All right, I have three pop quizzes for you all.
Are you ready?
Pop Quiz Number One: There’s a prophet who lives in the desert. Then the word of God comes to him and gives him a message for God’s people. So the prophet returns to civilization, and this is what he says:
“Hey everybody, the Lord is going to show up soon. He is going to destroy everyone who has oppressed his people, and set his people free. If you want to be in Category B (God’s people), then prepare yourselves — purify yourselves — for his arrival by following my instructions.”
Now, which prophet am I talking about?
Sounds like John the Baptist, right?
But actually, I’m talking about…Moses. If you guessed “Moses”, award yourself 100 points.
And do you remember his instructions? He told God’s people to purify themselves for the Lord’s arrival by sacrificing a lamb and sprinkling its blood on the doorposts of their houses: the Passover! The blood on their house meant that their sins were forgiven; the Lord’s judgement would “pass over” them and go somewhere else.
And — this is important — after Moses led God’s people out of Egypt, they crossed the Red Sea, right? We all know the story: Moses parts the sea; the people pass through it. In the New Testament, Paul says that when the people followed Moses through that valley of potential death, “they were all baptized into Moses.” Okay? So the people of Israel were baptized when they passed through the Red Sea. Remember that for later, okay?
Also — this is important too — Paul goes on to point out that even though those people were “baptized” by Moses, later on God’s judgement fell on them all: not one of them made it to the Promised Land. Why not? Because even though they were baptized, their lives did not change: they did not produce fruit. And the tree that doesn’t produce fruit gets cut down.
Now, Pop Quiz Number Two:
There’s a great warrior who lives in the desert. Then the word of God comes to him and gives him a message for God’s people. So the warrior returns to civilization, and this is what he says:
“Hey everybody, the Lord is going to show up soon and do some amazing things. He is going to destroy all of his enemies, conquer the whole land, and give it to his people. Now, if you want to be in Category B (God’s people) then purify yourselves and wait for my instructions!”
Now, which warrior am I talking about?
Joshua. If you guessed “Joshua”, award yourself 50 points (I gave you more hints, that question is worth fewer points).
And you remember what happens next, right? Joshua parts the Jordan River, and the people pass through it. And if the Apostle Paul were here, he would say that by following Joshua through the river, the people were all baptized into Joshua.
And then — this is important — Joshua goes on to conquer the land. He even kills the King of Jerusalem. But — and this is important too — he doesn’t conquer Jerusalem.
Okay, Pop Quiz Number Three:
There’s a prophet in the desert. Then the word of God comes to him, and says, “I want you to go and anoint two kings for me, and another prophet, okay? The first king will destroy all the Israelites that he can reach. The second king will destroy all the Israelites that the first king misses. And the prophet will destroy all the Israelites that the second king misses.”
So the prophet returns to civilization and anoints two kings and a prophet to carry out God’s judgement — against Israel! Why? Because the nation of Israel is corrupt from top to bottom. The politicians were corrupt and oppressive; the priests were corrupt and oppressive. The whole system needs to be destroyed!
But God tells his prophet there are still some in Israel who truly belong to God; those people are safe from judgement.
Now, which prophet am I talking about?
Elijah. If you guessed “Elijah”, award yourself 75 points (that was a harder one).
It was Elijah who anointed three different men, two kings and a prophet, to carry out God’s judgement against the people who bore God’s name but not God’s fruit.
In fact, this was such an important part of Elijah’s ministry that, really, we ought to call him “Elijah the Anointer”!
Okay. Now some of you might be wondering, “what does all this Old Testament stuff have to do with anything?”
Well, as we go forward now into the New Testament, keep all that Old Testament stuff in the back of your mind. All the puzzle pieces should fall into place as we go.
So, here we are, back in the New Testament, the Book of Luke, Chapter Three, and Luke starts like this:
 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—  during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas —
Now, just like last week, when Luke mentioned “Caesar Augustus”, these are names that don’t mean much to us today; but to the people of that time these were names associated with power, oppression, and corruption. And notice, they go from the top — the Emperor — right down to the local regional rulers.
