Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Baptism of Jesus Christ (Denho, Denaha, Theophany, Eedo D' denho)

Sermon / Homily on St. Luke 3: 7-22; St. John 4: 1-42

One Is Coming Who Is Mightier than I

by Jerry Goebel, One Family Outreach

Luke 3:7-20:

[Lk 3:7] So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? [8] "Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ĎWe have Abraham for our father,í for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. [9] "Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

[10] And the crowds were questioning him, saying, "Then what shall we do?" [11] And he would answer and say to them, "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise." [12] And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" [13] And he said to them, "Collect no more than what you have been ordered to." [14] Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, "And what about us, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."

[15] Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, [16] John answered and said to them all, "As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. [17] "His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

[18] So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people. [19] But when Herod the tetrarch was reprimanded by him because of Herodias, his brother's wife, and because of all the wicked things which Herod had done, [20] Herod also added this to them all: he locked John up in prison. (NAS)

Luke 3:7-9

[Lk 3:7] So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? [8] "Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ĎWe have Abraham for our father,í for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. [9] "Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (NAS)

"You brood of vipers"

Luke, who is less interested in elaborating upon the details of the Jewish faith than the other Gospel writers, leads us to think that John is calling all the Jews who came to him a "brood of vipers." Matthew (who focused primarily on a Jewish readership) clarifies that John is specifically addressing the religious leaders of the people, the Pharisees and Sadducees [Mt 3:7]. Jesus also referred to these leaders as vipers (Mt 12:34; 23:33) and warns us as followers to not become like them. So, what then is "like them?"

We can ascertain exactly what the issues were between the Religious Leaders and John. The legal issue was that John was calling Jews to be baptized. In the Jewish mind they were already the Chosen; they didnít need to be cleansed. Gentiles were the unclean ones and they were the ones who needed to be baptized. To baptize Jews was (in the Religious Leaders minds) like throwing washed dishes into used bathwater. In other words, baptism was beneath them for, after all, who could improve upon perfection?

Do we ever display an attitude like that? Certainly, I have seen Christians act in this manner towards non-Christians. History itself is replete with examples of horrific acts of violence when one group of people professed that their god gave them religious dominance over others. Yet, how often do we display this attitude on a personal basis? Such an attitude reveals us as closed-minded as we pontificate to others. As a result, we miss two of the most essential sources of wisdom in life; humility and compassion.

John confronts this attitude from the very beginning of his ministry. The first step to Christís entrance into our hearts is to choose humbleness, not just before God but also with his people, to Jesus is to drop all pretense of self-righteousness before God and others and instead cry out for mercy. The first step to Christ is humility.

Bear fruits in keeping with repentance

In the attacks on John by the religious leaders, the legal argument about baptism served as a cover for the real issue, which was power. As in all too many situations, the legal issue masked a darkness of the heart. The real issue was the fact that John was drawing crowds, huge crowds. People were excited about their faith again and Johnís reputation was growing exponentially; that was the real issue. The religious leaders saw this as an issue of Johnís increasing their visibility against Johnís gaining influence. Had these leaders been true followers of God they would not have seen John as "the opposition" but as "the herald." True leaders of God do not compete for followers; they work together to make disciples. To the true leader, personal power and control undermine the work of the kingdom; it is anathema to repentance and humility.

How often do we cover our own power trips with legalism or self-righteousness? The point is that there is no self-righteousness in Christ; there is only repentance. Any righteousness that we do have is debited from his account, not ours. Our model and Savior humbled himself to become flesh; do we realize how deprecating that must have been to a heavenly prince? What act of humility could compare to what he has done? Our model and Savior humbled himself to die a criminalís death on our behalf, what could we offer in comparison to that act?

The only appropriate response to such grace can be repentance and its chief fruit is humility.

Repentance leads to humility, humility leads to gratitude, gratitude leads to acts of compassion and these fruits are the diet of a disciple.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down

The universe is abundant and forgivingÖ to a point. The soil tolerates poor managementÖ to a point. The oceans, atmosphere, and life on this planet can recover from neglect and abuseÖ to a point, but once that point is reached the damage becomes irreparable. One needs look no further than the Tigris-Euphrates valley to see a prime example of this principle. Once, the most fertile region in the world, but through overuse and poor management the valley has been turned into a wasteland.

