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Orville, Wilbur, and John
December 14, 2003
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to Luke chapter 3 and follow along as I read verses 7-18. Hear what the spirit says to us.
7 John said to the crowds 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 worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
9 Even now the ax is lying at 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 crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"
11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"
13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."
14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,
16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and 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 proclaimed the good news to the people.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
If people picked baby names on the basis of historical importance, the world today would be full of Orvilles and Wilburs, but it is not. Still, few people have changed the course of history more than the Wright Brothers of Dayton, Ohio. They were the sons of a minister. Let me insert that tidbit. Their father, Milton Wright, was a bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Orville and Wilbur were one of the few cases in history of double genius in the same family, in the same generation.
One hundred years ago this week, these bicycle-making brothers soared into space with a small, bi-wing airplane. They achieved the astonishing altitude of perhaps 30 feet. That may not seem like much, but, in the process of building their plane, they developed steering techniques that are still used in 21st-century airplanes, spacecraft, submarines, and robots.
On December 17, 1903, Orville took off from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, near Kitty Hawk, and flew the gasoline-powered Wright Flyer for twelve seconds. That same day, Wilbur piloted the plane for 59 seconds, covering a grand total of 852 feet. Thus began the age of aeronautics.
On that day, December 17, 1903, people began think differently. What had been impossible was now possible. Worlds that before December 17 were inaccessible were now accessible. Bill Gates puts it in perspective when he says, “The Wright Brothers created the single greatest cultural force since the invention of writing. The airplane became the first World Wide Web, bringing people, languages, ideas, and values together.”
So December 17, 1903 was a major day in world history because after that day people thought differently. We have had a few such days in our own time. The day Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak jerry-rigged a computer in their garage and the day atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the bay of the Enola Gay come to mind. Both of those days wrought major changes in the way we think. Bill Gates says that the Internet will make a major change in thinking. He calls the children who will never have known a world without the Internet “Generation I,” and postulates that because of their lifelong exposure to computers and cyberspace, they will envision the use of the Internet in a completely different way than it is used now. [see Rachel E. Saury of the University of Virginia, Christian Science Sentinel, April 9, 2001, 4.]
John’s Radical Call
That may well be so, but as Christians we know that the most important world-changing event of all times occurred some 2000 years ago when a baby was born in Bethlehem. So important was that birth that our calendar is based on it, and we are still discussing the meaning and impact of that life today.
There was yet another such day, about 30 years after the birth of Jesus, and it was the day that John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).
John had more to say, of course. “You brood of vipers!” he shouted at the crowd by the River Jordan. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7). He blasts these baptism-seekers, comparing them to a nest of poisonous snakes slithering away from a fiery doom. Like the prophets before him, John speaks of divine judgment and the wrath of God, predicting that an overpowering force from heaven will come to destroy the wicked of the world.
John the Baptist was not what you would call a politically correct person. Perhaps he was not even what you would call a nice person. John was a world-shaker, not a community-maker. Like the Wright Brothers of Dayton, Ohio, he was not interested in doing what everybody else does. Instead, he turned his back on the comforts of community life and went off in an unexpected direction. He powered up his own prophetic flying machine, stunning the people of Palestine with a radical call to repentance.
Let us talk about what repentance is. Repentance is an integral part of faith. In Mark 1:15, Jesus began his public ministry by preaching: “repent, and believe in the good news." The point is there is no faith without repentance and no repentance without faith. When we speak of faith we are talking about faith in Christ who is with is now and always. Christ demands of us a certain way of life. As part of our faith, we repent of anything that is opposed to the way of Christ. The Greek word for “repentance” in the New Testament means literally “a turning of the mind.” Our mind is turned from a self-centered way of living to a Christ-centered way of living.
The motivation for repentance is a sense of sin. This motivation is produced in the Christian by the Holy Spirit. When we believe on Christ, we have the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit fills us with an awareness of how far we are from pleasing God.
A sense of sin is not merely that we have been found out in our sins. We are not just sorry that God has caught us in our sins. Rather we despise the sin itself. We are filled with disgust and horror at what we have done and we are determined not to do it again. Such a realization can come to us only when we see ourselves and our sin in the light of the righteousness of God. When we receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we are convicted of our sins.
This is something of a paradox. It is when we realize the mercy of God in Christ that we are led to repentance. You might think that the opposite would be true. You might think that when we realize that God has forgiven us, we would say, “OK, I do not need to worry about my sins any more.” On the contrary, God’s forgiveness throws such light on our sins that we cannot help but be conscious of what we are, and to repent of what we have done wrong.
So repentance is not a condition of forgiveness; rather we might say that it is part of forgiveness. Christ does not say to us, you must repent and then I will forgive you. That would be works salvation. If your repentance earns forgiveness then you do not need Christ, you can save yourself—by repenting. But that is not the way it works. It is when we realize that we are forgiven in Christ that we repent of our sins, and change the way we have been living.
The point of our lesson today is that real faith and repentance change our lifestyle. There is an old story about two fellows who opened a butcher shop and prospered. Then an evangelist came to town, and one of the butchers received the gospel and was saved. He tried to persuade his partner to accept salvation also, but to no avail. Finally, in frustration, he asked, “Why won’t you accept Jesus, Charlie?” To which Charlie replied, “Listen, Lester, if I get religion, too, who’s going to weigh the meat?”
