"Prepare the Way "
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts September 24, 2006
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts
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Last week I began a new preaching series I'm calling: Luke: More Than Just History. For the next several months we'll be focusing on the Gospel of Luke, not only to learn more about who Jesus was, but also to discover how we can know Him more intimately and live more fully as His disciples.
Usually I will go through Luke in more or less the order of the gospel itself. But there will be some exceptions. Today is one of those unusual times. The first two chapters of Luke focus on the birth and early life of Jesus. I'm going to save those texts for Advent and Christmas. After all, it would seem strange to preach on Jesus's birth in October when December is right around the corner. So today we're skipping Luke 1 and 2, and will pick up the story in chapter 3 with John the Baptist.
Scripture Reading: Luke 3:1-17
Our Scripture reading for today is Luke 3, verses 1-17. Listen to God's Word:
1 In 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 ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
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."
Preparing for a Special Visitor
Most of you know that I use the occasion of Vacation Bible School at our church to celebrate my inner child. Along with my compadres in boyishness, Tim Avazian and Emmett Raitt, I get to be all kinds of crazy characters, like Indiana Jones, or a hapless hillbilly lookin' for "the fa-root of the Spirit," or a scary pirate captain.
Twelve years ago I took on one of my most challenging roles. I played the Apostle Peter as if he were Rocky Balboa. That's right, the one of "Yo, Jesus!" fame. My costume was simple that year: gym shorts and a tank top. I entered to the Rocky theme music, running up and down the rows of the Fellowship Hall, where we worshipped back then. It was a hot summer day, and by the time I finished my twenty-minute cameo as Peter AKA Rocky, I was a sweaty mess.
Between services I hid in the former choir room to catch my breath and so as not to gross out folks on the patio who weren't used to seeing their pastor in a drenched tank top. My recovery was interrupted, however a church member named Jack who had been looking for me everywhere. "Hey! I've got a visitor you need to meet," he said with a sense of urgency. "
"I'm not sure that's such a good idea," I replied, "Just look at me."
"Well, true. But you need to meet him anyway," Jack said. So I tagged along behind him.
The visitor I was to meet stood out like a sore thumb because he was way overdressed for our church, especially in the summer. He had on a flashy blazer and tie, with hair perfectly coifed. One look and I immediately recognized this visitor. It was Dr. D. James Kennedy.
I realize that name might not mean much to you, but Dr. Kennedy has been one of our nation's most prominent Christian leaders for the last half century. His website identifies him as "the most listened-to Presbyterian minister in the world today," and I expect this is accurate. Dr. Kennedy, pastor of the 10,000-member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida, ranks just a cut below Billy Graham in worldwide influence. So here I was, facing this immaculately-dressed, dignified leader, wearing my sweaty workout clothes and looking like I had just run ten miles in a sauna.
Dr. Kennedy did visit second service, though I never heard a word from him afterwards. And he never came back to worship here again. I'm afraid I didn't make the best impression.
The problem was, of course, that I was utterly unprepared to welcome such an important visitor that day. If I had known he was coming, I would at least have brought along an extra, dry shirt! And I would have made sure that others in the church were ready to welcome him appropriately. The moral of the story? You've got to be prepared when somebody important comes to visit.
John Prepares the Way of the Lord
That's true, not only for human visitors, but even and especially for divine ones. If God were coming to earth, we sure as anything would want to be prepared to welcome Him properly, wouldn't we?
Interestingly enough, God Himself seems to care about this too. Before He showed up on earth in the person of Jesus, God made sure that His people had the chance to be prepared to greet Him. God's preparation for His visit began centuries earlier as He inspired the prophet Isaiah to say: "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (Isaiah 40:3).
Only months before Jesus came on the scene, a new prophet named John appeared. He took on the role of Isaiah's "one crying out in the wilderness," and the crowds flocked to hear John's stunning message. "The Lord is coming," he said. "We must get ready." What did readiness entail? According to Luke 3:3, John was "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Now that's a sentence that needs to be unpacked, don't you think?
