From the description of John the Baptist that we get from the gospels of Luke and Matthew we can get the impression of a very severe person. John comes out of the desert – wearing a garment of camel hair – he ate wild locusts and wild honey – he was strange. In his preaching John made no bones about it – the people were to shape up, get their act together – repent – John told them they were not living as God would have them live, they had wandered far from will and way of God. John didn’t mince words – he called the religious leader of the day a brood of vipers. It was time they told God they were sorry and show their sorrow by turning their lives around and getting themselves ready for the day of the Lord.
Many people thought John was the Messiah but John denied it. John pointed to someone who was coming after him, a person far greater than himself; in fact he was not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. But this one who was to come after him would set things straight. It sounds like John is saying to the people, ‘ you think I’m rough, wait til he gets here, he won’t fool around’ – his winnowing fork is in his hands to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary – but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
John borrows the example of the winnowing fork from the prophets – every farmer had a large forklike shovel used to throw grain high into the air – the good heavier grain would fall onto the floor and be gathered up and saved, the light chaff which blew aside was swept up and burned. Those who did not listen to John’s and Jesus’ call to change their lives would be like the chaff burned in unquenchable fire.
Can you remember a time when you were a child or especially a teenager and something went wrong during the day and the dire message was – ‘you wait til your father gets home – you’re going to get it.’ And your wait was an anxious wait. In a way that’s was John’s message to those who didn’t answer his demand for repentance. You wait til the one who comes after me gets here – you just wait. It was all so threatening.
Then Jesus comes and begins his own task of calling people to God. He gives what we would call today his ‘mission statement,’ when He was asked to preach in the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus quotes Isaiah to describe what He wants to do; the spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor.’ No hell fire and brimstone here – everything is positive and inviting.
John and Jesus seem to have different concepts of God. John’s God was a judgmental and punishing God Who brooked no nonsense – Jesus’ God was a loving Father with arms outstretched in welcome – John thundered threats while Jesus would not crush the bruised reed. John spoke about sweeping away, Jesus spoke of gathering up, John spoke of banishment, Jesus spoke about inclusion. Jesus saw Himself as the good shepherd Who would lay down His life for His sheep.
Paul echoes the thoughts of Jesus in his encouraging words to the Philippians calling them to rejoice always in the Lord Jesus. They have every reason to rejoice because the Lord is near – Jesus is God with us. Jesus promised He would not leave those who followed Him orphans, He would be with them always, and Jesus invited all those who found life burdensome to come to Him for refreshment. Paul wanted the Philippians to know Jesus is near to them in their struggles to be faithful to Him in the midst of hostility and misunderstanding. They have every reason to rejoice. Paul encourages them not to worry about anything but with great trust in God they were to make their needs known to God praying always with thanksgiving for the many ways God enriched their lives in Christ Jesus. In this frame of mind they would come to know the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.
Maybe we can take these words of Paul to heart ourselves. Whatever troubles, tensions and uncertainties we may be facing right now we can still listen to his call to ‘rejoice’ because we trust in the Christ Who came into our world and lives not to condemn us but to love us and die for us and Who is with us in all the circumstances of our lives – this truth is our reason to rejoice in thanksgiving appreciating the many ways in which our lives are blessed.