One of the most fascinating chapters in Canadian History is that of the building of the railway across this country. Pierre Burton has written two books, The National Dream and The Last Spike which describe the whole process. In Northwestern Ontario, the task of making a level path to lay rails was complicated by the swamps which seemed to be bottomless bogs. There is a story that in one place a whole engine disappeared into the mire. In BC, the challenge was to cross deep gorges and traverse high mountains. Surveyors carried heavy equipment up mountains to plan the most level route possible. If you travel to BC today, there is a monument and museum at Cragalachie where the last spike was driven. It celebrates the completion of this great event. As you drive through this mountainous terrain, it is amazing to think about what was involved in getting the railway through. Today whether we travel by rail or road, we sometimes take for granted the great difficulty involved in laying a level surface on which to travel, but if we want nice level roads, it is essential that the mountains be leveled and the valleys be filled in.
The imagery of building a road is used in the Bible to help us understand the need to clear a way for God to enter into our lives. It appears in Luke 3:1-18 and is descriptive of the work of John the Baptist. I invite you to turn to this passage.
In two weeks, we will celebrate Easter. At that time, we will think about how God has entered into human history to establish a way for us to have a relationship with Him. We will think about Jesus’ death on the cross and how that paved the way for forgiveness. We will think about his resurrection and how that has opened the way to heaven for us. We will observe the Lord’s supper together as we remember these things. Easter is a good time to rejoice that God has come to us. It is a good time to examine our lives to see if he still has access into our lives. It is a good time to open the path and clear away any debris which has blocked His way into our life.
There are many churches which celebrate a season of lent during this time of the year. Lent began this year on March 8 and runs for 40 days, not including Sundays, until the Saturday before Easter Sunday. One writer describes the meaning of Lent in the following way: “Lent is a season of soul-searching and repentance. It is a season for reflection and taking stock. Lent originated in the very earliest days of the Church as a preparatory time for Easter, when the faithful rededicated themselves…” In our tradition, we have not usually observed Lent, but I think that there is something valuable here. As we anticipate the celebration of Easter, I would like to call us to a season of reflection and repentance in order to make sure that the way for God to come into our lives is clear.
In the gospels, the person who was sent by God to do the work of preparing the hearts of people for the coming of Jesus was John the Baptist. He called people to a baptism of repentance and helped prepare hearts that were ready when Jesus came. Why did God send him? You may have heard the story of the man who sold his donkey and when the buyer tried to take the donkey home, it didn't budge. After trying everything, the buyer went
back to the seller and said, "I thought you told me that the donkey listened well, but he won't budge and I've tried everything." The seller said, "he listens well, but you have to get his attention first." Then he went out, grabbed a 2x4 and whacked the donkey over the head, told him to go, and the donkey went. Because of their sin, the people of Israel were not in a state of mind to listen to Jesus and the work of John the Baptist was a work of getting their attention.
I promise I won’t whack you over the head with a 2x4, but rather, I would like to gently suggest that each of us needs to pay attention as we listen to the message of John the Baptist and examine whether the path of God into our life is clear and level.
I. The Need For Repentance
Repentance seems to be a bad word these days and we don’t often hear it or hear preaching on it. Why mention it? Why have a message on it especially in a context of believers?
A. It’s Subtle Entrance
When Bill Graham preaches, his messages often include a call to repentance. We know that people who are unbelievers need to repent before they can become believers. When John the Baptist preached, tax collectors, sinners, soldiers and others of questionable morality came to repent and we applaud their desire for change, but John also called the religious leaders to repentance. The Jewish people and particularly the Jewish leaders were a people who thought they had it all together. They thought that God favored them because they belonged to the family of Abraham. But John speaks harsh words to them. He called the people a "brood of vipers." A viper is a snake and a brood is a bunch of offspring, children, if you will. I wonder if the "viper" he has in mind here is in fact the snake who started all the trouble - Satan. If so, he was calling them children of Satan. They thought they were so religious and had pure blood lines to holiness because they were children of Abraham, but in fact they were children of Satan.
