Prepare The Way Of The Lord
1. "There is a voice crying out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path,'" (Mark 1:3).
2. In the second service of Advent, it is this crying voice that we are given. We are given this message of "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path" at this time when Christmas is coming right up upon us. [The Lord] is leading us to spend this period of Advent along with this voice.
The Way The Lord Is Coming
3. For us to really know what this message means I think we should first muse over the phrase "the way of the Lord." This section is bracketed off. It is an Old Testament quote. It is introduced with the words, "Thus it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah." Strictly speaking, all of it is not a quote from Isaiah. Only verse three comes from Isaiah. And it is not even a literal quote at that. Since it would help our understanding to know where this phrase comes from, let's open up to it for starters.
4. Please open to Isaiah chapter forty and verse three. The text reads as follows, "There is a voice calling out to you. Prepare a way in the wilderness for the Lord and make a wide path in the wilderness for our God." The words are quite different, yet it is clear that the passage we just looked at before is derived from this section. So then, what might have been the meaning of the prophecy from Isaiah originally?
5. Preparing the way in the wilderness for the Lord must be for the Lord God to go through. Where is God going to? Zion is God's destination. It is Jerusalem. So in verse nine it says, "Climb the high mountain, o people who spread the good news to Zion." What it means that God is going through a way prepared in the wilderness and is going to Zion is that the glory of God once departed from Jerusalem. In fact, a Jerusalem in ruins is at the background to this prophecy. The capital, destroyed by the Babylonian military, and a burned down temple are [at the background to this prophecy].
6. Why did God's capital city end up in ruins? Why was the temple of the Lord destroyed? The scripture does not view these events as mere military defeats. It speaks of them as the judgment of God and no less. It says this in verse two, "Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, call out to her, the time of turmoil is now passed, her sins are atoned for." A Jerusalem laid waste is exactly the image [of her we see] in that time of turmoil. But, it says that God is returning back to it. For that reason a voice is echoing out addressing them to "prepare the way in the wilderness."
7. Why, then, is God coming? It says this in verse ten, "Look, [here is] the Lord God. He is coming girded with strength, he will rule by his arm." God is coming for the purpose of reigning over his people. He is coming to bring his government. In the Old Testament, a king is often times illustrated as a shepherd. God is coming as a king and he will tend to his sheep as a true shepherd. "The Lord will nourish the flock as a shepherd, gather them with his arms, hold his lambs to his bosom, and will guide their mothers," says the scriptures, (verse eleven).
8. This is a prophecy of the restoration of the people of God. Also, the important thing, as it is written here, is that the restoration of the people of God and the coming of the rule of God lie in an indivisible bond. It was an historical event where the ones who rebuilt Jerusalem were the people repatriated back from Babylon to Jerusalem. From their own hands the temple was rebuilt and the defensive wall of Jerusalem was repaired back. Jerusalem became a place people could live in. The returnees reconstituted a new social order. Some of them probably thought just getting their every day lives back was all that the prophecy meant. But, that was not a fulfillment of what the prophets said. It didn't [mean] the rebuilding of the city, the rebuilding of the race, or to put it another way, the restoration of the people of God. The real restoration from the ruins brought about by sin will not be brought in by human hands. It would not just be like it was before. Only when the Lord God comes through the way of the Lord and when God governs as the true king is there full salvation and true restoration.
9. Therefore, after several centuries, the same voice echoes in the wilderness. "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path." Within the history of the people of God and the world, an unmistakable thing has always happened. Is the Lord God coming through the way of the Lord? Is the Lord coming to establish his rule among the people? That's what has always happened, there has always been this hope spoken by the prophets in the process of coming to fulfillment. God has been intending to come through one person into history and reveal his work of salvation. He has been wanting to establish his rule and make the kingdom of God come through one person, the long awaited Christ.
10. John says this about the one who is to come, "One better than me is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. I baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit," (verse eight). In The Gospel Of Matthew, it goes like this "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire," (Matthew 3:11).
11. I suppose John was thinking that [Jesus] was perhaps the judge executing the last judgment with fire. But, Christ did not come as one to judge sin. God didn't intend to destroy sinners and then set up his government. He did not come as one to rule with power but came as a servant carrying the load of sin and to offer his own life as a price for sin. Later the Lord would put it like this, "The son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to offer up his own life as a ransom for many," (Mark 10:45).
12. However, the words themselves which John spoke were not totally wrong at all. "He will baptize with the Holy Spirit." He was the very one who bore the sin of humanity, brought reconciliation with God, and gave the Spirit of God. He did not give the Holy Spirit as fire of judgment, but as the creative work of God and as a spirit giving life. That's how the rule of God is brought in. By a baptism according to the Holy Spirit.
