1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:1-6 (ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
We really get used to hearing about John the Baptist during Advent. After all what would Advent be without singing “On Jordan’s Bank…” I remember singing it in a dark downtown St. Louis Church when I was in Kindergarten. Mom and Dad were teachers in the Lutheran School there. I remember sitting next to my mother who said each line quickly in between breaths so I could sing along. I remember standing there singing trying hard to feel the mood of the season (which was much darker than it feels these days). As for me singing about the “Baptist” is something I expect before Christmas.
This second Sunday in Advent is dedicated every year to the message of John the Baptist. There’s something I want you to notice about this text. This little section of scripture is completely full of geography. St. Luke, the Gospel writer, is intent on having us see the geography he almost overloads us with places… He talks about the biggest geographical area occupied by anyone when he mentions Caesar (The Roman Empire), He speaks about Judea (roughly the area of modern day Israel, Galilee, Abilene and finally he references Jerusalem (if you’re a Jew, you can’t hear about the High priests and not think of Jerusalem!). Luke is making a very strong statement before he introduces The Baptist. Then he tells us that John went into all the region around the Jordan. Luke wants us to be thinking geographically.
But why? Well, let’s look at what John is saying while he preaches and baptizes. Prepare the way of the Lord, make the roads straight fill in the valleys, level the mountains, make the roads all straight, and level out the rough land. Think about what he’s saying. He’s talking about a radical change in landscape. Just think of the huge earth moving machines that would be required to do what John is talking about. Deep valleys filled in, high mountains and hills leveled, crooked roads made straight, and rough land leveled out. It’s big change that he’s calling for; it’s noticeable change, monstrous change.
Maybe we don’t really have the perspective on this that John’s hearers had. Maybe we don’t really see what a radical change John was talking about. After all most of the land around here is already pretty flat. I was talking to someone the other day and they said that one of the best things about Iowa was how beautiful it was at night, because when you look out over the land you see all those lights. If you’ve ever been to a place like Pennsylvania the first thing you’d notice is how there are no straight roads! Driving there is like driving down in a ditch because the trees come right to edge of the road. Here our roads are in that familiar grid pattern set up a long time ago. But it’s really very different in Israel. Israel is a very narrow strip of land only about 30-40 miles wide and a little more than 200 miles long. The whole area would easily fit in a box with Des Moines and Kansas City as the corners. The lowest point (also the lowest point on the globe) is –1338 ft below sea level (the Dead Sea) and the highest point is a mountain peak at 3963 ft (Mt. Hermon?). By the way only 17% of the land there can be used for farming. So as you can see talk about changing the kind of geography of Israel, is really a project of epic proportions.
But that is the kind of change that John is preaching about. It’s enormous, noticeable, radical change. Of course John isn’t really talking about geographically, is he? He’s telling the people around him that they better get their act together. Something radical is about to happen: God is coming. “Get ready!” He’s saying, “the Lord is coming. You’d better get prepared. Level the land! Tear down the mountains fill in the valleys. Do the impossible!”
This isn’t the first time God’s people have been told to make a radical change. In fact, John is using the very same words here that were spoken by Isaiah some centuries before. Isaiah was also calling for radical change. Back then God was telling the people of Israel that even though things looked pretty good right then, they weren’t. They were going to be conquered. They were going to go into exile. It was punishment for rejecting the God who had saved them from being salves in Egypt; the God who had given them the land they were living in. This punishment was going to be harsh; it was going to be radical. God was coming in judgment; it was time for a radical change of heart. That’s what John was saying, too. The Lord is coming! It’s time for a radical change of landscape, a radical change of heart.
Those words also speak to us. Here we are in advent looking forward to celebrating Christmas. Remembering that Jesus has come and more importantly that He is coming again. And He is coming “to judge the living and the dead” as the creed says. It won’t take us too long to see that we need that same radical change of heart that John is talking about. The way of our lives is full of valleys and mountains; full of crooked roads and rough ground. But we are to make our way straight if we are to be ready. We need to live in the way of the Lord.
So what does it take to live in the way of the Lord? Have you ever tried? I mean really, really tried to stop sinning? Have you ever tried to stop lying, for instance? What does it take to completely get rid of lies in your life? Well, first of all, you have to hold your tongue. You have to not say things that are untrue. Especially things that are untrue about yourself. Oh but how hard that is when you really need to boost your standing among people you want to impress. How hard it is when you really need to show people your position is well founded. And maybe you can do that; maybe you can stop them some of the time. But don’t they somehow come creeping back when your defenses are down? They are there deep inside you holding it in just makes it worse.
So that one’s too hard to get rid of: What about gossip? That one should be easier, right? So you try to stop saying things about people. But that telephone is always ringing with some more news. You tell yourself that people need to be informed; people really do need to know what’s going on. And you know that even the truth can hurt people when it’s spread around. But some things are just too hard to keep to yourself.
