Gospel reading: Luke 3:1-6
In the midst of all these world events and powerful people – Luke mentions leaders from Caesar to Pilate – to Herod and his brother Phillip, Lysanias – and the high priests in the temple at Jerusalem – with all their power and influences in their various sectors – there’s John the son of Zachariah hanging out in the wilderness. The desert. A typical prophet. Alternate. Different views and different diet. Weird – in fact. Dressed in camel skins and eating wild locusts and honey. Locusts are very tricky – those little bits stick in your teeth…
The focus is not on this unusual man, however. After the sweeping statement locating this story in historical time and its politicians and priests – the focus is not on the man.
The subject of Luke’s pronouncement is very specific:
“.. the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.” The Word of God comes! The focus is not on the man – but on the message God gives him. Wonderful. Awesome! God’s word came to John after hundreds of years of prophetic silence. And God – through John – declares that they are to get ready.
There are different kinds of readiness and different levels of seriousness in our preparation in life.
I meet so many people really who when I mention Christmas get a pale frightened look on their faces and bleat out an apology: “I’m not ready”.
Last week we talked about being ready for Jesus’ return – or at least for our death and journey to eternity.
READY OR NOT – is a game children play. ‘Coming – ready or not!’
Death comes our way. In the secular world people who are dying are often encouraged to sort things out – to focus on preparations for their stuff and family – not wanting to leave a trail of mess and unfinished business, and wanting to provide for their loved ones. Funeral insurance is sold on this basis – don’t leave them with a huge debt, and so forth.
On a daily basis people get ready each day for work (many struggle to get this right too!).
And there are other preparations we make. On a more spiritual note people used to get ready for church each week.
READY EVERY SUNDAY
There was a time when the one really important readiness ritual we went through was on a Sunday. Churches were quiet places to enter into. And for the newcomer it seemed odd and boring. Nevertheless there was a sense of getting ready (in dress) and preparing (in heart and mind) to come into God’s presence. Of repentance and making right – confession and new beginnings. Stillness. (Very different now as we are a rowdy bunch really).
PREPARING THE WAY TODAY
In the midst of our Christmassy busyness today we hear God’s Word in the words John the Baptizer (he was never a Baptist!)
John’s task is to get people geared up for the salvation that comes from Jesus! Listen again:
“A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
TODAY IT’S ABOUT READINESS FOR WORKING WITH GOD IN THE HERE AND NOW
Or God working in us.
The desert – the wilderness – was not an unusual place God to speak to people. In fact people today are quite keen on those desolate yet beautiful places for retreats and reflection. They are less distracting.
But for most of us – if we don’t take the time and open our hearts and minds – our daily routine in the city or at home – can be like a desert. Dry. Dusty. No water of life. No energy. No word from the Lord.
The Essential Jesus 20 weeks and 100 readings have given many of us a new discipline and a new commitment to read the Bible. The point is – in our deserts – God speaks to us today – through the Bible and through His Holy Spirit.
THE CHALLENGE OF JOHN’S MESSAGE AT ADVENT
In the midst of the tinsel and Christmas expectation – all that wrapping paper and exotic food – it’s a very challenging thing for preachers to be true to this passage.
The candle we lit was for peace. It’s a lovely idea and all our hearts are softened when we think of the conflict of the world and the need for peace. We admire peacekeepers and pray for peace.
But true preparation for the coming of the Messiah – required repentance. Peace came at a cost. Changing direction and changing one’s mind – these actions are associated with repentance in the Bible.
I am sure that John – in his time of preparation in that lonely place we call God’s calling – the calling of prophets and preachers alike (in fact preaching is prophecy in the literal sense of speaking God’s word – “speaking forth”) – would have some straightening out of the paths in himself – smoothing out the rough places in his heart. He would have had his own repenting to do.
This repentance – if you are looking up – means you have to look down at the world from God’s point of view (imagine being able to see all the rage, anger and abuse going on with a view from heaven). If you are going north, it would mean changing direction to south. You get my point.
It’s a spiritual 180 degree turn which inevitably leads to a physical change in direction as well.
The truth is we need so much turning that we can easily become disorientated and dizzy. And our world can be like a desert, or a steep hill, or even a deep valley to claw out of. I remember a serious road crash we had some years back – where we went over a steep hill – and only a sand trap by a tree prevented us from disaster. We had to crawl out of there.
As we hear God’s word – and if we are serious – we have to make some moves. Our interior landscape can be quite bumpy.
And we do struggle sometimes because we want instant results and answers. The truth is a lot of the change that happens in us is slow and painful.
It takes time to clean things up in our lives. Like those bits of locusts that get stuck in your teeth. It needs some digging around.
So it makes sense that we are told to keep our eyes on Jesus. (Hebrews 12:2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.)
We need to set our compass with Jesus as our true North.
Wesley understood the challenge of true conversion and ongoing repentance and transformation when he wrote his hymn Love Divine. Listen again:
Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling; all thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation; enter every trembling heart.
Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
– Charles Wesley
You can’t get that movement towards a new creation if you’re stuck somewhere in the wrong place or going in the wrong direction.
And changing the landscape of our lives takes time. Like changing the course of a river there is a lot of stuff to be shifted.
May you work on your spiritual preparation this Advent as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus to the world.
May we make the right moves and let him change us – bit by bit – on our journey.