Prepare the Way: Make Straight Your Paths

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 4th December 2011 at Cobham Methodist Church in Surrey. It is based on Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15 and Mark 1:1-8.

I wonder if you were affected by the strikes this week? According to the TUC, two million people stayed away from work on Wednesday in protest at the government’s plans to make changes to public sector pensions. I have to say that, had it not been for the reports on the news and a few exchanges on Facebook, I wouldn’t have even noticed that the strikes took place.

The only effect the strikes had on me were the age old insults that are thrown at me because of my chosen profession. You see, I’m a teacher. Many of my friends believe I have it easy because they think I only work 9 to 3, and have long holidays. If only that were true, I tell them.

The life of a teacher is full of stresses and demands. Not only do we teach, but we have masses of marking to do, hundreds of hours of preparation to undertake, and at this very busy time of year, huge numbers of reports to write.

By far the most stressful time for a teacher, though, is when OFSTED visit for an inspection.

At my school we are currently awaiting the OFSTED inspectors with bated breath.

These days, we don’t get any advance warning. They could come anytime during the course of this year.

That puts a lot of pressure on us to ensure that everything is perfect all the time.  We have to make sure our buildings are safe and attractive. We must ensure we are following all necessary legislation.  Our lessons must be outstanding all year. And we must keep on top of marking.

We need to prepare the way for the inspectors.

We need to make everything right for them.

That idea of “preparing the way” is something that we reflect on at this time of year, during Advent.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the first arrival of our Messiah, our thoughts turn to the return of Jesus, not as a humble baby, but as the majestic defeater of death, the heroic bringer of new life.

That’s what we’re going to be thinking about today through our three readings. We’ll look first at ‘who is coming’? Then we’ll consider the coming of the Messiah and the response of ordinary people to this incredible news. Finally, we’ll reflect on the second coming of Jesus, and how we should prepare ourselves for this monumental event.

Let’s first turn to the question of ‘who is coming’?

Advent is a time of expectation. We all look forward to the coming festivities. Television in particular really builds the sense of expectation that many of us feel. One of the most famous adverts on television at this time of year is one for Coca Cola that has been shown for many years. It shows a phalanx of trucks passing through woods, towns and villages. Everywhere they go, they light up the way, all to a sound track which gently reminds us that “holidays are coming, holidays are coming.”

Then, of course, there’s the much-discussed John Lewis advert, which shows a small boy eagerly anticipating Christmas day. We’re all supposed to think that he is looking forward to opening his presents, but in fact, he is most looking forward to giving his parents a present.

The Old Testament is full to bursting with anticipation. Anticipation for what God is going to do with his people. Anticipation for the arrival of the messiah who is going to save God’s people once and for all. That sense of anticipation is particularly pronounced in our reading today from Isaiah. The prophet talks of “a voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert for our God.”

Sometimes it feels like we’re living in a wilderness, in a desert where the love of God seems absent. We watch the news and see nothing but hatred and violence. We read the newspapers and see reports of our country teetering on the brink of economic meltdown. We see everywhere the consequences of trying to live our lives our own way, of pushing God out of our society. We see all around us the results of our own selfishness and lack of love. We see people starving. We see war and murder. We see young people taking their own lives because they are overwhelmed by a sense of despair, a bleakness that inhabits their hearts, their minds, and their souls.

Our world has become a wilderness, devoid of hope. Our lives have become deserts, devoid of love.

And yet there is hope.

There is hope because as the prophet foretells, the LORD is coming. Our God is coming. And he is going to transform our world.

He will raise up every valley.

He will make every mountain and every hill low.

Rough ground will be level.

Rugged places will become plains.

And there, in that world that has been turned upside down, back to front and inside out, the glory of the LORD will be revealed.

All people will see the glory of the Lord.

This is hope that is worth holding onto. This is anticipation that is valid.

This isn’t anticipation of a holiday, or a fizzy drink. This isn’t anticipation of a special episode of a favourite television programme. This is anticipation of a truly world changing event, the arrival of the messiah, of God himself.

