John the Baptist prophesies


Baptized with fire, Luke 3: 16

Luke 3:15-20

The people were on tiptoe of expectation, all wondering about John, whether perhaps he was the Messiah. But he spoke out and said to them all, “I baptize you with water; but there is one to come who is mightier than I. I am not fit to unfasten his shoes. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His shovel is ready in his hand, to winnow his threshing-floor and gather the wheat into his granary; but he will burn the chaff on a fire that can never go out.”

In this and in many other ways John made his appeal to the people and announced the good news. But Prince Herod, when he was rebuked by John over the affair of his brother’s wife Herodias and for his other misdeeds, added to them all by shutting John up in prison.

Fire: What did John mean by “fire”?

Thoughts on seeing the whole pictureDonna Ross

John stands in the waters of the Jordan River, but instead of pointing to the flowing waters he evokes images of fire.

What is someone, standing undecided on the river bank, to think of these images? There is the fire of judgment, an image of eternal damnation as widespread in our own time as it was in John’s. There is the fire of engagement, which points us in new directions and empowers us to see in new ways.

If we see only one of these images, we will miss the whole picture.


John uses two contrasting images of fire — the destructive fire of judgment: “He will burn the chaff on a fire that can never go out” (Luke 3:17); and the empowering fire of the Holy Spirit: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (3:16).

In just a few years, Jesus’ disciples would experience the empowering fire of the Spirit. Luke writes in the second volume of his story: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (see Acts 2:1-4)

John the Baptist teaches

“Master, what are we to do?”  Luke 3:12

Luke 3:7-14

Crowds of people came out to be baptized by John, and he said to them: “You vipers’ brood! Who warned you to escape from the coming retribution? Then prove your repentance by the fruit it bears; and do not begin saying to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father.” I tell you that God can make children for Abraham out of these stones here. Already the axe is laid to the roots of the trees; and every tree that fails to produce good fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire.”

The people asked John, “Then what are we to do?” He replied, “The man with two shirts must share with him who has none, and anyone who has food must do the same.” Among those who came to be baptized were tax-gatherers, and they said to him, “Master, what are we to do?” He told them, “Exact no more than the assessment.” Soldiers on service also asked him, “And what of us?” To them he said, “No bullying; no blackmail; make do with your pay!”

Repentance: What is the word in Luke’s original text? *

Thoughts on seeing the whole picture – Donna Ross

The poor, as Jesus will tell his disciples, are with us always (see Mark 14:7). Since the poor are all around us, does Jesus mean we should walk by them without seeing them? Should we make a practice of helping at least one poor person on our way to our own work? Should we try to stop for every poor person? Or should we stop to look, not just at one person or several, but at the whole picture, and commit ourselves to working with others to make adequate space for everyone in our world?

* Repentance:

In Biblical Hebrew, the idea of repentance is represented by two verbs: שוב (shuv, to return) and נחם (nacham, to feel sorrow). In New Testament Greek, the word is μετάνοια (metanoia). Metanoia combines ‘meta’ (beyond, after), with ‘noia’ (to perceive, to think). Metanoia is therefore not just sorrow and a plea for forgiveness; it is primarily a change of consciousness. Only a new way of thinking will lead us into a new way of acting.

John the Baptist preaches


John the Baptist – El Greco, 16th c.

Luke 3: 1-6

In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberias, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, when Herod was prince of Galilee, Herod’s brother Philip prince of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias prince of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And John went all over the Jordan valley proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the prophecies of Isaiah:

A voice crying aloud in the wilderness, “Prepare a way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him. Every ravine shall be filled in, and every mountain and hill leveled; the corners shall be straightened, and the rough ways made smooth; and all people shall see God’s deliverance.” Isaiah 40:3-5

Baptism: Was there baptism before John the Baptist? *

Thoughts on seeing the whole picture Donna Ross

In a time of great social unrest, political turmoil, and desperate poverty alongside extreme wealth – a time not unlike our own time – John the Baptist comes with a renewed vision of life with God and neighbor. But to see that vision, all the obstacles need to be removed.

