“Salvation According to John” - Sermon by Joe Ellis on Luke 3:1-6 – December 5, 2021
The passage we read this morning took place shortly before Jesus began his public ministry. Imagine yourself being there in this passage. Imagine hearing about a prophet in the wilderness who had received a word from God. You hear about all sorts of people going out to the Jordan River to be baptized. Should you go? Given that Jesus held up John as the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the hoped for answer is, “Yes, I’d go!” So, maybe the more interesting question is ‘Why would you go?’ What would you be hoping for?
What do you think the people who went out to see John were hoping for? I wonder if they were looking for salvation. After all, that is the last line in that quote from Isaiah 40 — “And all people will see God’s salvation.” That might be what the people were looking for — salvation. Isn’t that what we talk about when we use words like repent and be baptized? Aren’t those words about salvation? So — what do you think salvation meant to the people coming to John? After all, they probably didn’t have the same ideas about salvation as we do.
In order to get an idea of the salvation those people were looking for, we need to tweak our imagination a little bit — our closest parallel to what John was doing isn’t quite close enough. When I think of something similar to John’s baptism in the Jordan, I might think of a revival meeting, like the ones that Billy Graham would hold. There are some similarities between Graham’s revivals and what John was doing. Both were about salvation. In both, a group of people came from all over to one place. In both, the people came because they were curious about what would happen, and their curiosity had to do with something religious. In both, they heard some preaching, and as the preaching happened, those listening hear about salvation from God, they hear a call to repentance. In both John’s baptism and a revival meeting, the people listening might feel convicted of sin, they might feel in their heart a deep desire to turn away from sin and turn to God. In both, people might hope for salvation. Yet because Graham was preaching 2000 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and John was just announcing Jesus’ coming — their understanding of salvation would be bound to look pretty different.
For Graham, salvation looked like being rescued from Hell, being rescued from the fate of eternal damnation. For Graham, salvation was the blessed assurance of being with Jesus forever. Salvation was the blessed assurance that your sins had been paid for on the cross. As you listened to Graham describe this salvation, you might have begun to feel your heart stirring with complex of emotions. You might begin to feel true grief over past sins, you might become aware of a sense of urgency and a desire to not find yourself under God’s judgment. You might begin to have a longing to know Jesus and invite him into your heart. As you listen to Graham, you might look around, and maybe tell by the faces of those around you that you are not alone. The Spirit is doing something similar in you all. You are yearning for some way to respond to God’s offer of salvation. That’s when Graham would offer a simple, beautiful invitation — an invitation known as the ‘Altar Call.’ He would say, “Come to Jesus. If you wish to know Jesus, come up out of your seat and come forward. At the front of the arena you will find a minister who can pray with you as you commit your life to Jesus — the minister will invite you to say the Sinner’s Prayer — in which you repent of your sins and believe on Jesus.” If you have ever watched Billy Graham give an Alter Call, it is an incredibly moving experience to see thousands — thousands! — of people get up from their seats and move towards the stage in hope of making a commitment to Jesus.
This sort of event does seem like it might be a very close parallel to what happened 2000 years before — replace Billy Graham with John the Baptist. Replace people in the Middle East with people like our friends and neighbours who don’t know Jesus. Replace the Jordan River with a sports arena. Replace getting wet in the Jordan with responding to the Altar Call. Similarities — but also many differences. Those differences go beyond the fact that Graham knew about Jesus, the cross, and resurrection.
To understand the difference between salvation then and now, let me point out a big difference between John the Baptist and Billy Graham. Billy Graham was the spiritual adviser to every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. Graham was personal friends with Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson. Here is the difference: John the Baptist was not friends with King Herod or Tiberius Caesar. John was beheaded by Herod Antipas. In 1989, the U.S. President Ronald Reagan called America a shining city on a hill — evoking Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden.” The spiritual political rhetoric in the 1980s — suggested that America was the Promised Land. How would that shape Graham’s understanding of salvation?
What does salvation look like when you are already living in the Promised Land? It looks like repentance from personal sins, and salvation from future judgment and a personal relationship with Jesus (all true). But Salvation would have less to do with this world and its rulers, and more to do with personal morality and everlasting life. In contrast, what would salvation look like for someone imprisoned for their beliefs and likely to be killed by the local ruler?
Remember the way that Luke opened this section? “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee…” Luke is framing the political context of Jesus and John’s ministry. In that context, how might you hear the phrase, “All people will see God’s salvation”? What would salvation look like in that context? — a context where Tiberius Caesar was ordering himself to be worshipped as God? A context where the emperor set up rulers like Pontius Pilate to impose the peace of Rome through bloody suppression?
To give you a taste of Pilate’s rule, read Luke 13. You’ll hear a story of Pilate slaughtering a number of Jews while they were offering sacrifices to God. Would your hope for salvation be shaped by that context? How might you hear the offer of Salvation when one of the local kings (King Herod) imprisoned one of your prophets (John) and would later decapitate this prophet for objecting to Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife — a marriage which violated Mosaic law?
If a preacher is talking about salvation, and they already think they’re living in the Promised Land — salvation from God will sound fairly different than from a preacher in a context where the rulers are inflicting violence on the people of God. Salvation sounds different when your people are slaughtered at the whim of those who are in power.
