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, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness; and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “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 brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” He said therefore to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, 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 to Abraham. 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.” And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but He who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, to clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.
Luke 3:1-18 (Gospel on the Forefeast of Theophany, January 5)
Today’s Gospel passage can best be summarized as a call to action. It begins by giving the historical setting of the ministry of John the Baptist, which will culminate in the Baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan. The Evangelist deliberately mentions the Roman rules of the day, so that people for all time know that the Bible isn’t just some fancy tale but that Jesus walked the earth at a specific time in history, at a time of historical figures that are not disputed. In fact, the ministry of Jesus, up to His crucifixion, are not in question. It is the Incarnation and Virgin-birth, as well as the Resurrection, that we as Christians accept on faith, that skeptics do not believe.
The rest of the passage is about the preaching of John the Baptist. He quotes Isaiah the Prophet in verses 4-6. I imagine John speaking with a loud and deep voice, filled with conviction: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” I hear this message not only for John’s time but for our time. The power of Christ can change lives, it can fill valleys, it can straighten out what is crooked, and every human being has access to see the salvation of God, if they choose to.
In his preaching, John took on the Jewish establishment, calling them a “brood of vipers,” (v. 7) and imploring all to “bear fruits that befit repentance.” (v. 8) He told them that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (v. 9) This piqued the interest of the multitudes, who either had a fear of God (they didn’t want to be thrown into the fire), or a genuine desire to grow towards him (to bear good fruit), and people asked John what they should do, how they should live. In verses 11-14, John tells those who have two coats to share with those who have none, as well as to share food. He told the tax collectors to be fair in assessing taxes on people. He told soldiers to be content with their wages and not to rob people or speak ill of others. These are good pieces of advice for us today—to share of what we have, and to be fair in how we treat others, how we charge others, and how we serve others.
John was careful, as we should be, to give glory to Christ. He attributed anything good that he was saying to Christ. Likewise, we should be quick to give glory to God, and focus on loving others, and treating others fairly, rather than in accumulating accolades for what we do.
Many who read verse 18, comment on “what’s the good news”? Verse 17 doesn’t appear to have good news—“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” This is good news for the “wheat”, but bad news for the “chaff.” For those who don’t know what “chaff” is, it is the dry husk that surrounds the grain of wheat. It cannot be digested by human being, but can be given to livestock. When wheat is used to make bread (or other things), the chaff is taken away and discarded in a process called “winnowing”. The message in verses 17:18 is that we want to grow in our hearts what is good, and separate out that which is bad, so that when the Lord comes to judge each of us, He will see lives that represent “wheat” and not lives that represent “chaff.” Wheat makes bread, which is the most basic food of the human race, and also used in Holy Communion. Chaff is a useless waste product. The Lord expects us to be able to do the most basic thing—to love Him and to love one another. To hate is to be wasteful like chaff. So, focus on the basics—share, be fair, treat others with love and kindness, and you are well on your way to being wheat.
At Your epiphany at River Jordan, O Christ, when by the Forerunner, O Savior, You were baptized, the voice from heaven testified that You are the beloved Son. Therefore You were shown to be with the Father beginningless, and the Holy Spirit came down as a dove and alighted on You. In Him we are illumined and cry out, Glory to God in Trinity. (First Kathisma of the Feast of Theophany, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Christianity is a call to action, not passivity. Be fair, share, show love and kindness. These are actions that should be every day habits. Make sure you do them today!