Sometimes, when I’m driving or riding with Ann on the Route 33 bypass around Lancaster, I think about all that was involved in building that piece of highway. There were hills that had to be blasted through and dug out, low areas to be filled in by dirt and gravel. And all of it was done in order to give us straighter, clearer paths to the places we want to go. We owe a lot to the the road builders who clear the way for us.
Our Gospel lesson for this morning tells us about a road-builder we call John the Baptist. According to Luke, the writer of the book from which our lesson is taken, John fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, written at least five hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Luke cites Isaiah 40:3-5; they make up verses 4-6 of our Gospel lesson. John the Baptist, Luke tells us, is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Long before John was born, God had defined his mission in life. He was to be a road builder who would create a clear pathway for “all flesh” to “see the salvation of God.” John’s job then, was to clear the way for people to see Jesus, the only one Who can save us from death, futility, and sin.
How did John do this? And what does it have to do with us?
Please turn to our Gospel lesson, Luke 3:1-6. Luke writes: “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests...”
When Luke first wrote his gospel account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, there was no single agreed-upon calendar. So, if you were trying to record an orderly account of events, you couldn’t say, “Back in such and such a year...” You said things like, “When So and So was king.” From what Luke tells us with this list of kings and priests, scholars believe that John the Baptist’s ministry began in 28 or 29 AD.
But Luke wants us to know more than just when John the Baptist began his ministry. He wants us to know why John began his ministry. Take a look at Luke 1:52. Mary, the virgin God chose to be the mother of Jesus, tells Elizabeth, then in the sixth month of her pregnancy for John that “[God] has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich He has sent away empty.”
The world kowtows to the Ceasars, the kings, the wealthy, and the powerful, but people who believe in the God revealed to all the world through Jesus Christ know Who’s really in charge.
They know too that God is at work even when most people think that God has disappeared.
Even when despots and superstars are “getting away with murder,” God is still moving the world and all who trust in Him toward a certain destiny, ensuring that at a time both the Old and New Testaments call “the day of the Lord,” all will be made right.
Despots will get their comeuppance and those who trust in the Lord will step into the joy of their inheritance from God.
Now, please go back to our Gospel lesson, starting in the middle of verse 2: “the word of God came to John the son of Zecharias [or, Zechariah] in the wilderness.”
These words are a clear signal of what kind of person John is. You see, a scan of the Old Testament prophets’ books shows us:
- For example, the prophet Hosea’s book begins, “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea the son of Beeri, in the days of...the kings of Judah...”
- Joel’s book starts, “The word of the Lord that came to Joel the son of Pethuel...”
- Even the book of the reluctant prophet Jonah starts out, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai...”
The word the prophets were expected to spread was often a message that people didn't want to hear, but needed to hear if they were going to have right relationships with God.
The lives of the prophets were, as a result, often difficult. Many prophets were killed, just as John the Baptist would be, not because God had abandoned them, but because they were being faithful to the word God gave to them.
And people then, no less than today, didn’t want a God Who told them what to do.
No one should ever want to be a prophet. But if God calls you to be a prophet, you dare not turn your back on God or on the word God has given to you. As Jonah learned when he tried to avoid preaching God’s Word to the people of Nineveh, even when you book a Mediterranean cruise in the opposite direction from where God tells you to go, God will find you and send you where He wants you to go.
For anyone, prophet or ordinary person like you and me, who wants God in their life, surrender to the will of God is the only viable option. That’s why Jesus teaches us to pray that most dangerous of all prayer petitions: “Thy will be done...”
In Luke 3:3, we read, “And [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission [or the forgiveness] of sins.”
Out in the wilderness where God had once spent forty years preparing His people to enter the promised land, John preaches the message that he’s been given by God. It’s simple: “Repent.”
This is how John the Road Builder did his job of creating a pathway by which people could see God’s salvation given in Christ.
Repentance, to this day, remains the only roadway by which we can find salvation from sin and death, the only roadway by which we can have peace with God and peace within ourselves.
The Bible teaches that all of us are born in sin. That’s why God sent Jesus into the world. He took our sin on His own shoulders on the cross. He rose from the dead to tear down the walls of sin and death for us and to allow us to enjoy peace and intimacy with God.
But sin can set people down pathways so far from Jesus that even if they’ve been churchgoers all their lives, they can’t really see Jesus any more.
To see Jesus, the arrogant must be laid low and the lowly must be lifted up.
We need a straight, clear path to the salvation God wants to give to all people through Christ. John pointed people (he points us still today) to the pathway of repentance as the way to salvation through Jesus.
To many people today, repentance is a dirty word. I saw a bumper sticker the other day. It said, “I was born right the first time.” No being born again for the driver of that truck, thank you very much; no acknowledgement of any need of renewal because of the wall of sin between God and us.
For others though, repentance is a great word, a joyful word! That’s because true repentance is made up of two elements. First: It means to be sorry for my sin. Second: It means to trust that when I lay my sins at the foot of Jesus Christ and His cross, He will forgive me and I will be at peace with God. The believer in the God we know in Jesus is filled with the assurance voiced by King David in Psalm 103: “...as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us!”
Imagine two people, each headed for the same destination. One takes a mountain path, following ever upward through switchbacks and hairpin curves, sure that she’s headed in the right direction, only to find herself at the pinnacle of a mountain, nowhere close to where she intended to go.
The other person, with the same destination, descends into a deep valley, slogging around and through swamps and streams, equally certain that he’s going right, only to find himself mired in mud, his destination nowhere in sight.
These two people illustrate the lives of people who have lost their ways in life, far from the God we know in Christ.
The only way off the mountain paths of egomania that lead us away from Christ is through repentance. The egomaniac must say, “You’re right, Lord. I’m not in charge. I’m not God. I’m not entitled. Forgive me and let me be Your child.”
Similarly, the only way off the lowly paths of self-condemnation is through repentance. The lowly person says, “You’re right, Lord. I’ve been expecting too little of my character, I’ve thought too little of myself, and so, given myself a pass for engaging in sin that dehumanizes me. I thought that who I am and what I’ve done I didn’t matter. But You died and rose for me; I know that I matter! Forgive me for denying the truth about myself and lift me up to live as Your child.”
And then the repentant person, lowly or arrogant, trusts Jesus to be as good as His promise to give life, peace, hope, and the power to live with purpose to those who believe in Him.
Romans 8:1 says: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Those who repent--tell God that they are sorry for their sins and trust Christ to forgive them--know what that passage is saying. Though we are sinners who deserve condemnation, Christ sets the repentant free to live as the human beings we were all meant to be!
Chances are that if you’re like other Christians (including me), you follow Jesus well sometimes. But sometimes, you lose your way. You sin and maybe you find, as I find, that the more I sin, the easier it becomes to sin again and the harder it can become to really worship God or to have peace with God, even with ourselves.
This is why repentance is so important. It clears away the blindness of our sin, helping us to see how deadly our sin is. It helps us to see the God we know through Jesus, the love He has for us, and the life He gives to those who turn their backs on sin and follow Him.
It was while repenting that David wrote in the psalms in the Old Testament, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
John the Baptist was a road-builder. But the road to life with God and the second chances of God is open even today to all. We travel the road of repentance when we turn from sin and trust in Christ alone for life. May this be the road we travel each day.
[This was prepared to be shared during the 10:15 worship service at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, today. Thanks to Jim for sharing it with the congregation as I fight the creeping crud!]