By Pastor Cherie Johnson
We are in the season of Advent a time that we prepare for Christmas. Last week, we didn’t get out the tree. We didn’t talk about the Baby Jesus. We talked about the future. We talked about the ultimate and final importance of birth of Christ in the first place, when Christ returns. It’s a promise that gives hope in the presence of shootings and terrorist incidents hope during storms and earthquakes, floods and droughts, hope after medical diagnosis or estrangement from loved ones, trouble at work. Because despite all of these things that can happen in this broken world, we can stand up and lift our heads. Through Jesus our redemption is near; help is on the way (Luke 21:18).
Yes, it is something we continue to wait for, Christ’s return when he will make all things new. No more brokenness, no more sin, no more tears. We wait, knowing it could come at any moment. Knowing it may not happen during our lifetimes.
This week, still no Baby Jesus. I have a cousin who is expecting her first child, any day. Like her, we are ready – maybe not in a planning for family gathering celebrations or in a buying presents kind of way – but we are ready to start playing Christmas songs. I mean, Jesus has already been born, and it’s like we’re pretending that were living 2000 years ago waiting for it to happen for the first time. My cousin is ready. We are ready.
We are in the second week of Advent, and in the Scripture today we are anticipating the beginning of Jesus’s ministry as an adult. That is what John the Baptist is proclaiming here. Prepare the way. Prepare yourselves because the salvation of God, Jesus, is almost here. In fact he’s going to show up in about 4 more verses. God fulfilling His promises of blessing the whole world through the Hebrew people.
It’s almost as if we are working our way back word. Christ’s return -> Christ ministry on earth -> going towards Jesus’s birth. Yet, these verses are long associated with Christmas and Advent because they’re often highlighted at this time of year. In fact it can be difficult to really listen to them because they’re so familiar that we tune them out. I invite you to consider them afresh, today.
These verses can look to us like a proclamation as we wait to celebrate the birth of Jesus, just as much as the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. The king is coming. If we compare the centuries that the Jewish people had been waiting For the Messiah or Savior, what is 30 years?
So, we remain in this period of waiting, wondering if it is ever going to happen. It is a very interesting idea as we look at John the Baptist and who he was.
Like I mentioned last week, the gospel writer Luke was a historian, and that is part of why we get this list of rulers. He is setting the scene in time and place.
It is almost like a movie where they start with a shot of the whole earth, and they pull into progressively tighter shots. Here, we start with a satellite shot of the whole Mediterranean Sea, the Roman Empire, what was considered “the known world,” and it pulls in tighter to the eastern part in to Palestine where Judea and Galilee are. These are important people that are being listed: emperors, governors, kings. You might expect the next shot to be in Jerusalem staying with the religious leadership, but no, it’s in the desert, near the Jordan River.
While all the leaders would be sitting in their palaces and offices in fine clothes and quaffed hair, that is not what John looked like. Matthew 3 says his clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he ate locust and wild honey. Those of us on a special diet thought that our choices were limited. He probably smelled bad, and let’s say it, he seemed a bit strange. In other words, he was the opposite of the people who are listed in this passage, but the difference is that the Word of God, the Spirit of God was with him as it says and Luke 1: 15. The Word of God came to this relative nobody. John. It didn’t come to the Emperor or any of the leaders he appointed. It didn’t come to the Jewish religious leaders. It came to John.
All through the Bible, God uses the obscure, the marginalized, the average person. God chose Gideon, a man so afraid of his enemies that he did his work In a hole in the ground, so he wouldn’t be seen. God, through the angel Gabriel, pronounces him a mighty warrior and selects him to lead Israel’s army to defeat this same enemy. God chose David, the youngest and smallest of Jesse’s sons to be king. God chose a young, poor, unmarried teenager to be the mother of Jesus.
There is a phrase that “God does not call the equipped . God equips the called.” Why Would God do that? To show that it is God at work, to show God’s glory. Some of us may feel that we can’t be used by God, but God may be wanting to use you to do marvelous things, to show God’s glory through you! It can be both a thrilling and a frightening thought. We don’t have to be a celebrity or rich or powerful to be used by God but we do have to be ready, which brings us back to John.
He is the voice calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” and so on.
I went to seminary and Washington DC, and every once in a while I would get caught up in these motorcades for dignitaries. I wasn’t a part of it naturally, but my path was blocked. The VIP was given a clear path with a police escort. I didn’t think I ever knew who was in any of them. Occasionally on the local news, they would advise people to avoid certain streets because of a scheduled motorcade. The VIP’s pass was made straight, the journey was easy and not affected by traffic, which in DC is challenging at the best of times.
