“What must we do to be saved?” Luke 3:10
That is the question asked of John by those who came to the River Jordan to hear him. Luke tells us that John is the messenger from God sent ahead of the Messiah ~ the anointed one of God, the Christ ~ to prepare the way and here we find him at the river baptising.
And he wasn’t backward in coming forward when it came to telling the people what they must do. He told them that the Messiah was coming and that he was going to sort the people out! In verse 9 he says:
“The axe is ready to cut down the tree at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire.”
And this had caught the people’s attention. God is coming to judge the world! What are we going to do? How can we be saved? And John doesn’t mess about with theological debate or speculation, he goes straight to the point:
“Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it.” (v.11).
John challenges the conventional views of salvation. We tend to think of salvation as meaning that when we die we will go to heaven. But you don’t find any hint of that in John’s answer.
John says that, instead of it being all about the future, salvation has everything to do with now. He talks about a change in our attitudes and values, he talks about the way we treat others.
Read the gospels and for that matter, the whole of the bible and what you get is a story of how God wants to transform this world ~ all the poverty, the violence, the injustice, the fears, the anxieties, the cruelties, the death and destruction ~ all that is wrong with our world, God wants to transform, to make new.
The main point about salvation in the bible isn’t eternal life when we die, it is about a new earth and a new heaven; the world as we know it now being transformed into something beautiful and eternal where we will live a real, physical life.
And as followers of Christ, or ‘Christians’, we have the privilege of joining in that work. Salvation is about reconciliation ~ bringing together those things that have grown apart ~ ultimately, restoring our relationship with God. This work began with Jesus dying on the cross and it continues as we respond to God.
What John urges the people to do is repent of the sin that was in their lives. That is what his baptism was all about. The people had to face up to all that was bad in their lives and repent of it. To repent isn’t just saying ‘sorry’. It is a deliberate act of turning away from the way of life that brings about that sin and deciding to live a better way ~ God’s way.
And so often we fail to understand that. Talk to many people within our society and they will tell you that they are Christians. Why? Well because they are not bad people, they try to be good to others and they have never done anyone any harm. But that is not what the Christian faith is about.
To know you are a Christian is actually to know that you have sinned, that you have hurt others by what you have said and done and more importantly, that you have hurt God.
It is that sin that separates us from God. It is sin that stops us from seeing God at work in the world and knowing him in our hearts and minds. And no amount of good deeds will ever get rid of that sin. That sin can only be dealt with by forgiveness and there is only one who can forgive.
And that is why John is baptising. He is asking the people to face up to the sin in their lives and to repent of it. This is the way to salvation. The good deeds follow on from this but so many people do not take that first step. They try to be good, to do good, but salvation has nothing to do with good works but has everything to do with forgiveness, and if the people thought that John was the one to bring salvation, they were wrong. Salvation comes from another and John is clear who that ‘other’ is.
We join the story as the people are beginning to think that maybe John is the Messiah. For so long the people had been under oppression. The Romans had been around for so long and it seemed that their God had forgotten them. But now here was this voice calling in the wilderness, bringing hope and this was filling the people with excitement and expectation. Was John the Messiah – God’s anointed one? So john puts them right:
“I baptise you with water, but someone is coming who is much greater than I am… He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit & with fire.” (v.16).
John couldn’t forgive their sins. Only Jesus could do that and John was preparing them for Jesus. ‘Repent of your sins’, he says, ‘and the one who is coming after me (Jesus) will fill you with the Holy Spirit and the fire will be like the fire used to refine metal ~ to take away the impurities and make you pure. That is salvation.
The coming of the Messiah into the world heralded the time when evil would be dealt with. The Jews believed that the messiah would sweep away the evil in the world so that God’s kingdom may reign. And of course Jesus did just that when he died on the cross. But what they didn’t expect was that Jesus would come and point the finger at them and say that they also had evil within them and it is that evil that has to be dealt with.
Most people see evil only in the big things ~ the wars, the abuse, the murder and so on ~ and so we expect those things to be dealt with. But evil is also found within us ~ in the lies, the spitefulness, the greed, the harsh word, the put down remark, the ignorance and so on. That is hard for us to take on board.
We like to think of ourselves as being good and that it is ‘them’ that need sorting out. But salvation begins with forgiveness ~ our forgiveness.
I was listening to the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 one day and the topic was family feuds. Christmas is a time when many families have arguments and so the show was looking at ways to bring reconciliation. There was a grandmother on the phone who told the story of her grandson. 2 years before, he was 16 and he had a terrible outburst towards his nan. His language was horrible, he was angry, threatening, abusive. He had never done this before and it was totally out of character. The grandmother totally disowned him and had never spoken to or seen him in 2 years. She said that she would never forgive him and that she didn’t want to forgive him. She believes that maybe the taking of drugs was involved and that maybe he wasn’t himself, but she was adamant.
There was no way that she wanted anything to do with him. No forgiveness. And no matter what that boy says, no matter how many good deeds he may do, he will never know his nan’s forgiveness. What a sad story. The only way that these people can be reconciled is for him to repent and her to forgive.
The only way that we can know God and know salvation is for us to repent and for Him to forgive. And Jesus is always ready to forgive. Jesus is on our side. When he came to the Jordan he too was baptised. He had nothing to be forgiven for but he still identified himself with us. Jesus is in the business of saving as is God.
The reading from Isaiah reminds us of this:
God is my saviour; I will trust him and not be afraid. The LORD gives me power and strength; he is my saviour. – Isaiah 12:2
For those living in darkness, light was coming. For those unable to see God there was this promise:
A day is coming when people will sing, “Give thanks to the LORD! Call for him to help you! Tell all the nations what he has done! Tell them how great he is! – Isaiah 12:4
Salvation is about reconciliation ~ with God and with each other ~ and that is why Jesus came. To bring us back. For some of us that may be a painful journey. There may be things in our lives that bring pain & sadness, things that we need to bring to God, but he tells us not to be afraid. He will not let those troubles overwhelm us.
The Christian faith can never be judged by doing good deeds alone. The Christian faith began and begins with Jesus coming to us. It is our response to him that assures us of salvation. It is realising that we are sinners but that Jesus forgives. And it is then that we know that Jesus is alive because the Holy Spirit fills us with his love. I find myself having to come to Jesus daily and each day I know his forgiveness. It is then that believe I can hear God’s voice saying “This is my dear child I am pleased with you.”