I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming” Luke 3:16
Using the five “W’s” we can look at what the Gospel might have meant for the people of Jesus’ time and what it might mean for those of us reading it today.
Saint Luke tells us in Chapter 3 Verse 7, “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers!'” Where does this happen? Where do the people go in order to have this robust encounter with John? Out to the River Jordan, John exercises his ministry out on the edge. There were plenty of places where John might have taught, in the Temple courts, in the synagogues, but John chooses to turn his back on the religious institutions. John’s ministry challenges people to come out from the places where things were safe and familiar and listen to what God might be saying to them in a place where there are no other distractions.
Does the place where John exercises his ministry have anything to say to us about where we might go to find the voice of God? Do we prefer to stay in the places that are safe and familiar, or are we prepared to venture out and listen for the voice of God in places where we do not feel so secure, in places where we might feel vulnerable? Are there places where we might go that would be like the people of John’s time going out to the river?
“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John asks those who have come out to him. It is an important question, one that would have made them think, because the answer is that there was probably no single person who told them to go out to the river; no-one has ordered them, no-one has compelled them. The answer to the question “who” is probably the voice within them, the sense that they should go out to listen to John’s words. John recognizes that among some of them, at least, there is a genuine desire for change. He warns them, in Verse 8, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
Who speaks to the people to bring them out to the river? The voice within, the voice we would see as the voice of God speaking to them. Who speaks to us to bring us to worship on a Sunday? It is unlikely we were forced to come, we come because we feel within ourselves that this is something we must do. If we hear God’s voice calling us to come to church, what other ways are there in which we might hear God’s voice?
“What then should we do? asked the crowds in Verse 10. John’s answer to the question is very precise, it leaves no room for them to avoid difficult challenges by pretending that the teaching was unclear. John gives answers to three different groups of people, and the answers are very practical. In Verse 11, he says to the ordinary people, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” In Verse 13, the much despised tax collectors are told, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And, in Verse 14, the soldiers, the representatives of the Roman authorities, are instructed, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” To people who would have been used to the religious leaders arguing this way and that about how they should behave, John’s answer must have come with a clarity that was almost shocking.
“What then should we do?” is a question that we might ask ourselves. Christians are sometimes very good at finding different interpretations of challenges that demand self-sacrifice, good at finding ways to avoid verse of Scripture that ask us to look at our lifestyles in the way that John asked the people in his time. If we thought about it, what might God be asking us to do?
The question “when?” would have been in the minds of those who saw John. When would the Messiah come? Verse 15 says, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” The answer was that he had not yet arrived, but that he would come soon. The people, though, are so caught up with their own expectations, with their own ideas of what the Messiah would be like, perhaps with their own wishes for what the Messiah would do, that, when he does come, they do not recognize him.
If we applied that question, “when?” to ourselves, what answer would we give? Would we have recognized the Messiah when he appeared in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, or would we have waited in the hope that someone else would appear, someone who better fitted our ideas of what the Messiah would be like? “When?” is not just a question about the past, it is a question about the future. We declare in the Creed that we believe Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead, we don’t know when it will happen, but our faith that there will be a “when” make the world and our individual lives into something very different. When we see life from the perspective of eternity, it looks different.
The final “w” is “why”, John explains why he is at the river baptizing those who came to him to repent of what they have done wrong and to declare their wish to begin new lives. In Verses 16, he speaks sternly. “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. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” What would the people have made of John’s explanation? John was a man known for his deep holiness, who could there be who would bring such a baptism? If John spoke in such a way about the man who was coming, what would it mean for those who had come to John?
Why does John exercise his ministry? To prepare the way for one who will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” It is a challenge to us, to see Jesus not just as someone in the pages of Scripture, not just someone about whom we speak in our worship, but as someone who is present in our lives through the presence of the Holy Spirit. John has spoken plainly, do we hear what he is saying to us? Do we know the Spirit is with us, not just when we come to church, but in every moment of our lives?
Where, who, what, when and why: five questions about the ministry of John that should make us think about our own lives as Christians.