What does it look like at your home when you’re having guests over?
At my house, it can sometimes look like a whirlwind of activity with vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom and getting food ready. Sometimes it’s lots of preparations and sometimes it’s just a bit, but we always prepare when we can before our guests arrive.
“Comfort, comfort my people,”
says your God.
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Tell her that her sad days are gone
and her sins are pardoned.
Yes, the Lord has punished her twice over
for all her sins.”
Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Clear the way through the wilderness
for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
for our God!
Fill in the valleys,
and level the mountains and hills.
Straighten the curves,
and smooth out the rough places.
Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
The Lord has spoken!”
In Isaiah’s prophecy someone is shouting to prepare the way so that the glory of the Lord will be revealed. He shouts a command to clear the way in the wilderness, to make a straight highway, to level the land by leveling mountains and filling valleys. The imagery that the prophecy is invoking is that of a king going on a journey, and sending one of his servants ahead of him to make sure his way is clear. Kind of like how when the Queen visits Canada, a lot of preparation has to happen before she comes.
And this prophecy, in chapter 40 of Isaiah, is in a unique place in the book of Isaiah. There’s 66 chapters total, and from chapter 1-39 the main theme is God’s displeasure and judgement for Israel’s disobedience. But starting in chapter 40 there is a shift – from 40-66 the main theme is the salvation of God’s people.
And this prophecy of someone shouting to prepare the way was understood by the Jewish rabbinical scholars to point forward to the coming of the Messiah, or saviour, and that a messenger would come ahead of him to prepare the way – which they understood to be the prophet Elijah returned.
John the Baptist
If we jump ahead ~700 years, we read in Luke’s account of the life of Jesus a man named John coming out of the wilderness and preaching to the Israelite people. Let’s read Luke 3:2b-4:
“Then John went from place to place on both sides of the Jordan River, preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. Isaiah had spoken of John when he said, “He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!'”
Luke (and all the Gospel writers) explicitly state that John is the one prophesied about by Isaiah. But notice, his message wasn’t “prepare the way of the Lord;” that was his role. What was his message? He was “preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven” (v.3). Matthew records John’s message as “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” And because he preached that people should be baptized he became known as “John the Baptist.”
Have you ever seen those guys holding signs saying “repent!” on them, kind of like Westboro Baptist church? We don’t get them in Winnipeg that much. When I was in Jr. High a guy would hang around outside my school with signs that said “repent” on them and even though I was a Christian I kind of thought he was crazy, or at least that was the general feeling in our school. But John’s way of preparing the way of the Lord was to preach a message of repentance, kind of like modern street preachers. We don’t really like hearing preaching like that, but John gets even harsher – because when people started coming to him to get baptized he says this:
“You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9).
He calls his listeners a brood of vipers fleeing the wrath to come like snakes making a hasty exit from a forest fire. His cynical question “who warned you?” was because the religious folk of his day believed that since they were Jews – the chosen people of God – that fact alone would be enough to save them.
But John says their nationality won’t save them, but to “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.” Because we will all stand before God as individuals; we can’t point to the faith or goodness of our families.
This calling them to baptism was actually a subversive thing to do in his day. Baptism wasn’t practiced by Jews, but by non-Jews who wished to convert to Judaism (along with circumcision). And John is telling the Jews to get baptized to show the sincerity of their repentance.
And when he warns them saying (v. 9) “Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees” that don’t bear fruit, the crowds ask him “What should we do?”
John’s response is incredibly practical yet utterly mundane – “If you have two coats, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.”
Pretty straightforward, eh? Sounds like a lot of Jesus and James’ teachings.
If we’re being honest, we don’t really like that answer. We would prefer an answer that was more spiritual or mystical. Or even if John had stopped with ‘repent and be baptized’ we wouldn’t mind. Yet, this is what God emphasizes over and over throughout all of Scripture: Care for the poor. Stand up against injustice. Welcome the outsider. Love your enemies. Doing these acts of compassion (and others like them) fulfills what Jesus calls the 2nd Greatest Commandment, – “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The issue here isn’t how many coats we all have (though almost all of us have clothes in our closets we could donate to a clothing bank), but it’s how we care for the poor, and oppressed, and strangers in our society, both through giving to organizations and on a personal level.
