Just like his parents lost him when he was aged 12, sometimes I wonder if we in the churches have lost Jesus. He told his parents who had frantically searched for him for days, didn't you know that I had to be in my Father’s (Luke 2:41-52)? The last word in the sentence is left out in Greek. It could be mean either house or business as different translations render it. When the church wanders off track engaged in affairs of this world, chasing trivial material or political pursuits of mere mortals, making the house of God into a market place, doing anything other than God’s business, Jesus will still be doing his Father’s business. If we have lost Jesus, it is important for us to stop what we’re doing and get back on track. What is Jesus doing?
Legal immigration to the United States cost me about fifteen hundred dollars with trips half way across the country and paperwork like a doctoral dissertation. How does it feel for those that we separate from their families because of unfair immigration laws?
We were in a large department store in a strange land enjoying time as family when suddenly we realized that a child was missing. Panic! Where was he? We searched all over when unexpectedly an announcement came over the loudspeaker that a little boy in blue jeans, cowboy boots and a red western shirt had lost his parents. We went up to the appropriate floor where he was in the good hands of a customer service agent.
Can you imagine how it must have been for Jesus’ parents after he had gone missing for days (Luke 2:41-52)?
Germany in the 1980’s was an innocent society. We were there on church assignment. Village life was idyllic and peaceful, without crime, no school shootings and no gangs. We used to send our pre-teen son down the street for groceries. We felt perfectly safe. Perhaps that was a similar feeling in the society in which Joseph and Mary lived as they traveled up to Jerusalem for Passover season. Perhaps that’s why they were not so concerned at first about Jesus’ safety as we might be, thinking that he may be among relatives. Still, they must have gotten just a little frantic until they found him in the Temple, talking things over with the same group of people who would later falsely accuse him and demand his death (Luke 2:41-52). Who was this boy, interested in theology at age 12?
Among the many messages of John the Baptist as he prepared the way for Christ’s ministry was that people would be baptized by fire (Luke 3:7-18). The baptism by fire in Acts 2:1-4 is one interpretation of this passage. This is a problem for Baptists who believe that baptism must be a literal immersion, but this baptism by fire was only on people’s heads. That being said, Luke’s context reveals another side to the baptism of fire. The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. Hell is pictured by many metaphors, outer darkness, blackness, eternal separation from God and fire. One picture is that those whose names are not written into the book of life will be cast into a lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). This is a baptism of fire that nobody wants in their future.
Among the many messages of Advent and the Christmas season surely none can create a more joyful experience than to share. In Luke 3:7-18 John the Baptist encouraged a crowd of people to donate extra clothing. Many Christians follow John’s instructions today. The Volunteer Guide reports that in America 3.5 million homeless people need clothing, more than a third of them are children. Donating clothing helps the environment by extending their life. Many charities actually do not follow the spirit of John’s instruction. Rather than give clothing away, according to ABC News many actually resell about 10% of clothes in thrift stores and 90% to clothing manufacturers for recycling. For the Christian who wants to do more than support another charity scam, find one that actually gives to the poor without cost or give personally to the needy.
In Luke 3:7-18 John instructed a group of tax collectors and soldiers not to engage in extortion of money. Today, extortion is more commonly found in the price of goods and services. The question of what is a just price was proposed by early church theologians like Thomas Aquinas to combat usury, apply the Golden Rule and create fair standards in the marketplace. The argument is that an unjust price is a kind of fraud. For example, when retailers raise building material prices to profit from a disaster, that is extortion. When bankers charge poor people higher interest rates than wealthy people that is unjust. When manufacturers manipulate international politics so as to profit up to 1800 percent from wars that is legalized racketeering.* Charging a just price and treating everyone fairly is the goal of every sincere Christian.
* Butler, Smedley. Major General, USMC. War is a Racket. Speech. 1933
The Greek word for repentance means a change of heart. The Hebrew word shub means to turn back, but the Greek meaning focuses on the mind, not mere outward actions. It highlights a major difference between the Old and New Covenants. The Greek word comes from meta meaning after and nous meaning thought, so any definition involving actions alone is not sufficient. That being said, a change of heart is only genuinely proven by relevant outward fruits (Luke 3:7-18). The end result is the same even if the way we get there is now new. The problem with an outward repentance is that we can start in the wrong place. A change of actions can be from a wrong heart. Without a change of thinking in relation to sin, we have mere outward conformity and not real lasting change.
I have often lamented that pastors are paid by those to whom they preach. It can be blackmail. “Don’t you dare preach against my political parties’ sins, just the other guys.” “Don’t you dare tread on my toes, just the lady across the room. She needs to hear it.” Eventually, if pastors are browbeaten enough, it’s either time to move on or the congregation gets over it and grows. We never will agree on everything, but we must love each other anyway. Loving our neighbors includes our pastors, even disagreeing lovingly. If we are offended by our pastors sometimes, imagine having John the Baptist or Jesus as our local pastor. Jesus told Peter get behind me Satan and John told one of his audiences, “You brood of snakes, who told you to flee from God’s coming wrath?” (Luke 3:7-18)*
* Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
When we think of fruits of repentance what comes to mind? Some churches speak about dancing, alcohol and card-playing none of which are explicitly forbidden by the Apostles and one of which Jesus even engaged in on occasion. In Luke 3:7-18 John the Baptist gave some examples which would show genuine repentance. Specifically, he mentioned donations of clothing and food to the less fortunate, not taking advantage of unjust government regulations for personal gain, not extorting money or being a false accuser. When I think of the trite rules that men make up as examples of godly principles, they are often easy outward forms, looking good externally without really needing to change our hearts. Biblical examples of what repentance looks like usually involve something deeper than a silly rule. Those examples of repentance involve real change from the heart.
