Readings: Isaiah 11:1–10, Romans 15:4–13 & Matthew 3:1–12
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord”, say the lyrics of the self-titled song from the musical Godspell.
But what does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?
John the Baptist tells us that we should repent; that we should confess our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. ‘Repentance’ and ‘sin’ are not words that are commonly used in everyday language nowadays, and when we do hear them, we probably associate them mostly with the notion of judgement and punishment. And for that reason, they are words that make a lot of people feel uncomfortable.
A former mentor of mine once told me that a “good sermon should comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”. I think the sermon that John the Baptist gave in the wilderness would have done that. It definitely would have “afflicted the comfortable”–the comfortable in this case being the Pharisees and Sadducees.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The reason why John goes on the offensive, and is so aggressive with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, is that he knows he is a threat to them, especially to their influence over the Temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisees, in particular, had a lot of influence due to their connections with members of the powerful ruling class. So rather than wait for them to start attacking him and his call for people to repent and be baptised, he strikes first. Snakes were seen as unclean animals, so John really adds insult to injury when he refers to them as a “brood of vipers”.
John knows that as religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees claim to have a special relationship with Abraham, so he turns his attention to that, claiming they are no more special than the rocks in the wilderness which, if God chose to, He could also make into children of Abraham.
John then mixes images of judgement and hope to point people forward to the advent of a new age that can be reached only by them finding a way through the “spiritual wilderness” of their lives, and living through judgment into hope.
In the Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us that Scripture was written for us so that we might have hope. The Scripture he refers to is the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. And one of the passages he refers to is the passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, where hope comes in the form of a prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah who will be a descendant of King David. ‘A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.’ Jesse was of course the father of David, so this verse is suggesting that from the surviving descendants of David’s father Jesse, there will come a Messiah, which is the “shoot that will come from the stump of Jesse”. And in the genealogy of Jesus, which is at the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew clearly demonstrates that Jesus is descended from King David. Isaiah describes how the Messiah will take care of the poor and needy, who have been neglected by the world, and how he will transform the world so that all of creation will live together in harmony as God originally intended.
Paul prays that God will give harmony to the church in Rome: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul prays for unity in the church, which was experiencing division. If the church is united, that unity testifies to the glory of God. But if the church is divided, then it detracts from God’s glory, because it means the church is focussed on matters of human interest rather than on God’s will for humankind.
We find the same thing happening today in the Anglican Church in Australia, and even in our own Diocese here in Melbourne. The church is divided over the issue of blessings for same-sex marriages. So rather than the face of the church being one that radiates the love and glory of God to the rest of the community, the face the church is presenting to the wider community is one of human beings fighting over who is right and who is wrong.
One would have to argue that this is not the ideal way to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Perhaps the sermon that John the Baptist preached in the wilderness is particularly appropriate to those leaders of the church today who are more concerned with their own interests than they are with God’s will? John’s message is clear, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, prove by the way you live that you have truly repented of your sins. The conduct of people should back up their words. Their actions should match their words.
As I mentioned earlier, repentance is a confusing concept to many Christians today. Does it mean feeling sorry for our mistakes? Is it a matter of trying to be a better person? Is repentance something that we even need to do, given that Jesus has already died for our sins? For some Christians, language of repentance brings up feelings of guilt and unworthiness, and may even evoke a deathly fear of a day of judgment, when God will separate the wheat from the chaff. For them, the question might be, Can I ever be sure enough that I will experience God’s mercy rather than God’s anger?
What John—and Advent—remind us is that repentance is not really about our moral standards and worthiness, but rather it is about God’s desire for our lives to be consistent with the life of Jesus. Repentance is not so much about our feelings of guilt as it is about God’s power to transform us into the image of Jesus.
So to come back to where I started this morning, and the question: “How do we prepare the way of the Lord?”
The answer is quite simple: we prepare by following the Two Great Commandments that Jesus gave us. “Love the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, and love our neighbour as ourselves.”