Sometimes when we hear a message calling us to repentance, we think about other people who are living a sinful lifestyle. In the case of John the Baptist, the tax collectors and other sinners knew they needed to repent and did, but the religious leaders who also needed to repent did not. They had become complacent and self righteous. When we read that, we have to be careful to open our hearts to God. We may have things in our life that we hadn’t noticed were there. We may have allowed habits and patterns to develop that have now begun to block God’s way into our lives.
It is necessary to come to repentance because of this possibility. What has come into your life that blocks God’s way? I have only begun to get to know you and so I don’t know what there is that needs changing. I know some of the things that sometimes creep into my life and so please permit me to suggest that perhaps we need to look for such things as jealousy, anger, doubting God, being more concerned about selfish pleasures than pleasing God. Sometimes these things are so subtle that we don’t even notice. Because of the possibility of sin having crept unnoticed into our life, a season of reflection is necessary.
B. It’s Evil Effects
If sin has come into our life then it is very important to get rid of it because of all the terrible things that sin does.
Dr. C.E.M. Joad, who was a secular philosopher once wrote, "Sin I dismissed as the incidental accompaniment of man's imperfect development. I have come lately to disbelieve all this. I see now that evil is endemic in man, and that the Christians doctrine of original sin expresses a deep and essential insight into the human nature." The word endemic is defined in the dictionary as the "action of dwelling or that which is native to a people." It is used to define the fact that sin is not a result of our environment but is part of who we are. As a result of Adam's fall, sin has entered the world and it is present everywhere as normal to human beings. If we don’t bring it to the cross, it will steal into our lives and take over.
Andy Doerksen, speaks of sin as "a wasteland of our own making." It devastates. If it goes unchecked, it always results in destruction.
When we sin, we build walls. If as a father, I say "no" to my child but if my child does it anyway there is a breech in our relationship. As a wife, you entrust your life to your husband and if he betrays that trust by going with another woman the relationship is in a state of brokeness. All sin leads to broken relationships and the first broken relationship is between us and God. As soon as Adam and Eve sinned, they hid from God because they had a broken relationship.
A survey found that thirty four percent of U.S. adults when asked what they most felt guilty about responded with "nothing in particular." This reveals the other problem with sin and that is that it brings guilt.
Because sin is so destructive, it is critical that we deal with it in our lives.
C. It Will Be Judged
A poem in the Western Canadian, a community newspaper, included the cliche, "You do the crime, you pay the time." We have a sense that if someone does something wrong, they should pay for it. Today, many people do not like the concept of punishment, but it is built into the system and we all know that it is right. If you break the rules, there are consequences and the consequence for breaking the big rule is death. Sin is punishable, not because God is vengeful or because God is trying to correct us, but because punishment is a just consequence of doing something wrong.
The people had a sense of the coming judgement of God. When John accuses them of being a bunch of vipers fleeing the coming wrath, he acknowledges that this is what they were doing. When there is sin in our lives, we know that we are under God’s wrath. He affirms that perspective when in vs. 17, he assures that the Messiah will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn up the chaff. Judgement is coming and all who fail to repent will experience it.
Because God will judge it, is necessary for us to take time to examine our lives.
II. What Is Repentance?
The primary thing John did to prepare people's hearts for the coming of the Lord was to call them to repentance. In the Old Testament, the word for repentance is not a special word but the common word for return. This carries with it a sense of turning back. What is meant is an about-face. The Greek word for repentance comes from a word that means “to direct one’s mind.” With the prefix added it means “to change one’s mind.” i.e., opinion, feelings, or purpose. John's message was one of calling the people to change their mind and to turn around from their way of living to a way of living in obedience to God.
He uses two images which help us understand what repentance is.
The ministry of John was a “baptism of repentance.” The background for his use of baptism may have been the baptism which was a part of what Gentiles did when they became Jews. There was a three part ritual which was necessary for a Gentile to become a Jew. First of all, they had to wash themselves ritually to clean away all the dirt. Secondly, males had to be circumcised and thirdly, they had to make a sacrifice.
But the baptism of John differs from proselyte baptism in that it was not self administered but the idea of washing is included. Repentance involves washing away all the dirt and evil in our lives.
