Preparing the Way for Christ (3): If You Don't Live It, You Don't Believe It
Intro -- The church treasurer was paying bills when he opened an invoice for paint signed by someone named Christian. But no one knew about the paint nor anyone named “Christian.” So the treasurer called the store and said to the store manager, “I’m sorry, but there are no Christians here at First Baptist Church.” No Christians here! You know, my greatest worry is not that there are no Christians at our church, but that some who think they are, aren’t!
Luke 3:1-14 shows John the Baptist preparing the way for Christ to people who think they are, but aren’t. Like many today, they are interested only in what He can do for them. Hard, complacent hearts needed to be prepared for Christ. To do that, so far we have seen
I. The Mess (1-2a) -- Luke mentions six officials in Luke 2:1-2, 4 of whom 4 will later participate in Christ’s death. They represent the sinful brokenness of life without Christ. They demonstrate that we all need a Savior, one who is available in Christ, but one we will never find until we recognize the need.
II. The Messenger (2b) -- The messenger is John – “Jehovah is gracious.” The answer to the sinful heart that we all have is not our works. The solution is all of grace. It starts and ends with God.
III. The Mission (4-6) – The mission is to clear hurdles and straighten the pathway to hard, apathetic hearts – to help them see Him, not themselves.
IV. The Message (3, 7-8) – The heart of the passage is in Luke 2:3. John was preaching a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. What softens hard hearts? Repentance! What makes way for Christ? Repentance. Not ceremony and not external connections, but repentance. Jesus preached the same message. Matt 4:17 tells us, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John and Jesus were in absolute synch on the message. It wasn’t do good, serve the underprivileged or donate a little time; it was simply, repent. It’s not ceremony. Even the baptism comes after repentance. Repentance and nothing else straightens the way for Christ to come and forgive. That’s the message – simple, clear, clean and absolute. Repent! Now, today, the Motivation and Manifestation of repentance.
V. The Motivation (9)
LUKE 2:9: “ Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The motive is judgment is coming! Modern society hates this message because it implies accountability. We must answer to someone for the way we live. Modern psychology hates this message. It offends peoples’ self-image. All you hear in many churches is God’s love. I love the love of God. Nothing is sweeter than preaching the love, mercy and grace of God. But we can never fully appreciate or appropriate, the love and grace of God until we see it against the backdrop of judgment. A diamond seen against a light colored counter is beautiful, but it doesn’t dazzle until it is seen against the black velvet background. Then we see every facet of its wonder. And so God never hesitates to provide negative as well as positive motivation to turn to Him. We need balance and we need both.
Now – note five symbolic elements of Luke 2:9. First -- “trees” are the principle players. They represent the people John is addressing. Second, the trees are threatened with an axe. That means one thing to a tree – the threat of extinction, right? So, the threat of judgment is on the horizon.
Third, note the nature of the judgment. Fruitless trees are cut down and thrown into the fire. The Israelites were well aware of fire as a vivid image of judgment from OT passages like Isa 9: 18-19: “For wickedness burns like a fire; it consumes briers and thorns; it kindles the thickets of the forest, and they roll upward in a column of smoke. 19) Through the wrath of the LORD of hosts the land is scorched, and the people are like fuel for the fire; no one spares another.” Or, Jer 4:4) “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.” These people knew full well what John was saying. Judgment is coming. The judgment of God. And you are in the line of fire.
Fourth -- note the basis for judgment – “Every tree (person) therefore that does not bear good fruit” – Fruit, of course, refers to good works, service given in faith out of love for God. The basis for judgment was lack of fruit! Now, please note that these “works” are called fruit, not root. Works are not the basis of salvation, they are the result of salvation. They are not the essence of repentance, they are the result of repentance. Do you see that? The emphasis here is on fruit because God judges the heart by what it produces. Lack of fruit indicates lack of heartfelt repentance.