The true prophets never hesitated to share the "to a pointÖ" of Godís message. They didnít hesitate to proclaim that change was a must "or else." Here John the Baptist accents what God will not tolerate in stating that if we donít bear the good fruit of repentance, we will be cut down.

Luke uses a very particular word for "good" here. There were actually two words for good that Luke could have chosen, the common word is agathos [GSN18] and it is a noun that applies to something which is intrinsically good. Instead, Luke quotes John the Baptist as using the word kalos [GSN2570], which is a verb that refers to an action that results in good. The word implies virtuous or valuable results from a certain behavior, an action that depicts honesty or a goal that is worthy pursuing.

John the Baptist is very clear; we are not intrinsically good. It doesnít matter if our great, great, great grandpa was Abraham Lincoln or Abraham the Patriarch, we cannot depend on their goodness to insure our salvation. Goodness is not intrinsic; it is a fruit of repentance. When we see what God has done for us through his son, Jesus Christ, we are led to repentance, to humility, to adoration and, finally, to compassion. Repentance that does not lead to humility, gratitude and service has something inherently wrong in the process. The haughtiness shown by many Christians towards other faiths, other interpretations of faith, or the intolerance shown to other cultures does not have itís roots in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Luke 3:10-14

[10] And the crowds were questioning him, saying, "Then what shall we do?" [11] And he would answer and say to them, "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise." [12] And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" [13] And he said to them, "Collect no more than what you have been ordered to." [14] Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, "And what about us, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."

"Then what shall we do?"

Mother Theresa would often ask visitors who had traveled thousands of miles to take a snapshot with her at her mission in Calcutta; "Donít you have any poor at home?" It is the same point that John the Baptist is making here, "Why do you come to me? Have you no poor at home?

Wherever we are, whatever it is we do, we must do it for the Lord. Later, Paul would say; "I have learned to be content in whatever circumstancesÖ [Phil 4:11]."

Are there no poor in my hometown? Is no one lonely or without work? Is anyone incarcerated or rejected or treated unfairly? How fair am I in my dealings with others, at home, work or (God forbid), as I commute through my own city? Do I drive by jails, detention centers, homeless shelters, and rest homes as easily as Dives (the rich man) stepped over Lazarus? Regardless of the behavior of others, am I broken like Jesus for the poor, do I act with compassion and humility?

Micah had a similar response to the question; "Then what shall we do?"

"He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God [Micah 6:8]?"

One of our biggest problems is that we think that our response to God should be huge and illustrious and designed to change the entire world. Yet, compassion may be lacking in our homes or courtesy lacking in something as simple as our meal times. I may pray for the martyred overseas while neglecting the lonely, even in my own church.

Yesterday, after a particularly frustrating day, my thirteen-year-old son asked me; "How was YOUR day, dad?" Last night at the jail one of the inmates said, "How can we pray for you, Jerry?"

It was an immense blessing, but it made me wonder exactly how many people may go through a whole week, or even years, without hearing simple words of courtesy spoken in their home or at their place of work. There is an injunction in the statement of John that Christian love should begin with simple courtesy at home. All too often, that is where the simple acts of love are most lacking.

"Some tax collectors also came"

Johnís message is amazing in three ways:

1. The boldness of what he said;

2. Who came to listen;

3. How people wanted to change their lives based upon that message.

It makes me ask three questions of my own testimony for Christ:

1. Does my life show a bold clarity of vision that ignites peopleís hearts?

2. Do the most disdained segments of my hometown seek me out to plead for change?

3. Do people I interact with walk away ready to change their life, to repent and live justly?

Or am I just one more pessimist in a world of cynics during a time of mediocrity? When people walk away from an interaction with me, do we part enthused and ready to love to our fullest capacity? Or, do we just stumble on to yet another day of obscurity? Am I, like John, living a radical life that calls others to burn intensely as well? When the Lord returns let him find us anywhere except stuck in the muck of mediocrity!

"Lord, let us be on one edge or another but donít let us be lulled into the mediocre."