First, Luke says that John was "proclaiming a baptism." He was calling people to be baptized, to undergo symbolic washing in the river Jordan. Jews at that time used ceremonial washings for a variety of purposes, though none was quite like John's. It seems he drew inspiration mainly from the Hebrew prophets who associated washing with repentance and renewal. For example, through Isaiah the Lord had said:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)
John took this a step further, calling people to a literal washing that had far deeper significance.
John's baptism signified "repentance." This meant far more than merely feeling sorry, as we sometimes use the word in English. In Hebrew, to repent is to turn around, to turn away from one's sin and to turn back to God. It is a conscious rejection of evil and a conscious choice to walk in God's ways. Writing in Greek, Luke uses the word metanoia here. Metanoia includes the Hebrew notion of changing one's way of living, but it focuses even more upon the change of mind that goes along with a new lifestyle. Repentance, therefore, is a new way of thinking and living, in which one turns away from sin and turns to God. It's exactly the sort of thing God spoke of through the passage from Isaiah I just read: "Make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good." This is what repentance looks like, a new life flowing from a new heart.
So by exhorting people to be baptized, John was calling for repentance. He was appealing to the Jews to turn from their sin and to turn back to God, with baptism as a sign of what was happening in their hearts. This would result in "the forgiveness of sins." Forgiveness, as you know, isn't saying, "Oh, that's okay. I know you didn't mean it." And it isn't saying, "You're not really responsible for your actions because you are a victim of hard things." Forgiveness, on the contrary, is saying, "What you did was wrong, but I will not hold this against you. I will not let this continue to cause a breach in our relationship." God's forgiveness means that we can, once again, live with Him as our God, and we as His people.
To be sure, the forgiveness proclaimed by John was offered to repentant individuals. Those who entered the waters of the Jordan experienced personal restoration with God. But John's forgiveness was far broader in scope than this. It had to do, not only with individual Jews, but also with the whole Jewish people.
Once again we must return to the Old Testament for insight into the meaning of John's ministry. When Solomon was dedicating the temple, the Lord spoke to him and said,
"I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:12-14)
The connection between divine forgiveness and the restoration of Israel as a nation is found repeatedly in the prophets as well (see, for example, Jeremiah 31:31-34; Daniel 9:15-19).
It's not too hard to figure out why forgiveness was an essential element of Israel's hope in the time of John the Baptist. The Jews were languishing under Roman rule. They longed for God to come and vanquish the Romans and establish His kingdom on earth. Yet if this were to happen, God would first need to forgive His people for their sins, because it was Israel's persistent unfaithfulness to God that got them into such a mess in the first place. Forgiveness, therefore, was a prerequisite to national restoration.
When John proclaimed a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," he was doing much more than offering individual Jews a way to get right with God. He was calling the Jewish people to repentance that would lead through forgiveness to national restoration. He was preparing people for the coming kingdom of God. Even as Israel's path to the Promised Land once passed through the waters of the Red Sea, so the path to the kingdom of God passes through the waters of the Jordan in John's baptism.
John and the Messiah
What I've just said explains why, as Luke notes in verse 15, the people wondered if John might be the Messiah. Their messianic expectations did not involve a locust-eating, hairy-shirt-wearing man dunking people in the Jordan River. Nor were they looking for a religious figure offering personal forgiveness of sins. Rather, first-century Jews expected the Messiah to establish God's kingdom and redeem the Jewish people. They rightly understood John's message to be about far more than individual forgiveness and holiness. In John they saw the dawning of the reign of God, or at least they hoped that's what they were seeing. So it was only natural for them to wonder if John himself might be the Messiah.
His answer to their query left no room for doubt:
"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. 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." (3:16-17)
"I'm not the Messiah," John said in effect, "I'm the one who has come to prepare His way."
In particular, the Messiah will bring a very different kind of baptism, not with water, but with "the Holy Spirit and fire." What does this mean? It's easy to see here a prediction of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, when tongues of fire were seen upon those who were filled with the Spirit. There's no doubt that Luke is offering up a hint of coming events here. But the Messiah's baptism with the Spirit and fire is primarily a metaphor for God's coming judgment, that which includes the burning that destroys and the burning that purifies.
Once more the prophets help us to see what's going on here. Isaiah looked ahead to the day of the messiah when Israel would be greatly blessed. The Lord would wash away Israel's sins and cleanse the nation "by a spirit of burning" (Isaiah 4:4). Then He would be present with His people as "a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night" (4:5). Another prophetic text makes a connection between the coming of the Spirit and fire. Through the prophet Joel the Lord had said,
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. (Joel 2:28-30)
So the Messiah will bring both fire and the Spirit, both judgment and renewal, both destroying and purifying. God's power will set all things aright. This is exactly what happened in Jesus of Nazareth, though in ways so unexpected that even John the Baptist wasn't sure what to think of Jesus. But we'll have to save this story for another day.
John the Baptist was sent to prepare the people for God's coming in Jesus the Messiah. Many were prepared, and eagerly followed Jesus. Many others, especially those who had the most to lose if a new king showed up, rejected both John and Jesus.
Prepared for a Fresh Encounter with Jesus the Messiah
As I've reflected on the story of John this week, I've been wondering how God prepares us to receive Jesus, or, if we've known Him for a while, to have a fresh encounter with Him. We who have been Christians for a while, sadly enough, often become rather complacent about Jesus and His call upon our lives. Though He remains our Lord and Savior, we often need to meet Him as if for the first time. How does God prepare us to meet Jesus?
As far as I know, God hasn't sent any new John the Baptists, but sometimes God does use people to awaken our desire to know Jesus better. These people can be official preachers. I hope and pray that God uses me to ignite Your passion to meet Jesus afresh. But often those who inspire us aren't the ones who preach with their words so much as those who preach with their lives. Have you ever known someone whose relationship with Christ stirs up in You a desire to know Him more deeply? Or have you ever been with somebody whose discipleship inspires You to follow Jesus more consistently? I can say a big "yes" to both of those questions.
Another way God prepares us for a deeper relationship with Jesus is, ironically enough, through the imposter "Jesuses" I spoke about last week. Let me give the most obvious recent example. The Jesus of The Da Vinci Code was one of these imposters, a king who came to establish a literal earthly kingdom through his royal bloodline. Unfortunately, a whole bunch of people actually believed this drivel about Jesus, even though it came packaged in a far-fetched novel. That's the bad news. But the good news is that millions of people, troubled by what they saw in The Da Vinci Code, made an effort to learn more about the real Jesus. I expect that some of you here today know more about the gospels and their message because The Da Vinci Code impelled you to do your homework. For others, that which challenged you to know Jesus better might have been a religious course or a disturbing conversation with a friend. The good news is that God has a way of taking things that are bad and using them for good.
This is also true when it comes to the hardest things in life. God can use the painful circumstances of our lives - better, God ordains the circumstances of our lives - to give us a yearning to meet Jesus afresh. Often, in fact, the most difficult things in life are those God uses to turn our hearts back to Him. I know many of you can relate to what I'm saying. You were cruising along just fine in life, with everything going your way. God played a minor role in your personal drama, but nothing major. Then something terrible happened: you didn't get the job you had spent years preparing to get, or you didn't get into the college you planned to attend, or you were diagnosed with cancer, or your spouse asked for a divorce, or a loved one died, or . . . . You can fill in the blanks with your own sad story. Yet God used the dreadful thing in your life to open up your heart to Him. You realized you needed God in your drama, not as a minor player, but as your director. You prayed as never before. You got connected to Christian community in a new way. Now, as you look back on what happened in your life, you can see how God was graciously using the hard things to prepare You to know Jesus in a new and deeper way.
I want to wrap up this sermon with some simple questions for you:
• How is God preparing you for a life-changing encounter with Jesus?
• Perhaps you don't know Jesus in a personal way. Is God drawing You by His mercy so that You might meet Jesus as your Lord and Savior?
• Perhaps you know Jesus already, but Your relationship with Him has become stale and predictable. How is God drawing You to Jesus? Where is God stirring in Your heart? How is God at work in the circumstances of Your life to get You ready to meet Jesus as if for the first time?
Even as God once sent John to prepare His people for Jesus, so God wants to prepare us today. My friends, pay attention to what God is saying to you and doing in Your life. And then, be ready to meet Jesus!