It is not just the world itself that will be transformed by the arrival of the Messiah; lives, too, will be changed. The prophet promises us that the coming LORD “tends his flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

He will take all his people along the way for the LORD. He will not leave the weak behind, because he cares for each and every one of his people. He will carry those who need carrying, and lead those who need to be led.

Despite his tremendous power, he loves his people, cares for them, and will take them with him.

Our passage in Isaiah is a really useful introduction to the arrival of the Messiah. It vividly shows us the power he will have, and the glory the he will possess. It also shows us how much he cares for his people, the love he has for them, and the willingness with which he will lead us to his kingdom. But what the prophet does not do is put either a name or a face to this rather conceptual introduction.

To put a name and a face to the Messiah, we need to turn to the New Testament.

And that brings us onto our second point, which is the first coming of the Messiah and the response of ordinary people to his arrival.

I was lucky enough to begin my teaching career in quite a prestigious school. Once or twice each year, members of staff were invited to a rather special dinner. I love a free meal and the chance to dress up in my finery, so whenever I was invited, I jumped at the chance to go and cleared my diary. For some reason, these dinners also attracted the great and the good, and on several occasions I met members of foreign royal families who, for some reason, had turned up. Perhaps because of the presence of royalty, when we arrived at the venue, we were announced by a herald and the assembled throng would slow hand clap us as we entered. I always felt a little inadequate being announced as plain ordinary Simon Lucas, esquire, when others were introduced as the Right Honourable, or His Lordship, or Her Royal Highness! It was certainly an interesting experience nevertheless!

In our gospel reading, we witness two heralds announcing the arrival of the Messiah, as prophesied by Isaiah. Mark, the writer of the Gospel, and John the Baptist, leave us in doubt as to who is arriving on the scene, nor what his credentials are.

The very first words that we read as we pick up Mark’s gospel are, “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” If we were in any doubt at all as to the identity of Jesus, Mark makes it explicit. As far as he is concerned, this Jesus of whom he writes is the Messiah, the anointed one, the Son of God.

This is the Christ who has been foretold throughout the Old Testament.

This is the Messiah who Isaiah introduced us to.

Now, though, we have a name for him.

The Messiah is Jesus.

And whilst Isaiah built up a sense of anticipation but did not suggest when the Messiah might arrive, Mark makes it plain that the Messiah is here. He’s come. He’s waiting in the wings, poised and ready to start his incredible work.

The Messiah is Jesus.

Just to make doubly sure that we are clear on this point, Mark quotes a verse from Malachi, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way,” and also from the passage in Isaiah that we have just looked, at “prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”

We are then immediately introduced to John the Baptist who Mark fundamentally believes is the herald of the arrival of the Messiah.

The sense of anticipation really builds at this point. John the Baptist drew an enormous following, all eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Lord God himself, who will save his people. Mark tells us that thewhole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John the Baptist.

During advent we anticipate Christmas. We anticipate the arrival of the baby Jesus.

At Christmas, people who do not normally go to Church attend their local services.

The sense of anticipation, however, is nowhere near the level that it was when John the Baptist announced the arrival of the adult Jesus.

In a survey published by YouGov this week it was revealed that 24% of British people expected to attend a Church service this Christmas. This is well up on the usual figure of 6% of people who usually attend Church at least once a month, but is nowhere near the level that Mark records turning out to see John the Baptist.

I wonder what it was about John the Baptist that attracted so many people?

Perhaps it was his unusual clothing.

Maybe it was news of his unusual diet of locusts and wild honey.

Was it because of his preaching of, as Mark records, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Why did so many people turn out to hear this peculiar man speak? And what led them to confess their sins and be baptised?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they are nevertheless worth asking. In the spiritual wilderness of the United Kingdom in the twenty first century, how do we point people to Jesus and his teaching, as John the Baptist did? How do we attract whole towns and cities to listen to the word of God and to repent of their sins? How do we heighten anticipation for the return of the Messiah?

Perhaps we might find some answers in our final point. Rather than looking at others and pondering why they do not respond to the gospel, perhaps we need to look first at ourselves, and to reflect on our own response. How does it bear up against the instructions we read about in Isaiah, or the attitude of John the Baptist.

