Date: 13 Mar 2022
Sermon Text: Luke 3:1-20
Speaker: Pastor Luwin Wong
It appears to me, that there are two self-evident realities regarding the world.
The world is not as it should be. This world is broken, it’s fractured, it’s messy. It’s not all as it should be. Which is why songs written, calling us to “heal the world”, which is why we have campaigns urging us to “save the planet”. But try as we might, chaos and destruction are woven into the very fabric of our reality. There is pain and evil, suffering in this world. This seems to be one self-evident, incontrovertible, truth about our world.
Human beings are responsible for much of the evil and suffering in this world. Children don’t starve to death by accident, or by natural causes. The economic world that human beings created, ensures that food, of which we have sufficient to fill every belly in the world, only goes to those who can afford it. Human beings are responsible for this state of affairs. The same goes for the children who die in wars. Wars are a not product of natural causes, but of human ambition, greed and ego. You get eliminate human hatred, ego and greed, and you eliminate wars. Not just wars on a national level, but wars on a personal level, the ones we wage each day with the people around us. They contribute to the brokenness of the world as well.
So I’m submitting two propositions:
There is evil and suffering in this world.
Human beings are responsible for much of the evil and suffering in this world.
Assuming you agree with these two statements, this question follows: “Are you responsible?”
When a magazine posed a question: “What is wrong with the world?”, and called for reader submissions.
GK Chesterton wrote in to say,
Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’
Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton
I am. Are you? Are you part of what is wrong with the world?
Are you a better person than GK Chesterton? You know, you’re not part of the problem. Your existence elevates the world, you are one of the good ones, you bring healing to the brokenness, light to the darkness. You’re not responsible for what is wrong with the world.
I have no doubt that some of us are tempted to think that way, and I believe the reason we think that way is because are morally competent. By that I mean we are well-behaved. We conform to the social morality of our society. We do not break the law, we follow the rules, we do what is expected of us, we are principled, we are diligent. We wear the right clothes, we use the right language, we believe the right things, we mix with the right people, our children behave the right way, we do the right things. You are morally competent; you are socially respectable, you are well-behaved. Like many of us listening to this, are. Does that mean you are good? You know, on the side of good. If there is a line dividing heroes and villains, you are on the good side, the right side.
The French author, Hugo Victor explored this idea of what makes a person good or evil, in his book “Les Miserables”. And he conducts this exploration by contrasting two extreme characters. Javert and Jean Valjean.
And we are introduced to these two men, as police and thief. Javert is a policeman, whose entire life is built on a foundation of law-keeping, order and honesty. He never takes a bribe, he goes fully by the book, and he applies the law to himself as strictly as he applies it to others. You will not be able to charge Javert of behaving unlawfully. He does what is right, always.
Jean Valjean, on the other hand, is a criminal. At the start of the book, we find that he steals bread, gets sentenced to prison, and whilst in prison, he gets sentenced 4 more times for repeatedly attempting to escape. When he is released, he searches for a place to sleep, and a kind bishop offers him a bed in the church. But during the night Jean Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware and runs off. He then breaks the conditions of his parole, and therefore lives henceforth as a lawbreaker.
Javert, is determined to arrest Jean Valjean for breaking parole and this police-and-thief dynamic forms a major arc of the story. The crazy thing is, as a reader, you are rooting for Jean Valjean, the thief, the criminal, the law-breaker. Because he adopts an orphan, he repairs the town’s hospital, and he rescues an old man from death when no one wants to help. We witness his love for others, his service to the needy. And you are disgusted with Javert the policeman, because although he never puts a foot wrong, for all his moral rectitude, Javert is devoid of compassion, he does not show grace and he does not know how to love.
Javert does everything right. He is a model policeman. He might easily be elected to the session of a church. But it does not make him good.
In other words, do not assume that just because from the age of 7, every single one of your report cards, shows conduct: “excellent”, that you are therefore a good person. Do not assume that just because you have never been arrested for breaking the law, that you are therefore, a good person. Do not assume that just because you are principled, disciplined and well-behaved, that you are therefore a good person.
