Scripture: Luke 3:1-18
Title: A New Spirit
- What is spirit?
- The spirit of John’s message
- The Spirit of Jesus’ baptism
During the month of March we take a break from our sermon series on the life of Abraham to focus on the Tranzsend Prayer & Self Denial campaign
– The overarching theme of this year’s Self Denial campaign is Made New – Jesus came to make all things new and that newness begins with the initiative of God’s Spirit
– With this in mind the headline for today’s message is A New Spirit
Please turn with me to Luke chapter 3 – page 79 toward the back of your pew Bibles
– I’ve chosen the reading from Luke 3 because it fits in a number of ways
– Firstly, Luke 3 features John the Baptist and John is the picture of self-denial (the opposite of self-indulgence) – living in the desert on locusts and wild honey, making his own clothes out of camels’ hair
– Not only that but John’s preaching signals a new move of God’s Spirit, as John is the herald or forerunner of Jesus, the Messiah
– John baptised with water but the Messiah baptises with the Holy Spirit & fire. From Luke chapter 3, verses 1-18 we read…
It was the fifteenth year of the rule of Emperor Tiberius; Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip was ruler of the territory of Iturea and Trachonitis; Lysanias was ruler of Abilene, 2 and Annas and Caiaphas were High Priests. At that time the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. 3 So John went throughout the whole territory of the Jordan River, preaching, “Turn away from your sins and be baptized, and God will forgive your sins.” 4 As it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah:
“Someone is shouting in the desert:
‘Get the road ready for the Lord;
make a straight path for him to travel!
5 Every valley must be filled up,
every hill and mountain leveled off.
The winding roads must be made straight,
and the rough paths made smooth.
6 The whole human race will see God’s salvation!’”
7 Crowds of people came out to John to be baptized by him. “You snakes!” he said to them. “Who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send? 8 Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins. And don’t start saying among yourselves that Abraham is your ancestor. I tell you that God can take these rocks and make descendants for Abraham! 9 The axe is ready to cut down the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire.”
10 The people asked him, “What are we to do, then?”
11 He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it.”
12 Some tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what are we to do?”
13 “Don’t collect more than is legal,” he told them.
14 Some soldiers also asked him, “What about us? What are we to do?”
He said to them, “Don’t take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely. Be content with your pay.”
15 People’s hopes began to rise, and they began to wonder whether John perhaps might be the Messiah. 16 So John said to all of them, “I baptize you with water, but someone is coming who is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to untie his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 He has his winnowing shovel with him, to thresh out all the grain and gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out.”
18 In many different ways John preached the Good News to the people and urged them to change their ways.
May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us
What is spirit?
We are talking this morning about a new spirit – but what is spirit?
– Well, the word spirit can mean different things in different contexts
Usually spirit refers to some kind of non-physical quality or attribute – so spirit is not something we can touch or measure in a scientific sense
– Spirit can also refer to that which is the deep essence or the most important part of a thing – as in ‘the spirit of the law is love’, or the spirit of the game of cricket is fairness
– Other times the term spirit can be used to describe temperament or character – as in ‘he had a generous spirit’ or ‘the Spirit of Jesus is a Spirit of grace & truth’
Spirit is commonly used in relation to a person’s underlying motivation or emotional tank, their mental strength or energy
– When understood in this sense, the ‘poor in spirit’ are those whose emotional tank is empty so they don’t have the energy reserves to face the difficulties of life
– The really wonderful thing, Jesus tells us, is that the poor in spirit are blessed (they’re lucky) for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven
– Perhaps what Jesus means here is: it’s when you are at the end of your rope, when you’ve got nothing left to give and your emotional tank is empty that you are able to receive what God wants to give you
When the word Spirit is spelt with a capital ‘S’, in the Bible, it generally means the God’s Holy Spirit
– The Holy Spirit is the power or breath of life which animates the body, giving us vitality & special ability, making us come alive & sustaining us
The human spirit (with a lower case ‘s’) is different from God’s Holy Spirit
– The human spirit is our capacity to respond to or relate with God
– So a spiritual person is someone who is aware of their capacity to relate with God and in fact exercises that capacity
By way of analogy, the human spirit is like the sail of a yacht catching the wind of God’s Spirit
– So a spiritual person is someone who knows how to trim their sail to catch the wind of God’s Spirit
Or to use another analogy, if the human spirit is our capacity to relate with God then our spirit is like a wifi connection with God
