Prepare the Way of the Lord
Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on December 7, 2014, the Second Sunday in Advent. The text is Isaiah 40:3, A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
There is a one character in the Christmas Story that I have never seen in a crŹche. We certainly see the Holy Family and the shepherds and the animals and sometimes the Wise Men. But we never see John the Baptist. That’s too bad, because he had a really key part to play in the story of Jesus.
So many times when John the Baptist is described today, he is labeled “strange” and “weird”. I know it’s because he ate locusts and wild honey and wore animal skins. But I suggest to you today that John was not strange and weird, but was chosen by God to act and do just what he did. And he was good at it.
He was called to be a prophet and the one whom the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah said would announce “Get ready for the arrival of God’s Messiah”. When Jesus went to the Jordan River to be baptized, it was John who was given the privilege of announcing, “Behold the Lamb of God, the one who will take away the sins of the world.” It is John who was given the further privilege of baptizing Jesus and hearing the words of God, “This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
Yes, John played out his part as a prophet in dramatic fashion. He is often compared to the prophet Jeremiah who also spoke of the coming Messiah and urged the people to prepare themselves by living and acting in God-pleasing ways. Jeremiah also wasn’t afraid to be very dramatic in the way he presented God’s messages to the people. To say that John was strange and weird because of what he ate and how he dressed would be like me saying today that someone is weird and strange because they eat Top Ramen Noodles in a heated cup of water or order food off the dollar menu at McDonalds or wear clothes purchased at a Thrift Store. John was going out of his way to identify himself with the poor and the outcast, those that the upper crust of Jerusalem society considered to be the unworthy of the land. The clergy of his day and the Pharisees and the Sadducees couldn’t understand why so many people went out from the city and the temple into the wilderness to hear John preach. They considered it subversive and counter-cultural to listen to John. They were the ones who called him strange and weird, not the people; and certainly not God.
You remember the story of Mary going to visit Elizabeth, and the babe in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy, for he sensed Jesus in Mary’s womb? John’s role as prophet, forerunner of Jesus, was decided even before his birth by God. And we heard these words of John in today’s gospel reading, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
I invite you to pick up your bulletin cover. We see a desert, not unlike the desert area that separated the land of the Jews and the land of Babylonia where they were enslaved for 70 years. This happened about 500 years before the time of Jesus and John the Baptist. The artwork here shows a colorful walkway or highway going through a parched desert. It wonderfully depicts the message of the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah said that someday there will be a path through the desert of this world that will be prepared for the Lord’s arrival. I know that many folks through the years have read this passage from Isaiah and think that this road that is made straight and flat is for the sake of people to walk on. Some today think that Isaiah saw this highway as allowing the people to return home after their years of slavery. Actually, this imagery comes from the practice in the ancient near east of easing the way for a king who wished to travel off the regular dirt roads. His slaves and soldiers had to cut down trees and fill in ditches and cut through debris so the wagons and chariots wouldn’t become stuck. This was seen as giving the honor that was due to a monarch.
So we hear the words of Isaiah: A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” I believe that this highway is being made ready whenever people like you and me go out of our way to help people and make this a more hospitable world. I believe that God wants us to demand and practice justice and mercy for those we encounter. Indeed I believe that the logo of the ELCA says it well: God’s work. Our Hands. So maybe the image of the highway through the desert is both about the King and about how we make it easier in this world for God’s beloved children…
Here’s our question for this morning: What can we do to prepare the way of the Lord, this royal highway for Jesus?
Let me begin the possible answer this way: This week a group of us pastors was asked this question: Is everything ready for Christmas at your church? “Well, I thought, the sermons aren’t done, the bulletins aren’t ready, the shut-ins aren’t visited, the choirs are still rehearsing and the worship volunteers aren’t all recruited. But then I thought: “You know what? Christmas is coming whether I’m ready or not!”
I think the same truism applies to what we read in scripture regarding the prophecy of Isaiah and the announcement of John the Baptist. We’re being told to get ready, to prepare our hearts and minds, but not because that is what will cause the Lord to come. Oh no! The Lord is coming regardless of whether we are ready or not. The message is for us to live in the expectancy and joy of this great news. The symbol of the highway is for us.
At the Kniseley home we have a practice that I think is special. Whenever one of us, either Pastor Carol or me, is home after dark before the other, we turn on the floodlights over the driveway, and we turn on the porch light. It’s our way of saying “I’m expecting you” and “I love you”. Today we’re being asked to do something like this in our lives for Jesus.
Today I invite you to continue preparing the royal highway, the portion entrusted to you in your heart and the portion entrusted to us a congregation.
So with the prophets Isaiah and John, may we also declare: Let us prepare the way of the Lord.