“Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this second Sunday of Advent is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the opening verses of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, Peter wrote in our Epistle lesson for today: “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” God’s people have almost always been waiting. Every once in awhile, a generation comes along where the promises of God are fulfilled in their midst, but most of the time, we wait. The Israelites waited four hundred years for God to deliver them from Egypt, and the gap between the Old and New Testaments, only a page in most of our bibles, extends for another four hundred years. And we haven’t even talked about the greatest period of waiting yet: in my bible up here in the pulpit, there are one thousand and four pages between God’s promise of a Savior in Genesis chapter three and the opening words of our text: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But before we get to Jesus, God has yet one more messenger to send, John.
John was a unique man of God, the last in a long line of Old Testament prophets, he did not seem to fit in the refined world of Roman Judea. “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.” John’s very appearance preached a sermon, he was dressed in the clothing of repentance. His shirt was very uncomfortable, but it reminded him and all others that he was conceived and born in sin. His food was a sacrifice, but what else would more graphically remind him and others of how they had rebelled against God? He was a man hardened by the desert, he was a product of that treacherous wasteland. Throughout the Scriptures, it is the desert prophets who are most fiery, they have an earthy, bold quality to them, and John was no exception.
For John was the one prophesied in Isaiah and elsewhere in Scripture, he was a part of the plan of salvation. Mark gives us the reference: “Behold I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” John preached a fiery message of repentance, but his message was not only for his day. He is also preaching to you and me- ‘Repent and prepare for the coming of the Lord!’ The Advent season is a season of preparation for us all right, as we are reminded how many shopping days we have left and we pay attention to our decorations and pocketbooks. But John is preaching to you and me, ‘Have you prepared yourselves for the coming of your Lord? Do you realize that your sin separates you from God? Do you know that you are mortal?’ Here he is only echoing Isaiah’s prophecy in our Old Testament lesson for today: “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.” This desert preacher then confronts us then with one word- ‘Repent!’ He urges us to confess our sins this Advent season, to live a life of repentance, remembering and confessing the sins, our sins, that stirred up God’s wrath. He asks us, ‘How often do you confess your sins to God and one another? How often do you admit your sins, even to yourself?’ The prophet cries out to us as he did in our text, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”
By preaching this message of repentance, by calling on all people, you, me, and the people of his day, to confess their sins and prepare themselves for the coming Savior, John built the way of the Lord. That is how we can look at John, as a construction worker, as a builder. In that way He is no different than any of the other prophets. From the very first promise of a Messiah in Genesis chapter three, God has been calling men to build a road for Jesus Christ, a paved highway for the Savior to tread. Men like the patriarchs and Moses laid the foundation, and each successive generation added a layer or completed what had come before. When the final builder, John, came on the scene, he had the tasks of putting the finishing touches on the paving stones, making sure that all was in earnest for the coming of the Lord. For this would be a highway of salvation, and it led to a cross.
For the one whose way John prepared would be the agent of salvation, God in the flesh come to do battle with the powers of darkness. John never pointed to himself, but instead his finger was outstretched toward the coming one Jesus Christ, his cousin according to the flesh, but yet His Lord and Savior. “And he preached, saying, ‘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.’” Jesus was mightier that John because John was only a messenger, Jesus Christ was the message. He became Incarnate as a little baby to do battle with Satan, to do what John and all humanity was unable to do, He fought on our behalf. Jesus engaged our Enemy at every turn, casting out demons, healing the scourge of sin, but these were only small victories compared to the battle He was marching toward. In Jerusalem, the battle was joined, and Jesus Christ went to the cross for us and our sin, He took on Satan head on by enduring the wrath of God for our sin. Satan tried everything he could to deter Jesus from the cross, he tried to convince Jesus to come off of that instrument of torture, but instead Jesus endured. His love for you was so great that He who had no sin was willing to become sin for you and die in your place. Jesus engaged Satan in battle that day and gave up His life. Own foes thought the battle was won. But on Easter Sunday Christ triumphed over sin, Satan, and death, but the victory was not for Himself, it was for you, me, and all people.
And now this message goes out throughout the world, as our Old Testament lesson puts so beautifully: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 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.” This victory, this comfort, this pardon is yours for the sake of Christ, He did this all for you! And so we are like the heralds that Isaiah describes: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; behold, His reward is with Him!”
And this reward now comes to us. John prophesied: “I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The baptism of John was for the forgiveness of sins, but it was still incomplete. It looked forward to the great victory of Christ over Satan on Calvary’s cross, it anticipated all that God was about to do through His Son. Moreover, it anticipated Christian baptism. John’s baptism brought the Old Testament to a close, as one final prophecy of what God was about to do in Christ. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, John’s baptism was transformed into Christian Baptism. Both baptisms provided forgiveness and a new relationship with God, but only the Baptism initiated by Good Friday and Easter Sunday involved a death and resurrection- yours and mine. On our Baptism day, God incorporated us into the death and resurrection of His Son, as Paul says: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” The old, sinful Adam in us was put to death, drowned in the water with the word, but in that very same water God gave life, He rose up a new person to live before Him in His kingdom forever. It was in that washing that you were incorporated into Christ’s victory over Satan, and therefore, you now have all the benefits thereof. He also gave you the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift that John’s baptism could not give, a gift that strengthens you to live as a Christian, a gift that strengthens your faith, a gift that brings Christ to you. The Holy Spirit is much like John- He is always pointing to Jesus.
In this Advent season, our task is much the same as John: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” We live in the wilderness of a sinful world, a world that is in rebellion against God and the Messiah He sent. Our voices in this world are the voices of John, the voice calling in this wilderness to prepare the way of our Lord. We call this world to repentance through our words and actions, and then proclaim the One who defeated humanity’s enemies on our behalf, the one who triumphed with His death and resurrection. Moreover, we live the lives of repentance that John called us to, we live out our Baptisms each and every day by dying to sin and rising to Christ. Baptism shapes our lives into the form of a cross and calls to mind daily what God did for us there, as He claimed us as His child for the sake of Christ. May the Lord preserve and strengthen you in your baptismal life as you walk through this Advent season, and may we all meet with joy the coming Christ that John declares, Amen.