In the Wilderness
Grace United Methodist Church
December 6, 2009
Luke 3: 1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
As many of you are aware, I love to hike. This is also a pastime enjoyed by my Dad and the rest of my family as well. So, a couple of weeks ago while we were on vacation in Destin, Florida, we decided to go on a little hike. Now, it doesn’t take much to figure out that hiking in Florida is very different from hiking in East Tennessee. To give you an idea of how different it is, I will tell you that on our way back to Tennessee, we crossed over the highest elevation in Florida – 345 feet above sea level. So on this particular day when we decided to go for a hike, we knew it wasn’t going to be noteworthy because of dramatic elevation changes or breathtaking overlooks. We chose a six mile hike in a state park about 20 miles west of Destin expecting interesting foliage and perhaps some views of the rare dune lakes, found in only two places in the world. We got that, but we also got something that we weren’t expecting. As we walked through the groves of long-leaf pines and scrub palms, we found that we were weaving in and out, circling around, and going around hairpin turns, despite the completely flat and sandy terrain. Now, those of you who have done any hiking in East Tennessee, know that such paths are standard fare in this part of the world where you have to make your way around rocks and up and down mountainsides. But in Florida, on this particular hike, there were no such obstacles. The path could have been as straight as an arrow, from point A to point B. But it was not, we walked along a windy and crooked path. The result was that we got a little bored; we were seeing the same things over and over and over again, but never really getting anywhere.
Have you ever had such an experience in your life? I don’t mean such a hiking experience. Rather, I’m thinking about those times in our lives when it feels like we are moving, moving, moving, and yet getting nowhere. Or we are following a path that keeps taking us to the same place. You probably know the feeling. Such experiences seem to send us into an apathetic drudgery; our minds numb, our spirits wane, our hearts harden, and though we are going nowhere, we seem to be getting farther and farther away from those who love us, and most especially from God. These are the wildernesses of our lives.
The “wilderness” was a significant part of Israelite history. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years as they made their exodus from Egypt and into the Promised Land. Then again, when exiled to Babylon, the “wilderness” was seen as that place that separated the Jewish people from their home in Jerusalem. Aside from the real experiences that the Jewish people had in the wilderness, “wilderness” also became a metaphor for those difficult places in our lives when we endure great trials or tests, or when we find ourselves lost and alone, or when we sense a great separation from God. I’m sure we can all think of such times in our lives; maybe we are there now.
Then, in the wilderness, we begin to hear a voice crying out loudly. The voice is clear, but the words aren’t what we expect. It is the voice of John the Baptist, sounding through the ages. Trumpeting the words of the prophet Isaiah, John boldly calls on the people to, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!” A voice in the wilderness talking about straight paths! This is what we’ve been longing for! Finally, a way out!
For the Israelites in exile in Babylon, Isaiah’s prophetic words had a very literal meaning; the wilderness was that place that separated them from their homeland, and the paths made straight were the roads that would lead them back to their home in Jerusalem. Isaiah is announcing God’s intention to build a wide, flat, straight highway across the mountains and desert so that the exiles in Babylon could return to their home in Judea. As John the Baptist carries this same message up and down Judea many hundreds of years later, the meaning is still the same – there is a way out of the wilderness and to the Promised Land. But now the method is a bit more figurative.
John in a sense is the courier of the King. When Kings would go out to tour their dominions, they would send a messenger ahead to prepare the roads. And this is what John is doing for Jesus, but the preparation which John is insisting upon is a readying of heart and life. Our task is not to move the rocks, and straighten the paths that lead out of exile and to Jerusalem. Rather, our task is to throw out the rocks and thorns of our lives, to level the valleys of our sin and weakness, to knock down the mountains of pride and greed; to smooth out the rough places in our lives. These are all the things that leave us stranded in the wilderness, and John is calling on us to repent; to get to work at letting God get our lives straightened out!
And this is what John the Baptist’s message was all about. It was about God, it wasn’t about him. Perhaps that is why the people flocked into the desert to hear John’s message; they sensed that there must be more than just what John was preaching. He was pointing beyond himself. He wasn’t trying to claim any office or any special title. He was the “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John wasn’t building a kingdom for himself; he was preparing the way for another. The key to John’s greatness was his commitment to Something and Someone beyond himself. And this should be our key to greatness as well! Because God’s redemptive work is still unfinished. Jesus came that “all flesh” might be saved, and John serves as a role model for the church in ministering in God’s name. The Gospel message is not only about what has already happened, but also about what is still going on! And all who hear the word of God (as John did) are called to declare what God is doing in our midst and to point ahead to all that is still to come. We can try and promote ourselves, but this will die in time. Greatness comes when we do as John did and promote the Savior in our midst; the One who can lead us from the wilderness.
It has been said that no one can estimate how much good could be done in our world if no one cared who got the credit. And this is how it should be with us, and with our church. We are not in competition, we are here as servants! We are here to enable God to make a path out of the wilderness. John the Baptist had a goal higher than himself. Do we? “Christ is coming,” John said, “and he brings with him such glory and power as my ministry cannot even suggest. I baptize you with water, but One who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
One day, John was near the Jordan River with two of his disciples. “When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look the Lamb of God!’ When the two disciples heard John say this, they followed Jesus.” And isn’t this what we are called to do as the Church of Jesus Christ?
We are not to point to ourselves, but by our actions, by our smiles, by our witness, by our words; really by our whole lives, we are to point out to others—“Look, the Lamb of God! Follow him and he will make your crooked road straight! Follow him out of the wilderness!”
As more and more people began to follow Jesus, John’s disciples became dismayed. “Rabbi,” they said to John, “that man, the one you testified about, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” Can you imagine their surprise when John reacted with great joy! Not with envy, but with gladness. John was very, very pleased with this news! This should be our reaction too should we ever be given the great privilege of seeing someone turn to Christ! John declared, “You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ He must become greater; I must become less.”
God in Christ Jesus must become greater, we must become less. This is the way out of the wilderness; this is the way to true freedom. This is the mindset that all of us must have if we are going to be disciples of Jesus Christ who prepare the way for Christ to be born into our own hearts, and especially into the hearts of the people of the world. This is our vocation. Every single one of us called to be in ministry as John the Baptist was in ministry; to point to Jesus Christ with the whole of our lives and to declare his great name in the “wildernesses” of our world. It is our turn. We know that God is constantly looking for people like John the Baptist, who will gladly pave the way for God’s grand purposes. And we know, too, that there is much work yet to be done, beginning in our own lives and then moving out into the world. We must seek God’s help to smooth out the rough edges, to straighten the crooked paths of our lives, and then we must set out on God’s path loudly proclaiming the Good News of all that was, and all that is, and all that is yet to come. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” We are needed, friends, each and every one of us. Our times need a new introduction to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and you and I have been appointed as the “way-preparers,” the introducers. There could not be a better or more challenging time in which to bring this message afresh into the world.
We may not wander through the desert as John did, but we can commit ourselves to the same Lord with the same greatness of purpose. We are to proclaim God’s promising message into the deepest, darkest reaches of people’s lives, into the “wildernesses” of humanity. Let us commit, like John, to prepare the way of the Lord!