I keep circling around and around the part of the Gospel where John is baptizing Christ, honing in on images of creation and deconstruction. According to R.E.O. White at BibleStudyTools.com, ‘the Greek root-word baptizein […] means to plunge, immerse, sink; hence to wash; to be immersed, overwhelmed (in trouble). From Jewish rules of purification concerning ritual uncleanness the word gained a technical religious connotation implying “purification” from all that might exclude from God’s presence.’ In the New Testament, however, old Jewish ways weren’t enough to satisfy God while even John’s baptism could exclude God if a person’s heart was far from Him. Baptism had to become a new thing, which it was: John says that Jesus would come baptising with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Create and Deconstruct
You did this as a child and so will every child of normal development: build structures and break them (or build them and watch in horror as a younger sibling destroys it first). That’s what blocks and Duplo and Lego (and grace) are for. A child watches a tower take shape, then (with an evil laugh) embraces the power of causing that structure to crumble into a pile which can be remade. Creative toys are designed for this cycle and can withstand many episodes of building-destroying-building-destroying, which we explain to our distraught four-year-olds after they have pinched their siblings and yelled ‘mommy! Timmy broke my house!’
God is going to do more than pull the bricks apart. He is going to level everything into one smooth shape. He’ll be like the explosives-expert converting entire mountains to rubble, only there will be flames and blood, and we won’t be miles away when the ‘bang’ reverberates and the ground shakes. There will be no escape because that explosion will happen across the globe, without pretty fireworks or hot apple cider.
John the Prophet
Have you ever read accounts of John the Baptist calling to listeners ‘You brood of Vipers!’ and thought ‘no wonder he was alone in the wilderness’? John’s preaching was explosive, reinforcing thematic links between God’s original creation and our rebirth in His Son. I’ll lay out four themes one at a time before writing in more depth:
2/Deconstruction of the earth
3/Being born again
Old Testament Throwback
I’m not afraid of snakes; in fact, I find them quite lovely. I still jumped backwards when a black adder crossed my path along a Cornish trail, though, even as I admired its diamond-patterned scales. That’s because snakes only look pretty; many of them are dangerous. An adder’s bite can mean serious trouble. In Genesis 1, God creates everything, including mountains and valleys. Once the serpent (deceiver, viper) comes, this is the start of the end; of creation falling apart. Even though we hate to be reminded of him, the word ‘viper’ in Luke 3 recalls the serpent in Genesis 3; the very root of our fall and our longing to be in the Garden again, at perfect peace with our Creator.
Not Your Little Brother’s Tower
What John says as we meet him in Luke 3 has been exclaimed before by Isaiah (40:4)
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low
and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways
God will take his hand and sweep it across the face of the earth. There will be no shadows, caves, or other hiding places; nowhere a person might have said he was concealed when ‘all flesh’ was supposed to see ‘the Salvation of God.’ (Luke 3:6). No one could make the excuse that he was living in darkness and didn’t see Christ return. God will destroy and rebuild His creation into the paradise it was intended to be. Satan’s going to step on some King-sized Lego blocks which, as you know, really hurts.
Cleansed, a New Creation
John announced the arrival of Christ into our barren lives where we are spiritually dead. Baptism symbolizes the end of an old, dead way of living and the start of a new one, justified and alive in Christ, but only when one’s heart is right with God. After God sweeps His hand over our old ways, He will rebuild us.
Those vipers mentioned above were following the crowd, following a trend, hedging their bets. Why did Jesus, the sinless Son of God, even have to go through with baptism? He never sinned; Jesus was no deceiver. He was obedient to the Father.
As with everything he did, Jesus set an example. He healed lepers, paralytics, and the blind, then told his disciples to go heal in his name. He showed tenderness and mercy to sinners and called on followers to be equally tender and loving. He fed thousands of people, demonstrating practical fruitfulness that even self-righteous but hungry people could appreciate. Jesus showed His followers what baptism looks like, taught that the water symbolized starting fresh, walking away from an old life, and called upon John to immerse Him:
‘And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold,
the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved
Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Christ showed the difference between cleansing because it’s trendy and being baptized in order to please God. ‘Baptism’ in this sense was truly a soaking in the Spirit and becoming new. At this point, Christ was anointed to officially start ministry; a new thing which would give new life to Jews and Gentiles. Christ didn’t just restore the seed and bring its fruit to life; He was like an orchardist creating a new strain of fruit entirely.
Gardening for God
So, how does the average person know the difference between really clean and just outwardly shiny? We see a changed person in his or her fruit – the fourth theme. In Genesis 1, God said to Adam and Eve “Be fruitful and multiply” (verse 28). John says “Every tree […] that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9) The symbol of ‘fruit’ is common in both the Old and New Testament, of vines, trees, and gardens; signs that one is a living tree among dead stumps. God loves things that grow, but he doesn’t hold much truck with dead wood. A good gardener will prune, water, fertilize, and protect his fruit tree in order to feed the hungry and provide shade on punishingly hot days (or reprieve from the snow if you’re Canadian). Dead wood is going up in flames, and while Satan stands there with a marshmallow on a stick, Jesus will have turned His perfect back. Again, the two choices are creation and destruction, nothing in between.
We can’t just stand around like baby birds with our mouths open. Jesus shows
us how to rebuild our lives and sustain people who aren’t ready to plant their
own trees yet. Your fruit and my fruit are not always of the same shape, colour,
and flavour, but we are used to having lots to choose from. One of my favourite
activities in autumn is visiting a local apple orchard and sampling slices from
ten types of apples in a single morning before choosing a few pounds of each
one. The variety stuns me: some are tart, others sweet; some are soft, others
crisp; some are pale-fleshed and others pink inside. Our God made us even more
various than autumn apples and He prepares us so our fruit is in season all the
time. Be ready for hungry people to want samples and try not to get too mad
when they dig around your roots looking for Lego.