And that is the kind of thing that is being referenced here, except we know who is coming. It is the Lord! We want to make God’s arrival easy. No mountains, no valleys, no twists and turns, no pot holes, we want everything to be straight and smooth.
John says, it’s time for the people to start getting ready, how should they start that? By going to the wilderness, the desert.
One might think that they should go to the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish worship, but no, John called them to the desert. That is the place where the Jewish people went for purification, for a clean start, and that is exactly the kind of thing that Malachi was talking about in our Old Testament reading.
So much of Jewish history has to do with going to the desert for purification and crossing a body of water. They were slaves in Egypt when God sent Moses to rescue them and lead them through the Red Sea to the desert in the Exodus. Joshua took them from the desert through the Jordan River into the Promised Land. After the Babylonian exile, they went through the desert and through the Jordan River once again to return home.
So, to prepare for the Lord’s arrival, John called them to the desert for purification and a dunk in the river to symbolize the change in their lives. This is slightly different than Christian baptism. Part of that is because there were no Christians yet. John called them to repent, from the Greek word metanoia, which means a total change of heart, a change of behavior that people can see that goes far beyond a simple apology. That’s how they were called to make their paths straight and the road smooth, and that is what we are called to do, too!
Whether we are waiting for the celebration of the birth of Jesus or his return, we have an opportunity to prepare. Prepare for something besides this overwhelming holiday that Christmas has become, prepare for Jesus in our hearts.
We are preparing for the end of our Spiritual Exile. We do this by looking at our lives and seeing where we can do better, where we can repent and prepare to turn, to straighten out the crooked places in our lives, smooth out the rough places. Prepare our hearts a place for God. As it says in the favorite Christmas song, “Joy to the World,” “let every heart prepare him room.”
For some of us, it is preparing for a return of God or a return to an acknowledgement of God’s place and authority in our lives. For others of us, it may be a decision to have a personal relationship with God, or to make a decision to accept Christ as our Savior, prepare for Christ to be with us for the very first time. If that is you, know that you are not alone, and that everyone who is truly a believer in Jesus Christ has had to make that decision. It may have been slow, over time, or it may have then a lightbulb moment, or anything in between.But all of it involves turning toward God, the God who has been there waiting for you the whole time.
The question that you have to ask yourself during this season is, “I’m preparing for Christmas, but am I preparing for Jesus in my heart?”
As we have this season every year, I like to think of it as a return, a renewal, a fresh start. It is like hitting the reset button, or rebooting our computer. We get a fresh start to try to do it better. We spend time doing things for other people. We give to charities, even if it has nothing to do with end of your tax deductions. We go out of our way to make people feel special.
When I think of all the children who felt special here yesterday at the Children’s Christmas Store with their personal shoppers and custom wrapping stations. All the items that were donated! All the adults and teens involved to make it such a special experience. One of the last children to come through was shopping without her mother or relative for the very first time like a big girl, and she was so proud.
All of the things we do to make friends and family feel special are good. Making an extra effort to be kind to the people you come across in your daily life. This is something we do at this time of the year. In fact, this is my favorite part of the season. This season of preparation. It is all good.
What is not good is when it becomes a contest or pressure to perform: the perfect party, the best decorations, the most incredible dessert. Again, the things themselves are not bad. Wanting to give your best is good. It has more to do with our attitude.
I’m reminded of the story of Mary and Martha later in Luke chapter 10. Jesus and his disciples are visiting the home of Mary and Martha. They are having to accommodate and feed at least 12 people, maybe more, in addition to their own household. Who among us can say that we wouldn’t find that challenging? Martha is STRESSED with a capital “S.” Who wouldn’t be? And there Mary is sitting with the guests instead of helping Martha. She complains to Jesus, and commands him, Jesus, to tell Mary to help her. Martha was not feeling her best that day.
I know so many people who get into this state with all the hoopla and pressure surrounding Christmas. I may have been caught in that trap myself from time to time. I love how Jesus is so gentle with Martha, acknowledging her stress but also adjusting her focus. “Martha, Martha,” [he says], you are worried about many things, but only one thing is needed.” That one thing is focusing on Jesus. Offering hospitality is good, but not when we get so lost in it that we forget why we are offering hospitality.
When it becomes a contest or pressure to perform, that is when we really need to remember “the reason for the season.” We are preparing for Christmas… But are we really preparing for Jesus? What areas in your life need to be straightened out? What valleys need to be filled? What mountains need to be made low? What do you need to do to prepare to see the salvation of God?