So Luke is telling us that the political system is corrupt from top to bottom.
Then he mentions the high priests…at the end of a list of corrupt politicians.
What do you think Luke is trying to suggest by doing that? That’s right: he is suggesting that these priests are just as corrupt as the politicians.
So Luke is telling us that the political system of Israel and the religious system of Israel is corrupt from top to bottom.
And that is just like Israel at the time of Elijah! Remember?
And do you remember what did God do to solve the problem in Elijah’s time? He sent a prophet out of the desert to anoint kings who would act in judgement against corrupt Israel.
So, what is God going to do to solve the problem now?
Well let’s see…how does Luke put it?
…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.
Hey! A prophet in the desert, just like Elijah!
So, what’s this prophet going to do next? Is he going to anoint some kings who are going to judge Israel and save the few who still belong to God?
Let’s find out (verse 3):
 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Well, that’s…different. I thought Luke was going somewhere else with that. I thought this would be a replay of the Elijah story, but…!
Oh well…let’s read on; maybe Luke will explain things more clearly (verse 4):
 As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.  Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.  And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’ ”
Huh. Okay. So Luke is telling us that this guy John is a prophet in the desert, and he has a message for God’s people. And the message is: “The Lord is going to show up soon. He is going to destroy everyone who has oppressed his people, and set his people free. If you want to be in Category B (God’s people), then prepare yourselves — purify yourselves — for his arrival by following my instructions.”
But this sounds familiar too, doesn’t it? That sounds like what Moses said! Moses, who led God’s people out of slavery and baptized them in the Red Sea.
Ohhhh! So Luke is retelling us the story of Elijah, but he is also retelling us the story of Moses! It’s a mashup! A remix! DJ Lukas is taking two old stories and blending them together to make something fresh!
Okay, so what happened next in the Moses Story? The people escaped with him through the Sea into the desert…where they rebelled against God and fell under his judgement and not a single one of them made it to the Promised Land…
Ewwww. That’s not such a good story. Is that what’s happening here, too?
Let’s see what Luke says next (verse 7):
 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.  The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Uh oh. This really is the Moses Story. Because what’s John saying here? “Uh, sorry folks, just ‘getting baptized’ won’t save you. Just ‘passing through the Red Sea’ won’t save you. Just being ‘a son of Abraham’ won’t save you. God’s judgement is here! The axe is already falling! If you don’t follow my instructions, you’re going to get it in the neck!”
Wow. This guy is harsh. But history is definitely on his side: God judged Israel for unbelief in Moses’ time; he judged Israel for corruption in Elijah’s time — and John’s time is exactly like Elijah’s time…it’s not looking good, friends!
Ooo, but wait! Just like Moses, John gives instructions on how to dodge God’s judgment! Quick, look them up in the handbook: “Repent, be baptized, produce good fruit.”
Whew! Okay! I can do that! I can produce good fruit, and if I can produce enough good fruit, then God won’t judge me. Got it, John! Thanks!
But is that really John’s message? Is he really saying, “Be good! Do good deeds! Be a good person, and God will let you pass”?
No, he’s not. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The order is very important:
2. Be baptized.
3. Produce fruit.
Fruit follows repentance. It is the…fruit…produced from the tree of repentance. First the tree is planted, and grows: repentance, realizing, “I can’t help myself! I can’t be good enough to escape God’s judgement!” Then, when the tree of repentance is grown, it produces a flower: baptism, realizing, “only God can wash me clean! Only God can save me from God’s judgement!” And then, as the flower of baptism is pollinated by God’s Spirit through his Word, it grows up and produces fruit: this “fruit in keeping with repentance”.
