“Prepare His Path”
Advent 2, December 4, 2016
Prepare His Path
Text: Matthew 3:1–12
I believe that many of you are aware that one of the activities I like to do is something called disc golf. Some people call it Frisbee Golf but you don’t actually use Frisbees. That would be cheating. Now whether you play at Mitch Park or Arcadia or wherever, the courses must be maintained. If you let the trees just be trees, and not trim them back, soon you will have no path to throw your discs to the baskets.
Preparing the path of Christ—preparing the way of the Lord—is Old Testament imagery from Isaiah that our Gospel in Matthew uses to describe the ministry of John the Baptist (Mt 3:3). John’s message was that the Lord was coming in grace and judgment, so it was time for the people of Judea and Galilee to prepare, to get ready. It was John’s purpose to get the people ready for that coming so that Jesus would not find a people who had no interest in Him, but rather a people waiting in eager expectation for his arrival to deliver them from sin. John was there to prepare Jesus Christ’s path.
If John the Baptist thought the spiritual condition of first-century Israel was challenging, imagine what he’d think if he were preaching in the spiritual wilderness of twenty-first-century America. We have the false religions from Islam to Mormons, a huge segment of the population which practices no religion, and a significant portion of Christian churches that deny central basics of the faith such as being saved by grace through faith alone and the resurrection of the body. It is specifically because of these challenges that this account of John the Baptist continues to contain an important message for the Church. As we look at this text again this Advent season, we the Church continue John the Baptist’s important work in Advent: Prepare Christ’s Path!
This text focuses on three important aspects in preparing Jesus Christ’s path that are still very applicable to our lives and the Church today. First, the central thought in John the Baptist’s preaching was repent. Just as Lent is a season of preparation and spiritual refreshment for Christians, so also is Advent. It is a time to quit kidding ourselves about how good and holy we’re becoming, honestly recognize our sins—in thought, word, and deed—and repent. John the Baptist did not sugarcoat his condemnation of sinners. As did the prophets of ancient Israel, he told people straight up the deep problem they were in without the grace of God. Repent does not mean just being contrite or being sorry for our sins, but it means to “turn around,” which can only happen by faith and believing in God’s grace to forgive sins for the sake of Christ’s saving work. Without the Holy Spirit working the miracle of faith, contrition for sin is a dead end. It’s not enough. With his mention of the kingdom of the heavens, John is pointing his hearers to God’s gracious work in Jesus. Just as John called people of old to repent, Advent is a special time for us Christians to repent and call the unbelieving world to repent.
Three simple words that most people, including many Christians, find difficult to say are “I am sorry.” When we sin against God or someone else, we would rather yell, scream, and argue than tell God or that person, “I am sorry.” Evidence of repentance, of faith worked by the Holy Spirit, which we see in our Gospel, is seen in the text when the people coming to John and being baptized confess their sins. Advent is a time for us to be honest with God and one another by confessing our wrongs, our sin. This is a special time of year for special sins: greed (Christmas lists that are way too long), gluttony (we tend to eat too much this time of year), and thoughtlessness (the husband who buys his wife a vacuum cleaner or ironing board for Christmas, for example). Advent is a time to make sure that we are confessing our sins to God and one another.
The second aspect to preparing Christ’s path that’s revealed in our Gospel is to live in your baptismal grace. Jews did many ritual washings seeking purity from their sins. For example, some of the remains uncovered at Qumran, near the region where John baptized, include mikvahs, or washing pools with steps where you could walk down into the water for ritual cleansing. John’s Baptism was different; it was a one-time washing that brought forgiveness. It was a one-time sharing of God’s forgiveness in a very tangible way. Just as people were hit with that Jordan River water, they were washed of their sin through Baptism. It was a Baptism that laid the foundation for the Christian Baptism you’ve received.
We continue to prepare the way for Christ in this Advent season as we live in and appreciate our baptismal grace. John the Baptist said, “He who is coming after me is mightier than I. . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v 11). As amazing as John the Baptist was with his preaching and Baptism, you have received the very preaching and Baptism of Jesus. When you were baptized, you received the Holy Spirit, who united you with all the saving work of Jesus Christ: His entire obedient life, His death as a payment for sin, and His resurrection victory! Therefore, an important aspect of preparing HIS path is simply living in this baptismal grace, claiming it and loving it, living in its power and peace. Advent is a time to get back to the spiritual basics, and Baptism is one of those spiritual foundations in our lives.
Our Gospel reveals a third aspect to preparing Christ’s path. John says, “Bear the fruit of repentance!” (v 8). This command sounds rather challenging. John even goes on with a strong word of judgment: “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (v 10). If we are sinners, then how can poor trees like us produce good fruit? The Holy Spirit works repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, so it is not us who will produce good fruit, but the Holy Spirit who is now in us. The fruit we cannot produce by our own nature (without God in here)—such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control—the Holy Spirit can and will produce in and through us. We prepare Christ’s path by bearing the fruit of faith for the world to see, fruit miraculously produced not by us, but by the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit in here, we can be less greedy, we can be less hungry, we can buy our wives better gifts than vacuum cleaners. We can be thinking of others and not just ourselves.
John the Baptist must have been overwhelmed with his task—so much to do to prepare Galilee and Judea for Christ’s coming. You know how that feels this time of year with all the stuff we do out there, right? And every year John tells us of our Advent mission in here (heart). We may feel overwhelmed with our mission. But it all starts with repenting and confessing our sins, living in our baptismal grace, and loving one another, all done with the Holy Spirit. The path to our hearts is then wide open. We, in turn, want others to experience the undeserved love of God in Jesus Christ that we already have in these holy days of Advent.
Let it be then, that the Holy Spirit will use us to Prepare Christ’s path.
Adapted from a sermon in Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol. 27 Part 1.