How do you handle your mail? On those days when you are overwhelmed by sheer quantity, I’m sure you occasionally take all the junk mail and drop it right in the wastebasket. But how do we know when we have truly received something special and just for us in terms of spiritual messages? How do you sort out your spiritual mail—the fourth class from the registered first-class air mail? How do you know which message is from God and has your name on it?In this passage we just heard from Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist’s message does not sound unlike the one we hear on the street corners in every large city in the land. “This is the Word of the Lord. Repent and believe.” Most of us ignore those people we hear from time to time on the street corners of great cities, while John the Baptist catches our attention. The message is not what is said. The message is wrapped in the personality delivering the message.
John was the message. John had such authority and authenticity that crowds came out to listen. That kind of popular appeal is a rare occurrence in any time and in any nation. Society would seem to encourage mediocrity rather than greatness. Those who excel must be very gifted innately or else be special instruments of God.
Just like the word of the coming Messiah came from an unexpected source, the word of God can be found in places where we least expect it and with whom we least expect it. If the word of God can come from John-roughly clad, honey stuck to his beard, shouting on a river bank-who knows who and what might be next?
In Old Testament times, a monarch travelling in wilderness regions would have a crew of workmen go ahead to make sure the road was clear of debris, obstructions, potholes and other hazards that made the journey difficult. In a spiritual sense, John was calling the people of Israel to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Messiah.
The wilderness isn’t a place of desolation. It’s a place of hope. It’s a promised fresh start. The first step is the baptism of repentance. That baptism releases us from sin, but it requires overturning the world as we know it.John made people uncomfortable.
No one wants to hear that they must change. Maybe John had to preach in the desert because neither Roman rulers nor religious authorities wanted him in court in temple precincts. He would have upset the status quo and challenged the compromises religious leadership had worked out with the secular government. The “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” means that we will be asked to make sacrifices and admit wrong doing. Our society doesn’t like that kind of talk, and neither do religious institutions.
Sometimes we make wrong turns in our spiritual lives. We think we are going in the right direction only to discover it was never God’s will for us to enter that relationship, make that business deal, hire that person-the examples are limitless. God can make our crooked places straight. He can make our mistakes right. It might mean some consequences for those decisions, but He will always allow our actions to work together for good if we repent and seek Him fully to make things right. These lessons can even contribute to greater wisdom in our lives if we learn from our mistakes.
God chose a nobody to prepare the way for Jesus to come amongst us. God chooses people whom the world sees as insignificant through whom to do marvelous things. John the Baptist, Mary the unwed teenager, the shepherds at the very bottom of the economic ladder who serve as the audience for the heavenly choir. God chooses people the world can easily ignore to participate in God’s world-changing, world-saving activity.
John was an unusual attraction for several reasons. First of all, God had been silent for four hundred years in speaking to His people through an authentic prophet. But it was believed that prophecy would rise again when the Messiah was about to come. So, all Israel was waiting for one who might be that authentic prophet. John was such a prophet, and throngs came out to hear this one who might prove to be the harbinger of the Messiah.Further, John was saying hard words, usually an indication of an authentic prophet. Somehow we know that those who speak for God do not offer us easy discipleship or cheap grace. Those things that are costly are ultimately the most worthwhile at any level. The first word of the gospel is repent-a person must turn from sin. Jesus kept warning those who heard Him that discipleship would be difficult; that while foxes had holes, He had no place to sleep.
John came baptizing, and the idea of baptism was new for the Jews. Only the Gentiles, the outsiders who became Jews, were baptized. John was preaching that being born a Jew did not assure a right relationship with God; the Jews must be baptized just like the outsiders. Because of this unusual emphasis he was called John the Baptist.
John’s essential message was simply that we be what we seem to be. If we want to seem godly, then we are to be godly, with no sham. He spelled out what that meant. He addressed himself in specifics to the ethics of the time: soldiers, don’t intimidate and coerce; tax collectors, collect no more than is your due. He spoke of sharing with those in need. But this was not a new ethic. The rabbis had been saying all these things. But John was preaching that those ethics were to be a way of life. The crux of his message was, “God has told us what to do and be. Do it, and don’t pretend to be something you’re not.”
John is calling for a change of heart, soul and mind. He is calling for a radical change of behaviour. John is preaching the coming realm of God, and this kingdom of God is the state of forgiveness, where sin is forgiven and wiped away.
It is crucial to be regular at worship, to pray, to give-to everything that God has given us to do-so we can receive His blessings. But these outward forms mean absolutely nothing unless we have entered into a personal relationship with Jesus. John makes this clear in Luke 3:3 when he says, “Turn back to God and be baptized! Then your sins will be forgiven.”
John’s call for us to prepare the way for the Messiah seems a little rude to us today. For us, our valleys are gentle and rolling, and our mountains are just the right height. There aren’t any crooked places or rough places on the roads we travel-or so we think. What seemed to be an easy road to travel led to a dead end. What looked like the right way to do things was actually a disaster. We are in a spiritual wilderness, and we are lost.
The Good News is that the Word made flesh has found us in the wilderness. The Good Shepherd has left the 99 sheep to search for the one who is lost. He has shown us the error of our ways. He has shown us the crooked and rough roads we have been travelling. He has created a new path for us. We will get off course many times. Sometimes we will have to turn around, but we will need to adjust our course occasionally to make sure we are travelling in the right direction. That’s what it means to repent and prepare during this season of Advent.
Preparing for the coming of God’s realm means washing the lens of our willing self-deceit. It is a disciplined practice of seeing the heart of evil-a practice that needs a community of discernment to remain honest. Preparing the way of the Lord means making a choice. We must decide what we are to focus our lives on. We have to decide what to keep. We have to decide to surrender to God’s control of our lives. Only then can we get our lives in order. We have to choose to confront the temptations in our lives that will lure us away from God.
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2. Larsen, B. & Ogilvie, L.J.: The Preacher’s Commentary Series. Vol. 26: Luke (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.; 1983; pp. 68-76)
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5. Os Hillman, “Recalibrate Route!” Retrieved from http://www.marketplaceleaders.org
6. Jennifer Brownell, “The Someones.” Retrieved from firstname.lastname@example.org
7. Jude Siciliano, OP, “First Impressions, 2nd Sunday of Advent ( C ) December 9, 2018”. Retrieved from http://www.preacherexchange.org
8. Glen L. Monson, “Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, Gospel.” Retrieved from http://crossings.org/text-study/2nd-sunday-in-advent-yr-2-2/?print=print
9. Judith Jones, “Commentary on Luke 3:1-6.” Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentaty_id=2702
10. David Lose, “Commentary on Luke 3:1-6.” Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentaty_id=491
11. The Rev. Dr. John Westerhoff III, “Live Prepared.” Retrieved from http://day1.org/4361-live-prepared.print
12. The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens, “Uncluttering.” Retrieved from http://day1.org/1610-uncluttering.print