In May, 1848, Czar Alexander I of Russia visited the village of Lindenau in the Molotschna colony. "Preparation for the visit began four weeks in advance, when an officer from Orechev appeared and announced to Mrs. Agatha(David) Hiebert "The Czar will have breakfast at your house." A command came through the municipal offices to improve the roads, to clean and decorate the houses, yards and gardens. In another week all the Molotschna village reeves gathered at the Hieberts for an update. Everyone in the villages was busy. Streets were swept, and decorated with new sand, grass and flowers. ... On May 21 the weather was beautiful, and a large crowd gathered to see their monarch." (taken from Events and People by H.T. Huebert)
How much more do we need to wash out of our life what is dirty and inappropriate so that God can come into our life?
B. Road Clearing
In road construction, there is a lot of destruction that has to take place before the road can be built. If there is a forest, the trees have to be cut. If there is a hill, it has to be leveled. If there is a hollow place, it has to be filled in. This is the imagery behind the quote from Isaiah 40:3-5 in Luke 3:4-6. It is a picture based on the preparations which were often made when a king was going to visit an area. Because only kings had carriages with wheels, it wasn’t usually necessary to have a smooth road, but when the king came, a level road had to be prepared.
In order to prepare for the coming of the Lord into our lives, we need to prepare a level road. God will not enter into a life that is filled with the garbage of sin. The mountains that hinder him from gaining access into our lives need to be leveled. The valleys that prevent us from allowing Him into our life need to be filled up so that our hearts have a clear way for Him to enter and do His work. What does that mean for you in specific terms. It is interesting that the Greek for the word for "low" in "every mountain and hill made low" is a word that is often translated "humble." The word for "crooked" in "The crooked roads shall become straight." is a word that can also be translated "perverse."
Charles Spurgeon, in a devotional booklet, picks up on this idea and writes an interesting observation about what such "road" preparation might mean specifically.
Every valley must be exalted. Low and groveling thoughts of God must be given up; doubting and despairing must be removed; and self-seeking and carnal delights must be forsaken. Across these deep valleys a glorious causeway of grace must be raised.
Every mountain and hill shall be laid low. Proud creature-sufficiency, and boastful self-righteousness, must be leveled, to make a highway for the King of kings. Divine fellowship is never “given” to haughty, high-minded sinners. The Lord hath respect unto the lowly, and visits the contrite in heart, but the lofty are an abomination unto him. My soul, beseech the Holy Spirit to set thee right in this respect.
The crooked shall be made straight. The wavering heart must have a straight path of decision for God and holiness marked out for it. Double-minded men are strangers to the God of truth. My soul, take heed that thou be in all things honest and true, as in the sight of the heart-searching God.
The rough places shall be made smooth. Stumbling-blocks of sin must be removed, and thorns and briers of rebellion must be uprooted. So great a visitor must not find miry ways and stony places when he comes to honor his favored ones with his company. Oh that (this evening) the Lord may find in my heart a highway made ready by his grace, that he may make a triumphal progress through the utmost bounds of my soul, (from the beginning of this year even to the end of it.)
Spurgeon, Charles H., Morning and Evening, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1995.
What kind of land clearing needs to take place in your life in order for there to be an open road for the coming of the King into your life? I encourage you to take some time during the next few weeks to clear away some of the rubble and fill some of the valleys so that Jesus can truly rule in your life.
III. How Does it Work.
One of the things that strikes me about John the Baptist's ministry is that the people went out into the wilderness to hear the message. John did not rent a hall in the capital city of Jerusalem and call attention to his ministry with billboards or TV advertising. He was out in the desert and the people went out into the desert to hear him preach. The passage in Isaiah 40 says, "A voice of one calling in the desert." John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him."
Is there any significance in this? You may say that it was just the nature of John the Baptist. That is where he did his work and because it was unique, the people went out to hear him. I have read this many times and never thought of it as significant, but one of the commentators I read, did pick up on it. I was ready to dismiss even that, except that it struck me that it happens far too often to be coincidental. Israel had to wander through the wilderness in their journey to the promised land. Elijah spent time in the wilderness, Jesus went into the wilderness, even the apostle Paul spent time in the wilderness. What is this business about always going out into the wilderness? What does "going out into the wilderness" mean? What does it have to do with us?