To clearly see the possibilities of a room, all the old furniture must be cleared away. What small things am I so used to that I can’t see past them to the bigger picture?

* Baptism:

In John the Baptist’s time the Essenes, an ascetic Jewish sect who had retreated to the desert, practiced daily ritual bathing; but ritual bathing was also quite common for ordinary Jews.

Natural lakes and rivers were regarded as the most desirable places for ritual bathing; but a cistern, a fountain, or a ritual bath (a mikveh) was also permitted. Archaeologists have discovered many ancient mikva’ot in Jerusalem – near synagogues and public places, but also in private homes.

The Law required ritual bathing whenever a person became unclean (see Leviticus 15); and by the time of John the Baptist ritual bathing had also become a traditional practice before entering the Jerusalem Temple. In Israel and throughout the Roman Empire, ritual bathing was also the final step for everyone converting to Judaism.

John the Baptist seems to have connected the ancient Jewish practice of ritual cleansing to his own call to baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

By the time of the early church, baptism was required for new Christians – now just as a sign of ritual cleansing, but as a sign of a person’s acceptance of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. (See Acts 8:36)

The first journey to Jerusalem

Jesus and his parents return from the Temple
Rembrandt, 1654

Luke 2:41-52

Now it was the practice of Jesus’ parents to go to Jerusalem every year for the Passover festival; and when he was twelve, they made the pilgrimage as usual.

When the festive season was over and they started for home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem.  His parents did not know of this; but thinking that he was with the party they journeyed on for a whole day, and only then did they begin looking for him among their friends and relatives.  As they could not find him they returned to Jerusalem to look for him; and after three days they found him sitting in the Temple surrounded by the teachers, listening to them and putting questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his intelligence and the answers he gave.

His parents were astonished to see him there, and his mother said to him, “My son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  “What made you search?” he said.  “Did you not know that I was bound to be in my Father’s house?”  But they did not understand what he meant.

Then he went back with them to Nazareth, and continued to be under their authority; his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.

And as Jesus grew up he advanced in wisdom and in divine and human favor.

Pilgrimage: Why did people go on an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem? *

* Pilgrimage

As today’s Muslims hope to journey to Mecca at least once in their lives, so in Jesus’ day all Jews hoped to journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.
All adult male Jews who lived within fifteen miles of Jerusalem were required to attend the Passover at the Temple, and those who lived farther away often made the pilgrimage as well.

A Jewish boy became a man when he was twelve years old, and so at twelve Jesus joined the caravan going to Jerusalem from Nazareth in Galilee.

Memories: Seeing with the eyes of the poor

Learning what it’s like to be poor Donna Ross

When we moved into our Beirut apartment in 1967, we had two babies and an awful lot of cloth diapers to wash. My parents sent us money to buy a washing machine, and we hung the diapers up to dry in our little breezeway. Soon, for very little money, we hired a Lebanese woman who came three mornings a week to clean our little apartment and wash our dusty tile floors. How little I knew about her home life, but what luxury it was to have help!

We didn’t have a car, but neighbors invited us to go on Saturday trips. So the nine of us – four adults, two little girls, and three baby boys – would rattle around the Lebanese coast and mountains in an old Volkswagen bus.

Whether our destination was to the north or the south, every trip out of Beirut led past Palestinian refugee camps. The refugees’ extreme poverty was very clear through the windows of our suddenly-palatial bus: Here were families living in hovels, under corrugated tin roofs if they were lucky; here were families without dry clothing in Lebanon’s heavy rains; here were families receiving their daily food and water from the U.N.; and here were young men growing up in a kind of prison – denied citizenship and therefore denied jobs, they were growing more angry every day.

Years later, when I was in seminary, I discovered that my New Testament professor had spent many years as the pastor of a church in Jerusalem. One night we invited him to our home for a Lebanese supper. We all shared memories of our years spent in the eastern Mediterranean. Watching him eat his meal with great enthusiasm, scraping his lahm mashwi off its skewer and dipping his pita bread into the hummus, we discovered that he spoke fluent Arabic. We asked him where he had learned the language.