Repentance that never produces the flower of baptism is a dead tree. Baptism that never grows into the fruit of repentance…is a withered flower. That’s what went wrong in Moses’ time: the people repented — they didn’t want to be slaves in Egypt anymore — they were baptized in the Red Sea, and then…they spent the rest of their lives complaining that they weren’t slaves in Egypt anymore. Repentance, baptism…but no fruit.
And that is what John is warning these people about. He is saying, “look, you can’t come out here and kaubeh kaubu-hoo-hoo about how the politicians and priests are all corrupt and we just can’t get ahead in this rotten system, why won’t God just come and goreng-goreng those guys and set us free — when you are part of the problem! It’s not just the politicians and priests that are corrupt; you are too! You claim to be repentant; you want to be baptized by me because you think there’s some ‘magic’ in it; but it counts for nothing if you do not produce good fruit!”
And his message gets through to some of them.
They say to themselves, “oh, he’s right you know. We are as corrupt as those politicians and priests. If we had power like them, we’d probably use it to oppress others too.”
Then they say, “and we want to be baptized, truly washed clean by God, inside and out, but what good would be if we don’t do anything afterwards?”
And then they realize, “oh, but I don’t even know what the fruit of repentance really looks like. How will I be able to tell if I’m producing the right fruit?”
So they raise their hands, and they say, “Cikgu! Cikgu John! What does this fruit look like? What are we supposed to do? Can you give us some specific examples?”
So he does (verse 10):
 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.  John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”  Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”  “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.  Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Now this part is actually pretty sad, because everything John says here is basic Old Testament stuff: share your food and clothing with the poor, be honest in your business dealings, if you find yourself in a position of power don’t use your position to squeeze money out of people — the Old Testament says these things again and again.
So why do the people have to ask John to be specific? Because they literally don’t know. The religious leaders of that time were so corrupt that they didn’t even bother to teach the basics to the common people!
But now, finally, God has sent a prophet to teach them what the Word of God actually says. And the people are discovering that what the Word of God actually says is very, very different from what the politicians and priests have been saying. God’s prophet says, “purify yourselves; get rid of your lust for power and control! Use what you have to serve others!” The priests and politicians say just the opposite.
And even the people can tell they can’t both be right. They can tell there is an explosion coming. Either the prophet is going to tear down the corrupt system, or the corrupt system is going to crush the prophet.
So (verse 15):
 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.
By the way, this word “Christ” is just the Greek word for the Hebrew word “Messiah”. And the Hebrew “Messiah” means “The Anointed One”, “The Chosen One”. The people are all waiting expectantly, because they think John is about to announce himself as The Messiah, the One chosen by God to pull down the corrupt world system and restore the Kingdom of David, take Israel back to their Golden Age.
Now, why do the people think John wants to be some kind of Conquering Messiah type?
Well, remember: John is baptizing people beside the Jordan River. Which is very symbolic, isn’t it?
Once before in Israel’s history a man came out of the desert and passed through the Jordan River with his army behind him. When they passed through the river they were symbolically “baptized” and made pure, a holy army ready to do God’s work. Then this holy army went on to pull down the corrupt system of government in that land and conquer it for God.
Remember that? It’s the story of Joshua. This is a three-way mashup! Elijah’s story mixed with Moses’ story mixed with Joshua’s story. At least: that’s what the people are thinking.
And they are justified, really. Because they’ve seen it before: some guy would go into the desert and start preaching seditious sermons against the government. He would gather an army, and when the time was right, he would say, “guess what, everybody? I’m the Messiah! We’re going to tear down the corrupt system and create a truly holy Kingdom!” Then he would try to take over Jerusalem, the Romans would catch him and smother him with a pillow —
— just kidding. The Romans were more…creative than that.
So to a lot of the people, John looks like another one of these seditious Messiah types. He looks like he is purifying a holy army for service to God.
So that’s why John says (verse 16):
“ummm…No. I baptize you with water. But that doesn’t actually make you holy. It certainly doesn’t make you holy enough for God’s Kingdom! Because, frankly, God’s true Kingdom is so holy none of us qualify to get in!”
