Scriptures: Luke 1: 68-80; Luke 3:1-6
Preparing the Way
We have, in the beginning of this time of celebration, an announcer – a herald, an emcee, if you will. My wife just had a concert Friday night, at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, and at the beginning the director of the center came out, and he introduced what they were going to be doing, as well as telling people, “Please turn off your cell phones,” so that there would be no interruptions, and to not get up and go out while the orchestra and choir were performing. He was guiding the audience in how to listen and gain more from the event that was going to occur.
In a similar manner, as noted by the liturgist, before a king came, there would be a herald who went before him. He would announce that the king was coming. They would often do roadwork before the king came, as preparation. Somehow, even with the Roman legions, I doubt it was ever complete before the king actually came in. But there was the attempt made.
And the people would be gathered along the roadside. After all, if you have the king coming, you have to have a parade. You have to have a proper reception with people clapping their hands and cheering for the king. They even made fun of that in the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. You remember that children's story, where the emperor feels that he's putting on the finest of clothing, but it's all a lie, and he's basically walking around naked? Most of the people are clapping and cheering as he makes his parade down the road.
There was no naked king here. But there was a herald, the son of Zechariah, who gave praise to God, praise for the salvation that was to come through this king. The mercy that he was going to show, the oath he swore to the father Abraham – all of this would be fulfilled in this coming king. And it notes that when this king comes, he would be preceded by Zechariah's child.
He says, “and you, my child” – he's talking to his own son – “will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
That's a pretty tall order. But the Holy Spirit prophesied, and the Holy Spirit made sure that it happened. It notes that “the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.”
From elsewhere, we know that he was a Nazarite. That's somebody who didn't drink fermented drinks, somebody who didn't usually cut his hair. Normally these kinds of things were only done for about a month at a time. Samson the judge was one of the famous exceptions to that, and apparently John the Baptizer was as well. It says that he dressed in a camel-hair tunic, with a belt of rope, and he ate locusts and honey for his meals.
I have to admit, you get your protein and you get your carbs, between the locusts and honey, but that is not something that I would be interested in. My dad, when he was in Thailand, said they had things like candied grasshoppers. I just saw a shudder from one of you – yes, that's how I feel. All I can think of is what happens if it spits tobacco out while you're eating it? Anyway, apparently he had a crunchy diet.
He lived by himself, in the desert – well, he wasn't really by himself, because he had the Holy Spirit with him – until the time had come. We don't know when John went into the desert, what age he was. I would imagine he was probably about thirteen or fourteen, at least. He would have grown up in his household and had some training as a priest.
He certainly knew the Scriptures, though he had a lot of years to study them. They weren't easily available, because they didn't have mass manufacturing like we do [holds up a Bible]. They had scrolls, and each scroll didn't even cover a whole book. They were parts of books. Maybe he had some sort of “library exchange program” going on – we don't know.
We do know that he was not well-known despite his father, and all of the prophecies that surrounded him, until he comes out, at about thirty years old himself (remember, he's about six months older than Jesus, so if Jesus started his ministry at thirty years old, that means that John was about thirty years old, or just over). When he comes, he does as he was prophesied by Zechariah, and gives a message about the king who is coming.
His message was one of repentance. In fact, he told people that they needed personal repentance and that they needs a baptism of repentance. He would lead crowds in the thousands to the Jordan River, and they would come in – if they had repented of their sins – and as a symbol of that, he would baptize them.
Now whether it was immersion or splashing water over the head, we don't know. Movies like to do the over-the-head kind of thing. Mark says that Jesus came up out of the water, so a lot of people use that as proof that we're supposed to be dunked. Personally, I'm a typical Presbyterian. What matters is that the water is applied on the top of the head. How it gets there is not as important. So people were baptized as a symbol of being washed clean of their sin.
So John was telling these people:
the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’
He was not talking about physically preparing roads. It was obvious to the people, and should be obvious to us, that he was talking in a spiritual manner. The people were being warned to be ready. The people were being warned – not that it would gain them salvation, but that there had to be a way open into their heart, for repentance to occur. If they had hard hearts, they wouldn't repent, and if they didn't repent, they weren't ready for the king. That was part of the making paths straight for him – filling in the valleys, making the mountains and hills low, so it was smooth.