– Or like a radio or TV aerial, designed to pick up the signal of God’s Spirit
– A spiritual person then is someone who is tuned in to God – they are aware of what God wants and they respond accordingly
The spirit of John’s message
Luke 3 begins with reference to the various political and religious authorities at the time John began his ministry
– The 15th year of the Emperor Tiberius places John’s ministry in historical context – beginning around 28 or 29 AD
– Old Testament prophets were often introduced in the same way, so Luke is showing us that John the baptiser stands in the same tradition as men like Isaiah & Jeremiah & Elijah
God’s word doesn’t come to John in a vacuum – it comes at a time when the Romans are in charge
– The spirit of the age (as in the character of the age) is hierarchical, it is a top down dictatorship and brutally violent at times
– This spirit breeds inequality and abuse of power – there is an underclass and oppressors
– John’s role is to prepare the way for the Messiah and that means challenging the spirit of his day by calling people to change their behaviour
The spirit (or essence) of John’s message is summarised in verse 3, where John is quoted as saying…
– Turn away from your sins and be baptised and God will forgive your sins
– John is trying to get people to trim their sails to catch the wind of God’s Spirit
– He is encouraging them to realign the aerial of their human spirit and tune in to what God is doing
In some ways John’s message is not new – he is warning people that God’s judgment is coming and so they should repent to avoid being destroyed
– Verse 9: The axe is ready to cut down the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire
– Turn or burn basically
– The prophets of the Old Testament had a similar message – they also called people to change their behaviour – to act justly & mercifully
Having said that, John’s approach is not exactly the same as his forebears
– John is saying God will forgive the people’s sins if they repent and are baptised – the baptism part was new
– Up until that time the Jewish people made atonement for their sins through animal sacrifice but John doesn’t require animal sacrifice for forgiveness – which implies the sacrificial system was on the way out
Now when I say baptism was new, I mean it was new for the Jews
– Jews didn’t baptise themselves – they felt they were already clean and didn’t need a spiritual bath as it were
– They reserved baptism for Gentiles who were converting to Judaism because they considered Gentiles unclean, spiritually speaking
– So in calling Jews to be baptised John was basically saying to his own people, you guys are not clean – you are no better in God’s eyes than a Gentile – this was really insulting stuff if you were a Jew
The spirit (or character) of John’s message is that it’s our behaviour that counts, not genetics – It’s how we treat our neighbour that matters, not who our great grand-daddy was.
– Verse 8: Do those things that will show you have turned from your sins. And don’t start saying among yourselves that Abraham is your ancestor.
– I tell you that God can take these stones and make descendants for Abraham.
– The image of God bringing forth descendants for Abraham out of stones is an image of God giving new life & breath (new Spirit) to that which is lifeless and without spirit
– If God can give life to a stone on the ground then he can certainly give new life to a people with hearts of stone
The predominant spirit of our age (21st Century western society) is (among other things) one of permissiveness and individualism
– Many things are socially accepted now that weren’t previously permitted
– Hand in hand with this spirit of permissiveness & individualism goes a spirit of entitlement and consumerism
– The spirit of our age is not all bad though – there is a growing sense of environmental responsibility which, to some degree, mitigates against our sense of entitlement and consumerism
– But we also seem to be a less robust, less resilient and more sensitive, more fragile, generally speaking, so John’s ‘turn or burn’ message probably sounds quite harsh and overly severe to most people today
John calls the people a brood of snakes (snakes being a symbol of evil)
– And he paints a picture of God that seems very punitive
– God is going to burn you (he’s going to vaporise you) if you don’t change your ways – like he did the people of Sodom & Gomorrah
– John’s words are very strong because he has such a clear vision of God’s goodness and when we see God’s goodness as clearly as John did we tend to have a low tolerance for anything that falls short of the justice, mercy & humility that God requires of humanity
By the same token having a clear vision of God’s goodness also widens our awareness of the scope of God’s redemption
– What I mean here is that the spirit of John’s preaching is not narrow – it’s remarkably broad in the cultural context of his day
– Even those who were most despised by the community (tax collectors and soldiers) could be forgiven if they acted justly
Because John is preaching in a hierarchical, top down society, where power is often abused, his message is aimed at those in a position of relative power
– If he can get the powerful to change their ways then the powerless will benefit
– When people come to him asking, ‘What should we do?’ (Or what does repentance look like in practical terms) John answers…
– Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none and whoever has food must share it.
