A New Direction

While we were away at our Annual conference meeting I was most greatly impacted by some of the personal conversations I had with people. Some of these people impacted me with their words but most of all their impacted me with their example. There was an overflowing joyfulness that I found magnetic, a spirit of service and humility that I found convicting, and a sense of connection that I found invigorating.

In fact, as I look back at the people that have impacted my life the most I can recall some of the things that they have said that have impacted me but even more I remember the things people did or the way they lived. I’d be willing to bet that if you looked at the people who have impacted you that you would discover the same thing: it was often less what you were taught and more what you “caught” that made an impact.

There are two ways of teaching people: one is through verbal instruction (as in a classroom or perhaps a church sanctuary where we dispense information).  The other is through practical demonstration or example. Many jobs require an apprenticeship because they have come to realize that some things learned more effectively through observation and practice than from mere words.

Jesus used both methods of teaching. He was a masterful and very creative instructor. He told parables and had some of the most profound and meaty instruction the world has every heard. But Jesus also knew the value of mentoring, of apprenticeships, and of demonstration. He performed miracles so people could see the truth in action. He also chose a group of twelve men to serve as his apprentices. They traveled with him, they watched Him, they listened to Him pray and they learned more than they could have ever learn from merely taking notes.

One of the reasons the Gospels were written was so we too could walk with Jesus. As we immerse ourselves into the gospel accounts we, in a sense, get the chance to stand with Jesus in the Judean countryside and in the storm tossed Galilean Sea. We get to feel the anxiety of the restless crowd and the angry teachers of the Law. And we witness the squabbles that take place among the disciples that are similar to any group of people who spend a lot of time together (have you been on your vacation yet?).

Over the next many months we are going to “walk with Jesus” as we study the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us in the preface to his book that he wrote down an orderly account after he had investigated everything and consulted eyewitness sources. Luke’ whole purpose was to recount the historical record of the life of Jesus.

As we study I encourage you to approach our study not like a commentator trying to understand every word and nuance. Instead, I urge you to look at these words and deeds like a disciple; as a learner who wants to learn the lessons your mentor is teaching. If we approach the text in this manner I believe we will not merely learn stuff about Jesus, we will be changed by Him.

We will begin our study in chapter three because we are quite familiar with the birth narrative in the first two chapters. Just as in the first chapter of Luke, before we are told the story of Jesus we first introduced to a relative of Jesus’ by the name of John the son of Zechariah. Who was this guy that is known better as John the Baptist?

Who Is This Guy?

Each of the gospels record the story of Jesus. Often as you compare the accounts you find that they record details the others did not include. As we compare the various accounts about John the Baptizer we learn a number of things about this guy John,

  • He had an unusual birth. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel we read about Zechariah (the priest) and Elizabeth his (barren or formerly barren) wife. We were told they were “well along in years” [Luke 1]. That “surprise” baby of yours after you turned 40 was nothing compared to this!
  • John was a loner who dressed different. He lived out in the desert probably with more nomadic people. It’s possible that he became a loner because his parents had died. At this point John the son of Zechariah is probably 30 years old. We are told he dressed in a garment made of camels hair and had a leather belt around his waist. In our mind he actually looks more like Fred Flinstone than the preachers of today.
  • John was some kind of health food nut. The Scriptures tell us he ate locusts and wild honey (certainly he must have dipped the locusts to get them down). I don’t know why the Scriptures tell us this, but they do.
  • John had a successful ministry (if you were to measure it by numbers). John was called John the Baptist not because he was a Baptist instead of a Presbyterian but because he baptized multitudes of people who came to his remote location, heard his hard and direct message, and responded in faith. The people were hungry. There had not been a new prophet from God since Malachi and that was 400 years before this time! People were all excited when John and Jesus were born but don’t forget there was 30 years between Luke 2 and 3.
  • His message was consistent. John spoke the same message whether he was speaking to the peasant or to King Herod. He told everyone they needed to live by God’s standards and turn from their rebellious ways. In the case of Herod it meant John told him the truth that he was living in sin by taking his brother Philip’s wife! Herod may have been the King but John spoke with a higher authority, that of the Lord.
  • John knew his role in God’s Kingdom. When asked if he was the Messiah he said he was not the Messiah and existed to point to the Messiah . . .to introduce Him, somewhat like an announcer on a talk show. The announcer may be seen briefly but for the most part their job is to stay in the background and make the star look good.
  • He knew that what he offered was only the first step in the process of redemption. He gave us the precondition for faith. John said that while he baptized with water, there was one coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.