What I mean is this: The true nature of sin can easily be overlooked in an approach that is merely moral. In other words, you can be very morally competent, very law-abiding, very well-behaved, and yet remain sinful, and evil and harmful. Being good is different from being morally competent.
Which is the reason why, when Jesus was on earth, he proclaimed seven “Woes to the Pharisees”. To a group of people who are known for their moral competence; for their zealousness towards law-keeping.
You measure their conduct against the law, and you find no fault. These are respectable, religious people. They are upstanding, model citizens in Jewish society. But Jesus says “Woe to them!” Why?
They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. — Matthew 23:5-7
Because they the attention and praise they get. They like being the “guest of honour” and events and gatherings. Is that illegal? Or course not. It’s prideful, and that is sinful. Pride is the original sin and at the heart of every consequent sin. It’s sinful.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. — Matthew 23:25-28
Jesus doesn’t fault them for violating moral standards, or even breaking the Jewish law. In fact, he implicit acknowledges their moral competence. He is, in essence, saying, I grant that your behaviour is good, you look clean like you appear beautiful and righteous to others. Your report card conduct is “excellent”. But it doesn’t mean anything. You’re still really sinful, you’re still evil. You’re only clean on the outside. Your beauty is that of a whitewashed tomb, you’re hiding skeletons within.
And all of us, if we’re honest enough, and brave enough, can relate. There is persistent pride within us, there is a lingering unforgiveness within our hearts, there is volatile anger in our veins, there is a greediness that cannot be quenched by simply having more.
With honest introspection, perhaps, we too might come to realise that the answer to the question: “What is wrong with this world”, is “I am.”
Christianity calls it “sin”. And the bad news is that sin is not okay. It cannot be overlooked. There is a consequence to sin. There is a price to pay. For justice demands that sin is punished.
Listen to how John the Baptist describes our predicament as sinful human beings in our text today:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? — Luke 3:7
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. — Luke 3:9
His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. — Luke 3:17
Listen to what the word is saying. This is bad news for humankind. Every harsh word, every unloving thought, every selfish act, every sinful deed awaits God’s judgement. And he is angry at sin. There is wrath to be faced. He will punish sinners, like you and I. The bad tree is cut and thrown into the fire. The chaff is burned with unquenchable fire.
These are judgment images, these punishment metaphors. It’s bad news. Which is why we need good news of Christianity, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
What is the message?
Because this good news promises the forgiveness of sins.
And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. — Luke 3:3
So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. — Luke 3:18
The good news of Christianity is the good news that we have been forgiven of our sins, so that we no longer have to face the judgment that we deserve.
Now, if you are just tuning in to Mt Hermon’s services, you might be thinking, “Ah, it’s that kind of church huh. The fire and brimstone, sin and hell kind of message”.
Do you know not know, Ps Luwin, that we are in 2022? That sort of message is so passe. The idea of sin is a bit outdated isn’t it? Everyone is saying “love yourself, forgive yourself, be good to yourself” and here you are still trying to guilt trip people into believing in Jesus Christ?
I’m aware of what it sounds like. But how are guilty supposed to feel? Innocent? How is Vladimir Putin supposed to feel about invading Ukraine? Good? Are we supposed to send him positive messages for the sake of his “self-esteem” and “mental-well being”? How exactly are guilty people supposed to feel, if not “guilty”?
Perhaps the most human thing we can do, is to come to terms with our guilt, and with our responsibility for suffering in the world, and ask what we can do, to be cleansed from our sins, and to be good, like we all want to be. If that resonates with you, the Bible has good news for you. It offers us a way to be clean and it offers us a way to be good.
So John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The good news is that we can be forgiven. Just as the waters of baptism washes the person, our sins can be washed away. That’s the good news.
