The 2nd Sunday of Advent always introduces us to John the Baptist. John is described as a relative of Jesus through his mother Mary and her relative Elizabeth although we’re not sure of exactly what that relationship is. John the Baptist is a very important figure as he appears in all the gospels and each begins by telling of his ministry. John sets the stage for the One who is to come, namely Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In today’s modern society we might not fully understand this reference but to the Jews they certainly understood.
The Lamb of God was a reference to the Old Testament sacrifice where a lamb was sacrificed and the blood of the Lamb was poured out onto the altar to cleanse the people of their sins. It was also the blood of a Lamb that saved the Israelites in Egypt when the destroying angel came to take the life of every first born. But the Israelite were told that if they took the blood of a Lamb and painted it onto their doorposts then the angel would “Passover” their house and they would be safe. And this now symbolises what happens for us in Holy Communion with the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, in the Sacrament to forgive our sins and assure us of God’s judgment “passing over” us.
John is the last of the prophets and like the prophets of old he came, not to speak his own words to the people but the Word of God given to him by God. Just as God spoke the Word to the people through the prophets in the past, God is speaking the Word once again through the prophet John. With John’s arrival we begin to move from the promises of the Old Testament to their fulfillment in the gospels. Israel has been waiting a long time for God’s promise and now John is sent to prepare them so they don’t lose heart and so they recognise the Messiah when he finally comes. And one of the characteristics of John is that he doesn’t beat around the bush. There’s no escaping, or watering down, what John is asking: “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins….” He’s calling people to change their ways, not just a cosmetic makeover, but a complete turning around. He wants people to stop going in their own direction, making decisions based on their own preferences and move towards God and be open to what God is about to do for them. Such a turning would require profound change in their thinking and acting.
As Christians we have often be very good at pointing this out for others – that THEY have to change their ways and come back to God. What we need to remember is that John’s message is directed to us. John was not giving us the message to take to the world but was calling us personally to repent. Most people don’t have to be told that they are sinners even if they are not familiar with the term. Many carry the burden of guilt with the throughout their lifetime. That guilt affects how we think of God, ourselves and how we treat others. When you look at Jesus, the one John pointed to, he also comes with that same message to us, repent for the Kingdom of God is near. This is a positive message different to the negative message of repent or you’ll spend eternity in Hell. But as he goes about he 3 year ministry with his disciples the message now will become outward focused on how a repentant life looks. For example, that passage on the separation of sheep and goats when he says: ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ Likewise when Jesus was asked the greatest commandment, it was outward focused – Love the Lord your God with all your heart – AND love your neighbour as yourself.
Repentance is a personal message to ourselves. I don’t recall, and correct me if I’m wrong, neither Jesus or John told us to go out into the world and tell people to repent.
Jesus did give us a Commission in Matthew 28: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
Notice that in John’s message to us it is a Baptism of repentance but in Jesus commission to us it is a Baptism of teaching. And how did Jesus teach about love – by loving. How did he teach about forgiveness – by forgiving. John’s message is a message to us personally to remove anything that prevents us from experiencing Jesus in our lives. In his message Luke uses a quote from Isaiah to symbolise what things stop us from experiencing the fullness of Jesus in our lives as he tells us to “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. He says: Every valley shall be filled,
Valleys are places of emptiness. So many people, especially in these times of pandemic and lockdowns have felt their faith to be empty valleys. Jesus comes to fill them with hope and joy to remove the despair and emptiness that we feel. So many people have struggled in their spiritual lives feeling empty and void but Jesus leads us again to have them filled with his presence in our worship and time of prayer and reading God’s word. As Psalm 23 says – He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul
He says: every mountain and hill shall be made low. Life sometimes feels like we are constantly going uphill and never getting a break. It’s one thing after another sometimes that it almost feels like we are pushing against God at times – or that God is pushing against us. But Jesus comes to make the mountains and hills low for us as he says – come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. As much as it may feel like it at times Jesus is never pushing against us – he is with us as our Immanuel.
He says the crooked path shall be made straight, Again, Jesus deals with the many distractions in life that lead us away from him. They can be our busy lifestyles – they can be our stresses and pressures in life which lead us away from church, from our prayer life, from our bibles. But, as Psalm 23 says – He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. In those times when we find it hard to come to Jesus, Jesus comes to us.
Jesus makes those crooked paths that seem to lead away from Jesus straight so that Jesus comes to us.
And then finally we hear that rough ways are made smooth; Sometimes life is just tough. The suffering – the lockdowns – the worries about life – relationships, money, employment. Sometimes we just don’t feel like spending time with God. And believe me I hear that a lot. And sadly many people at that time walk away from God. It’s just too rough. They are very rough places to navigate.. But Jesus came to make them smoother by reassuring us that he is with us. Again, as Psalm 23 says – Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Jesus has been there – he wandered in the wilderness for 40 days without food and drink. He was rejected by his home town people. He was handed over to the Romans by his own people. They cried out to crucify him while they asked for a murderer to be set free. And most difficult, he felt abandoned by his own Father.
From the moment he was born with no room at the inn Jesus has experienced empty valleys – mountains and hills that he had to climb. He faced crooked and rough ways as he journey to the cross. So we have a saviour who has walked the walked before us and knows every valley, every hill and mountain, every wrong way which we are tempted to take and he is Emmanuel – God with us.
The message of John is a message to repent. To repent means to turn away from those crooked and rough ways filled with valleys and hills and to return to God. Not for judgment but for grace and mercy and strength.