Scripture: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Efficiency is a key point in today’s culture. It is actually very impressive that cars in the past were traveling down the road getting 15 miles per gallon, and today a full size car can get up to 40 miles per gallon. It is really impressive. We can go into many different debates over why we have gained the increase in mileage but the fact of the matter is that the various engineers in the auto industry were able to do it. It is amazing!
We live in a world that can build towers so tall that literally have different weather patterns on the top floor than the bottom. Towers that can sway in the wind several feet yet remain stable. We can build bridges that span great distances using steel cables. Have you ever really thought about how amazing these feats of engineering really are as you are caught in a traffic jam on an overpass?
The ever-increasing efficiency of our world can boggle the mind. We can microwave a meal in minutes that a generation ago would have taken an hour to prepare. We can send a contract for a mortgage and file our taxes electronically in seconds, which a few years ago would have taken a week to mail and require a ream of paper to process. This ever-increasing technology has made our lives simpler in many ways; it has allowed us to accomplish more tasks in a shorter amount of time. Yet we read books and watch movies that remind us of a simpler time. Simpler times. In our quest for simplifying our lives we often increase the complexity.
John the Baptist above other things was a man that tried to simplify religious life. That is what religious movements do. John the Baptist was a member and leader of a religious movement. Many people believe that John was an early leader among the Essenes. This group of people lived in a communal community where they devoted most of their life to their religious observances. One of the greatest of these observances was the ritual bathing. The baths were to wash away any possible uncleanness or sin that may keep one away from God. The baths cleansed the body of the dirt of life, and as they confessed their sins they too were washed away in the waters.
This ritual cleansing was a simplification of the older religious traditions. In the more ancient forms of the Jewish faith there was a necessity for a ritualistic bath before entering into the place of worship and along with that was the offering of multiple sacrifices. These were a requirement of the law, but to the Essenes they could bypass the sacrifices because they had composed a lifestyle where it was impossible to commit a religious infraction that would require the shedding of blood. They would then only have dirt of daily life that would tarnish their lives. Little things that muddy the feet as you walk through life, a conversation where words could have been chosen more carefully or actions that could have been thought through to a greater extent. They were not necessarily sinful but not altogether righteous either.
It was in these baths that they would consider their lives, repent, and then re-approach life in a different manner. This is the message that John preached when he was out there in the wilderness. Repent for the kingdom of God is near. Repent and be baptized, turn around and let the living waters wash way the dirt and grim of your life, as you turn to a lifestyle more in line with God.
It is a great message and a wonderful ceremony. The ritualistic bathing of the worshiper is a beautiful thing. They would only use living water, moving water, because it would carry away all things unclean. The water would pass over the body, actively cleansing the person. It has wonderful symbolism. The individual goes in covered in sin and emerges clean. It was a simplification of the faith. What once required the letting of blood now required a willingness to change and the movement of water to carry away the grime.
I say that it was a simplification of the faith, what could be easier than taking a bath. Efficient and to the point, but along with this simplified faith there was an entire lifestyle that had to be kept up. They had to change everything about their lives turn from how they once lived and begin to live a life totally different. In many cases they would need to move from their current community and join the commune where you could keep every aspect of your life in check so that the sin or daily grime of life could be kept to a minimum. The simplified life became complex, it was a refined faith but the requirements intensified, just as our technological advances both simplify and intensify our contemporary lives.
John knew that there would be a greater and continuing refining to faith. He, possibly one of the first leaders of one of the movements that shaped the future of the Jewish faith knew that the faith was going to be further refined. He said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” Think about this for a moment. Imagine you are about to enter into a pool to swim or bathe the first thing that you would do is remove your shoes. John is a minister a servant of God, yet he is not even worthy to remove the shoe of the one to come. He is not worthy of serving the one to come. He in all his righteousness cannot assist the king. He is not worthy. He is not clean enough or good enough to enter into the presence of this future refined faith.
John says, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” He speaks of the next refinement of faith. The greatest change of the Jewish faith came when it went into exile it was then after the falling of the first temple that the sacrificial system was first removed. In that period between the temples, the faith did not die but it reformed. It was then that the baptism took greater importance. It was in the exile where sacrifice was not an option that people realized that there was something more. Life became important. You had to live differently to express your faith because you could not just go burn blood, grain, wine and incense. Repentance and baptism became the ceremonies. It was in this exile period between the temples that birthed what we now know as the Jewish faith and the Christian faith.
John was a leader in a faith that did not need the temple; it was the beginning of something new, but only the beginning. It was a simplification but it was not the final product. There was something greater. In the early church they continued this practice of baptism. They developed a spirituality surrounding it, but in that ceremony they realize like John that there is more to the faith than just washing. The baptism of the Essenes needed to be performed continuously; in the church it was only once. Yet even then there is some confusion. When does the bathing need to occur? There is refining and in some cases distilling. For some it is a process that happens at the beginning of life and from there a lifestyle is taught, for others it begins with a lifestyle and then a commitment. The baptism has been refined to the point that it is the beginning of either a lifestyle or the continued commitment to a lifestyle. The question is what is the baptism?
In the book of Acts we are confronted with a debate over this very thing. One side is Apollos who preaches the baptism of John the baptism of repentance on the other side is Paul and his disciples who preach the baptism of Christ. What is that baptism? John spoke of a baptism of the Spirit and fire that was greater than the baptism that he performed. A baptism that came from someone so powerful that he was not even fit to remove the sandals from the feet of the one that brought it. This is where we meet a peculiar people called the Friends. A group of people that sought to find a primitive Christianity but I do not think they found the primitive Christianity. Primitive by definition means early or old. The old forms of Christianity were filled with the ceremonies of the Jewish community. That primitive Christianity is found in the pages of history and practiced by the ancient churches across the globe. What they found was a distilled Christianity. Distilled meaning boiled down to the simplest essence.
In science to perform an experiment it was important to use distilled water. Distilled water is pure water, without any minerals that could compromise the reactions of chemicals. Distilled Christianity is the same. Faith boiled down to the simplest degree, Spirit. It is a lifestyle where the law is written on the hearts of those that seek it. It is simple because it requires nothing other than an open heart. But in that simplicity comes the most complex of all expressions of faith. Pure Christianity is boiled down to you, God, and the community. It requires you to respond and live according to the leading of God in your life. For you to respond to God’s leading you must be in a position of listening. To be listening to God you must have a lifestyle devoted to Him.
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” Heaven was opened and the Spirit descended and a voice called out when Jesus prayed. The distilling and refining of faith began, when Jesus was praying. It was in the devoted lifestyle of prayer and obedience that Jesus’ power was found, the power to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead. Yes He is the Son, the Beloved, but through Him we are adopted and grafted into the family of God. Through him and a lifestyle of prayer and obedience the Spirit fills us, baptizes us and we too are given the power to do the great things we are called to do. He is calling us to a life of pure faith. It is in that pure distilled faith that we can do great things. Prayer and obedience that is all. Simple yet complex, calling us to continue in His work of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, hydrating the thirsty, visiting the imprisioned, and helping the lost find their way. It in that pure life of prayer we hear his call and in the obedience that we experience the power.
As we enter into this time of Holy Expectancy and communion with God through corporate prayer. Let us be baptized with the Spirit and with the fire. Let the Spirit speak to our hearts and light the fires in our lives to live out His mission. Let us each live a simple life of faith in this complex world.