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?

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