Advent 3, 12/21/05, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church
“John, a son who prepares”
Almighty God, through John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, you once proclaimed salvation; now grant that we may know this salvation and serve you in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. (Collect for Advent 3, LW, 12-13)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This beginning, as with other beginnings, starts with a word. In the beginning, God spoke and it was. In the beginning was the Word. And so it goes in the beginning of Mark’s gospel—-better: Jesus’ Gospel. First, the written word of the prophet of God: “Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight’” (Mark 1:2-3). Second, a preached word, a proclaimed word: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). Third, the Word made flesh; the One both preaching and being preached. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
What good are these words? For that matter, what good are any words? Words are expendable; words are a dime a dozen, or cheaper. Words are not to be trusted because words can be misused and twisted. And shall we heed the words of a dirty desert-dweller? His words are as wild and unpredictable as the elusive insects he eats.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John does not bring meaningless words which can be laughed off. He does not bring words devoid of content or words easily dismissed. His mandate is clear: “A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass” (Isaiah 40:6-7).
How does John prepare the way for the Lord? First with a warning: repent or else. That is no empty threat. Repent, you dry grass, or else be burned to make way for the highway of the Lord. What need has creation’s God of withering grass and fading flowers? Make no mistake; the highway of the Lord is coming. “The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5). It’s only a question of where you will be in relationship to Him. And we cannot at first seek comfort in the fact that “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8). That is not comforting if the Word of God stands against you! If you are crooked, you too will be put straight. All flesh shall see it. Every knee will bow. “The knees will be broken for those who don’t know how.”
Do you walk in the straight way? Are the pathways of your heart prepared for the coming of your Lord and mine? Or are they still twisted and dead-ended by the lusts of your flesh and the desires of your eyes? I like to think I’m prepared. I get complacent. I rest easy in my cheap grace. And then the shock of realizing that I haven’t changed one bit; not really. I’m still that same selfish man whom I deceive myself into thinking I got rid of at some point along the way. It still does not come easily to think of others before myself. The Old Man does not go quietly. And Jesus asks that terrible question: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth (Luke 18:8)? More to the point: when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith in me? Will He find faith in you?
John the Baptizer still speaks, and his words of warning still put sinners to death, because they are the words given to him by God to prepare the way of the Lord. It is really not John who prepares the way at all, but God Himself who prepares His own way by His own Word. He is the one who sent the messenger John before the face of Jesus to make ready His way. And it is still God who sends messengers to proclaim John’s message of repentance, making ready the way of the Christ—-even now, even here.
In the beginning of the good message of Jesus Christ, there are words. They are ground-tilling words, clearing words, clear-cutting words. Everything that stands opposite the holiness of God will be removed.
Oh, but there are other words! The Baptizer’s words are wild; yet, is that something sweet beneath his locust words? Something like honey to the taste? The words calling for a baptism of repentance are not an end unto themselves. They have a purpose: forgiveness of sins; forgiveness for sinners. John, this son of God who prepares, does not come to prepare a way that is empty. Yes, he comes to make the paths straight and remove the obstacles in the way of God’s holy Messiah. Yes, he comes to level proud mountains and raise humble valleys. Yes, he comes to declare that without repentance people are damned. But John does not speak so that the Lord will be the only one on His highway, the only one in His kingdom. The highway is for the redeemed. “It shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way” (Isaiah 35:8). The Lord will have a people for Himself.
In the beginning was the Word. That Word did not come the first time with pomp and power. He did not come the first time with consuming fire and double-edged sword. The Word was unthinkably concealed in unspeaking, newborn flesh. What kind of word is this? But here, in human skin, blood and bone, the Word spoke clearly and loudly to those who have ears to hear: “I am a Word who comes for you. I am a Word who speaks not from on high, over and against you, but in the midst of you; I speak from a mouth of flesh to ears of flesh. I, the Word made flesh, am here, setting up my tent among you. I am here to speak the will of God to you. I, the Word, am His living voice to you.”
John’s words pointed to the living Word: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8). And He has. He does. This mighty one is the helpless one in the manger. But this helpless one is Almighty God Himself. In Him, the baptism for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit come together.
In your beginning, there was the Word. It was the Word with the water, and though you heard it in the voice of a pastor, it was the very voice of God. Whether it was at the beginning of your physical life or not, it was a beginning. In that water with the word, He gave His life to you. That life that He lived perfectly from the manger to the cross is yours. Yours is His life; yours is His death; and, most importantly, yours is His resurrection.
The word that John spoke to prepare the way for the Lord is the very same word that was spoken to you in your baptism. The way had to be prepared, but how were you going to prepare it? You were dead! Dead stuff needs to be out of the way when the King comes, and dead stuff does not move on its own. And so Christ Himself, God made flesh, prepared His own way in you by His Holy Spirit. He still burns the dead grass of your old, sinful self, but it is only to make you new. It is only so he can bring you back to life, to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever. He took your old life with Him to the cross, and your life is now His: righteous, delighting in His Word to you.
The Word of our God does stand forever, but it does not stand against you, judging you. It stands for you. He stands for you, interceding on your behalf before the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. He stands forever, and He will not revoke His promises to you. “How sweet [O Lord] are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Psalm 119:103)!
He is coming soon. Are you prepared? Has the Word of God in the mouth of John done its work in you? “Do you not know,” St. Paul asks, “that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Indeed, you are prepared. The paths of your heart have been straightened on the cross, washed in your baptism, cleared of all ungodly debris. You are holy. And the Lord Christ comes to you and He makes His home with you.
“It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee…” (Mark 1:9). It will happen again in the latter days. Jesus will come, though not from Nazareth, and He will, by fire and the sword of His mouth, remake His creation as He originally intended it to be. At that time we will say with John the Baptist and all the saints: Here is the Word made flesh and it is only the beginning. Amen.
— [Timotheos], 12/16/05