John carries on the same kind of role that is to be ours in this world. Our job is not to point to ourselves it is to point to Jesus. Our job is not to talk about us but rather to talk about Him. We are nothing . . . He is everything. Later on John tried to explain this to his disciples when they complained that Jesus seemed to be stealing their crowds. John’s response was simple: “He must increase and I must decrease” John understood his role.

John’s Message

John’s message was simple: Matthew said his message was: “repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” In Luke we are told that John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. In other words, John baptized people who said they had repented (or were repenting) of their sin. We could say John’s message was this: if you want to go in the right direction you have to first stop traveling in the wrong direction.

If you have one of those GPS devices in your car you know that when you make a wrong turn the voice on the GPS tells you to turn around. Repentance calls us to do the same thing. The repentant person sees that they are headed in the wrong direction and take corrective action! The truly repentant person wants to be saved from their sin . . . not only from the penalty of their sin. In other words, they want to head in a new direction.

Too often what people want is a Jesus who will expunge their guilt but not ask them to truly change. They want a Jesus who will forgive their sin but not alter their living. That is a perverted gospel! That is a superficial faith that God abhors!

John declared this message urgently. John said, “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.” [Luke 3:9] John told the people that they needed to hear, understand and act on his message because judgment was at hand! If they did not repent they would face very unpleasant (and eternal) consequences.

Some people are offended at the directness and the forcefulness of the message. Suppose you were in a burning building. The fire is quickly moving your way and a fireman appears at your window. The fireman says, “Quick, leave your belongings and come with me and I will save you from the fire so you do not die.”

What would you think if the person in the fire said, “You know, I don’t appreciate your tone. You don’t need to be so harsh. Your words are upsetting to me and therefore you should not say them. I don’t want to hear any more of this “doom and gloom” stuff. I have a lot of valuable stuff here and I do not choose to simply go away and leave them.  Go away and come back another time and perhaps we can talk some more. However, next time please adopt a different attitude. We’ll have no more talk about “destruction”.

If I was that fireman I would be tempted to punch the person in the nose and then drag them out of the building by force! Such talk is lunacy. You can’t survive a burning building unless you get out!

Yet, people respond to the message of the gospel in a similar way. They are offended at talk about repenting and turning or facing the judgment of God. It may sound harsh but it is also necessary! You cannot head in the right direction until you stop going in the wrong direction. You cannot begin to live for the Lord unless you stop living for yourself.

Any recovery program (whether it is for alcohol, drugs, over-eating, anger-management or anything else) starts with the same underlying premise: you must 1) recognize your problem and 2) truly want to change. Until you have both of these things the program will have no long term effect.

Before we can find forgiveness in Christ we must first understand that we need a Savior. We must see that we are addicted to rebelling against God. We must see that this rebellion is destroying our lives. We must truly want to change.

What to Look for in Your Life

So how do you know if you have stopped going in the wrong direction and started to head in the right direction? John addressed this question.

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. (8)

John was a popular preacher. Apparently it was the “in thing” to be one of those who had been baptized by John. Consequently people were coming forward to be baptized but were missing the point. John confronted some in the crowd who were coming forward (calling them a ‘brood of vipers’). John saw that these people were just going through the motions. They were simply doing what was popular. John wasn’t concerned about statistics; he was looking for changed hearts. Baptism without repentance is just a bath without soap!

John told the people that the way to tell if your repentance is genuine is by the fruit of your lives. Don’t miss this: the person who has repented shows that he has repented because they are going in a different direction!

