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Advent 2 – John the Baptist

Comfort for God’s People

Isa 40:1  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Isa 40:2  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
Isa 40:3  A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Isa 40:4  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.
Isa 40:5  And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Today is the second Sunday in our journey towards Christmas. Last week we began this journey with Joseph – who reminded us to be grateful for the gift of life. And today we are using the story of John the Baptist – who prepared the way for Jesus.

John is a preacher in the desert. But he is not just any preacher: he comes from a very distinguished family: He is the son of a senior priest in the temple called Zechariah, who was a holy man who served God in the inner courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem. John also belongs to a clan of priests called the Levites,  that go all the way back to Aaron, the brother of Moses. In addition to this, there was a prophesy over him when he was born: an angel told his father this about John:

Luke 1:15-16: He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God

So here is the special one. He comes from a respectable lineage, he is the son of a holy man, and has had spiritual prophesy over him. The temple leadership would have expected great things from him –

I can almost hear them talking as they watched him grow up:

John has a great future ahead of him…. He’s a good preacher – comes from a fine family: Perhaps he can be the one who gets the people back into the temple.”

But then things go wrong: because John seems to lose his way –

  • He leaves the temple accommodation and the delicious temple food and goes to live out in the desert, where he scrounges for food as best he can – sometimes eating locusts, and fighting with the bees to collect some honey.
  • He leaves his beautiful priestly robes and instead he dresses in the clothes of the poorest people: The Bible says that he dressed in a camel hair tunic with a bit of leather to tie it closed.
  • He leaves his paid duties of offering prayers and incense, and instead becomes a wandering preacher who depended on the goodwill gifts of the people.

And the temple leadership was worried! So they sent some of their leaders to track him down:

John 1:19-23  And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
Joh 1:20  He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
Joh 1:21  And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”
Joh 1:22  So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
Joh 1:23  He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

When we hear the temple leaders asking “Who are you?” they are not asking his name – they already know him! He’s the son of Zechariah – he is the favourite son of the temple.

They are asking: “What has happened to you? We no longer recognize you…Who have you become?

And John puzzles them all by offering an indirect answer: “I will quote from the Prophet Isaiah: I am the one who prepares the way of the Lord.”

The words in Isaiah speaks of leveling off the mountain:

and filling in the valleys

and widening the road

These are all activities that were familiar to the people of the Bible: They are the activities that would take place before the arrival of a ruler: The roads in Israel were notoriously bad: they were literally just trails that people walked – or used for donkeys.

But when a powerful person wanted to make an impression he would arrive in his war chariot: and so the runners would go ahead to warn the people that they needed to fix up the roads.

This would mean leveling off the bumps,  And filling in the holes:
So that by the time the ruler arrived: a highway was built.

Here are two preachers: Isaiah and John the Baptist:

Who are announcing the arrival of an important Lord.
And they use the familiar language – “Prepare the road for the Lord”.

This was difficult for the temple leadership to hear – because their chosen preacher wasn’t doing things as they wanted:

He was announcing the arrival of an anointed one of God – but he was doing it wrong: he ought to have been doing this in the temple. Because this was the place where all the important people were.

  • King Herod went to the temple – in fact he was heavily invested in renovating the temple.
  • The rich and the powerful went to the temple…
  • And any half-decent preacher would surely want to make this announcement at the temple.

But instead of honoring the powerful, important people in the Temple…. John was hanging out with the general population at the river outside of Jerusalem.

The priests wanted the people to come to the temple – but John left the temple to join the people at the river.

This is the essence of the way God works throughout the Bible –

Remember the words of Isaiah:

Isa 40:1  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. :2  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem

God’s messenger was to be found with those who need comfort: the poor, and the uneducated and the generally unwashed masses.

So what can we take away from this story?

  1. Prepare the Way for the Lord

I am bringing us the words of Isaiah and John:

that you and I prepare for the coming of the Lord.

Core to our faith is the fact that Jesus did not only came to live with us 2000 years ago: we anticipate this coming Christmas as another opportunity to refresh our faith.

Isaiah invites us to level off the mountain:

and fill in the valleys

and widen the road

And John says “Prepare the way for the Lord”.

So here is the question:

What do we need to do to prepare our road to Christmas?

  • Are there obstacles we could remove to make our journey to Christmas more meaningful?
  • Do we need to clear away the potholes of pain that have crossed our paths this year?
  • Do we need to erase the mountains of angry words, or the valleys of broken relationships?

Let us not arrive at the Christmas dinner with the family and we have not mended the roads between everyone in the room.

And maybe we could continue to walk in the tradition of John the Baptist by reminding other  people that the King is coming!

This is the purpose of Advent – to remind people that Christmas is more than food, and presents and family gathering –

It is the arrival of one who seeks to be the King of our lives.

 

 

  1. The Lord comes to comfort his people

I am bringing us the words of Isaiah and John:

that you and I go down to the river and comfort the people. .

This is a good time to remember that the story of Jesus happens in  a small rural village and not in Jerusalem

It happens in a stable and not in a palace

It happens at the river and not in the temple

 

We need to be reminded that the coming of Jesus is not only for those of us who hang out in the respectable, religious places…..

  • He is for those who never ever get to the religious places
  • He is for those who think that they are too unholy to make it to the places of worship:

Let us leave the temples, and the churches, and our fine religious homes,  and get down to the river:

Get down to the places where the people hang out – and tell them the good news: the Lord has come for all of us – both saints and sinners alike.

 

So we have Two weeks:

Two weeks to get ready for Christmas.

Fix that road …mend the pathways between the people around us.

I wonder if there someone who comes to mind right now?

Challenge you to use the next two weeks to fix it – even if it is a phone call.

Comfort those who struggle ….  Is there someone you can bless this Christmas?

And remember it is even more satisfying if you can bless someone without them knowing who did it!

I am so tired of those people who come in to comfort people – and then make sure that their selfie is taken of their good deed:

 

Jesus in fact says that we are not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing.

Allow me to challenge you to start planning your secret Santa now!

So here is my wish for you: May this Christmas be a time of road fixing – and people comforting – and Jesus following: Amen.

 

“To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936)