I’d like to pray this week’s collect again:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
It’s been a particularly difficult week here at Church of the Savior.
Since the end of the sermon last week:
- We’ve learned that Father Kevin’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
- We’ve lost a founding and foundational member of this church, Marilyn Stewart.
And, of course, there are many other things that we’re carrying as individuals and as a body.
So, this evening, it sure feels like we gather as “those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” The shadow of a particular death, as we mourn the loss of our beloved sister, Marilyn.
And so we gather tonight as those who need “the tender compassion of our God.” We need “the dawn from on high” to break upon us,” give us light, and “guide our feet into the way of peace.”
We need peace. We need light. We need comfort.
And instead we are given John the Baptist.
Wild-eyed, crazy-haired, locust-eating John the Baptist. God’s fiery messenger, crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord! Repent, you brood of vipers!”
Nothing against John, of course. But, from our perspective at least, isn’t this unfortunate liturgical timing?
I mean, come on, John. We’re struggling here.
Can’t you come back another time? Maybe during Lent?
Right now, we need some good news. We need some comfort.
Do we really need to hear from John the Baptist right now?
I think we do, and here’s why.
As we wait for the Lord’s return, we must also, like John the Baptist, prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness. In darkness and the shadow of death.
And John reminds us that preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness is not comfortable. But it is comforting.
Preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness is not comfortable. It is not characterized by comfort.
But preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness is comforting, because it brings God’s comfort.
First, what does it mean to “prepare the way of the Lord”?
Well, it simply means to get things ready for God’s arrival.
But it specifically means to get a PEOPLE ready for God’s arrival.
We’re not talking about a literal road here that needs to be leveled and straightened and paved.
We’re talking about a group of people who need to get prepared for their God to arrive.
That’s what John the Baptist is up to. He’s getting people from the house of Israel ready to receive their Lord’s arrival as good news of deliverance, instead of as bad news of judgment.
The angel Gabriel said as much to John’s father, Zechariah, in Luke 1:16-17:
And [John] will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.
And when Zechariah himself prophesied about John’s ministry, in Luke 1:76-77, he said:
And you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High, because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
You will tell his people how to find salvation through forgiveness of their sins.
So, preparing the way of the Lord means getting people ready for God to arrive.
John prepared the way for our Lord Jesus Christ’s first arrival.
We Christians prepare the way for Lord’s second arrival, when he returns to “judge the living and the dead,” on the one hand, and to “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev. 7:17), on the other.
Why, then, is getting people ready for Christ’s return not comfortable?
1. Because it’s done in the wilderness of human history.
We prepare the way of the Lord in the midst of a world that, though it still belongs to God, has been infected and affected by sin and death at every level.
But when faced with such a world, the good news of Jesus Christ is not escapist. It’s not some pie-in-the-sky pipe dream that touches lightly on the carnage of human history. No!
Instead, the good news of Jesus Christ doubles-down on space and time, on the here and now, on flesh and blood.
Did you notice all those names at the beginning of our Gospel lesson? It started:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar…
And if all Luke wanted to do was to indicate the date, he could have stopped right there. But instead, he continues to list:
- Pontius Pilate
Very real, very powerful men. Men with the very real blood of the people of God–of the Son of God!–on their hands.
And where does the word of God show up? To John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.
You see, the word of God offers us no escape from human history. It instead offers us a redemption of human history.
This redemption, as it turns out, includes some reversals of fortunes.
As Mary sang in Luke 1:52-53, when God redeems, he brings down rulers—like those 7 powerful men we just mentioned—from their thrones. But he lifts up the humble.
When God redeems, he fills the hungry with good things, but he sends the rich away empty.
As our Gospel lesson put it, quoting Isaiah 40:3-5, when God redeems, valleys are raised up, mountains are brought down, crooked roads are made straight, and rough roads are made smooth.
Yes! Amen! That sounds like good news! Especially when we’re humbled and hungry in the valley of the shadow of death!
I say we get some bulldozers and start chipping away at those mountains.
I say we knock some cracks into the foundations of the halls of power.
I say we let the Tiberiuses of this world know that their days in power are numbered.
But here there is a second reason why preparing the way of the Lord is uncomfortable.
2. Because it begins with us, the people of God.
John doesn’t go to Tiberius’ palace. He doesn’t pay a visit to Pontius Pilate’s mansion.
He does speak truth to Herod’s power, which gets him thrown into prison…
But the summary of John’s ministry that we get in Luke 3:3 is that John tells ordinary Israelites that they need to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.
Wait a second, John. I thought this was about reversal.
We’ve been brought low, by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and now Rome. Surely we don’t need to repent. We’re the victims here! Go tell the Romans and those Roman-loving sellouts to repent.
But, of course, God’s redemption involves both reversal and renewal.
The good news of Jesus Christ is radical in that it calls both strong and the weak, both the oppressors and the oppressed to repent.
- To turn away from sin and toward God.
- To embrace God’s agenda by living a transformed life.
You see, God doesn’t need our bulldozers. He wants our repentance and our obedience.
As our collect reminds us this week, if the return of Jesus is to be received as good news, it must be preceded by repentance. Otherwise, the return of the Judge is bad news for the unrepentant.