Fifth, note the timing -- Even now. Even now the axe is laid at the root ready to do its deadly work. Judgment is imminent. Not only is judgment coming, it could strike at any moment? They are in danger NOW! John was well aware that the great OT judgment day of the Lord had not come yet. It was in his future and ours! But he speaks with urgency because he was not talking to Israel as a whole. He was talking to individual trees, people as individuals. They are in mortal danger -- NOW. Their day of judgment is the day they die, and there are no second chances after death. John did not subscribe to the Rob Bell school of theology. Rob Bell is a so-called pastor who authored Love Wins, in which he supposes that the gates of heaven will remain always open in eternity and one can decide at any time to come on over. He willfully ignores Heb 9:27, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” God gives us chance after chance in this life, Beloved, but once death comes, that’s it. Bell forgot that Abraham himself could not go to the rich man in Luke 16 who died and found himself in hell. Neither could the rich man just “come on over.” Rob Bell didn’t mention how Jesus describes hell in Mark 9:48, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” Rob Bell forgot Heb 12:29, “for our God is a consuming fire.” Which is why the Bible warns in Heb 10:31 speaking to the unrepentant, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
The axe of judgment was laid at the feet of these people in the same sense it threatens us. It was threatening that they could die that very day – and their fate would be sealed. Their opportunity was NOW. That’s all they had – just like today is all we have. None of us is promised another day. Some of those people died unexpectedly in their sins within days or weeks. The axe fell! –same axe that is at our feet as well. That’s why Moses reminds us in Psa 90:12, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
A little boy in summer camp went to the infirmary complaining of a cold. The nurse said to him, "I’ll give you an aspirin and you’ll feel much better. This is the first time you’ve been sick in your 34 days here.” Later, the boy wrote home: "Dear Mom and Dad, today I got sick and guess what! The nurse said my days are numbered." All our days are numbered, aren’t they? But we don’t know what the number is. We must be ready now.
Before America’s entry into World War I, the British luxury liner Lusitania was scheduled to sail from New York to England through the German submarine blockade. Tho a passenger liner it was rumored to be carrying ammunition. The Germans took out newspaper ads warning passengers not to travel on the ship. Millionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt boarded anyway. He told reporters: "Ridiculous! The Germans would not dare make an attempt to sink the Lusitania." But on May 7, 1915, the Germans sunk Lusitania. Out of the 1,900 plus passengers, almost 1200 were lost, including Vanderbilt, his valet and 126 other Americans. Are you putting God off because you think He’ll never judge? Peter does tell us He is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (II Pet 3:8). But that same passage tells us that only slows the process, it doesn’t stop it. That’s why Jesus talked more about hell than heaven – not because He loved judgment, but because He didn’t want us to go there! It’s coming, and the choice is ours. Repent because the axe is even now at the root of the tree.
VI. The Manifestations (10-14)
How do we know we’ve truly repented? Life changes. Eph 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast (works don’t save – but works are the natural outgrowth of a responsive and grateful heart. Notice Luke 2:10). 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Were we saved by good works? No, but they naturally follow.
John’s message in Luke 3:10-14 is “Jew or not, you must repent.” And some who finally see their darkened hearts ask, “What shall we then do?” Is that question ever on your mind? It is the sign of a truly repentant heart. What shall we then do? Luke gives us 3 representative examples that reflect repentance; they don’t make repentance. This is how people demonstrate repentance. Their lives change! Now interestingly, each of John’s examples of how to reflect repentance involves money and material possessions. That’s revealing, isn’t it? Repentance is shown when we are generous, be fair and be content when it comes to money!
So, group 1 – the crowds in general, under great conviction, ask, “What shall we do to demonstrate our repentance?” John’s response – Be generous. Share. Luke 2:11, “And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” This nails us all. I’ll bet no one here this morning could say that he or she does not have more of clothing and food than we need. One way to show a Godly, repentant, unselfish heart is to find a way to be sharing with those who lack.
The tunic was an undergarment worn by either sex. Just a simple earthly necessity for warmth and modesty. John says, “If you have 2, share one.” He is not advocating an ascetic lifestyle. He’s not even saying give away the only one you have. He is simply saying, If you’ve got two and someone else has none, share! A repentant heart is a generous heart. Want to test your spirituality? Just ask yourself, Are I generous with my possessions? Do we share our homes, our cars, our clothing, our food with others—joyfully? You’d have to kill some of us to unwrap our cold, hard fingers from things. See, repentant hearts share. They compete to see how much they can give away. How about it? Is your repentance exhibited by a generous heart?
Group 2, Luke 2:11: “Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” The Romans were ingenious tax collectors. They sold regions of their territory to tax “farmers” who paid a fee for the privilege of collecting whatever taxes had been imposed. Palestinian tax offices were located in Caesarea, Capernaum and Jericho. The farmers would sublet their rights to “chief publicans” – like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2) and these would employ “publicans” to do the actual collecting. Everyone in the loop padded the bill. The excess was all profit. They were made rich by surcharges. The more abusive you were, the richer you got. It was a corrupt system that made publicans the most hated people in Palestine bar none.
So amazingly, here are publicans asking how to express repentance! John replies in Luke 2:13, “13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” John’s response is noteworthy both for what it does not say as well as for what it says. He does not say is, “Stop collecting taxes.” Most of us would like him to say that, but he does not say that, does he? Taxes are not inherently wrong! Jesus himself has his disciples pay their taxes. And he tells the Pharisees in Matt 22:21 when they try to trap him into opposing the government: Matt 22:21, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The OT had taxes that averaged out to about 20% of incomes. Taxes are not unbiblical.
