December 8, 2013

Preparing the Way of the Lord

Today we begin the second week of Advent. And as we prepare for the Christmas holiday, I thought I’d throw a little Bible trivia out that might surprise you. Did you know?

Just two Gospels describe the birth of Jesus. Matthew’s version includes shepherds, angels, the stable and manger, but no wise men. And Luke’s version of the birth story includes visits from the wise men but says nothing about the shepherds, angels, stable, or manger. To take that a step further, the wise men came from the Far East (Asia) on camels and Biblical scholars believe Jesus may have been nearly 2 years old by the time they arrived. Luke says the wise men came to the ‘house’, not a stable. So there are just 2 Gospels that describe the birth story, and they are very different from one another.

Mark’s Gospel begins with the arrival of John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus (at this point, Jesus was approx. 30 years old!). The Gospel of John opens with several verses related to the idea that ‘The Word became flesh’ before it transitions into the description of John the Baptist and is followed by the baptism of Jesus.

Prepare the way of the Lord is today’s sermon title. John the Baptist is described as a ‘forerunner’ to Jesus and was predicted in the Old Testament. This is the first story that all four Gospels agree upon. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

What does Isaiah meant when he wrote, “Prepare the way of the Lord”. How is John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord? We are not told that John has been teaching the masses about Christ’s coming until this event, where Jesus is about 30 years old. But even in today’s text, we are not given specifics to who Jesus is and John does not call Jesus by name.

In those days, John appeared in the wilderness proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That sounds like a statement of preparation. But what does that mean to the population who is expecting the Messiah to come down from heaven in the clouds? How is John preparing the way of the Lord?

A clue is found in verse 4. “Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” Why did Matthew find that verse important to insert in this text? Couldn’t God have sent someone a little more convincing to prepare the way of Jesus than the description of this guy? And yet all the people of Judea came to listen! Interestingly in Jewish faith, it is believed that the prophet Elijah (who was taken into heaven without death) will return just before the Messiah. John’s clothing and food were similar to that of the prophet and many thought John was Elijah. So in Jewish faith, John’s presence was already a potential sign of the Messiah’s arrival.

But there are 2 main points in John the Baptist’s proclamation. First is that of repentance. The reason for baptism was the symbolic washing away of sins after repentance. Repent means ‘to turn around’ or ‘to change direction’. When we repent, we are turning away from the practice of sin.

The second point is that the kingdom of heaven is near. No god previous to the Jesus story of any religion would have stepped down to become human. Such a move would have been heretical for a Deity. When John said the kingdom was near, nobody had a clue that it meant God had become human in Jesus to live with us. Even today, it is difficult to grasp that the Holy Spirit is in our midst at ALL times, rather than disconnected in some distant heavenly place.

Then John addresses the righteous Pharisees and Sadducees as a ‘brood of vipers’, or in other words, poisonous snakes. Their emphasis on living right as the ticket to eternal life was not based on a foundation of love. They didn’t care about relationships, loving others, or showing mercy. Their main desire was to prove themselves better than others in order to be worthy. These righteous people judged and pointed out flaws in others while building themselves up.

John’s preparation for the way of the Lord was to preach the new kingdom ushered in by God. In Christ’s new kingdom, our worth is not determined by accomplishments or lack of them. Jesus loves us so much that he would die for us while we were yet sinners. Not when we were good enough, but while we were unworthy. In God’s new kingdom that came with the birth of Jesus, love and forgiveness replaced division and judgment. It is impossible to live ‘good enough’ to earn God’s love and salvation. He gives it to us freely.

There is nothing more freeing than confession and repentance. When we don’t feel strong enough, smart enough, thin enough, attractive enough, and on and on, we can confess our insecurities and imperfections and feel God’s arms wrap us in his love and peace. We are loved because we are his creation, not because of what we have done.

On the other hand, divine love is fierce in its judgment for those who resist love’s demands; those who tear others down in order to make themselves look and feel better about themselves, those who think they are better than others because of their accomplishments, and those whose pride and ego are more important than anyone else.

The kingdom that John proclaimed provides us the opportunity to get real with ourselves. We can stand in the mirror, warts and all, and know that we are imperfect children created by a perfect God. We have nothing to prove to him. No expectations to fulfill. He knows us inside and out and still loves us and forgives us. As we prepare for Christmas, let’s remember the most valuable gift that has ever been given and rejoice with thankful hearts. Amen.