Well again let’s try something easier: What about treating all people the same? Ok, you start by vowing to make it work, and then you are confronted by that person who you’ve never trusted. So you skip them and try to do it for everyone else. But you see a dirty, unkempt person walking toward you on the street and all you just want to crawl under a rock, or run the other way. You can’t help thinking about how spend the assistance they receive on cigarettes or liquor, when they should be spending it on new shoes for their kids. No matter how hard you try you can’t treat everyone the same because your feelings about them bubble up from your heart, and the only way to get rid of those feelings is to be dead.
Well there is always trying to do good things to make up for the bad things you do. So you try that. You find a worthy cause; build a mountain of Christmas presents for under-privileged kids; volunteer time to stalk the food bank shelves; help your elderly neighbor scoop snow; dig deeper into your pockets and give more money to the church. Those are all great things to do. And you feel good doing them. Maybe that’s the answer to the radical change. If you just do enough good things you won’t have time to do the bad. But if you think about it, your heart might be in the right place but you know that your mind wanders. Pretty soon you find yourself saying to yourself, “I hope so-and-so sees me doing this.” Or “at least I’m doing better than that person who never does anything!” or “God sure must be proud of me for all I’ve done for Him.”
Well so much for radical change. That fact is, and you know it as well as I do, that kind of change is impossible. Maybe you know it because you’ve tried and failed. You seem to make progress and when you turn your attention to the next thing the other returns. And maybe you know the things you do are wrong but you just plain don’t want to stop. You know your heart and you know that sin lives there. You know that the kind of radical change that John is talking about is impossible. It is impossible because the problem is just too deep. The valleys are too low and the mountains are too high. The roads we really want to go down are not the straight one but the crooked ones. I guess John wants us to do the impossible. We may as well try to level mountains and fill in valleys. The preparation he wants is just as impossible.
If that’s what you’re thinking I have to say that you are exactly right. In order to prepare ourselves for the Lord we’d have to be perfect in every way, no bumps, turns or lumps. Just perfect.
But Luke and John do leave us there. They tell us exactly what to do to prepare. They’re not really saying to get out the monster machines and start digging. And they’re not saying to quit smoking, lying, and cheating. They don’t even say do your best and the rest will follow. They tell us what John’s message is really all about. John’s message is more radical than that. John went all over the geographic area of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He’s saying to take your sins to God and He’ll forgive them.
That’s what the coming of Jesus is all about. It’s about a radical change of landscape. It’s about receiving forgiveness for your sins. It’s about a radical change of heart. It’s about repentance, it’s about turning to God saying, “Lord, I am a sinful person, forgive me!”
We look at the little baby Jesus in the manger, we think about Him sleeping quietly in His mother’s arms. It’s a sweet picture but what that little baby really is really the radical thing that God is doing. That little baby is God’s way of making the rough things smooth. In fact, that little baby isn’t just God’s messenger; He is God coming to do what is impossible for you and me. He comes to live the way of the Lord.
You know all those things that you tried to fix in your life and can’t get done? He didn’t have that problem. He did everything perfectly. Jesus is the truth and the life. Lies are no part of Him. Jesus loves and cares for all people equally. He gives help when help is needed, comfort when comfort is needed. Jesus treats everyone the same, the rich and the poor, even prostitutes and tax collectors. That’s the way of the Lord. That’s the way of Jesus our Lord. Everything He does is perfect and good. His way is very different from our way. His way is something radical. His way leads to the cross. And in His way He takes the punishment for our lies, and hate, and selfishness. He bears it all in His way. And in His way His death takes our punishment away. His way is a very radical way.
So how do we prepare for His coming? How do we move mountains, the way Jesus did? We can’t. And we don’t have to. The radical thing that God is doing is the radical thing that we can’t. We can’t remove sin from our lives any more than we can make a mountain fill up a valley. But Jesus has done it already, and He does it for you every single day. It’s the same thing that John was preaching about, repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus has taken your sins away. That’s His Christmas gift to you. He’s leveled the mountains and valleys. And He has made a way straight from you to Him. That’s what repentance is. Jesus way of preparing you is to say to Him, “Lord Jesus, I have sinned against you in thought word and deed, by what I have done, by lying, and gossiping, and treating people badly, I have sinned in what I have left undone and what I have done with an insincere proud heart. Forgive me Jesus!”
And Jesus says, “I forgive you, my child. I will prepare your heart. I will make the change in you that is necessary. I will make my way, your way.” And today you have the opportunity to receive those words right here at his altar. When you open your mouth God pours in the forgiveness of sins, the radical change of heart that John is talking about.
John says to us, Prepare the way of the Lord. Well, it’s not just something we do for Christmas. It’s something Jesus does for us every day of our lives when we confess our sins to Him. It’s something He does for me and something He does for you. It’s a radical change of landscape. It’s a radical change of heart. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.