Charlie has a point. Faith and repentance produce change in the way we do things. We give honest weights and charge honest prices. That is what John means when he thunders, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (v. 8). Turn yourself around and get yourself in line with the righteousness of God.
Now the crowd there by the river Jordan, responds to John and accepts him as a prophet. You might think that strange, since he called them a “brood of vipers,” but apparently most of these people were spiritually sensitive folks who realized that John was pretty much right. That is, they realized that they were sinners. So they say in v10, “What then shall we do?” John gives them specific advice.
In v11, he says, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." In other words, do something to express your love for each other. Share what you have. Take care of each other.
It was a diverse group that was listening to John. We are told in v12 that there were some tax collectors there. The tax collectors were sort of outcasts in that society because they were considered to be collaborators with the Roman occupation government. You might have thought that John would have told them to quit their jobs and starve rather than serve the Romans. But John is practical. When they ask him, "Teacher, what should we do?" he simply says to them collect no more than what people actually owe in taxes. In other words, John says, do your job, but do not take advantage of people.
And there were soldiers there—actual members of the Roman army. We might think we know what John is going to say to these occupiers of his country. But John surprises us. He tells them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." Do your job in an ethical honest manner.
And John tells us that there is a reason why we should live that way and act that way--because God is right here right now. And God’s judgment is upon you right now (vv. 10-14).
Most people believe that one of these days, they are going to face God and be answerable to God for their words thoughts, and deeds. But that is in some far off time, years and years down the road, not right now. John says, it is right now--today. Today is when we face God. Today is when we start living in faith and repentance.
No Historical Salvation
Think how the world would be changed if we took John seriously and actually repented of what is hurtful, harmful and hateful in our lives. Suppose that today we put an end to all the petty, demeaning and belittling stuff in our lives? Suppose that today we start to think and act differently?
The bottom line for John is that I must conform my live to the will of God. I can have a strong spiritual heritage. I can belong to a strong denomination, like the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. I can be proud of the stand that the denomination makes on traditional Christianity and traditional values. I can belong to an old church, like York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. And John says, That does not matter. Verse 8: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’” warns John; “for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” The Jews of that time were inordinately proud that they were descendants of Abraham. John says, so what? He is not denying that Abraham was a great man of God, but he is saying what about you? They were depending upon their righteous religious résumé to save them. They were saying I have a great religious history. I belong to a great church. They saw themselves as privileged, as exempt, as beyond repentance, and yes many so-called Christians have that same attitude.
Sometimes we poke fun at the ancient Chinese for worshipping their ancestors, yet many Christians do much the same, and sometimes it seems that ARPs are especially guilty. I have heard it said often of old time ARP preachers and elders, “They were saints of God.” Well, they may have been, but what about you? What they were does not rub off on you and does not save you.
John says, “Forget Abraham! God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones on the ground. What God wants is for you to bear the fruits of repentance!”
The Real Center of the Universe
This week we will be hearing much about Wilbur and Orville, and about new ideas, new worlds, new possibilities, new territory. But none of this really has much effect on our lives. In the 16th century, Nicolas Copernicus proved that the earth is not the center of the universe or of the solar system. We have known that now some 400 years, but, even today, most people still think and act as if the earth is the center of the universe. At some level in our minds, we know better, but we have never really accepted it. What John does in this passage from Luke is to demand of us a radical new approach to the world that effects all that we say and think and do.
Abraham, John says, is not the center of the universe. Get used to it. Then he introduces the Center of the Universe, the one who “will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 16).
And this is what Advent is about—meeting the Center of the Universe, meeting the Christ. And that meeting changes things, that meeting changes life.
Robert M. Bowman wrote about a strange friendship between the former head of the NAACP and the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. They met debating each other, many years ago. The Klansman taunted the black man and called him names. The black man responded that nothing the Klansman could do would make him hate him. He responded instead with love. Over a period of many years, the Klansman would call the black man and say, “Hello, nigger.” But in 1991, he called and said, “Hello, brother.” He went on to tell his friend that he had left the Klan, had accepted Christ, and was called to preach the gospel, and that his conversion was due to the example of the black man who responded to hatred with love. Today, these two—the former head of the NAACP and the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan—share a pulpit. Together they preach God’s love. [“A call to repentance,” December 20-21, 1997, United Catholic Church Home page, Rmbowman.com/catholic/s971220h.htm.] That is what Christ does. That is the kind of real change Christ makes in a person’s life. That is the kind of change Christ can make in your life.
Jesus the Messiah baptizes us with Spirit and with fire, and invites us to soar with him into a life of repentance and righteousness. With the mighty wind of his spirit, we can rise up to a whole new level of living, one in which we are right with God and with one another. Amen.
Gates, Bill. Wright Brothers Web Site, First-to-fly.com/. Retrieved May 19, 2003.
“The Wright story,” Wright Brothers Web Site, First-to-fly.com/History/. Retrieved May 19, 2003.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/28/04