Prepare the way

Good morning, Friends!

I hope you’re all well this week. It’s good to see you! I appreciate everyone who makes the effort to come to worship. I know it’s not easy for everyone. I hope that we’ll all be blessed for being here today.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent – the season we prepare for the coming of Jesus to be here in this world. Christmas isn’t a holiday of long ago. Christmas is the holiday of Emmanuel – God with us.

Every year during Advent, we spend one Sunday remembering the person who predicted what was coming – the herald, the announcer, John the Baptist.

John was the one who said, “We interrupt this program to let all our listeners know that from this moment, things will never be the same! Whatever you all thought was happening today, it’s different! Things will never go back to business as usual, because a Savior is here! Joy to the world – Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!”

Actually, John the Baptist said a lot more than that. So let’s all lean forward and turn up the dial, and hear what he actually did say.

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

Matthew 3:1-6

John the Baptist is an important person in the story of Christmas. John was Jesus’ cousin, and he was the prophet who prepared the way for Jesus. We don’t know very much about John’s personal background. He appears suddenly, without warning, in the wilderness, proclaiming this message, and thousands of people came to hear him.

John the Baptist is kind of a wild man. He lives outside of civilization, out in the deserts and wild places. He’s like one of the wild Old Testament prophets, and he’s got his own sources of information about what God is doing in society.

John feels sort of like a hermit or a monk. You get the feeling that John’s spiritual roots go way back, that he’s spent years in prayer and searching.

What we read in today’s Scripture is just the most recent part of John’s life. For years, John has lived a life of prayer in the desert and the wilderness. Maybe he’s had a few followers, a few disciples who come to learn from him. But now, suddenly, John bursts onto the scene, like an explosion. John is the opening act of the divine drama of Jesus’ life and ministry.

It says that John was dressed in clothes made of camel’s hair, which would not have like a nice camel hair coat today. Camel’s hair back then would have been rough and coarse, the kind of clothing worn by a shepherd or a hermit. It was also the type of clothing worn by the prophets in days of old, people like Elisha and Elijah. It was almost like a uniform or a badge of office.

It says John ate locusts and wild honey, which sounds kind of icky to us. What it’s really saying is that John lived off the land. He was outside of civilization, on the border of society. He depended on wild food, which is another way of saying that he depended completely on God, just the way people depended on God in the desert during the long years of the Exodus.

Honey is saying that John not only lived off what God provided in the wilderness, but that it was sweet. God doesn’t just provide bitter food or unpleasant food. The sweetness was like manna in the desert, which was also described as being sweet, like honey. When Jesus himself lived in the wilderness, Jesus said, “We don’t just live on bread – we live every day on the word of God.”

So, John the Baptist has some serious Old Testament roots. He’s a hermit. He’s a prophet. He’s a person of prayer, and he’s kind of a wild man.

People were interested in John, because there hadn’t been any prophet for more than 400 years. Terrible things had happened during that time period – war, revolution, violence, corruption, famine and lawlessness. 400 years of it.

People were broken. God hadn’t spoken to them for eight or ten generations. People said, “There is no voice, nor anyone who answers. God isn’t here no more.” It was a time of spiritual desolation, almost as barren as a desert.

And then John comes bursting into the picture. He said, “I am not the Messiah! I am not the prophet Elijah! But I have a message for you, direct from God. I’m that voice crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord! Make the Lord’s pathways straight!”

John’s message was a complete contrast to what religion had become. People had become focused on finicky details and petty prohibitions, which is what religious leaders told them God wanted. Religion was about genealogy and memorization. It was about endless rules, and if you broke a rule, even a teensy-weensy rule, then God was going to be really mad at you.

John dumped all that. He said, “It doesn’t matter who you’re descended from. I don’t care if your great-great-grandfather was Abraham. What matters is the fruit you bear in your daily lives!”

The big word we associate with John the Baptist is the word, REPENT. To repent doesn’t mean to feel sorry, or to feel bad. Somebody from our Wednesday night Bible study tell me what it means? To repent literally means to turn yourself around.

“You’re going the wrong way,” said John. “You’re heading straight for death, just like our whole society. Hit the brakes! Turn the wheel! Turn back! It’s time to do a 180 degree turn around!”

“Turn away from power, from violence,” John said. “Turn away from grubbing for money all your life. Turn away from a twisted generation that corrupts everything. Turn toward life, toward wholeness. Turn away from all the phoney so-called saviors. Turn toward God instead! Your leaders are leading you straight to death. Do whatever you have to do, but change the direction you’re heading, fast!”

