See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; lest I come and strike the land with doom! (Mal 4:5-6)
With these words the Old Testament ends.
The New Testament opens in the desert near the banks of the River Jordan, with John the Baptist, of whom Jesus says, “He is the Elijah who was to come” (Mt 11:14). In John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the Elijah figure who was to come to prepare the hearts of the people for the great coming of the Messiah.
All of this leads us to today’s gospel, in which John the Baptist summons the faithful to repentance so that they will be ready when the Messiah arrives. Those of us who want to be ready also need to go into the wilderness and hear the message of John the Baptist: Prepare the way of the Lord! And though only the Lord can finally get us ready, on our part we must be able to say to the Lord, “I’m ready as I can be.”
Let us look at this gospel in three stages, going into the wilderness with John the Baptist as our teacher:
I. Context – The context of this Gospel is meticulously set forth by Luke: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
What’s going on here? Why all the specifics? It almost seems as if we are reading an ancient Middle Eastern phone book, or a “Who’s Who in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Yes, notice the following:
A. The Prestige – You might say that this is a parade of the prestigious, a roll call of royalty, a list of leaders! There is an emperor (i.e., the federal government), a local governor (i.e., the state government), three tetrarchs (state and local officials), and two religious (and secular) leaders. Anybody who is anybody is in the list. But it was not to any of these glitterati that the Word of God came.
B. The Person – It was to John the Baptist, the simple man in the desert, that the Word came. Who? He was not on anyone’s list! John the who? And where do you say he lives? Not in the palace or even in Jerusalem? Hmmm … And yet recall the following Scripture passages:
But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:27-29).
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure (Luke 10:21).
He hath lifted up the lowly, and the rich he has sent away empty. Yet to this simple, unlettered man, the Word of God came, and many went out to hear him speak the Word of God in wisdom.
C. The Place – Where is the word of God proclaimed? And where is John the Baptist found? And where will Jesus appear? In a palace? In the “Ivy League” town of Jerusalem? No indeed; not in a palace, not in some air-conditioned environment, not in a place of power, but in a place of vulnerability, where one experiences one’s limitations. In the desert, neediness reaches out and grabs you. Yes, it is in a hot desert where the prophet was found.
It is in this hostile climate that we go to hear the call and feel its power. Do you understand the context? It is not be overlooked. The context is not found in the halls of power; it is found in the desert where thirst and hunger hit rich and poor alike. It is here that the Word of God is found and heard.
II. Call – The text says, John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert.
Here we have a basic biblical call, “Repent and believe in the good news!” John said this but so did Jesus in His opening call: After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:14 -15)
There has to be a balance in preaching. Repent and believe the good news! Modern thinking and practice has strayed from this kerygmatic balance between “Repent” and “Believe the good news!” Many today only want to hear or proclaim the “good news.” But the good news only makes sense if we understand that we are in need of a divine physician. “Repent” sets the stage for the “good news.”
As we have discussed in other posts, metanoia means more than moral conversion. It means, more literally, to have your thinking changed (meta = change, noia = thought), to have your mind renewed, to think in a new way. The basic message is to have our mind converted from worldly self-satisfaction and self-righteousness, and to be convicted of our need for forgiveness and for a savior. Yes, I am a sinner in need of a savior. I am bound for eternal death and destruction and cannot save myself. But there is good news: the Savior is here, even at the door! And now I must arise and be ready to answer as soon as He knocks.
Our modern world, concerned more with comfort and relief than with real healing, needs to experience something of the desert where John was. There’s nothing like the desert to remind us of our frailty and neediness. In the Church today we often stress trying to make everyone feel comfortable; no talk of sin or controversial topics that might unsettle someone. Where’s the desert in that? John wasn’t found in some air-conditioned marble palace. He was in the searing desert with no creature comforts to be found. No padded pews, no finely tuned PA system, no air conditioning, and no pleasantries either. Just the call to come to a new mind, to surrender our stinking thinking, our misplaced priorities, our self-righteous “I’m OK, you’re OK. I’m basically a nice person” stuff, and to accept that we are frail sinners in need of a savior.
Now with the “bad news” established, the good news makes sense. And it really is good news: the savior is near at hand, even at the door. But we have to go into the desert and listen to a humble man, not one of the glitterati or the intelligentsia. We have to listen to John, a man clothed in camel hair and subsisting on wild honey and locusts.
He does proclaim good news, but only if we’re ready.
