|Text: Luke 3:4-5
As it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah: "Someone is shouting in the desert: "Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel! Every valley must be filled up, every hill and mountain levelled off. The winding roads must be made straight, and the rough paths made smooth."
Freeways are great, they enable us to get where we want quicker, avoiding towns and anything that would hold up our progress. Freeways provide smooth travelling Ė no dirt roads, no slow up hill climbs, no getting stuck behind semi-trailers and unable to pass, no windy and dangerous roads, no roundabouts, no frustration, just change lanes and away we go Ė just straight sailing.
Iím sure some of you recall what the road between here and Brisbane was like in days before the freeway, especially at holiday time. One lane going each way. Remember the slow travelling, long lines of traffic, the impatience and frustration as we slowly moved along stuck behind a caravan or heavy vehicle unable to pass because of on-coming traffic. Taking twice as long to get to our destination.
Then the freeway was built. Now as we sail down the freeway enjoying a hassle free trip the thoughts of those frustrating trips are a distant memory, that is, until the freeway is choked with cars. (Freeways in Europe are at least 4 lanes wide each way and very flat. In Germany the speed limit is 180 kph. Travelling between cities is very quick).
But before we can travel along a freeway a lot of work has to be done. For months, even years, men and machinery push and shove earth to build up the hollows, cut through hills and mountains, taking out the corners and curves and making the road flat, straight and smooth.
A freeway has been built between the town where my parents live and Adelaide. The landscape took on a dramatic change. Hills were demolished, gullies filled in, twisting roads made straight and flat. A tunnel has been dug under the Adelaide Hills to make a straight and smooth freeway into Adelaide. After a lot of work, what was once very windy and dangerous has become safe and quick.
Our text talks about making a freeway. John the Baptist quotes Isaiah. The Old Testament prophet is talking about people who are lost in a strange land. The people of God had been captured by the Babylonians, their cities and their beloved temple had been destroyed. They were taken far away as captives. Babylonia was one of the most advanced civilisations of the time, but as far as the Israelites were concerned they might as well have been out in the desert somewhere like their great grandparents who wandered around for 40 years. They were a long way from home, a long way from their much-loved city Jerusalem and the temple of God; it seemed even a long way from God himself. "How shall we sing Godís song in a strange land?" they sang. Even though many did very well for themselves in Babylon it just didnít seem right. This was not their home. This was a strange land.
Why did the people of God end up in such a miserable situation? They were fully aware that it wasnít just bad luck or fate or chance that had landed them in this strange place. They had sinned and turned away from Godís ways. They had been warned by Godís messengers, the prophets. They had ignored the word of the Lord and now they were paying the price. And they knew it.
Now the prophet is saying to those in exile that they are going home, but before they can go across the wilderness a freeway must be made, "every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, and rough ways made smooth." All obstacles, which block the way back home and make the return difficult, must be removed. God will reveal his glory and lead his people home.
I donít believe that Isaiah is talking about a modern freeway as we know it; he is talking about preparing for the coming of God to lead them home. Their sin had caused their exile in the strange land of Babylon and now the way must be made straight.
Today we heard how John the Baptist preached out in the wilderness. He is calling the people of God to prepare the way for the Lord, to get the road ready for the coming of the Lord, make it straight and level and smooth.
John isnít talking about making a freeway from one town to another; he is talking about a freeway where all obstacles have been removed for the coming of the Saviour into our lives. He is urging us to make smooth the rough places in our lives, fill in the hollows, make low the mountains and hills that would prevent us from welcoming Jesus into our hearts and lives.
John urges everyone to bring in the heavy earth moving equipment to move away all obstacles and level the path. The name of this heavy equipment is Repentance Ė it clears away all the rubbish and anything else that blocks the coming of the Lord.
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 greed, selfishness, unkindness and thoughtlessness.
Turn away from saying bad things about other people behind their backs.
Turn away from anger and a judgmental attitude that causes harm to others.
Turn away from laziness and a poor commitment to God and his church.