When you think you are already living in the Promised Land, God’s offer of salvation sounds more like hope for the next world and what you can do to get there. When you know you are not living in the Promised Land, when you know that things are grossly messed up in this world — your hope for salvation doesn’t only pertain to what happens after you die — your hope becomes shaped by your yearning for the goodness in this present world. Of God to break into this world, to see God’s salvation transform the land in the here and now. That’s a bit closer to the salvation the people longed for as the people came out to John and why they followed him into the river.
Maybe this story will help make it more clear. You remember the story of the Exodus? When the people were enslaved in Egypt? When the Pharaoh was treating the children of Israel so cruelly. He enslaved them and forced them into back breaking labour. He slaughtered their children. What did salvation look like for those children of Israel? What was the salvation they longed for? They longed that God would lead them out of Egypt, out of slavery. Salvation looked like freedom. Salvation looked like the Exodus in which God led them through the Red Sea, through the desert wilderness, and after many, many years across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. Into a land where they would be free to worship their God — into a land where they would be under His rule and His freedom. That’s a different understanding of salvation.
Yet this salvation didn’t last. The people were no longer faithful to God. Although they were in the Promised Land, they followed other gods. As a result, God expelled them from the land. God put foreign rulers over them. Rulers like the Caesars, and the Pilates and Herods that made life so painful. They took these rulers as a sign of God’s judgment.
So now, imagine yourself in that world and you hear John’s call to repent, that God’s salvation was at hand — and you hear about John leading people through the Jordan. Remember, you grew up hearing, again and again the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. Now John is camped in the desert, the masses are coming out to him to go into the Jordan and come out the other side? What sort of salvation is this?
You would wonder, “Is God doing something new? Is God rescuing us? Is God restoring our inheritance? Restoring us to our land? Is God going to rid this land of the corrupt rulers?” And then you hear John quote at length from Isaiah 40:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness
Prepare the way for the Lord
Make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in
Every mountain and hill made low
The crooked roads shall become straight
the rough ways smooth
And all people will see God’s salvation.”
If you were there, how might you hear this passage? This passage which had been understood by your mothers and fathers, teachers and rabbis as God’s promise that he would lead the people through a New Exodus. That God would one day act as he did when He brought his people up out of Egypt. That God would restore the fortunes of the people of Israel. That one day God’s promised King, the Messiah, would come and rescue the people from the injustice and corruption that had so thoroughly messed up this world. What salvation would you look for with the likes of Caesar and Pilate and Herod and their imposition of peace at the price of blood? What sort of salvation would you yearn for?
Can you see how this salvation takes on a bit of a different shape than we’re used to? Can you feel the yearning of the people for justice? For those hearing John, their hearts’ cry for salvation was about the rescue of God breaking into this present life! Their hearts’ cry for salvation was for God’s salvation to rescue the people and the land.
Today, perhaps we can more easily understand the yearning for this sort of salvation better than we may have a few years ago. This season has been a season of fear. There has been so much fear about the future, fear about sickness; fear about restrictions; fear about getting vaccinated; fear about people being unvaccinated; fear about government officials abusing their power; fear about those criticizing government officials, fear about getting fired and surviving. Sometimes this fear manifests as worry, sometimes this fear manifests as anger, sometimes the fear just manifests as fear. There are still differences, but this salvation is closer in kind to the salvation hoped for by those who surrounded John in the Jordan. Jesus speaks to both hopes of Salvation. The salvation offered by Billy Graham, but also the salvation on offer through John the Baptist.
Today, I am suggesting that we need to remember the salvation that was hoped for by John the Baptist and the prophets who came before him. That God would come and rescue us from the mess we are in. Today I am suggesting that we frame our salvation in light of that hope. The anger that we feel in our bones and the fear that we have in our stomach are a deep yearning for salvation. The sort of all encompassing, deep salvation that is on offer from the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. The sort of salvation that John the Baptist hoped for. The salvation which comes when Heaven comes to Earth. The salvation that comes when the Kingship and the Rule of Christ deposes all rulers and authorities in heaven and on Earth. The salvation that comes with the eradication of all sickness and death. The salvation that comes with the purging of all sin so that brother can love brother, sister can love sister in freedom. This is salvation which comes with the restoration of all that is true, all that is noble, all that is right, all that is pure, all that is lovely, all that is admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. This is the salvation that comes with the coming of our Lord and His Kingdom. This is a salvation for the people.
This season, we have become all too aware of our desire for God’s salvation. Think of the tears we’ve have cried in frustration, in hurt, in anger, in worry. Think of the words we’ve said to each other. Think of the rants we’ve gone off on. Think of the frenzied reading of articles and blogs and podcasts that have consumed so much of our time. Think of the assurances we’ve searched for from each other. Think of all these and more as our collective yearning for God’s salvation. That same sort of salvation was sought by those who came out to the Jordan for John’s baptism.
When we experience fear, anger, and worry, let’s pause and become present to these emotions as a very real desire for God’s salvation — a yearning for His Kingdom to come. That desire for salvation underlies all our worry, all our fear and all our anger. So, let us become present to our desire for salvation, and let us hold steadfast to the reality that this salvation is the surest thing that we have in this world. The salvation of Jesus extends far more widely and deeply than we could possibly imagine. His Kingdom will come. It is unstoppable. This Advent, let us become present to our yearning for His Kingdom to come, this salvation that will come — He is faithful and true.