III. Content – I’ve got to repent, but what does that mean? John says, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Notice the elements of the content:
A. Ready – The text says, Prepare the way of the Lord. This is a hectic season; we’re all getting ready for Christmas. But most of this involves social readiness (presents, parties, and decorating). Will we be spiritually ready for Christmas? We know how to get ready for a lot of things. We prepare for tax day. We make sure to be on time for work. We know how to catch a plane. We know how to be on time for a movie or a sporting event. We spend years getting ready for careers. Why don’t we spend more time being ready for God? The one thing that is most certain is that we will die one day and stand before God. Are you ready? As the text says, Prepare the way of the Lord! This world will pass away but the things of God remain. Advancing careers and promotions are not certain, but death and judgment are. Why do we get ready for uncertain, worldly things and yet not take spiritual things all that seriously?
B. Right – The text says, make straight his paths. The winding roads shall be made straight! A winding road is a symbol of shifting priorities, of waywardness, of a heart that is not steadfast or straight. Too often we are all over the moral map; we are inconsistent and crooked. Scripture says,
In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (Prov 3:6).
Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Take heed to the path of your feet, then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil (Prov 4:24-27).
Consider an example. If I am driving from Washington, D.C. to New York City and see a sign that says, “South to Richmond,” I know that to follow such a path would be foolish. We know how to set a course for worldly destinations and how to avoid going the wrong way. But what about our course home to Heaven? We might sing, “I’m on my way to heaven and I’m so glad the world can’t do me no harm.” But then we see an exit marked, “Sin City, Next Exit” And sure enough we take it. Why? Many of us are outraged to hear that we can’t just go whichever way we please and still end up in Heaven. And then comes all the anger directed at the Church, and the Bible, and the preacher, and anyone who might remind us that we have to make straight the ways of the Lord. You can’t go down to go up. You can’t turn left or right and say it’s straight. Thus the text says that we should make straight the way of the Lord.
C. Reverent – The text says, Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The mountain is pride. Every sin is rooted in pride, since it asserts that my way is better than God’s way. I know better than God; I am a modern man and Scripture is old fashioned; the Church is out of touch, etc. This is the mountain of pride and it has to go. God hates pride; He just can’t stand it. There is nothing that excludes us more from Heaven than pride, thinking that we know better than God.
The valley is low self-esteem and despair. Now it may not be obvious, but a lot of sins come from low self-esteem. For example, we gossip and denigrate others because we think that if they are brought low, we will feel better about our own self. We also give way to peer pressure since we can only feel better about our self if we “fit in” and are approved by others. We’ll even sin in order to accomplish that. Some young women fornicate for the price of pizza and beer, selling their bodies for less than a prostitute would; all because they fear that they won’t be loved if they don’t. Young men pressure young women and disrespect them because they think that they must in order to “be a man.” Many young men join gangs—even drop out and commit crimes—all to “belong” and be “cool.” Low self-esteem is an ugly business that leads us to commit lots of sins. These valleys have to be filled in.
The solution to both pride and low self-esteem is fear of the Lord, reverence. The fear of human beings and what they will think is at the root of much sin. That is why the Scriptures admonish us to fear the Lord instead. When I fear the Lord I don’t have to fear anyone else. And when I reverence the Lord, my pride is dissolved. Mountains are made low and valleys are leveled when we have a reverential and loving fear of the Lord.
D. Refined – The text says, the rough ways shall be made smooth. Rough ways are filled with obstacles, stumbling blocks, and pitfalls. What are some of the things that hinder our ways? What are some of our obstacles and pitfalls? Are they relationships, lifestyles, or habits? What are the things that cause me to stumble? Are they habits, excesses, or unlawful pleasures? What are the things that make me rough and difficult to live with? Am I unyielding, unforgiving, unmerciful, or unkind? Am I lax, frivolous, nonspiritual, or unaccountable? What are the rough ways in me and in my path that need smoothing? What trips me up? What in me needs softening and smoothing?
E. Recognizing – The text says, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. The Greek word used is ὁράω (horao). While it is translated as “see,” it involves an active receptivity, more in the sense of looking than merely having something overshadow us or cross our visual path. The danger is that we can close our eyes. Thus we must remain active and receptive. We must look for salvation and redemption; we must seek it. It is a gift, but we must open our eyes and accustom ourselves to its light and to its ways.
It is very much like learning a language. Until we learn the letters, the meaning of the words, and to make sense of the written language, it can look like gibberish. For many today, the ways of faith are just that: gibberish. But for us who believe, having been made ready for God, making straight his paths, reverencing God and rejecting roughness, we are able to recognize our redemption and rejoice at its presence.