repented, then God would bring about liberation from the Romans.   

It becomes clear, as we look at the passage, that some in the crowd believed that if they merely received the right kind of baptism they would be saved from the harsh reality in which they already lived.  After all, they were children of Abraham, God’s chosen people, and God had promised to be faithful to them.  Some thought salvation should be secure just because they are God’s people.   John, however, sees right through this and chastises the crowd.  He clearly points out that it is not just the baptism that will bring about their salvation, but their subsequent change of action and attitude. 

John introduces a metaphor that Jesus will pick up on and use, that of bearing good fruit.  A tree that should bear a certain kind of fruit but does not is a tree that is not worthy of the ground it is using.  John says, if you want this baptism to mean anything, then you must begin to bear the fruit that comes along with repentance.  Repentance without fruit is worthless, it seems!

Then, John sends out a very sharp warning: even now your tree is about to be cut down.  If you do not get it together the ax will strike the trunk and you’ll be cut down and used for firewood.  There is no need to press the “thrown into the fire” image here.  John is not making claims about what happens to those who are unrepentant.  The fire pit is a place you put wood that has been cut down. 

What Then Should We Do? 3:14
Realizing that John is indeed right, the people respond by putting a question to John, “What then should we do?”  In other words, the people are interested in bearing fruit but they are not exactly sure how this is to happen.  What does it look like? 

This question, even though it seems so simple and, perhaps, only suitable for those who are seeking new faith, is for us too.  Remember, John is not speaking to the unconverted here; he is speaking to those who are deeply familiar with the story of God’s working in, through and for Israel.  This question comes from those who are “in” so to speak.  Certainly, most of those who will attend your group this week are “in” as well.  Let this question speak to them too.     

To the first group John responds, “Those of you who have two pairs of underwear give it to those who have none.  Likewise, if you have food share it with those in need.”  John is not saying that just those who have abundance should give, -they should- he is saying that even the poorest of poor have something to give. If you’ve got more than one pair of underwear and someone needs some, you should give them a pair of yours.  For this first group of people, who were perhaps the poorest of the poor, bearing good fruit is taking care of the needs of others.

Luke goes on telling more of the story, showing that it wasn’t just the poor ones that came but even tax collectors and soldiers (probably Jewish men assigned to protect the much hated dishonest tax collectors, or perhaps soldiers in Herod’s army).  They came and asked the same question, “What should we do?”  John responds with simple advice that should not seem too burdensome.  These tax collectors and soldiers were to be satisfied with what they were paid and were to quit oppressing those from whom they collected taxes.  Often collecting taxes was a contract job that went to the highest bidder.  Payment was expected upfront and it was left to the tax collector to recoup his money from the people.  This was often done in harsh and exorbitant ways.

Here, again, Luke places John within the same vane as all of the Old Testament prophets.  John is calling God’s people to live with justice, righteousness and faithfulness in relation to their neighbors.  The fruit which John calls us to bear is not just morality as we often understand it (a list of don’ts), it’s a way of living in relation to those around us that sees their dignity and humanity and seeks to ensure that others can live abundant lives.  Repentance and the baptism that signifies it is not just for purity’s sake; it is also always for the sake of the other.

One Who is More Powerful: 3:15-17
The people who were gathered to hear John and receive his baptism are amazed.  Something new yet remarkably familiar is happening through this man.  Their hearts begin to stir, and they begin to wonder if John himself might be the one they are expecting.  John realizes what they are thinking and puts an end to that kind of talk.  He is not the one who is coming.  John’s baptism is not the end; it is but the beginning of what God is going to do.  Indeed, John says, there is one who is coming who is much more powerful and who will bring a baptism that will be like nothing you have seen or experienced.  It will be a baptism of fire, not water.  If water can wash away dirt and filth (symbolizing forgiveness), fire sterilizes (symbolizing the transformation of the human heart).  The fire that is coming is the fire of the Holy Spirit. And it is for this purpose that Jesus came: to pour out God’s Holy Spirit upon people, and thereby change their hearts.

So What?
For Luke and his hearers John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” is a public rite of washing that represents the opportunity for a new start in life, a renewal of things.  Luke is saying, however, that baptism by itself is worthless unless those who receive it “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (v. 8).  The change in direction must be validated by changed behavior. 

One cannot rest on the fact that one has been “saved” or that one was born into a Christian family or that one has been a Christian his or her whole life or for a long time.  What matters is that one responds to the grace and forgiveness that has been received with a change in direction and behavior.  One must now produce good fruit (with the help of God’s Spirit of course).  What does the production of good fruit look like?