John said that everyone needed to change – soldiers, tax collectors, religious leaders, ordinary people. And people came by hundreds, maybe by thousands. People publicly admitted that their lives were going in the wrong direction, and John dunked them in the River Jordan.

It’s not that the Jordan was specially clean and clear. It wasn’t. It’s actually kind of muddy. But the Jordan River was a symbol. When the people of Israel finally left their 40 years of wandering in the desert and they came in to the land that God had promised them, they crossed the River Jordan. It was the border. It was the last test, the last step.

When they crossed the river, they left the last of their old life behind them. Slavery was back in Egypt. Egypt behind you, the Promised Land in front of you. The river Jordan was the break point.

This was the new life, the new way, the new relationship with God. The side of the Jordan they were headed for was freedom, and prosperity. A place for everyone, a home that couldn’t be taken away, a land of milk and honey.

You can see the enormous emotional and spiritual significance of John’s baptism.

When Israel crossed the River Jordan before, it was like a second crossing of the Red Sea. It says that God held back the water of the river, and the whole group walked right over the river bed without even getting their feet wet.

Joshua, who led them, had the people collect twelve great big rocks from the river bed, one rock for each of the tribes of Israel, to remind them of that great river-crossing day. Later, they built those rocks into their first altar, which reminded them of what God had brought them through.

Now, John was saying, “You have to go back through that river again. You’re going to leave all your old ways behind you. But this time, you’re not coming through dry. You’re going to get washed in the river, soaked in the river. It’s going to be an outward sign of the change inside of you. Your grandparents’ faith, your ancestors’ faith, is not enough. You need to drown your old way of life, and start over with God.” And John held people underwater, till the bubbles stopped coming up.

Jesus did not baptize people, by the way. Neither did Paul, with only a couple of exceptions. Quakers have always said that being baptized with water isn’t necessary to be saved. Quakers believe that what really matters is the inward change in our hearts, not the outward sacrament.

But John, Jesus, Paul and Quakers, all would agree that people need to change. We need to change our hearts, the way we feel, deep down. We need to change our minds, to open ourselves to God’s way of seeing things. We need to drop our old prejudices and all of the false beliefs that cripple us. We need to change our behavior, our acts and our habits.

We need to turn back. We need to turn around. We need to turn toward God. Our spiritual cousins, the Shakers, had a profound insight when they said that Christians are constantly turning. We bow, in humility. We bend, before the hurricane wind of God. We repent – we turn back – as part of our daily living.

The Shaker song said, “When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed; to turn, turn, will be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right!”

John the Baptist was a great spiritual leader – the greatest prophet since Elijah, who walked with God on the mountain. Elijah knew that God was not in the power of the earthquake, not in the hurricane, not in the fire. Elijah knew that God spoke in the still, small voice, the deepest voice of the heart.

Jesus said that John was even greater than Elijah. But John said, “I’m not so important. I’m not so great! There’s somebody coming after me, somebody who’s much greater than me. That someone is so great, I’m not even worthy to carry around his sandals.”

“I baptize you with water,” said John, “but the one who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire. He will clear things away like a farmer clearing the good wheat from the chaff on a threshing floor. He’s going to cut things down like an axe cutting the roots of an old, rotted tree.”

John was like a bright light, shining into the dark places of the society of his day. He was like the wind behind a wild fire that swept across the desert. But he was only a forerunner. He was only a prophet. He cleared the way for the one who was coming after him. He reamed peoples’ ears out, so that people could recognize the voice of the true shepherd they’d forgotten how to hear.

That’s why we honor John. That’s why we still listen to him. Christmas is not just the baby in the manger. Christmas is about change. Christmas is about Christ, the bread of life, the true vine, the way, the truth and the life, the open door, the light of the world.

John points us to Christ. And John reminds us that we need to change. Our hearts, our minds, our whole way of life, need to turn around. That day is here, says John. The time is always now.

Maybe we need someone like John again. Maybe we need a prophet to tell us to get the wax out of our spiritual ears. Maybe we need a prophet again to tell us that the times, they are a-changing. Maybe someone need to point out that the old life needs to be behind us, that the new way is calling us.

Maybe we need someone to hold us under water, till the bubbles stop coming up, till we come staggering up from near-death and publicly confess that the world has to change. Things can’t go on this way. We are part of our society, and we need to turn away from death.

The heart of John’s message, and in many ways the heart of the Christmas message, is that the kingdom of God is very near. God isn’t someplace far away. God is close to us. Emmanuel. God is with us.

It’s time to stop, and be holy. It’s time to listen to God. A new kingdom is coming. A new king is here, ready to be born in our hearts. Jesus, the Prince of peace.

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