“But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.
— quick sidenote: in that culture, undoing someone’s sandals was such a disgusting job that Jewish slaves were not allowed to do it. Only non-Jewish slaves were allowed by law to have that very lowest of possible jobs. So John is saying, “this guy is so great that I am lower than the lowest non-Jewish slave.” Which is basically like saying, “I’m so unholy compared to this guy that I don’t even qualify to call myself a Jew.” Which is a way of saying, “this guy is so holy compared to me that I’m not even going to heaven.”
John goes on:
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
What does that even mean?
Well, it means two things: first, John is saying, “I am not that military Messiah who is going to cross the Jordan with my army and conquer the land for God.”
Second, John is saying, “however, that military Messiah on his way!”
John is predicting that a New Joshua is about to show up. But this New Joshua is so holy that he can’t have an ordinary army made of ordinary people. Having his army baptized in the Jordan River was enough for the first Joshua; but the New Joshua is going to baptize his army with the Spirit of God! who is going to fall upon them like fire.
And what does fire do? It purifies. It tests the quality of things. Hay and stubble are burned up. Gold, silver, precious stones are made even more pure. This New Joshua is not going to accept just anybody into his army. His pitchfork is in his hand, and he is going to be sifting through the Jewish people, testing them with fire. The wheat — the truly holy people — will be part of his Kingdom. The chaff — the grassy bits, like the husk on a corncob — will be thrown away and burned.
And if the people are wondering, “uh oh, how can I tell whether I am the wheat or the chaff?” well, John’s message is clear:
Those who are repentant are the wheat. And they will be perfectly purified when the Holy Spirit is poured out on them.
Those who are not repentant will be burned up when the fire falls upon them.
Simple as that.
And, once again, John is not saying, “save yourself by ‘being repentant’!” He is saying, “repentance reveals the quality of who you are.”
It’s almost like DNA. A tree with Durian DNA will produce…durian! It will never produce an apple, no matter how much it tries.
In the same way, a person with Repentant DNA will produce…fruit in keeping with repentance. A person without Repentant DNA can try and try and try all they like…but they will never produce the proper fruit.
So this is not something you can “work on”. You are born with it — or you are not. And the baptism by fire reveals very quickly which is which.
And that, John says, is the job of this New Joshua who is coming. His baptism is going to reveal who is who. If those politicians and priests in Jerusalem are truly corrupt, this Messiah will reveal that! and the fire will consume them. If these tax collectors and soldiers are truly repentant, this Messiah will reveal that! and the Spirit will make them truly holy, from the inside out.
Oh, and by the way, I should point out that Jesus’ real name…is Joshua. The name “Jesus” is Greek for the Hebrew name “Joshua”. So when John prophesies that a kind of New Joshua is on his way to conquer the land…he is literally correct!
And that is pretty cool.
Okay. That’s a good remix! We’ve got three different times in Israel’s history all coming together here into one final, perfect point in history. Those Old Testament stories were like…previews. They all had parts of the story. But this, finally, is the whole movie.
With Moses, we saw how a prophet from the desert announced that God’s judgement is on the way — and taught God’s people how to get ready for it. Here, with John, we see how a prophet from the desert does the same thing!
With Joshua, we saw how a warrior from the desert baptized and purified his army on the way to conquer the land for God. Here, with John, we see that he predicts a warrior from the desert who will purify his army on the way to conquering the land for God.
With Elijah, we saw how a prophet from the desert anointed two kings and a prophet to carry out God’s judgement against a politically and religiously corrupt Israel. Here, with John, we see how a prophet from the desert anoints…two kings and a prophet?
Huh. No, that didn’t happen here.
Oh well. Maybe next week Luke will continue the story…?
Anyway, this is some pretty cool stuff! This is Lord of the Rings level epic storytelling right here.
But of course this isn’t just a well-written story. For us as Christians this is the Word of God. Just as sure as the word of God came to John in the desert — the Word of God has come to us here in Menara Hap Seng.
So what is it supposed to mean for us? What are we supposed to do?
Well, John’s message is quite simple; and it still applies to us today: if we want to be saved from God’s judgement, the first required step is repentance. If we want to be part of the New Joshua’s people — if we want to survive the Holy Spirit’s baptism by fire — we must have Repentant DNA.
And that raises an immediate objection, doesn’t it? For some of us, it raises an immediate fear. Because we’re left wondering, “well, if Repentant DNA is something you are born with or not, how can I tell which category I’m in?”
God’s Word gives us two main answers to that question.
First: if John’s message does send a little thrill of fear through you, and leaves you asking, “in that case, what should I do then?”…well, that is a good sign. You are in good company! because that is exactly what the tax collectors and soldiers also asked John. If you are asking that question, then most likely God has created Repentant DNA within you.
Second: if you are producing fruit in keeping with repentance…then that is a good sign too! The best way to see if a tree has Durian DNA is to look at the fruit. The best way to know if you have Repentant DNA…is to look at the fruit of your life! Are you hungry for power, control? Are you selfish, greedy? Are you obsessed with money, success? That’s the fruit of corrupt priests and politicians. But what is the fruit of Repentant DNA? Share your food and clothing with the poor; be honest in your business dealings; if you find yourself in a position of power don’t use your position to squeeze money out of people.
Of course, bear in mind, these good words don’t save you — they show that you are already saved. They are the fruit of DNA transformed by God.
So if you are sitting there today and you’re not sure which side you’re on, the prescription is very simple: ask God to reveal the Repentant DNA within you. As he reveals your sins to you weep over them and repent! Cross the Jordan River; be baptized into the New Joshua, the one who has come to conquer the whole world, tear down every corrupt institution, and replace them with a Kingdom of perfect justice and peace.
If you are sitting there today, and you’re pretty sure you know which side you’re on, but sometimes have doubts….the prescription is equally simple: ask God to produce within you fruit in keeping with repentance. Nothing is more comforting than to be able to look at your own life and see concrete examples of the Spirit’s transforming work! Later on in the New Testament, both Peter and Paul say the same thing: if you want to make your calling and election sure, if you want to work out your salvation — then focus on how you’re living your life!
Now, granted, often it is hard for us to see our own fruit. That’s why we have brothers and sisters! Ask them. Good friends can usually tell you how you are growing over time. They can say things like, “yeah, you are 25% less of a control-freak than you were five years ago. Congratulations, the Spirit is at work in you!”
In other words, friends: don’t expect sudden transformation in every area of your life. Don’t be greedy! Slow growth is still growth. So let us encourage one another, and spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Not in a harsh “save yourself!” kind of way, but gently, being confident of this, that he who began the good work of planting Repentant DNA within you will make sure that you will bear fruit. We don’t have to beat each other into producing fruit; we just have to feed each other: water on the roots, sunshine on the leaves.
So what are we to do then? Repent. Be baptized. Produce fruit. Live.
Now, in closing, Luke says (verse 18):
 And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.  But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done,  Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
This is a great place to stop. Because if you remember, Luke began this chapter with a list of corrupt politicians and priests.
In the middle, we met some tax collectors and soldiers who heard John’s message and repented.
Now here, at the end, we find the opposite of repentance. And who is it? One of the kings listed at the beginning. A premiere member of the corrupt establishment that John is preaching against.
And if this king responds like this to John the Prophet, how do you think he is going to respond to Joshua the Messiah when he shows up?
Ohhh. In the literary world, this is known as “fore-shadowing”.
What is going to happen to John?
What is going to happen to the New Joshua? Will he conquer the land? Will he execute the corrupt kings of Jerusalem? Or will he fail to completely take that city?
Cliffhangers! Luke loves his cliffhangers!
Come back next week.