But what John does say is, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” The publicans were famous for using browbeating tactics to collect more – tactics that often involved extortion, surcharges, kickbacks, payoffs, bribes. Intimidation was the name of the game. John’s instruction is clear and to the point. Stop overcharging! Be fair in your business practices. That is a sign of true repentance. Businesses today similarly try to take advantage – not as blatantly as the publicans, but just as surely. Exaggerated sales presentations, unfulfilled promises, hidden charges, misrepresenting competitors. Getting someone hooked on your product and then charging exorbitant maintenance or add-on fees. Luring customers not with indirect bribes -- implied promises of a job when they retire, hard partying during the decision period. It all goes on all the time. My constant battle in corporate business. People thinking any means justified the end of a contract. And thinking it was okay because everybody’s doing it. Business is competitive, but any step over the line of fairness is a sign of an unrepentant heart. So, we must ask ourselves, does our life reflect repentance, or are we figuratively all about collecting more than we are authorized to do? Are we unfailingly fair?
Now, the third group here is in cahoots with the publicans. Luke 2:14, “Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Soldiers could have been the Judean police (Jews) or soldiers employed by Herod Antipas (Romans). Whichever they were, they are closely linked here with the publicans, as indicated by their comment “and we, what shall we do?” “If that is what our publican partners are to do, what are we to do to indicate true repentance.” These were thugs for hire, looking for extra money by using their official position to intimidate. John gives them two instructions – Don’t extort money by threats, and don’t falsely accuse. The first word (διασειω) means “to shake violently”. In this context, it is a very picturesque word equivalent to our American slang – “Stop shaking people down” – scaring money out of them. The second word means to falsely accuse. These soldiers used threats of arrest to get money, and if that didn’t work they’d go to court and testify falsely against them, exaggerating their financial status to justify the tax collectors claims. The common people were in a complete no-win situation.
Remember Johnny Fontane, the fading singing star and godson to mafia Don Vito Corleone in the 1972 film The Godfather? He thinks a certain movie part will revive his career, but the studio head is not interested in him. So Johnny goes to the don for help. Corleone tells Johnny, “Don’t worry about the studio head. I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” – Bingo! Instant new American slang. Thus the studio head woke up with a dead horse head in his bed one morning indicating he could either cast Johnny in the part or forfeit his own life. “An offer he couldn’t refuse.” That’s what these soldiers were regularly offering the Palestinian residents at the instigation of the tax collectors. You see why they were so hated.
And John’s point to them is very plain as well. Stop the shakedowns and be content. Be content with your wages. Beloved, that last phrase is singularly important. Be content with your wages. John is urging here that a repentant heart is reflected by contentment. This moves the discussion to a whole new level. It’s not just the abuse of power that indicates a unrepentant heart; it is restless discontent with what we have. It is desire for more than we need. That too is a sign of focus on self and away from the things of God – and thus of lack of repentance. It is the sin of greed.
Conc – So, the message of this passage is twofold: First, the way to Christ is prepared and made straight by genuine, heartfelt repentance. Jesus and sin don’t mix. Sin must be dealt with by the only means available to us – repentance. To repent is to turn away from our previous, self-centered lifestyle to a new direction aimed at God’s will. But the second part is equally important. True repentance is reflected in a changed life. The change doesn’t save us – the repentance does. But true repentance never comes alone; it is always accompanied by a changed lifestyle. Martin Luther said it best 500 years ago, “we are not saved by good works, but, being saved by faith, we do good works." An ever shorter way to say it: “If you don’t live it, you don’t believe it.” If you don’t live it, you don’t believe it.
In his novel A Painted House, John Grisham describes a Sunday school teacher eulogizing a mean character named Jerry Cisco. It’s a typical funeral. Cisco had been killed night before in a back alley fight after he picked on one person to many. In the words of the little boy who had seen the fight with his friend Duane, "The teacher made Jerry sound like a Christian and an innocent victim. I glanced at Duane who had one eye on me. There was something odd about this. As Baptists we had been taught from the cradle that the only way you made it to heaven was by believing in Jesus and trying to follow his example and living a clean and moral Christian life. And anyone who did not accept Jesus and live a Christian life simply went to hell. That's where Jerry Cisco was and we all knew it.” It’s not faith plus works, Beloved, but it’s faith reflected in works.
The Bible says in II Cor 13:5, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” What’s the test? “If you don’t live it, you don’t believe it.” None of us are perfect, but real Christians are fighting the good fight of faith. Are you? Let’s pray.