Turn away from everything that is contrary to the way God wants us to live as his people.
Clear away everything that stands between God and us. Thatís not an easy thing to do. Itís well near impossible, in fact it is impossible, for us to turn around our lives just by sheer will power. We enjoy certain sins. We are determined to not do something again and yet next thing you know, we are doing it again. We canít help doing, saying or thinking in ways that are harmful and hurtful. All these things are part of our sinful human nature. It doesnít mater how hard I try to change this, it will always come back. No sooner than we think that a certain obstacle is cleared away than it springs up again.
And here is the tough part.
The more we come to know God;
the closer our relationship with our Lord;
the more we study his word in the Bible;
the more we see the love that God has for us;
the more we become aware of the sinful obstacles that prevent us from truly being God's people in this world;
and the more we realise that we need God's help in levelling the hills and filling the gullies through repentance.
You might put it this way, in the brilliant light of Jesus and his love for us, in the flood light of the perfect God who made us to be perfect, we see just what a mess there is in our life that needs clearing up.
An elderly parishioner was suffering from poor eyesight. She couldnít see anything clearly anymore so she had surgery to remove cataracts. I picked her up from the hospital and took her home. As she walked into her kitchen a look of horror came over her face. The kitchen, that she thought had been left clean and tidy, had flour on the floor, spider webs in the corners, and a dried up puddle of milk on the table. When she couldnít see she thought everything was fine. Now that she could see again, she realised that what she had thought was clean actually was a mess.
Faith in Jesus gives us renewed eyesight. We see the obstacles and the crooked path that we have been travelling along. We see what needs to be cleared away. See that as God's people we have not, by any stretch of the imagination, lived as people who belong to God.
Luther said the same thing in the Large Catechism, "We can never stop cleaning out what comes from old Adam (our sinful nature); and whatever belongs to the new person has to keep on breaking through. What is the Ďold personí? He is what is born in us from Adam. He is bad-tempered, nasty, envious, immoral, greedy, lazy, high and mighty; in fact has no faith, is a slave to every evil habit, and by nature thereís no good in him. Now, when we enter Christís kingdom, all this is meant to get less and less each day, so that, as time goes on, we become more gentle, patient, and humble, and do away with greed, hatred, envy, and pride more and more. (Lutherís Large Catechism, Lutheran Publishing House 1983 page 181).
We all know that this is so hard to do. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we need to daily acknowledge our sin and turn away from it. Daily we need to make straight paths and make our relationship with God something that will affect everything we say and do. Daily we need to repent, to turn away from sin, to turn our lives around.
When asking a certain man why he didnít go to church anymore, he answered, "I donít go because itís too depressing. All the church talks about is sin. I donít need that kind of talk." And yes, I agree it would be horribly depressing to be reminded of your sin each week, if that is all you got to hear.
John the Baptist called people to repent and prepare the way for the Lord. And hereís the good news - Jesus was coming. For us Jesus has come. He came to deal with our sin. He died to ensure that we are forgiven. Our sins are cleared away. We are renewed as his people and recreated to be the people of God. We have been changed from self-serving and thoughtless people to people who let the love of God and their faith stifle their sinful habits and do those things that make us different from the rest of the world.
Along with the call for repentance is the
good news of forgiveness of sin. John the Baptist not only preached about sin,
but he shouted out loud the message of Godís grace and mercy.
The Good News is that a baby was born to bring peace to those who are troubled by sin.
The Good News is that Jesus died for us and forgives us for all the times we have slipped back into sin.
The Good News is that God comes in his Word and Sacraments and declares that we are made clean by the blood of Jesus.
Prepare the way of the Lord....
Repent. Thatís God Word for us today. As we wait for the day when he will
come again letís make straight paths for him. Letís fill in every valley, make
low every mountain and hill. Letís make straight the crooked roads, and make
smooth the rough ways.
Just as we tidy up the house, dust off the furniture, and decorate our homes for Christmas, letís prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord.
© Pastor Vince
7th December, 2003