– John is encouraging practical acts of mercy when it’s in our power do so
In speaking to tax collectors and soldiers John essentially tells them to act justly
– Don’t take more tax than is legal
– Don’t extort money from people or accuse anyone falsely
– Be content with your pay
Tax collectors and soldiers were generally hated by the Jewish people because they colluded with the enemy and often used their position to feather their own nest, at the expense of others
– The interesting thing here is that John doesn’t require tax collectors and soldiers to leave their jobs – what good would that do?
– Someone else would only replace them and do just as bad or worse
– But if those tax collectors & soldiers change their behaviour and stay in their jobs then the system changes too
– The spirit of John’s preaching was broad in its reach of redemption and immensely practical
Sometimes we might think that our so called ‘secular’ employment is somehow less spiritual or less Christian
– But actually spirituality is not determined by who our employer is
– You might sell real estate or used cars
– You might work in education or insurance
– You might make lattes or drive a truck
– You might work in the city or you might stay home looking after the kids
– You might be paid for what you do, you might not
– You might write reports or read them or both
– You might work in the private sector or for government, it doesn’t matter
– God is no less present in those jobs than he is in the work of the church
You see spirituality isn’t about what we do for a living
– Spirituality is about our capacity to respond to & relate with God
– You can be aware of God and relate with him in your work Monday to Saturday, just as much as you can in church on a Sunday
– So if you are a retailer then being spiritual means being aware that God is just and engaging in fair trade practices
– Or, if there is someone in your work place who you find particularly difficult, then being spiritual means remembering that God loves that person and Jesus died for them – which might lead you to pray for them
– Or if you find your job frustrating or menial then being spiritual means doing that job as for the Lord (giving your best) and being mindful of Jesus who took the role of a servant and washed his disciples’ feet
One of the reasons we gather for worship each Sunday is to stay in tune with the Lord so we can sense what he is doing Monday to Saturday – so we can trim the sails of our spirit to catch the wind of His Spirit
The Spirit of Jesus’ baptism
Okay, so we’ve talked about what it means to be spiritual
– And we’ve talked about the spirit of John’s preaching
– But the whole reason John was calling people to repent was Jesus
– Jesus, God’s Messiah, was coming and he would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire
In the Old Testament the prophet Ezekiel said…
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
If you have a stringed instrument (a guitar or a violin or a piano) and the strings break, you don’t throw the whole instrument away – you replace the broken strings
– It’s similar with the human soul
– If the human soul is the whole instrument then our spirit is sort of like all the strings together – our spirit carries the music
– If the strings of our spirit break or our spirit becomes so damaged it can no longer hold its tune then God has the power to replace our spirit
– He has the power to transform a heart of stone (a dead heart – a heart without a spirit) into a heart of flesh (a living heart, with spirit)
Central to John’s message was this idea that the Messiah was coming soon and he would give those who were willing a new spirit
– By the power of God’s Holy Spirit Jesus gives people the capacity, the energy, the motivation, the discernment to respond to & relate with God
It’s sort of like the sails of our human spirit have been torn so they no longer catch the wind of God’s Spirit
– God’s remedy is to give us new sails and put his wind in those sails, so we can move in the right direction
– Or, it’s like the aerial of the human spirit has been broken so people can’t pick up God’s signal anymore
– God’s solution is to replace the aerial of our spirit so we can tune in to what God is saying and doing
Jesus came to make all things new and that newness begins with the Holy Spirit
– John baptised with water whereas Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit and fire
– To be baptised with the Holy Spirit means to be immersed in the life and energy of God