Who is the most popular Christian outside of the Bible? We may think of famous theologians or reformers but the most popular is Nicholas of Myra, who was loved by many in his time and those who read his story today. The fiction surrounding him has grown to the point that he is the second most important Christmas character after Jesus. Why is he so popular? Though he was very wealthy, he spent his life giving it away and touched the lives of thousands. He saved many from financial ruin, helped out in disasters, defended people in court from false charges, provided food during famines, saved children from slavery, travelers from murder and prayed and saved sailors from shipwreck. The real Saint Nicholas is loved because he made crooked roads straight and rough ways smooth (Luke 3:1-6). Shall we?
Some pastors enter politics. Most say that would be a demotion. They are already doing the most important work on earth today. Luke compares political and religious events to what would take place in an insignificant corner of Israel. Small things are often of far greater significance than what’s in the news headlines. Making things straight and level and smooth (Luke 3:1-6) may seem like small things, but they are far more important than who has the political power in the world’s capitals or who has what religious titles today. When we get about doing the Lord’s work, we find that he is often involved in small things in this world’s eyes, things far away from the fame and fortune that this world seeks. The big things of this world are insignificant compared to the small things of God.
What are the most significant events taking place on earth today? Is it the stuff that makes the news? Is it what world leaders, national leaders or even regional leaders are doing? What about the things being done by bishops and other religious leaders? If we compare the history described in Luke 3:1-6, we will see that at that time, none of those things was significant compared to a much more important event. At this time of year, we also see many things which try to crowd out the Christmas message like insipid politics, religious pomp and commercial sales. What is the message of Christ’s birth? It is a message that is far more important than any: prepare the way of the Lord, make things straight and level and smooth. All people will see the salvation of the Lord.
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Nicholas from his bones
Social justice is not just a liberal issue but also conservative. Repenting of injustice is part of the Gospel. Prophecies of the coming Messiah speak of making a straight path (Luke 3:1-6). We may not be able to do much in this world, but many churches believe that we must relieve suffering as we have opportunity. Jesus did. In preparation for his coming we are to make straight paths, fill in the valleys and level the hills, straighten what is crooked and smooth what is rough. We take an interest in the natural world, nurturing others into the fullness of what God intended, esteeming others as valuable in God’s sight, fighting for human rights, for those who are economically and politically oppressed, against unjust wars, exploitation and greed. What are you doing to prepare the way for Jesus’ return?
Americans hoped for an equality that has never been achieved. There is no level playing field. John the Baptist preached an old prophecy of the coming Messiah (Luke 3:1-6; Isaiah 40:3-5) about a time when justice will come. He preached it in the context of Caesar, Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias who are symbolic of the inequality of all human governments. The high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas is symbolic of the injustice in all human religions. We are only capable of creating crooked paths and rough roads of injustice. Even a recent strike highlighted a large corporation’s inequality. The company’s owners increase their own incredible profits into the billions and yet lower employee wages and benefits. Jesus will repair this world’s injustices, lowering mountains or greed, raising valleys of despair, straightening out crooked ways and smoothing rough paths.
A constant message of the gospel is the nearness of the kingdom of God. While we look to world events for signs of the coming kingdom (Luke 21-25-36), we can easily miss the nearness of the kingdom now. That is part of the message to watch or be on guard. While we wait for the fullness of the kingdom to come at Christ’s return, let us not let go of that part of the kingdom that we have now. Let’s not allow the cares of this life to take that away from us. Let’s not get so discouraged or careless that we do something stupid like is so often the case with a worldly approach to Christmas, shopping, partying and getting drunk. Let’s remember the nearness of Christ and his reign in our lives, watching and praying at all times.
A message of advent is in the trees, no, not the Christmas trees, but all trees. Luke 21-25-36 contains the parable of the fig tree but, the actual wording says, behold the fig tree and all the trees. So, at least “all the [deciduous] trees” make leaves some time before summer. Our modern definitions of seasons are very rigid. And so we officially define a season’s beginning by our calendars rather than weather or other variables. However, conversationally, when it snows, we sometimes say that winter is early or when the crocuses pop out of the ground we say that spring is in the air. According to nature’s clock, we can never really be sure when a season will change. So it is with the return of Christ. Yet, there are clues that a change is just around the corner.
In the Advent season we look backwards to the first coming of Christ and forward to his second coming. What are some of the signs preceding his second coming? The Bible warns of astronomical signs, wars, violence lawlessness, droughts, famines, earthquakes, natural disasters, disease epidemics, the rise of those a great false prophet and those who follow him, the rise of a great world power called the beast, the gospel preached into all the world, persecution of the faithful, a world crisis centered in Jerusalem, the abomination of desolation and the great tribulation unmatched by any in history. All these things would come to a culmination in one generation and experienced by the entire world. We must be alert and pray always that we may be accounted worthy to escape and even more importantly to stand before Jesus (Luke 21-25-36).