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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“John answered them all, ‘I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’” (Luke 3:16)
Despite what many of us learned in grade school, Paul Revere didn’t really go on a solo ride shouting, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” on the evening of April 18, 1775.
Revere was one of three primary riders – who were ultimately joined by as many as 20 others – who galloped through the countryside of colonial Massachusetts warning patriots that the King’s army was on the move. Even though the silversmith wasn’t able to finish his 10-mile route – British troops arrested him and confiscated his horse – his mission proved to be a success: A small cadre of Americans was ready to resist the redcoats the next day at Lexington Green, where someone would fire “the shot heard ‘round the world.”
Eyewitness accounts (including Revere’s own journal) make it clear that his message that night was, “The Regulars are coming out!” The vast majority of the residents whose homes he alerted, after all, thought of themselves as citizens of the crown. So it wouldn’t have made much sense to declare that the British were coming.
So who put the words “The British are coming!” into Paul Revere’s mouth?
That would be Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose 1861 poem Paul Revere’s Ride – published 30 years after the patriot’s death – exhibits considerable artistic license. Longfellow came to the conclusion that, “The Regulars are coming out!” wasn’t sufficiently poetic. So he changed it. Here are his memorable opening lines:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year
Did the real-life Paul Revere alert the sleepy countryside that something incredibly important was happening? Absolutely.
That’s why Bible scholar Dale Bruner suggests that John the Baptist might be considered the Paul Revere of the New Testament. He alerts the spiritually sleepy nation of Israel that, “The kingdom is coming! The kingdom is coming!”
The Baptist’s ministry kicks off all four gospel accounts of the life of Jesus – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We can’t experience Jesus, in other words, unless we go through his Advance Man. And as Bruner points out, we won’t accurately hear the Good News of Jesus – his description of the true nature of God’s reign on Earth – until we first hear from John.
Or we can put it this way: We won’t really “get” Jesus’ message of grace unless we take in John’s reminders of God’s law.
If you ever have the chance to invite any Bible character to a cookout, you might want to pass on John. He is the New Testament’s original “wild and crazy guy” – a camel-skin-wearing, locust-eating, speakers-on-high-volume Voice of Godly Conscience.
John preaches with urgency. Act now, before it’s too late. The kingdom is sneaking up on you, so turn around and face it. Rethink your whole life in light of this new opportunity.
John is the prophetic voice “howling in the wilderness” predicted by Isaiah. Bruner asks, “Why do people speak loudly?” We speak loudly when people are distant, deaf, or angry. “And the human race is all three.”
John holds the entire nation of Israel accountable. Before we hear the Good News, we need to know why it’s such good news. Unless we have some serious self-awareness of our own sickness, we won’t seek the Physician. Bruner observes, “A coming of the kingdom without judgment for evildoers does not exist except in the minds of the sentimental…. The wrath of God is not the irritability of God. It is the love of God in friction with injustice.”
God, in other words, is going to deal with injustice. He’s going to set things right.
That’s right, Lord. We’re with you all the way. Take down all those wretched people living such wretched lives.
To which God replies, through John, “I’m glad you grasp the plan. So let’s begin with you.” In straightening what is bent and repairing what is broken, God begins with his own people.
That’s the gist of Luke 3:16. John declares that he’s been sent to baptize. Since baptism is never mentioned in the Old Testament, it’s worth noting how this practice arrived on the scene. During the 400-plus years of the so-called Intertestamental Period, Jews had begun to welcome pagan converts. How could a non-Jew (who might previously have been dismissed as a “filthy Gentile pig”) ever become part of God’s sacred community? After months and years of preparation – which included studying the Torah and adopting the special dietary restrictions, festivals, and purity codes of Jewish life – converts were ritually washed. They were plunged into water to be cleansed of their old life, rising into a new kind of existence.
Now we can see the subversive nature of John the Baptist’s preaching. He is saying to his fellow Jews, “You’re so far away from God that you’re like pagans who need to start from zero. You yourselves need to be baptized!” It’s not just outsiders who need to rethink their lives, but spiritual insiders, too.
For many of his listeners, the idea that “I need to be baptized” must have been shocking. Insulting. First century Jews took comfort in the truth that as the children of Israel, they were the inheritors of God’s great promises to Abraham. But John is having none of it. He insists that even the chosen people need to make a dramatic re-entry into God’s family.
The gospel writers tell us that John becomes a national sensation. Crowds are drawn to him like iron filings to a magnet. It’s clear that people are desperate for a do-over.
The revolution of God’s reign on Earth is beginning. But John is just the forerunner. John is Paul Revere.
The Messiah is coming, the Messiah is coming.
“And he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” says John.
Which is where we’ll pick things up tomorrow, in Matthew 3:16.
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