Read Luke 3:7–18.

John the Baptist’s blazing sermon of repentance is not the “ABC gospel” of many evangelical churches. John doesn’t want people to simply admit their sin, believe in Jesus, and confess their faith in him. According to the Baptizer, repentance initiates life change. Love the poor! Be honest! Conduct your business with integrity! There’s no tolerance here for religious dabbling. To sign up for John’s baptism was to submit oneself to spiritual and moral cleansing, and according to Luke, these were words of “good news” (v. 18)!

Obedience to God had always been central to Israel’s calling. Their family status was not dependent on their religious performance. Rather, their identity as God’s treasured possession provided the foundation for their vocation of obedience. Through Abraham’s family, God’s people would represent God in the world: his holiness, his mercy, his steadfast love, and his faithfulness. “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” God told Moses before giving the Ten Commandments (Ex. 19:6). But Israel failed that calling, falling into idolatry and being cast from the Promised Land.

Even though God’s people eventually returned to the land, the Roman occupation still signaled exile. So when John spoke of repentance, of return, it brought to mind God’s blessings and their calling—and crowds flocked to hear.

The enthusiastic response to John’s caustic language seems surprising. The Baptizer is no slick televangelist. His sermon text doesn’t soothe with platitudes. It doesn’t peddle moral evasions or play loose with God’s “coming wrath” (Luke 3:7). It says clearly: Each of you is guilty of sin, and sin will be judged. Given our self-esteem culture, we might wonder who would have signed up for this spiritual straight talk. But, as anyone knows, if cancer is eating your lungs, you want it found and cut out. Or, as John the Baptist would say, spiritual health isn’t possible without an ax (v. 9).

There’s love in this warning, compassion in this severity. There’s also hope beyond self-effort. God was sending another Baptizer (v. 16) who would make true repentance possible. “If I am told, over and over, to repent, to change, to orient my life to God, nothing will ever happen,” Fleming Rutledge writes in Advent. “I don’t need to hear exhortations to repent. I need power from outside myself to make me different.” When the Messiah would come, he would baptize his followers by his Spirit—and leave none of them the same.

Jen Pollock Michel is a writer, podcast host, and speaker based in Toronto. She’s the author of four books, including A Habit Called Faith and Surprised by Paradox.

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