In this current passage it looks like:
·      Giving of one’s surplus to those who do not have
·      Not taking more than you deserve
·      Not extorting money (or anything) from people of lesser authority
·      Living with justice and righteousness toward others

In other places it is:
·      Loving your neighbor as yourself 
·      Caring for the orphan, the widow and the refugee
·      Living with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:16-26)

It seems apparent that John is demanding from those who have gathered to repent and be baptized that merely being baptized or being Jewish isn’t enough.  It translates for us today that things like going to church, being baptized, saying the sinner’s prayer, aren’t enough.  What is necessary is bearing fruit worthy of the salvation we have received from Jesus Christ.  It is a response to the love and grace that has been given to us that leads us to produce the fruit we talked about above. 

Some of us have been “Christian” for so long and our lives have been initially changed. We have been saved from all sorts of maleficent things.  Could it be that now we are guilty of resting on our once received salvation?  Do we fail to continue to live into our salvation by continuing to bear fruit worthy of our repentance?

As we approach our celebration of the birth of Christ at Christmas, John reminds us that we can never rest on God’s past actions in us or our own past fruit, but that we must always bear good fruit. We must have regular practices in our lives whereby we do the sorts of things mentioned above. We also need to be continually baptized by the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to bear fruit more and more.

Critical Discussion Questions:
1.     What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
a.     God’s desire and God’s call on our life displayed in this text is the same as it has been throughout almost all of the Old and New Testament.  God is ultimately concerned that we live in right relationship with him and others. He is concerned with how we treat one another, especially those who are unable to care for themselves.
b.     God is using John to prepare the hearts and minds of his people for his coming in the person of Jesus.  God does not want to surprise us with his expectations of us; he always helps us know what it is that we must do or not do to be prepared for his coming.  We can hear and know what God desires of us if we are willing to listen and obey.  
2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     Certainly, salvation is God’s gracious gift to us through his Son Jesus Christ. It is the gift of forgiveness of sins, symbolized by the baptismal washing. It is the transformation of our lives, through the power of the Spirit. Yet salvation is never a one-way street.  There is always an appropriate way for us to respond to the salvation we have received.  In this passage it looks like producing fruit, and that fruit looks a lot like seeking to act with the same justice, faithfulness, steadfast love and righteousness we talked a lot about this summer.  God’s requirement of his people does not change with the coming of Christ.  Yes, God is doing a new thing, he is becoming one of us, but that new thing that we celebrate at Christmas is so that we can live in right relationship with God and with others, which is not a new command.    
3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     John’s call to those who came to seek his baptism is an appropriate call for us today.  We may be baptized; we may be Christians; but are we truly producing fruit that is worthy of our repentance?  What this passage calls us to do is to question how it is that we are living our lives, as individuals and as a church, to see if we are indeed bearing good fruit.  If we are not, and if we persist in not producing fruit, then our lives and our church will eventually be cut down.   All is not lost, however; we are constantly called toward this fruit producing life and it is never too late to change.  

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Who does Luke believe John to be?  
2.     Luke tells us that John came proclaiming a baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  Baptism was a ritual used when someone converted to the Jewish faith and symbolized the washing away of sins.  So, John’s baptism was not completely unusual, but it was unique.  Why were so many rushing out to be baptized by John?
3.     In verse 4 Luke quotes Isaiah 40:3-5.  What is that passage about and why would Luke quote it in regards to John? 
4.     Obviously, John did not come just to baptize.  What was the role that John and his baptism were supposed to play? 
5.     It’s apparent that some in the crowd believed that their salvation was secure because they were Jews and had Abraham as their father.  After all, God had promised to Abraham and his descendants that he would always be faithful to them.  How might we have similar attitudes to some of those who were going out to see John?
6.     After John warns the crowd, they want to know what it is that they should do.  John tells them to produce fruit worthy of their repentance.  What does that mean?  Read verses 11-14 again.  What kind of action steps does John tell the crowd to do?
7.     John’s call to produce fruit worthy of the repentance is not just for those who are new believers.  Those of us who have been Christians for a long time often fail to continue to produce good fruit.  Take some time to quietly examine your life, are you producing good fruit?  After you quietly reflect, share your thoughts with the group. 
8.     What are some of the ways we might produce good fruit as individuals and as a church?