But that’s not all. The good news of Christianity proclaims a kingdom that is not of this world. See how Luke bookends the ministry of John the Baptist. How he introduces and concludes it.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. — Luke 3:1-2
But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison. — Luke 3:19-20
Surely, the most excellent Theophilus knows full well who’s the reigning Caesar at the time, and who’s the governor and tetrarch of the region, and who’s the high priest at the time of Jesus. Luke doesn’t include these names merely for the sake of information. He names them because these guys appear to be in charge, they are the ones in power over the events that take place in the gospel. Pilate, and Herod, Annas and Caiaphas all had a role to play in the death of Jesus Christ. And even the arrest and death of John the Baptist.
But what is interesting is that Luke, introduces these men as the rulers and power brokers, on the one hand, and on the other, immediately subverts their authority by proclaiming another Lord.
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’" — Luke 3:4-6
This is what you do when a king comes to visit your city. You make sure you prepare the way. If there are potholes, you fix them. If there are bumps, you level them, if the road is crooked, you straighten them. Because the king is coming.
It’s the ancient day equivalent of saying, “let’s roll out the red carpet”.
Which creates a tension. Because Jesus is coming as the Lord King, against the backdrop of human rule. And the intention isn’t to replace Caesar as emperor of the Roman empire. The goal is that all flesh will see the salvation of God.
Jesus is coming to usher in an entirely new kingdom, which will be a new world.
And that is good news because this world is broken, not least by human sin. And the salvation of Jesus entails a whole new world, untouched by sin.
That’s the message of Christianity.
It promises forgiveness from sin. And it proclaims a new world, unspoiled by sin, where Jesus is King. That, my friends, is the good news of Christianity. And this good news is for everyone. This is good news does not privilege the “insiders”, and it is good news does not prejudice the “outsiders”.
And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. — Luke 3:8
This group of people are the Jews. These are the religious. In today’s context, these are those who are born in Christian families, who grew up in church, who attend Sunday worship services. Those on the “inside”. They too need the gospel. They too need to repent.
Because you will not be forgiven by going to church, you will not be forgiven because you attend Sunday School, you don’t receive forgiveness by singing songs, or by saying a particular prayer. These things can’t save you. Only Jesus can.
Those of us who grew up in church need Jesus as badly as those who didn’t. Those seated in church need our sins forgiven as much as those behind bars in prison. We too need the good news of Jesus Christ. And not just us of course, the unchurched need the gospel too. And this good news does not prejudice the “outsiders”.
Luke mentions two groups of people who came to John to be baptised for the forgiveness of their sins. The Tax Collectors and Soldiers. Just a brief introduction to these occupations.
The tax collectors are Jews themselves. Their job is to collect taxes from their fellowman to give to Rome. The are seen as servants of the oppressors, collaborators with the enemy, to subjugate their own nation, their own people. So they are regard therefore as traitors. And if that’s not bad enough, the tax collectors were infamous for their corruption. Because they have the protection of Rome, they often tax the people more than is necessary, and keep the “excess” for themselves. So they are greatly hated by the Jews.
The soldiers refer to Roman soldiers, the “occupiers”. Rome has conquered the Promised Land, which means that the Jews are unable to have a sovereign, independent, nation of their own. And if they try to establish it, the soldiers are their to make sure they do not succeed. The soldiers are not there to protect the Jewish nation, they are to enforce Roman will upon the Jews. Their very presence is therefore an affront to Jewish aspirations.
So, these two groups of people come to John. Asking him, “what shall we do to be forgiven, to be saved?” How would you respond, if you were John, these are your existential enemies coming to you, asking you “what shall we do?” You might be tempted to say, “you?” “What shall you do?” You don’t do lah. You go away la. This good news not for you.
But John doesn’t. He offers the good news to pious Jews, as well as to detestable tax collectors as well as to gentile soldiers. This good news neither privilege those “inside” or prejudices those “outside”.
So this gospel is for you. If you are respectable and well-behaved, it’s for you. If you think you are unworthy, it’s for you. If you are broken, and scarred, it’s for you. If you are sinful and struggling, it’s for you. If you are ashamed and guilty, its for you. There is forgiveness and cleansing for you.
What must you do? You must repent. This good news demands repentance.