Luke later tells the great story of the tax-collector Zacchaeus. When he met Jesus he immediately gave half of his possessions to the poor and promised to repay fourfold anyone he had cheated. That’s genuine repentance.

John gave some examples of the person who is going in a different direction:

  • The person with two tunics should share with one who has none
  • The person with food should share with the one who is hungry
  • The tax collectors should stop ripping off the people
  • The soldiers should stop being abusive

We could make a similar list. The person who truly repents is the one who has more than good intentions. They are the one who

  • Has a drastic change in their language in the factory, eliminating profanity from their vocabulary
  • Refuses to charge excessive markups to customers (even those who can pay it) even if it means others have a bigger profit margin
  • Sacrifices personal indulgencies to help others with necessities even if it means he can’t have what others have
  • Chooses to worship and honor the Lord over the other activities clamoring for his time on Sundays even if it means there are consequences to pay
  • Turns away from immoral and unbiblical relationships even though others call him odd or a prude.
  • Refuses to gossip even though he loves being “in the know”
  • Chooses to serve others even if it is outside of his comfort zone
  • Gets help for abusive behaviors
  • Refuses to bail on others simply because a relationship is difficult

The true believer sticks out in the world as someone who is different and who lives by different values.

This is certainly easier said than done. John understood that to truly bear fruit we will need more than good intentions and deep resolve; we will need a changed heart and the strength of the Holy Spirit. This is why in verse 16 John pointed beyond himself to Jesus. John said,

“I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Luke 3:16)

A true change of direction requires a true desire to change + a change of heart that comes from trusting Christ.

The Action Plan

John’s words are especially relevant in our day of “Country Club Christianity”. We live at a time when talk of sin is minimized, demands are kept to a minimum and following Jesus is made as un-disruptive as possible.

I was reading Francis Chan’s book CRAZY LOVE this week and he used a great illustration. He said when he was in his teens he thought about joining the Marines but he didn’t join because in all the commercials the Marines were always running . . .and he hates running. He said he never thought about asking the Marines if they would agree that he could run less and do less push-ups. He never thought of asking the Marines to make these changes because he understood that if he joined the Marines the Marines would govern his life. . . .He then asked why it was so hard for Christians to understand that Jesus wants that same kind of control of those who follow Him?

Think about what would happen if we followed this way. We would be different people with new hearts and new attitudes and we would follow Christ with a new enthusiasm.

We would witness great changes

  • Families would be safe places rather than places of terror
  • Marriages would be mended and made strong rather than quickly tossed aside
  • There would be less needy people in the world
  • We would be content rather than feeling deprived
  • People would be drawn to us like a magnet wanting to know what is so different about us.

If you have not truly repented . . . if you say you are a Christian but your life is not different, then quite frankly, you probably are not a true follower of Christ. If you are still living like all your non-believer friends, you are merely playing the church game and your faith is more convenience than reality. You may be fooling yourself, you may be fooling others, but you are not fooling God. It is time for you to get serious. It is time for you to decide whether you are willing to follow the giver of Life, the one who gave Himself for you. If you are willing to follow then you have to change your direction!

For some of you the first step in that change may be to publicly declare your faith through baptism. You may need to come and be baptized and symbolically show the old life washed away and that you are beginning anew.  Baptism will not save you but it is an act of obedience that says I will take a public stand with Jesus. If you would like to take this stand, we encourage you to come and talk to us.

For others you may need to make other changes in your life. You may need to downsize so that you are living below your income so that you have money to share with those in need. You may need to make some tough choices about your calendar and eliminate things that stand between you and truly putting God first in your life. You may need to return what you have taken from another. You may need to pay a debt you have incurred or apologize for a hurt you have inflicted. If you come to the Lord He will show you what you need to do.

This is serious stuff. You may not like the tone or the topic. You may resist the notion of repentance and prefer a Christianity that makes no demands; the common faith that is going nowhere. However, if you want more; if you want a life that is abundant, deep and eternal . . . you have to start by going in a new direction.

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