Psalm 77:16-20; Numbers 34; Luke 3:1-20

Psalm 77:16-20 This section of the psalm begins with the marvelous image of God saving Israel as they cross the sea, the Egyptians in vain pursuit: “You redeemed with Your arm Your people, / the children of Jacob and Joseph.” (16)  The waters become almost anthropomorphic as God’s arm makes a broad sweeping motion and “The waters saw You, O God, / the waters saw You, they trembled, / the depths themselves shuddered.” (17)

Suddenly the psalmist’s camera backs up and the scene widens from the single sea to the image of God’s dominion over all of creation: “The skies sounded with thunder. Your bolts, too, flew about.” (18).  Then, the image of God driving a celestial chariot, making His presence known through thunder and lightening:  “Your thunder’s sound under the wheel— / lightning lit up the world. /  The earth shuddered and shook.”

What a contrast to the God who was silent for so long.  All creation knows that God is God.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the God of Israel, who leads His people and even the water cannot stand in His way: “In the sea was Your way, / and Your path in the mighty waters, /and Your footsteps left no traces.”

God will lead us through the waters as well.  Like Israel, we must have the corrage to follow Him into the most unexpected places.

Numbers 34: God is now land surveyor, defining to Moses the precise boundaries of the land that Israel is about to conquer.  Once again, God is a God of space and time.  The precision with which the borders are defined indicate a God concerned with the contours of the earth and with the practical realities of the “here and now.”

This is no fairy tale God, wafting vaguely in the heavens.  Nor is God confined to some carved idol somewhere.  As today’s psalm also notes, God is the God over all creation, and as this passage so clearly indicates, He is separate from it.  God is not “in” the land; he is the owner of it and it is His to allocate.

Having defined its boundaries, the next order of business is to appoint the leaders of the 9 1/2 tribes that will actually enter Canaan, for the land is to be divided up among the tribes by lot: “These are the ones whom the LORD charged to share out estates to the Israelites in the land of Canaan.” (34:29)  Note the word “share.” Each tribe is equal before God.

Luke 3:1-20: There is an approximately 18-year gap between the close of chapter 2 and the opening here of chapter 3.  This amount of time, and the shift of focus to John motivates Luke to again rather precisely place these events in both Roman time and place (“the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip rulerof the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,” (3:1) and Jewish time and place: “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,” (2).  (Notice how early Caiaphas is introduced in this gospel.)

Of all the gospel writers, Luke gives us the most detailed portrait of John, focusing especially on what he said, together with the reactions of the crowd.  He claims his authority straight out of Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (4a) and makes it clear that is is the prelude to the main act yet to come: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (4b).  It would seem that the harsher his accusations and demand for repentance, the more popular he became: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (7)

John asks for more than simple repentance, he demands that people change their lives. His message is the same one we hear throughout the Hebrew scriptures: help the poor, treat others fairly. It is not enough to turn around (repent); we must turn around and act. Repentance is not just an intellectual exercise.

I think Luke is showing us, his readers, that what Jesus asks of them (and us)  later in the gospel is not something new and radical.  The prophets have said it already; John has said it already.

John is clearly a mesmerizing, charismatic speaker. So much so that the people think he’s the Messiah and he’s already been in trouble with the law.

But on this issue of messiahship he could not be clearer: “one who is more powerful than I is coming; …He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (16), but then there’s the next verse that is a good deal less comfortable for John’s listeners–and for us: “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.” (17)  

It’s really quite binary, isn’t: the Jesus who is coming is not completely sweetness and light; he is also coming as judge, and as Jesus himself makes clear in the Olivet Discourse, there will be a great separation at the end of history. We’ve been warned–and Jesus warns us again and again.

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