Jesus himself spoke about that path to our hearts, I believe, in the parable of the sower. If you remember, he talked about a farmer throwing seed out on the ground, and the seed hit four kinds of soil, which Jesus later tells us is four kinds of hearts, or spirits, and the seed was the word of God.
Sometimes the seed would hit a hard path, that had been beaten down solid, and the seeds would just bounce off and get eaten by the birds before it could take root. The seed bounced. The hearts were too hard. They didn't want to hear it, that truth of the need for repentance and salvation.
The second type of soil was the rocky soil, folks that had undergone trials, folks that had undergone pain and suffering and emotion. Perhaps they'd been hurt as a child in the church. Or like a friend of mine, Ricardo, who walked away from God for years, because his fiancée when he was nineteen was an innocent bystander who got caught in the crossfire in a gang shootout. Ricardo felt that if there were a God and He was good, that never would have happened. That's what he struggled with.
So the soil there is rocky, and while the word takes root, it's very shallow. It's an emotional kind of thing. We don't do it too often here in the Presbyterian church, but there are churches that have altar calls every week. Or they have you pray the sinner's prayer right there where you're sitting. In the emotion of the moment, people get swept up and they go forward. But then when they think about it, it just doesn't make sense.
The third kind of soil was thorny soil. The seed took root, but then the cares of the world, the pleasures of the world, the riches of the world – stuff! – it says, choked off the plant. Those of us who have seen farming know that it used to be (I don't think they need this anymore, except on organic farms) that you did not uses herbicides, so you had weeds growing right up with your crop. And weeds are great at choking off other plants.
So the faith of these people is sickly at best. It might be the kind of person who even comes to church and just sits in the pew, doesn't really participate in worship, doesn't participate in the ministries of the church, just kind of comes and talks with their friends, sings the songs, maybe brings their kids to Sunday School or drops them off. We used to call them “pew-warmers.” (Although, since we have cushions on our pews, you'd think we'd have more people.)
The fourth kind, of course, is the good soil, where the seed took deep root, and was healthy and nurtured and grew up, and gave fruit, thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or a hundredfold. These are the people whose hearts were ready, who had prepared and opened the way to their heart, so that the word struck in deep, put in deep roots, and began to flower and show fruit – spreading the word to others, bring more seed out.
This is the preparation that John is talking about. This is the preparation for the coming king. Not that we would be perfect, as the liturgist noted, but that we would be working toward it. The king came, and did his thing, and achieved forgiveness and salvation for us. But the work is not done. Because, you see, like John the Baptizer, we too are to be heralds of Christ.
Our message is a little different, because the king has already come. But we still need to tell the world to prepare, and we are to be prepared as well. We are to be ready. That prophecy given by Zechariah to John the Baptizer applies to us. We're to teach others the path of peace. We're to help them through the shadows of darkness – it speaks of “the shadow of death and those living in darkness.” We're to shine a light on it. Some people like to use the metaphor of a lighthouse, a guiding light that helps people to come to Christ.
This has certain obligations. You need to speak the truth. Again, next week we'll get more into that, as we go through John's message itself. And it gets him in trouble, particularly with the secular tetrarchs, particularly Herod and Philip. Sometimes when we tell the truth, people don't like to hear it. They, too, cause trouble for us. Now we're fortunate that I don't think any of us is going to have our head cut off like John the Baptizer did. But we have other struggles, other pains, as we herald Christ's coming again.
We need to be faithful. It's not an easy task. We might not eat locusts and honey. Instead, we need to eat the Word of God, and chew on it, take it in, meditate on it, so that we might be able to be accurate in our giving of the message of salvation. We need to be strong, and ready, at a moment's notice, to step in and help them with that baptism of repentance.
We're going to be taking Communion in a couple of minutes. Communion is there to help strengthen us in that job of heralding Christ the king. Communion is there to remind us of how what John prophesied was fulfilled, and then how the torch was passed on to us, through the apostles, who were the disciples of Jesus. The Communion will help us to remember the love of God expressed in the incarnation – so that we knew what God looked like, his subsequent death for our sins, and his resurrection for our salvation and new life. May this time that we take be a time that strengthens you, so that you too may give the word of the Lord.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.