My parents came to visit us recently. They were due to arrive on Sunday morning in time for church. Claire, my wife, and I got up early and set to work cleaning and tidying our flat. We thought we would have plenty of time, because my parents usually ring or text or ring as they’re leaving, which gives us a warning of at least two hours.

Apart from on this particular occasion when they rang to tell us they were ten minutes away.

A mad dash ensued as we tried to hide washing up, stuffed clutter into cupboards, and showered and dressed for their imminent arrival.

Of course, if we’d been more sensible, or less busy people, we would have readied the flat for their arrival the day before, if not earlier.

In the passage from Peter’s letter that we read this morning, he reminds us that Jesus will come again. He won’t give us a warning of his return, not even a ten minute warning. He will come “like a thief,” totally unannounced. We must, therefore, be ready for his return.

This is the unifying theme that runs through all of our readings today.

In Isaiah we heard that we must prepare a way for the Lord in the wilderness of our Godless world.

We also heard that we must make straight a highway in the desert of our own sinful lives.

We had a similar instruction in Mark’s gospel, in which we were told to “prepare the way for the Lord and make straight paths for him.”

We also read how John the Baptist preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Peter offers more advice, advice that we need to take on board as we await the return of the Messiah. Since the day of the return of Jesus is coming, we must always be ready, he says. He tells us that we must live “holy and godly lives.”

He continues that we must “make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.”

In all three of these passages it is clear that as we wait for the Messiah, for Jesus, we are called to action. We are called to transform our own lives and to transform the world.

We need to begin with ourselves. We must ensure that we are right before God, that we repent our sins and that we strive to live lives that are holy and godly. We are fortunate that we live between the first and second comings of the Messiah, because we have Jesus as a guide for how to live our lives. We need to strive to be spotless and blameless, just as he was. We need to try our hardest to live lives free from sin, to sacrifice all that we have to serve Christ, and to put the needs of others before ourselves. Above everything else, we need to ensure that we love; that we love God, that we love ourselves, and that we love others.

Before we can make make paths through the wilderness we first need to deal with the deserts of our own lives.

Perhaps this is why John the Baptist attracted whole communities out to see him.

Maybe this is why Jesus was followed by thousands of people wherever he went.

Because there was something that set them apart from the rest of us, that made them different.

They were living the gospel that they preached, whereas so often we fall short and fail to do so.

Maybe our churches are not full to bursting at Christmas because we fail in our quest to live holy and godly lives, to be spotless, blameless and at peace with God. Maybe when people look at us they don’t see anything that marks us out as different in our sinful, fallen world.

Perhaps we don’t recognise the significance of the message that we have to proclaim and fail in the instruction that we read about in Isaiah, to shout the good news from mountain tops, to lift up our voices with shouts proclaiming, “Here is the Lord!” Maybe that cry isn’t loud and clear, but muffled and hidden.

If we fail to live in this way we fail God, but we also fail our society. The crowds following John the Baptist and Jesus reveal something about ordinary people that perhaps we might have forgotten. Everyone longs for a sense of greater good, for belief in something better than themselves and for hope in the future. Everyone longs for forgiveness, the opportunity to say sorry and to start their lives afresh. If we do not demonstrate that through Jesus Christ these opportunities are freely available for all, we have failed in our ultimate calling.

So as Christmas approaches lets stand firm against the commercialism and nonsense of the modern festival and reclaim it for Jesus.

Let’s use this time of advent to reflect on how we live in the light, not of the first coming, but the second coming.

Are we ready for Jesus’ return?

Are our lives worthy of him?

Are we distinctive and different because of our beliefs?

And let’s ensure that we embrace every opportunity to present the gospel to others.

Do we proclaim the gospel at every opportunity, shouting it from the hilltops?

Do we offer people an opportunity to find hope in future resurrection through Jesus Christ?

Do we offer an opportunity for repentance, for a fresh start, and for the love and support not just of God, but the whole of our Christian family?

Let’s ensure that this Christmas we seize every opportunity to point the world to Jesus Christ. Not just the baby Jesus in the stable, though, but to the Jesus who conquered death and will return in glory to lead us to his new creation.

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