This reminds me of Jesus’ words in Luke 18:7-8
And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?
When Jesus returns, will he find faith on the earth?
Getting people ready for Christ’s return in the wilderness is not comfortable, because we have to ask ourselves that question before we ask it of anyone else.
And yet, I insist, preparing the way of the Lord is comforting!
Why is getting ourselves ready for Christ’s return comforting?
I find it fascinating that all four Gospels link the fiery ministry of John the Baptist with Isaiah 40.
Isaiah 40 is a major turning point in the book of Isaiah. Very broadly speaking, chapters 1-39 mostly contain oracles of God’s judgment.
And then we get to Isaiah 40, which begins:
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
The “voice crying in the wilderness,” which all four Gospels say is John the Baptist, is preparing the way—getting people ready–for the arrival of God’s comfort in and through Jesus Christ.
1. Preparing the way of the Lord brings comfort, first, because, though we have sinned and need to repent, forgiveness is freely available through Jesus Christ.
We are not saved by how well we repent. If we were, that would be very bad news. Instead, we are saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Turning away from sin and toward Jesus in repentance and faith might not be comfortable, but it’s comforting because he’s more worthy of our faith than we are!
We don’t have to run the rat race of trying to earn God’s favor and give our own lives meaning. Instead, we can cling to Jesus and find forgiveness, purpose, and value in him.
2. Preparing the way of the Lord brings comfort, second, because the wilderness will not have the final word.
The word of God in the wilderness is NOT “get used to it! This is the way things are always going to be!” NO!
I don’t care how common they are, even in the church. Sin, death, and disease are not the way things are supposed to be.
God will not let them stand forever. He is at work against them even now, and one day he will return to to abolish them forever.
So, getting ourselves ready for Christ’s return is comforting, even when done through tears, because the people thus prepared are those who await the fulfillment of Revelation 7:16-17:
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”
No more decay. No more disease. No more death.
That’s what we’re preparing for. And that’s why it’s comforting.
How should we prepare the way of the Lord today, at Savior?
How should we get ourselves ready for Christ’s return?
Well, Father Kevin is going to preach more about repentance based on the content of John the Baptist’s preaching next week.
But, in the meantime, I’ve got three pastoral suggestions based on this week’s introduction of John’s ministry.
1. Avoid escapism. Tell the truth about the wilderness.
Maybe I’m just speaking to myself here, but it seems like one of the easiest approaches to the suffering we’re enduring here at Savior would be to ignore it. Put a smile on.
How are you doing? Fine. You? Fine. Everybody’s “fine.”
Nope. That’s not how the church is supposed to behave in the wilderness.
Instead, let’s be honest with God and with each other about the wilderness in which we find ourselves.
How are you doing? Honestly. How are you really doing?
Maybe instead of saying “fine,” you should tell the truth.
- I’m lonely.
- I’m afraid.
- I’m overwhelmed.
- I’m angry.
- I don’t understand why God is allowing this to happen.
Friends, if the gospel tells us anything, it tells us that things right now are not the way they’re supposed to be.
And, if we can’t be honest about that here, in the church, what hope do we have?
Yes, we should be grateful. Yes, we should be hopeful.
But we also need to be unflinchingly truthful. Especially in difficult seasons like the one we’re in right now.
2. Radically resist busyness and hurry.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s one of our stated values here at Savior. It’s baked into the culture of this church.
But I bring it up again because of the temptation that I mentioned earlier to grab a bulldozer and try to level the mountains on our own.
I’m not saying that the gospel shouldn’t lead us to oppose the effects of sin and death in the world around us. It should!
But we can’t allow mere activism to replace the uncomfortable work of examination and repentance.
When the going gets tough, it’s often easier to lose ourselves in our work—perhaps especially when it’s “kingdom work”!—than it is to stop and tell the truth about how we’re doing.
Confession and repentance are both more difficult and less comfortable than volunteering, giving, and even preaching.
So, let’s not use getting lost in the “Lord’s work” as an excuse for avoiding the Lord’s word.
3. Lead the way in repentance by preaching the gospel to ourselves daily.
It might not be comfortable, but God’s comforting word to us in the wilderness is that we are sinners and we need to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins.
We need to turn away from sin and toward our forgiving and comforting God.
We need to be united through baptism into Christ’s death, that we might experience the new life of his resurrection.
And, here’s the thing, we never outgrow our baptism. But we often need to return to it.
We never outgrow our need to hear the gospel, repent, and cling to Jesus. But we often need to be reminded of it.
So let’s remind ourselves. Let’s remind each other.
Like I said earlier, right now, this week, at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, IL, we need some good news.
We need some comfort.
We need to hear from John the Baptist, because he points us to Jesus.
And the good news of Jesus Christ might be uncomfortable, but it’s the only source of true comfort in the wilderness, in the darkness, and in the shadow of death.
So, like John the Baptist, let’s prepare the way of the Lord.
Let’s get a people ready for Christ’s return by getting ourselves ready, every day, to repent and cling to Jesus for forgiveness and comfort we so desperately need.
Here’s the video of the service. I start at about 41:30.