Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Way of Life

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church on Sunday, December 6, 2015.]

Luke 13:1-14
Some of our vacations over the years have taken us through mountains in places like West Virginia and Colorado. Whenever we drive through mountains, I think about all that was involved in building the piece of highway we’re on. Mountains and foothills had to be blasted through and dug out, low areas filled in with concrete, dirt, and gravel. Road-builders create straighter, clearer paths to the places we want to go.

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 hundreds of 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 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare 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.’”

Long before John was born, God had defined John’s 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.” 

How did John do this? 

And what does it have to do with us?

This morning, we’re going to focus on just the first six verses of our Gospel lesson. We'll look at Luke 3:1-6. Luke writes: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, ...” 

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. If we were reading Luke straight through, we already would have gotten a hint back in 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 brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”

The world kowtows to the Caesars, 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 terrorists, 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. On that day, despots will get their comeuppance and those who trust in the Lord will step into the joy of their inheritance from God. Rulers will be brought down from their perches of power and the lowly will be lifted up.

Back in verse 2 of our Gospel lesson we’re told that: “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” These words are a clear signal that like Jonah, Hosea, and Joel, to whom God’s Word came in the Old Testament, John the Baptist was to be a prophet, a tough calling.

The word from God that 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 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.

In Luke 3:3, we read, “[John] went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” 

Out in a wilderness like the one where God had 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 us down pathways so far from Jesus that even if we’ve been churchgoers all our lives, regarded as “good people” by the rest of the world, we can get to the point where we 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. A woman sent me an angry email a few years back complaining that in a message I’d shared on a Sunday morning, I’d intimated that all of us in church that day--including me--might have reason to be repentant. She didn’t like that at all. 

Truth is, we all recoil at accepting responsibility for our sinful thoughts and actions. This is why Jesus tells us that to be with Him, we must take up our crosses--that is, admit our sin--and follow Him. We must be honest: We cannot receive Jesus as the One Who saves us from our sins until we can acknowledge that we have sins from which we need to be saved.

For many people 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 confess my sins to God through Jesus, God 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 103:12: “...as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” They know the joy of repentance.

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 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 and selfishness that lead us away from Christ is through repentance. The selfish person 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 path 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 didn’t matter. But You died and rose for me. Because of that 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, whether they started from a position of lowliness or arrogance, 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 now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus...” Let that sink in for a moment. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!

Those who repent--who own and regret 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 you sin or ignore the will of God, the easier it becomes to sin again and the harder it can become to really worship God or to have peace with God or peace with yourself. 

This is why regular, daily 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 Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive 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 are 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.

No comments: