Bible Study for December 3 for Worship December 16

Bible Study for December 3 for Worship December 16

Luke 3:7  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?

8  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.

9  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.”

10  And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?”

11  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.”

12  Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”

13  And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.”

14  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.”

15  As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ,

16  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.

17  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.”

18  So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.

COMMENTARY

In this passage from Luke we begin to gather enough material to begin to compare and contrast John the Baptist and Jesus.  Of course we are relying solely on the early church’s presentation of John, but the John’s message outlined here does seem to fit a prophet who lived in the desert, wore animal skins for clothes and ate wild honey and dried locusts for his diet.  John as one Bible Study Student put it was “intense,” while Jesus was more laid back.

In verses 7 – 9 John appears to focus on the need for repentance.  John viewed his culture as corrupt.  Jews had been adopting gentile ways and ignoring the requirements of the Mosaic Law.  The Temple authorities had long since done away with the concept of the Jubilee, when all debts were canceled and all land returned to the original owners.  Remember the records of land debt were kept in the Temple, and the Sadducees had conspired with the money changers to foreclose on peasant lands.  They were then incorporating ever larger tracts of land into huge estates, where the former owners of the land were reduced to the status of day laborers.

Like the Essenes John objected to the High Priestly families  monopolizing both the Kingship and the High Priesthood.  One of the reasons John was living in the wilderness was to divorce himself from the corruption of Sadducees who were collaborating with the Romans.  Separate yourselves from the ways of the gentiles and your collaborating leaders.  It is no wonder John was finally beheaded.  He kept pointing out the corruption of the Herod’s and the Temple authorities.

John pictures the coming of the Messiah as a time of angry judgment.  “The Messiah is coming and boy is he/she ______.”  “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.”  At least the way most people at United Church read the gospels, God is loving, forgiving, and cares about all people – love rather than punishment.  On the other hand, for much of the history of Christian Faith God has been portrayed as an angry vengeful God committed to the punishment of sinners.

Perhaps the persecution suffered by early Christians inspired them to seek justice and punishment for their persecutors.  At the same time they were supposed to turn the other cheek and forgive their enemies, perhaps they consoled themselves with repressed thoughts of the tortures their tormentors would suffer in hell.

The church also learned to use the threat of a vengeful punishing God to establish control over its adherents.  Obedience to higher spiritual authority became an important tool in the church’s arsenal of control.  Disobey the priest or the bishop and you could be shunned and excommunicated.  And after the church became the official religion of the Empire, if you were excommunicated, you also became a criminal subject to punishment by the state.  No wonder Constantine embraced Christian Faith.

The other major shift in Christian Faith occurred as the church developed atonement theology.  Jesus was the sacrificial lamb who secures our salvation.  The author of the Gospel of John initiated the symbolism behind atonement theology, by changing the chronology of Holy Week, so that Jesus died on the cross at the very moment the lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple.  This is a contradiction of the chronology in the other gospels that claims that the Last Supper was the Passover Meal.  John’s poetic license sent the church down a theological road, where God must extract suffering and death from Jesus in order to forgive our sins.

Clearly Jesus did not teach atonement theology.  The God of Jesus reached out to people of all kinds, sinners especially.  “Your sins are forgiven, your faith has made you whole.”

Jesus did not preach an angry vengeful God.  Life is tough enough without God exacting a pound of flesh.  Also while Jesus went out into the wilderness to get his act together, he didn’t stay in the wilderness.  Instead he went to the towns and villages to take the Good News of the love of God to the people.

We do not know exactly what John the Baptist preached, but when people asked him, “what then shall we do?” (in response to his call for repentance), his suggestions for behavior worthy of repentance seem practical and not particularly burdensome.  “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”  (To soldiers)  “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”  (To Tax Collectors)  “Collect no more than is appointed you.”

Again we are hearing John through the filter of the Roman Jewish historian Josephus and the early church both of whom were trying to curry favor with the Empire.  John may have been far more revolutionary in his preaching.  Although we should note that it was Herod Antipas, not the Romans who executed John.  Again through the mists of time it is hard to hear John’s authentic message.

The gospels go to great pains to maintain that John did not claim to be the Messiah.  “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.”  We should note that even after the death and resurrection of Jesus, followers of John continued to be loyal to John and his message.  Paul traveling in Turkey found a group of followers of John who had been baptized with the baptism of John, but they were not followers of Jesus, nor had they heard of baptism in the name of Jesus.  This was at least 20 -25 years after the resurrection.

John believed that with the Jewish homeland under the occupation of a foreign power, with the leadership of the Jewish people collaborating with the occupying power and profiting from their collaboration, things couldn’t get much worse.  Surely God would intervene.  Hopelessness breeds desperation, and thousands of John’s fellow Jews, including Jesus, were attracted to his message.

LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT

1. How many people does the text describe as coming out to hear John?

2. According to the text did John compliment his listeners for coming out to hear him?

3. Why does John claim his listeners need to be baptized?

4. According to John what qualifies as fruit that “befits repentance?”

5. In the text how many different groups did John address concerning repentance?

6. What did John say about whether or not he was the Christ?

7. In the text who does John predict will come after him?

8. In the text what does John claim will be the agenda of the figure who comes after him?

LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US

1. Do you think the gospels offer us an accurate portrayal of John the Baptist?

2. What do you think attracted Jesus to John?

3. In what ways do you think John and Jesus were similar?

4. I what ways do you think John and Jesus differed from one another?

5. Why do you think the inclusion of Tax Collectors and Soldiers was so important in the passage?

6. Do you think Jesus’ original message included warnings about judgment?

7. What do you think motivated the church to emphasize judgment in its message?

8. Do you think religion can survive without the concept of divine punishment?

9. How do you feel about “atonement theology?”

10. Do you think an angry punishing God is compatible with a spiritual message of non-violence?

Week of December 10 – December 16:  Third Sunday of Advent – Luke 3:7-18 – Look Forward – Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7.

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