And this is how we ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ to come into our own lives today. It’s turning away from our sins & being baptized, and ‘proving that we’ve done that by the way we live,’ as John says. He gets to the root of things, and shows us that God is not impressed with a religion that doesn’t “bear fruit” (another term we read a lot and are exhorted to do throughout Scripture).
Then Luke includes some specific examples to flesh it out a bit more – some tax collectors and soldiers ask Jesus what they should do.
Tax collectors were Jews, but they worked for Rome collecting taxes, and often took more than they were supposed to for their own benefit. They were pretty hated by other Jews as traitors. (The NLT adds that they’re “corrupt” to help explain it, but that’s not in the original Greek.) John’s reply to them is super basic and obvious: “Only collect what you’re supposed to.”
The soldiers were most likely Jewish too working for the religious system or even for the tax collectors – when they ask him what they should do John again answers with pretty obvious advice: “Don’t bully people, don’t extort people, and don’t make false accusations about them.”
Notice what John doesn’t say – he doesn’t tell them to leave their jobs, he doesn’t tell them to leave the world they live in and know and join him in the desert, but to live with integrity within their chosen profession. Each job in life has its own temptations, and those who’ve turned their lives to God will resist those temptations. So we don’t unethically cut corners if it means we’ll save money; we don’t cheat on our exams or not cite our sources if it means a better grade. We don’t abuse our privileges or steal from our employers. These are some of the things he would say to us.
Jesus of Wrath
Well, the people are amazed at John’s teaching. They haven’t had a prophet in Israel for over 400 years, and they wonder if he could Messiah they’ve been waiting for who would free them from Roman occupation. John quickly shuts down that idea, and in stereotypical Old Testament prophet form, warns of impending judgement. Talking about Jesus, he says:
“I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”
This doesn’t really sound like the Jesus we know and read about, does it? This judgment and wrath that Jesus is ready to bring is not what we like to hear, but if we want an accurate and faithful picture of who Jesus is we must include it.
While on earth Jesus emphasized loving others in practical ways – even our enemies – and he even died on the cross out of love so that humans could gain forgiveness of their sins with God. but when he returns he will put an end to evil forever. Chapter 19 of the book of Revelation, about the apocalypse and return of Jesus, describes him this way:
“His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns... He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God... From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God… On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords.”
This language and this image of Jesus emphasizes the divine hostility that God has towards all evil. And I think it’s okay that we don’t feel comfortable with it.
Back to John the Baptist. Notice how Luke ends this passage: “John used many such warnings as he announced the good news to the people.”
Okay, but with all this judgment talk, how can Luke call it “Good News”?
It’s not good news because Jesus will “burn the chaff with never ending fire,” that’s actually sad. But it’s good news because with the coming (and more so the second coming) of Jesus there is a definite end of evil. It will last for a time, and then will be utterly swept away. And, it’s good news because forgiveness is possible; the tragedy of sin and the consequences of sin that we see all around us and within us are not irreversible.
And this is something to be joyful about, and is why we light the pink candle, “joy,” on the third week of Advent.
In this passage there’s a very clear challenge for us this morning; repent of our sins and turn to God for forgiveness, with baptism, and live in a way that proves we’ve done it. All of this ‘prepares the way of the Lord’ to come into our own lives and into our communities.
But I wonder how John might respond if he showed up here this morning, and we asked him “What shall we do?” like the people 2000 years ago did. What would he say to the students and teachers, and the accountants, the doctors and nurses, the engineers and IT professionals, the dentists and carpenters, and even to the pastors? What would he say to you & me?
“Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God… Care for the poor around you. Live with integrity in your jobs and vocations.”
John’s answer to them back then is ultimately the same answer that he would give us today too.