13. "The baptism of the Holy Spirit" - this phrase is often linked to some special experience and some special understanding. Of course, there's no need to deny many different experiences as a work of the Holy Spirit. But, the Holy Spirit is God. The Spirit of God is definitely much greater than human experience or understanding. In the Bible, it is not without significance that the work of the Holy Spirit is actually expressed in various symbols. It's important that we can't express its meaning by one simple expression. Similarly, the baptism of the Holy Spirit doesn't seem to be a matter to be explained away in simplicity.
14. Rather than asking about what is the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the important thing is that the living God wants to make us alive under his rule through the work of the Holy Spirit. God is coming and will rule over us. The cross of Christ, his resurrection, and the descent of the Holy Spirit, all were going in the direction of God's ruling over us. Christ came for that very reason. God is coming and will rule over us. We are made the people of God that God rules over based on the workings of Christ. In that lies full restoration and true salvation for humanity.
Make His Path Straight
15. But then, how is the way of the Lord made ready? What did John really do as a person making the way of the Lord ready? It says this in verse four, "John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness and proclaimed the baptism of repentance for the purpose of letting one obtain a pardon for sin," (verse four). This is preparing the way of the Lord. It was a preparation to welcome Christ. It was a preparation for the expected coming kingdom of God. The scriptures tell us that as a result of how John proclaimed the baptism of repentance, "All the inhabitants of the entire region of Judah and Jerusalem came to John, confessed sin, and received baptism by him in the Jordan River," (verse five).
16. Baptism was not just some idea John the Baptizer came up with. At first glance, akin to this is the bathing stipulated in the Old Testament book of Leviticus (Leviticus 15:13). Actually, as there was in Judaism back in that day an ascetic group that practiced bathing or ritual washing, John is often linked to such a group that used to live in seclusion out in the wilderness. But, in a reading limited to this passage, since the baptism that he proclaimed was a decisive act limited to one time that was connected to repentance, bathing seems essentially different. The baptism of John could be thought of as closer to a baptism of a convert. The baptism of a convert is the baptism that a non Jew receives upon converting over to Judaism.
17. If we think along that line, we can see in it the nature of the baptism movement. The baptism of a convert meant that a person who did not, so to speak, know God would be born again having the defilement of his or her sins committed to that point washed away. But yet, John did practice a baptism similar to this with the Jews as well. We can very well imagine how difficult it was for the Jews in their strictness to accept this. The text says, "All the inhabitants of the entire region of Judah and Jerusalem came to John," but in reality there were many who never came to him. In this gospel account in chapter eleven there are chief priests, scribes, and elders who did not go to John. Why wouldn't they receive the preaching of John? Because they wouldn't think of themselves as sinners who must be truly forgiven or who must have the filth of their sins cleansed just as the Gentiles had to. In short, those who regarded themselves as righteous did not go to John. Only those who admitted their sins and confessed they were sinners then received the baptism of repentance.
18. Repentance means to change direction. It is to turn to God. Changing directions means to be able to admit one's direction is wrong. In Jewish society at that time I think that the general public besides the nobility and those with special rights were forced to live a harsh life. Many must have sought deliverance. But, the people, who would only groan and curse the misery of their lives and their painful realities, did not repent. Those who thought that everyone but them bore such pain because of evil would not repent. Those claiming that the world is evil, society is evil, the times are evil, the environment we live in is evil, our parents are evil, our husbands or wives are evil, consider everything the responsibility of someone else and on top of all that they consider even God as evil and refuse to ever repent.
19. But, it's not true, there were people who noticed that in the preaching of John the way they lived their lives was not quite right. They noticed that they were sinful in need of forgiveness. And such persons as these received baptism coming to John having thrown off the shackles of pride as a Jew and of those around them. This repentance was a preparation to truly welcome Christ and receive the expected coming rule of God. This is precisely what preparing the way of the Lord as the coming Lord God and making straight his paths means.
20. It is not human evil itself that hinders living under the rule of God or living as a person restored under the grace of God. It is not the sinful world of every day life that prevents acceptance of Christ. That's not the real hindrance, the hindrance to a relationship with Christ is rather an arrogance that sees oneself as righteous, a stubbornness that won't change direction come what may and a pride or a bad attitude that clings tenaciously for life and won't let go. That's what we see in this gospel. Sinners came to Christ. The so-called righteous were the ones who rejected Christ and shut themselves off from the kingdom of God.
21. "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path." We hear on this second week of Advent the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. We shouldn't go through this season in a mood along with our children of just enjoying Christmas presents. And we shouldn't spend it hounded and dazed by Christmas time preparations. We ought to call to mind the imagery of those countless people who confessed their sins, repented, changed directions and began to live at the River Jordan. We, too, should place ourselves among them there. The call to repentance, this season, is a message we have got to hear first.