Revelation 3:15-16

[Rev 3:15] "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot.
[16] "So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth." (NAS)

"The man who has two tunics"

Does this sound like a lecture to the wealthy? It is not; it applies to the simplest one of us. The tunic was our equivalent to a coat. However, like long-winter underwear, it was worn under the outer robe in cold weather. Johnís statement was doubly charged:

1. He was telling people to live simply and give away anything that was beyond a simple lifestyle;

2. Johnís talk would be undermined if he didnít model what he was preaching.

The validity of a leader is that he wonít send others where he himself would not go. Do my actions back up my claims? Do I live out the message of John? He never once said, "Follow me into the desert." In fact, the fulcrum of his life pointed to Jesus. His exact words were; "He must increase, but I must decrease [Jn 3:30]."

Johnís point was not to follow him into the desert and live austerely but to go back home and live simply, courteously, and compassionately. John was not calling people to change the world; he was calling them to change their lives.

The reality is that Christian leadership that is not based in personal change is unsustainable. However, the person who lives out his values will never struggle for validity or authority. The person who does not live out his values has neither of those qualities. If you have to tell people you are the leader; youíre not. That was the power behind the double-charged message of John the Baptist.

Luke 3:15-18

[15] Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, [16] John answered and said to them all, "As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. [17] "His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

[18] So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people. (NAS)

"I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals"

John practiced a bold faith, but he was centered in a deep humility and a graceful simplicity. They go hand in hand. There are many who talk loudly simply because they are enamored by the sound of their own voices. Great people of faith like Jeremiah or John speak (not off the top of their heads) but from the depths of their hearts. Their words are not profuse and haphazard but deep and profound. They donít roll off the prophetís tongue like dripping honey but they are birthed as if the prophet would burn up if he didnít open his mouth.

Jeremiah 20:9

[Je 20:9] But if I say, "I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name," then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.

It was the depths of these prophets humility that led to the depths of their words. They didnít want to speak, but they had to.

One interesting Yale study found that those who think they are funny usually arenít, while professional comedians usually stay quiet in a crowd. It sounds like the opposite of what we would suppose, yet the greatest thinkers and performers in history were often eccentric introverts who often wrestled with self-doubt. Of course, we cannot project such qualities on the prophets; yet, it is obvious that their actions and words flowed from a much deeper source than the joke page in the Readers Digest. Like Elijah hearing a still, small voice in the cave or Jacob wrestling with God in the desert; their words rose from a profundity of trials and humility.

Do our actions and words come from such depth?

If we just looked at this day from Godís perspective, how many of my words and actions would be burned away as eternally useless, as wasted chaff?
How many of my words or actions have been based in self-righteousness and self-promotion?
In contrast, how much of this day went into strengthening the depth of Godís love in a frightfully lost world?
How much of this day did I spend preparing the way of our Lord?

Do the power of my words and actions stem from the depth of my humility?
Do I speak from pride or humbly as one sinner redeemed by Christ to another who is still imprisoned by the chains of sin?

"He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire"

A key word for the prophetic is enthusiasm, literally meaning the "in-burning fire of God." Not only does the prophetís message come from the in-burning fire of God but their messages are largely out-burning fires of God as well. Fire is used 75 times and burning 92 times just in the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah alone. They are two of the most frequently used words by these prophets. To walk into the presence of a prophet is to walk out enthused; infected with enthusiasm, the in burning fire. Sometimes it is a fire of excitement, sometimes it is the fire of anger but one rarely has small talk with a prophet. Though Isaiah and Jeremiah preached for decades their "enthusiasm" never dulled, their fire never diminished. That is because, like John the Baptist, their truth never faltered whether he was preaching to the crowds in the wilderness of Perea or the walls in the dungeons of Herod Antipasí palace.

The prophets never pretended to be good news; they merely sought to be signposts, preparing the way for the good news that was to come:

Luke 3:16

[Lk 3:16] John answered and said to them all, "As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." (NAS)

"One is coming who is mightier than I"

Isaiah 9:5-6

[Isa 9:5] For every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult, And cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire.

[6] For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. (NAS)

Jeremiah 17:4-8

[Je 17:4] And you will, even of yourself, let go of your inheritance that I gave you; and I will make you serve your enemies in the land which you do not know; for you have kindled a fire in My anger which will burn forever.

[5] Thus says the LORD, "Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the LORD. [6] "For he will be like a bush in the desert and will not see when prosperity comes, but will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt without inhabitant.