As I thought about that, it became clear to me - the wilderness is a symbol of helplessness. There is no food or water in the wilderness and you can't grow crops there. One can hardly find eatable animals in the wilderness. When someone goes into the wilderness, they are going out into a situation in which they cannot supply their own needs. That was true for Israel and for Jesus. I think that for the people of John the Baptist's day, going out into the wilderness was a symbol that they had to get to the place where they needed a Messiah and going out into the wilderness was the expression of that need.
It is hard for us to go out into the wilderness. We have everything. We have government, friends, money, education, strength of character, self discipline, what do we need Jesus for? And yet often our spiritual lives are in poverty. I have so often preached about the need for trusting God. Over the past few months as we didn’t have a job and later when we knew we were coming here, but we didn’t have a place to live, we experienced many anxious moments. Suddenly I realized that I did not trust God as I should. It was an experience of wilderness that brought me to the place where I was helpless before I would recognize my lack of faith and I had to pray again and again, “Lord help my unbelief.” It seems that often we have to be forced into the wilderness before we will recognize our sin, weakness and poverty. But it is also possible through the discipline of fasting and prayer to realize our need and come to the place of repentance. The first step in preparing for the coming of the Lord is to realize that we need Him. We need to take time to understand the wilderness areas of our own life. We need to see where it is that we are desperate and helpless. We will not be ready for the coming of Christ until we know that we need Him. So the first thing we need to do in order to prepare for his coming is to examine our lives to see in what areas we need help.
Do we come to God empty and needing or full and feeling like we are doing Him a favor? Preparation involves an attitude of need and when we come to that need, we will be serious about preparation. I want to invite you to take some time these next two weeks to think about your wilderness and go out into the wilderness to realize and admit that you need the Lord to come into your life and then clear the way for His coming.
IV. Repentance Must be True Repentance.
And so, John called them to repentance but as he did, it seems that many came not really interested in changing anything, but more interested in buying a spiritual fire insurance. We see this motive when John accuses them of being a “brood of vipers” who are fleeing the coming wrath.
When we repent, if it is real repentance, there must be a change. By definition, repentance means change. One writer says, “Real repentance involves a new relation to God that embraces all spheres of life and claims the will in a way that no external rites can replace” (TDNT)
It is interesting to note that John was very specific about what needed to change. The general comments he makes have to do with matters that relate to love for one’s neighbor. When our lives line up with the will of God it will be evident in the way we treat others. The actions John speaks of are not pious platitudes, but specific measurable, doable things. Recently I have noticed again that the Bible defines that walk quite simply. It is not about something mystic, but about obedience and about love.
It is also interesting that when specific individuals came, John gave them some very specific things that spoke to the temptations that were specific to their profession. And so to tax collectors he told them not to collect more than was right. Tax collection was contracted out and the tax collectors had to submit a certain amount, but could collect whatever they needed to cover their costs. Well, you can see how that was open to abuse. Similarly soldiers were called to avoid the temptations of their profession. What are the sins of our profession? What actions are involved in true repentance for us?
Preparing for the coming of the Lord has always and will always involve repentance - true repentance. What kinds of things is God talking to you about? What garbage do you need to get rid of? I invite you to take some time during the next two weeks to open your life before God and ask Him to show you where you need to repent.
What is there in your life which needs to be cleared up to make way for the coming of God into your life? Think about that as we prepare for Easter. As we prepare for communion. As we prepare to think about the coming of Christ.
John the Baptist's ministry was not an end in itself, but a means to an end. He did the work of preparation in order to point the way to Jesus. When people wondered if perhaps he was the Messiah, he quickly pointed beyond himself and said "I must decrease, but he must increase."
The purpose of the preparation we have talked about is not an end in itself, but is a way of making room for Jesus to come into our lives and to do the powerful work He does.
Jesus is not reluctant about coming into our lives, but desires to do so. If we will prepare the way for Him to come, he will, by His forgiving grace and by the power of the Holy Spirit come in and make all things new.
If we will take time before Easter to prepare our hearts, then Easter can be a wonderful celebration as we realize all that Christ has done for us. He has come to forgive our sins so that we do not need to face the wrath of God. He has come to give us His Holy Spirit, as even John the Baptist preached, so that we can live victorious lives. God has promised, “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it." He has come to give us victory over death through His resurrection.
I invite you to prepare the way for the Lord and to take some time during the next two weeks to think about your life and to prepare the way for the Lord.