– But what does John mean by Jesus baptising with fire’? – because that sounds really uncomfortable to me
Well, let me offer three possible meanings
– Fire is one of the images in the Bible associated with the Holy Spirit
– For example, at Pentecost when the disciples received the Holy Spirit, what looked like tongues of fire came down & touched each person there
– In this case fire is just another way of saying Holy Spirit – so it’s like John is saying the same thing twice for emphasis
Of course a ‘baptism of fire’ can also mean a difficult or painful ordeal – as in a particularly vicious battle in war time
– Daniel’s friends: Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego were literally baptised in fire when king Nebuchadnezzar threw them into the fiery furnace
– On that occasion God delivered them
– Certainly Jesus predicted that those who followed him would suffer and face many trials and ordeals – so becoming a disciple of Jesus involves its own baptism of fire, much like becoming a soldier involves battle
A third interpretive possibility is that the fire applies to those who reject Jesus
– Fire destroys things – so those who reject Jesus are destroyed
– While those who accept Jesus are immersed in God’s life giving Spirit
All three meanings are possible at the same time – so you don’t have to pick one
– But it seems the third meaning is the one foremost in John’s mind
– In verse 17, straight after talking about Jesus baptising with the Holy Spirit and fire, John says of the Messiah…
– He has his winnowing shovel with him, to thresh out all the grain and gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out
– John is essentially talking about the future judgment here
It’s tempting to read these verses in a lazy or superficial way so the grain (which is saved) equates to good people and the chaff (which is destroyed) equates to bad people
– But that kind of black & white, simplistic interpretation just won’t do
– It’s not consistent with the gospel – Jesus came to transform bad people
– Nor is it consistent with our experience in this life
– The reality is, none of us are 100% grain or 100% chaff – our lives are a mixture of both
Grain has substance, while chaff is light and without substance
– It makes more sense to say the grain represents those things of eternal value – things that last, like our acts of justice & mercy, our deeds of faith motivated by love and the truth we speak
– While the chaff represents that which is temporary – things like money, our reputation and the lies we tell ourselves, the sorts of things you can’t take with you when you die
– God’s judgement is the process of separating the grain from the chaff, separating the eternal from the temporal
John’s message is this: God’s Messiah is coming for judgment so make sure your house is in order before he arrives
– Invest your trust, your hope, your whole lives in God’s Messiah (in Jesus) because by doing that you are investing in eternal life
One thing we notice is there was a real urgency with John’s message
– It seems that in John’s mind judgement would happen with the arrival of the Messiah – but things didn’t happen exactly as John expected
– God, in his grace, has withheld the day of judgement to give humanity more time to turn to him – but there will still be a day of reckoning
– When Jesus returns in glory we will have to give account for how we have used our freedom – so John’s message of pending judgement and the need to repent is still relevant for us today
The main thing to take away in all of this is that Jesus makes all things new
– And it begins with the work of the Holy Spirit
– Jesus has the power to give us a new spirit – one that is tuned in to what God is doing, one that is able to catch the wind of God’s Spirit
Questions for Discussion or reflection
1.) What stands out for you in reading this Scripture and/or in listening to the sermon?
2.) What is spirit?
– How is the Holy Spirit different from the human spirit?
– Can you think of some other analogies to describe the relationship between God’s Holy Spirit and our human spirit
3.) What does it mean to be spiritual?
– How might you be spiritual in your job &/or everyday life?
4.) What is the spirit of our age? (I.e. what characterises our time & culture?)
– How does this spirit express itself?
5.) What was the spirit (or essence) of John’s message?
6.) What could it mean to be baptised with the Holy Spirit and fire?
7.) Discuss (or reflect on) John’s image of God’s judgement as winnowing
– What does grain represent?
– What does chaff represent?
8.) Are you ready for Jesus’ return?