“Oh,” he said, “I spent nine months living in a refugee camp on the edge of Beirut.”

Some of us glance out our windows at extreme poverty, then turn our heads away. Some of us see the struggles of the poor, and are moved to try to help. But very few of us are willing to live with the poor, even becoming poor so we can live the lives they live.

Two prophets in the Temple

The Presentation in the Temple
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1342

Luke 2:33-40

Jesus’ mother and father were full of wonder at what was being said about him.  Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “This child is destined to be a sign which people reject; and you too shall be pierced to the heart.  Many in Israel will stand or fall because of him, and thus the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare.”

There was a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was a very old woman, who had lived seven years with her husband after she was first married, and then alone as a widow to the age of eighty-four.  She never left the Temple, but worshiped day and night, fasting and praying.  Coming up at that very moment, she returned thanks to God; and she talked about the child to all who were looking for the liberation of Jerusalem.

Prophet:  Who could be a prophet? *

Thoughts: on being poorDonna Ross

Now Luke brings us another prophet, this time an old woman.

Eighty-four years is a long time to live, even today; in those days, to live so many years was almost a miracle. Yet there would be no birthday celebration for Anna, or for women like her — they were all alone. Without family — without sons — a widow had no income, nothing to live on.

There was no one in Israel less important than a childless widow, despite the constant teaching of the Law from Moses on down through the years. Yet Luke calls Anna a prophet, one who voices the Word of God.

If we pay very close attention to Luke, we will notice that his story includes many women; in fact, almost every story about a man is followed by a story about a woman. Is Luke saying that women have always been as important in Jesus’ story as men?

 * Prophets

In the previous reading, Luke doesn’t call Simeon a prophet, but describes him as “upright and devout… and the Holy Spirit was upon him…. It had been disclosed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit he came into the temple…”  In this reading, Luke uses the word prophet to describe Anna, who is equally upright and devout, who is equally guided by the Holy Spirit.  In this Gospel, the Holy Spirit falls upon men and women equally, and stories about men are balanced by stories about women.

The Song of Simeon

Simeon’s Song of Praise
Aert de Gelder, c. 1700

Luke 2: 25-35

There was at that time in Jerusalem a man called Simeon. This man was upright and devout, one who watched and waited for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been disclosed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary under the Law, Simeon took him in his arms, praised God, and said:

Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.

Holy Spirit:  Isn’t this early for the Spirit’s arrival?  *

Thoughts: on being poorDonna Ross

As Luke’s story has progressed the good news has slowly been revealed: to a minor Temple priest, to a childless woman, to a peasant girl, even to scruffy shepherds out in the muddy fields. Now the good news comes to a very old man.

The Hebrew word anawim means “those who are bowed down”. The anawim were the poor of every sort: the vulnerable, the marginalized, those without any control over their own lives. But over the centuries the word anawim also came to characterize those who knew how to depend on God, who waited for God to fill their emptiness. Mary’s Song pointed to them: “the humble have been lifted high, the hungry have been satisfied with good things” (Luke 1:52), and Jesus’ first Beatitude would also lift them up: “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20).

So while Simeon is so old he seems to be waiting only for death, he has actually been patiently waiting for his own good news. Now, as he holds this baby and his old arms feel his warmth, his old eyes see the arrival of good news.

* The Spirit

For centuries, Christians have been taught that the Holy Spirit first arrived in tongues of fire on Pentecost, forgetting that the first verse of the first chapter of the first book of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 1:1-2) says that “the spirit of God hovered over the waters”.  In fact, Luke’s Gospel begins with the Spirit already at work:  Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth have all felt the Spirit’s power.  Now the Spirit guides Simeon into the Temple, and him who this baby will become.


The purification

Oriental turtle-dove

Luke 2:21-32

Eight days later, the time came to circumcise the baby, and he was given the name Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.

