Open the way
We hear John the Baptist calling, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.” (Luke 3:4-6).
It might be tempting to think that John the Baptist is calling us to some spectacular new achievements in order to prepare the way of the Lord; to create some massive earth-moving feat to be ready for coming of the Lord. The valleys that need to be filled in, the mountains that need to made low, the crooked roads that need to be made straight and the rough ways that need to be made smooth might be seen as metaphors for changes that we must make in our lives – a sin to be conquered, a heroic act of love to be performed – in order to be wholly worthy and ready for accepting the Lord into our lives.
Unfortunately, this way of viewing John’s words places the emphasis on us striving to reach certain goals of worthiness in the sight of God. There is an important biblical message that we need to re-emphasise. Listen to the words of Zechariah at the birth of John the Baptist, Our God is merciful and tender. He will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us and to shine from heaven on all those who live in the dark shadow of death, to guide our steps into the path of peace" (Luke 1:78-79).
When it comes to our salvation, Zechariah has got it right. It is God who “will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us and to shine from heaven”. It is God who takes the initiative. It is God who seeks us out and draws us near to him. He is a God who comes and reaches out to us without waiting for us to first meet any qualifications or achieve spiritual achievements no matter how dedicated and disciplined we might think we are. “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” (John 3:16). “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
God is not waiting for us to measure up before coming to us as if to reward us for the great and good things we have done. The Bible continually describes God’s love as seeking, calling, striving, persistent, never-failing. During Advent we see God’s love, ready to break into our world and to flood it with his brilliant light, when Jesus comes either as the baby of Bethlehem or riding on the clouds when he comes as King. God is coming, and the question is not “what do we have to do make God accept us” but “how will we receive him and his love for us”?
Imagine yourself lost and very hungry in some unfriendly bush land place. You don’t know which way to go to get out, but you know you will die if you don’t. It will require almost superhuman effort and endurance to hack your way through thick undergrowth, climb impossible mountains, slide down into the deepest valleys, cross the most dangerous fast flowing rivers and get to where there is safety and food and shelter. You are completely hemmed in by obstacles on every side. The task is impossible, and you’ve practically given up before you’ve begun.
However, your situation suddenly changes when you hear the approaching sound of a chopper. It’s spotted you and wants to land and rescue you. Your focus has changed. No longer are you looking what to do to find your own way out but how to clear a space for the chopper to land – to clear away any obstacles that would prevent the chopper from reaching you and getting you to safety.
And that is what is happening when John calls us to “prepare the way for the Lord”. Our task is not getting ourselves out of trouble by matching some kind of criteria so that we are ready for the Lord’s coming but rather “How can I be ready for his coming? What space do I need to make for him? What stands on the path between him and me that I need to clear away?”
This is where the word repent comes in. John urges everyone to bring in the heavy obstacle clearing equipment. Repentance clears away all the garbage and roadblocks and makes space for the coming of the Lord and the newness he is bringing into the hearts and lives of people.
When we hear the word repent, we think that this is gloomy and focuses too much on sin and darkness. We don’t want talk about repentance to spoil our Christmas cheer. But John the Baptist doesn’t want to spoil our Christmas fun, but make Christmas even better and more meaningful and even more joyful.
It’s a bit like getting ready for Christmas day in our homes. There is the buying, the sweeping, the cleaning, the cooking, the decorating, getting everyone to church on time – none of these things change the fact that Christmas is coming. It’s coming whether we do these things or not. What they do change is how we will celebrate Christmas.
John the Baptist isn’t asking how ready we are for our family Christmas dinner, but is giving us a reminder to take a look at how well, in the jungle and trouble of what happens in our world, we have cleared room in our lives for Jesus to love us, make us new, change us and hug us. He has come. How well have we received him? How well have we made space in our lives for Jesus to change us to be lights that change the world around us? How well have we been living the newness Christ has given us?
If we are honest, we have to reply to John the Baptist’s call to “prepare the way of the Lord” that we need God’s heavy sin-removing equipment – repentance and renewal every day. Someone rather bluntly put it this way. Before salvation comes damnation. To our modern minds that sounds a bit heavy handed but there is truth in this – before we can truly appreciate God’s gift of grace that comes down to us at Christmas, we must appreciate why there had to be the manger and then the cross in the first place. Without the manger and cross there is only damnation.
And so we take note of John’s call to repent, to take a long look at our lives and see what hills, valleys, boulders and mountains stand between us and our relationship with our loving God and us and loving others.
Repent, in other words, turn away from every obstacle, from that favourite sin that we know is wrong, but we enjoy it anyway. Turn away from the excuses we make about praying, hearing God through his Word, letting our faith show in critical times. Turn away from greed, selfishness, unkindness and thoughtlessness. Turn away from saying bad things about others behind their backs. Turn away from anger and a judgmental attitude. In short, what obstacles that crowd the love of Jesus out of our lives do we need to clear away so that again God’s love can reach us and shine into the lives of others.
“Prepare the way of the Lord”. That’s not an easy thing to do. It’s well near impossible, in fact it’s impossible for us to clear these things away just by sheer will power. We are determined to not do something again and yet next thing you know, we are doing it again. We can’t help doing, saying or thinking in ways that are harmful and hurtful. All these things are part of our sinful human nature. No sooner than we think that a certain obstacle is cleared away than it springs up again. I think you know what I mean. We all have those experiences.
And here’s the interesting part. The more we come to know God; the closer our relationship with our Lord; the more we study his Word; the greater we become aware of the sin in our lives and how that effects God, our relationship with him and the people in our lives; When we see how much God loves us, it is all the more painful when we see how helpless we are at fighting temptation. We need God's help in levelling the hills and filling the gullies through repentance.
Let’s go back to the chopper hovering overhead waiting for a clear space to land to rescue us. A rope is lowered down, and God sends us help – the Holy Spirit with faith, mercy and grace, strength and the confidence to make space in our lives to be like Christ in everything we say and do. He leads us to be more determined to love more, care more, pray more for others, be more thoughtful, more understanding, more aware of the needs of others.
Faith in Jesus gives us renewed eyesight. We see the obstacles and the crooked path that blocks our way to living the new life we have been given by Christ. We see what needs to be cleared away. We see that as God's people we have not, by any stretch of the imagination, lived as people who belong to God. With faith in God’s grace, we can confidently shove aside all that stands in the way of travelling along God’s road and live the new life that he given to us through his Son, Jesus.
Let’s be quite clear what John the Baptist is saying to the people of his time and to us today. “Get ready. God is sending a rescue mission”. John’s not asking us to do something to make God pay attention to our needs and to get God’s attention. God’s awareness of you and desire for communion with you is already heightened and yearning and searching and rushing towards you. When John says, “Get ready”, he means, make some space, clear away the obstacles that will shut you off from what God is offering – your fears, anxieties, your busyness, your over confidence in your own goodness that prevents you from seeing the rescue mission that God is sending. Open your eyes and ears to what God is doing. Be ready for the renewal that God is bringing into your life.
God’s love is eagerly seeking you and wants to flood you with joyous love and mercy and grace. In a few minutes we will be gathered around this table, and that in rushing love will be offered to you as broken bread and poured wine. Your outstretched open empty hands are a symbol of all that God needs to come flooding in an open heart, cleared and empty and willing to receive. Prepare the way of the Lord. Open up the pathway and receive.
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