John 1:23 I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord".
Sermon for Advent 3
It’s sometimes the case that when a new minister comes to a parish, or there's a new doctor in the local surgery, or a new class teacher in the primary school: people want to know, are they nice?
Being nice is hardly an epithet appropriate to John the Baptist – although in John he is more sympathetically portrayed than in Matthew and Luke – where he utters the immortal words, not normally printed on evangelistic leaflets, ‘you brood of vipers!’ to the Pharisees that come to him for baptism.
But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt this Advent and ask what was so memorable about his message, and what can we take from it for ourselves.
So, three things about John the Baptist and his message:
1. He sees himself as preparing the way.
Advent is a time of preparing the way – for Christ to be born amongst us again - and a time to think about his second coming too.
For John the Baptist, 'preparing the way' was figurative for getting people ready for the coming of the Messiah.
He didn’t go along the path in the desert with a broom, sweeping the sand off the path so Jesus could walk on by; his preparation was spiritual.
And it’s the same for us.
In many respects the Christian life is about preparing the way, year in year out.
What we prepare is our hearts, to receive Christ – as the hymn says ‘where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.’
So it’s not just at Advent that we prepare our hearts for Christ – it’s really all year round.
Preparing a way in your heart for Christ is as good a description of discipleship as any, in fact.
Here, the heart is the centre of our personality, the driver of everything we are – ‘man’s entire mental and moral activity, both the rational and emotional elements. In other words, the heart is used figuratively for the hidden springs of the personal life’ (from http://www.awakentoprayer.org/heart_in_script.htm).
But what does preparing your heart entail?
This question leads us to the second point about John the Baptist:
2. He calls people to repentance.
Because the best (and in fact the only) way to prepare for Christ is through repentance.
Repentance is not an entirely easy topic, even for Christians, perhaps especially for Christians, as we can become overly familiar with the confession we say in church week by week.
What does repentance look like for someone who’s been a Christian a long time?
In some ways, it’s easier to imagine someone who’s been estranged from Christ over something quite major, coming suddenly to value repentance.
What of all of the small sinners, who can’t recall the last time they truly felt sorry for anything.
Here it can be helpful to find a spiritual advisor, someone who knows how to discern God’s work in your life and who will suggest ways in which the arteries of the spiritual heart may have got clogged up along the way.
Another way is to read inspiring literature, to see how someone else a bit further along the path has grown in the ways of discipleship.
One such writer for me has been the elderly American pastor Gordon MacDonald, whose book A Resilient Life, really spoke to me this year.
His description of repentance is apt as we think about John the Baptist, out there in the desert.
He writes of a meadow, which he and his wife bought to clear and develop.
First the meadow needed to be cleared of boulders – these were big things, obvious from the surface, and a hindrance to planting.
They were relatively easy to see, and therefore easy to remove.
Then came the middle sized rocks, also fairly easy to see and to remove.
Finally, there were small pebbles scattered over the meadow – there were more of these, and they were less serious, but eventually they were cleared too.
He likens all this to the obvious things in our life that need attention – and the less obvious things, though still seen by God.
Then he takes the clearing of the meadow metaphor one stage further.
He writes, ‘when we cleared the field of its rocks and boulders, and cut back the vegetation so that the grasses could grow, we didn’t anticipate one thing that the locals could have told us if we’d asked. We didn’t know that underneath the soil (shallow as it is) were countless other rocks and boulders, each of which would make their individual appearance in time. As the winter frost went deep into the ground each year, it would thrust up many of these rocks and boulders. In the spring I would climb on my tractor mower and suddenly hear the blade hit a rock I’d never seen before. When I checked, I would be surprised to see the face of a rock peeking up from the soil. I hadn’t known it was there before. And when I tried to pry the rock loose, I often discovered that it wasn’t a rock, it was a boulder – much bigger than a breadbasket – and it had been there all the time’ (p. 122).
Repentance means we take seriously those things below the surface that only the Holy Spirit can point out to us, though we need to be willing and keen for this to happen, and to take steps to make it happen.
So John the Baptist prepares the way; he calls his hearers to repentance, and finally,
3. He points to Jesus.
Do our lives point to Jesus?
We’ve already mentioned that in John’s gospel we have no ‘brood of vipers’ speech – just John pointing to someone else.
This is John stripped down to the bare essentials – he points beyond himself to Christ - a mere signpost.
His life is in exact contrast to the self-promotion of our culture.
And before we run to judge our culture, when did we last do something, perhaps an act of random kindness, that went entirely unnoticed, and feel happy with that?
It’s not that easy to point beyond ourselves, to let someone else take the credit.
But it is the calling of every Christian.
We point, not to ourselves, but to Christ.
Could someone look at your life and see the connection between your faith in Christ and the fruits of the Spirit in you; see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness and self-control?
Do you have a holy frustration for God, akin to that of Isaiah, who cries out, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!’?
As we approach the final countdown to Christmas, let’s learn form John the Baptist, who, though he may not have been 'nice', knew that we need to prepare the way of the heart; who called his hearers to repentance and who pointed beyond himself to the Christ who was coming, and is coming still.