Then, after their purification had been completed in accordance with the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as prescribed in the law of the Lord, “Every first-born male shall be deemed to belong to the Lord”); and also to make the offering as stated in the law of the Lord: “A pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.”

Turtle-dove:  What was the meaning of the turtle-doves? *

Thoughts: on being poorDonna Ross

In Jesus’ time the Law made provision for the poor, but they still felt the weight of their poverty. How Joseph and Mary must have wished they had enough money to purchase a lamb for their special baby!

Yet even if they had money to buy a lamb, that lamb might have been rejected; perfect lambs, more expensive lambs, had to be purchased at the sanctuary: that way God got a perfect sacrifice, and the Temple made a profit.

In our time the laws also make some provision for the poor, but the poor still are made to feel the weight of their poverty, labeled as lazy, and roundly criticized for their lack of planning for their own futures.

 * Turtle-doves

After childbirth, women were excluded from all religious ceremonies until their mandated time had passed (see Leviticus 12).  At the end of that time, the new mother was required to bring a lamb and a young turtle-dove (or pigeon) to the Temple for sacrifice. Since this offering was expensive, poor women could bring two turtle-doves if they could not afford a lamb.  

Good news comes to the shepherds

Adoration of the Shepherds
Albrecht Dürer, c. 1510

Luke 2:8-20

Now in this same district there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch through the night over their flock, when suddenly there stood before them an angel of the Lord, and the splendor of the Lord shone round them.  They were terror-struck, but the angel said, “Do not be afraid; I have good news for you; there is great joy coming to the whole people.  Today in the city of David a deliverer has been born to you — the Lord’s Messiah. And this is your sign: you will find a baby lying all wrapped up, in a manger.”

All at once there was with the angel a great company of the heavenly host, singing the praises of God:

Glory to God in highest heaven,
And on earth peace for those on whom God’s favor rests.

After the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Come, we must go straight to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”  So they went with all speed and found their way to Mary and Joseph; and the baby was lying in the manger.  When they saw him, they recounted what they had been told about this child; and all who heard were astonished at what the shepherds said.  But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered over them.

Meanwhile the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen; it had all happened as they had been told.

Shepherds:  Who were these shepherds? *

Thoughts: on being poorDonna Ross

Once again, Luke tells us that angels appear to announce that God is at work in the world. But once again, the “Christmas story” has become so familiar that we may not have heard its full meaning. How does “news” — any kind of news — get to the poorest people in this world? And what is “good” news for people who are desperately poor?

* Shepherds

* Shepherds, while dear to us from Christmas stories and pageants, had no social standing in ancient Israel.  They were always very poor, and they were also considered “unclean” — not just dirty from caring for sheep, but “unclean” in the ritual sense; because they had neither the time nor the money to purify themselves properly, they were unable to participate in religious ceremonies.

The birth of Jesus

The birth of Jesus
Giotto, c. 1305

Luke 2:1-7

In those days a decree was issued by the Emperor Augustus for a general registration throughout the Roman world.  This was the first registration of its kind; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  For this purpose everyone made his way to his own town; and so Joseph went up to Judaea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to be registered at the city of David, called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary who was betrothed to him.  She was pregnant, and while they were there the time came for her child to be born, and she gave birth to her son, her first-born.  She wrapped him round and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them to stay in the inn.

Registration:  What was the general registration? *

Thoughts: on being poorDonna Ross

Sometimes a story has become so familiar that we don’t see all of its meaning. We may see Mary and Joseph making their long and exhausting journey, and we may see that Bethlehem’s inns were already completely filled with travelers. But we may not see Joseph and Mary’s extreme poverty, or recognize their powerlessness.

Yet we must learn to see what their poverty meant, because in Bethlehem of old – just as in our cities today – there was always room at the inn for those who have enough money and influence.

* Registration

Every 14 years, for taxation and military service, Rome conducted a census throughout the empire.  Copies of Roman census documents have been recovered from archeological sites in Egypt, covering the years from 20 to 270 CE. Following the 14-year pattern, the census Luke reports would have been taken in 8 BCE.