[7] "Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD and whose trust is the LORD.

[8] "For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit." (NAS)

John would use water to cleanse the initiate for Christ but Christ would use fire to purify the believer. Water cleanses, but fire purifies. We use water to cleanse the dirt off the ore, but we use fire to burn the impurities out of it and, the more precious the metal, the hotter the fire.

Are we ready to be purified; to be made into Godís most precious ore? If so, we must be willing to embrace the fire. We must be willing to reject what is tepid, what is comfortable, and plunge into the heat, into the Refinerís fire.

Once we are washed, we need to be ready for the purification. Once weíve known the water of baptism we need to seek the refining fire of the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who "arrested Jesus" and delivered him to be tempted in the wasteland for forty days. It is not a spa with a hot tub, there is no masseuse, and there are no pedicures on the river Jordan. It is a shocking awakening that makes us ready for the trials ahead. For Jesus, the waters of baptism led to the desert fires of Satanís temptation. Yet, when he left Satanís Lair (another word for "the wasteland") Jesus was refined. He knew every curve that Satan would throw his way. He was now ready for the tough work ahead.

Is that what we prepare ourselves for? Is that what we prepare and challenge our brothers and sisters in Christ to seek? All too often our churches coddle and coo their members instead of preparing them to go through fire and come out aligned with Christís mission:

Matthew 28:19-20

[Mt 28:19] "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, [20] teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (NAS)

Are we ready? Ready to be purified and refined? Ready to be sent out to complete the call of the church? Letís get hot! Letís get "on fire!" Letís go!

The Mighty One is coming, letís be ready to make his way.

Luke 3:18-20

[18] So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people. [19] But when Herod the tetrarch was reprimanded by him because of Herodias, his brother's wife, and because of all the wicked things which Herod had done, [20] Herod also added this to them all: he locked John up in prison. (NAS)

He locked John up in prison

There are three ways to respond to prophetic messages in our lives.

1. Embrace the prophetic

2. Revile the prophetic

3. Ignore the prophetic

In my mission work on the street and in incarceration centers, it seems to me that those most likely to embrace a prophetic message are those with the least to lose from change. In this story of John the Baptist, we find the poor urgent to embrace John. Yet, in his case (as with his cousin, Jesus), even Roman Soldiers, Tax Collectors, and the "crowd," desired to change. In other words, people who are aware of their sin and the emptiness of their lives also embrace the prophetic message.

We are most able to embrace the prophet when, in humility, we hunger for Godís hand upon our lives.

Herod reviled the message. He had a great deal to lose by allowing John to continue harassing him about his illegal marriage to Herodias, both his cousin and his brotherís legal wife. John was fine when he was speaking about religion. But when religion reached into his personal life; John had to be cut off.

We revile the prophetic message when our inauthentic behavior is revealed and our character is shown lacking.

The religious, on the other hand, were willing to ignore Johnís prophetic message and continued to ignore it even when Herod had him arrested.

Three years ago, a dear friend of mine, Pastor Moise Bukenya, was taken to jail because the music from his church and the comings and goings of orphans and members irritated a mechanic on his block. This became a problem because the mechanic was also well connected to authorities in his city.

The mechanic had Pastor Moise thrown into jail. The court system in Moisesí country is so backlogged that it was unlikely that he would have a fair trial for months, or even years. Had it not been for other pastors in his community gathering and petitioning the government, Moise might still be in that forgotten jail.

In similar manner, the religious leaders of John the Baptistís day could have had John freed had they petitioned Herod with a common voice. However, by simply ignoring Herodís actions, they were able to silence the prophetic message and seemingly never receive any blame.

We ignore the prophetic message when it is inconvenient in our lives.

How will we respond to the prophetic message of John the Baptist that still rings true across the ages; "There is one mightier than I." How will we respond to the realization that we are not the center of the universe?

Will we revile the message? Ignore it? Or, embrace it, seeking to offer our lives to God in any manner that can serve him most deeply?

Copyright © 2005 Jerry Goebel. All Rights Reserved.

See Also:

What Can I Do?
by Edward F. Markquart

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for Denaha (the Baptism of Jesus Christ)

The Sacrament of Baptism

The Sacrament of Repentance

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