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Returning to the Lord

Throughout history people have focused on and obsessed about those in positions of power.

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Throughout history people have focused on and obsessed about those in positions of power. Those in power have often used their authority to enrich and benefit themselves rather than to serve the common good and the future of their nation.

The Gospel of Luke understands this human obsession with the powerful and consistently turns it upside down.

Listen to how Luke 3 begins:

“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 (li-sayʹnee-uhs) ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as 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. Every 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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’”

This passage begins with those in power politically and religiously, what the British call the big wigs. The time is the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar; the year 28-29. Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea, from the year 26-36. The other rulers in the region are named including Herod Antipas and Philip who were sons of Herod the Great who ruled when Jesus was born.

We’re also told the names of those holding the most religious power in Jerusalem―Annas who served as the Chief Priest from 6-15 until the Romans replaced him with his son-in-law Caiaphas who held the office until the year 36. In the minds of the people, Annas was seen as the real high priest until he died. According to John’s Gospel 18:12-28, Jesus appeared before each at his trial.

Luke is setting the stage for us politically and religiously, but he’s also making the point that the word of God wasn’t revealed to any of those who were in positions of political or religious authority or power. The word of God wasn’t given to an Emperor in Rome or a governor in Judea, or even to the high priest in Jerusalem.

The word of God came to someone those powerful people had never heard of―John the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the wilderness.

As the prophet Isaiah tells us, God’s ways are not our ways, and frequently in the Bible and in life God works not so much through the powerful in capital cities like Rome, Jerusalem or Washington D.C.

God often works through those who are less well known in more obscure places.

So it was with John the Baptist. The word comes to John in the midst of the messy reality of a world defined by both secular and religious powers. What is the word which comes to John interjecting itself in both the realms of politics and religion? Two things stand out.

First, is the quotation of Isaiah 40:3-5; in Isaiah this reference has to do with a return from Exile.

Isaiah prophesied that God would make straight paths through the wilderness; a smooth and easier return―a new “exodus”―bringing the people of Israel out of bondage in Babylon where they had been taken after their country was invaded and defeated. In Luke, the quotation applies to John the Baptist.

John is the one who is out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. John is the one who will make the paths straight, and prepare the way for Jesus―who comes to empower and finish the return of the people to their God. John the Baptist is a threshold figure, a prophet standing in the gap between the Hebrew prophets of old (like Isaiah) and the promised prophet to come (Jesus). It isn’t surprising that the word comes to John in the wilderness.

Think, for example, of God’s interventions as Moses leads the people of Israel through their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, as the young David runs to the desert to escape King Saul’s wrath, or as the prophet Elijah flees from persecution into the wilderness. Wilderness imagery permeates the books of the prophets.

In the midst of a world divided by politics and religion, much as our country and the world still are today, the word that comes to John in the wilderness is a call to return to the Lord. Returning to the Lord involves a way of living that impacts every aspect of our life.

A second key aspect of the word to John is the summary of John’s preaching, as a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The word “baptism” (Greek baptisma) is found in early Christian literature, and comes from the verb baptizo, meaning to “dip, immerse.”

John’s baptism is an act of purification and forgiveness that can be looked back upon as a single event (see Acts 19:3-4). Probably, the precursor for John’s baptism is the First Century Jewish practice of a ritual bath by which a Gentile convert to Judaism was cleansed from moral and religious impurity.

John’s invitation is to a baptism that is a ritual action, a cleansing that is symbolic of a turning from sin and a returning to God. It represents a re-orienting of lives toward God.

“Repentance” is the English translation of the Greek word metanoia, which means “a change of mind, turning about, conversion.” Repentance is much more than a sense of guilt. Guilt doesn’t save us. Unresolved guilt can beat a person down and forgiveness is the only real antidote.

Repentance is more than sorrow for getting caught or for doing something wrong. Repentance is a change of mind, a stepping away from a sinful pattern, habit or act. It is to change. God’s call isn’t to guilt or to sorrow, but to change. This was John’s message: repent! Change your mind! Turn around before it’s too late!

The third important word in verse 3 is “forgiveness” (Greek aphesis), which means “release from captivity; pardon, cancellation of an obligation, a punishment, or guilt.” John declared the existence of sin, the necessity of repentance, and God’s offer of forgiveness. He insisted that the powerful and the common alike had committed sins and needed forgiveness. But John didn’t leave them there; he offered God’s forgiveness, but he did it in a radical way.

When John called on people to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, he called them to submit to the same kind of cleansing bath required of Gentile converts. Who among John’s fellow Jews would humble themselves to do something that only Gentiles had to do? Many of the common people repented and were baptized gladly, but Luke 7:30 states that “the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.”

Pride prevented the religious elite from experiencing God’s grace for their lives. We need to be careful that we don’t repeat their mistake and allow pride to block the blessing the Lord desires to give us.

In the next few weeks leading up to Christmas many people will be traveling to visit family and one of the things most of us dread when we’re driving long distances is getting stuck in traffic due to construction.

It’s amazing though to see how major roads are built. Jill’s grandfather worked in Pennsylvania a long time ago carefully calculating how much dynamite was needed to blow up the rock that had to be cleared so roads could be built and tunnels constructed to help traffic move smoothly and safely.

In a spiritual sense that’s what John the Baptist does. He comes in like dynamite and seeks to clear the way for Jesus to come into the hearts and lives of people by enabling them to repent, be forgiven, and baptized to be cleansed from their sins. “Make his paths straight. Every 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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'” All this is spiritual preparation so that people will return to the Lord and make room for Christ in their lives.

People like to say, Jesus is the reason for the season. But John the Baptist comes along first and tells us something unexpected that we may not like. John says sin is the reason for the season.

Sin is the reason why God needs to send a Savior.

God didn’t send his Son to die because people were wonderful, cute and nice. God sent Jesus to save the world from sin.

If people were 100% loving, kind, just, and merciful, we wouldn’t need Christmas.

The reason why we have the season of Advent before we have Christmas is because we need a period of preparation before receiving the gift. People are impatient and want to jump right to Christmas, just as we can prefer jumping right to forgiveness without the pain and change of repentance. That’s why John the Baptist is such a central figure to Advent.

He exhorts, encourages and invites us to repent―to turn around and return to the Lord and head in God’s direction. John’s message is necessary preparation for the coming of the Christ child.

When was the last time you saw a John the Baptist in a Christmas display? Never. Who wants to be reminded of sin and repentance?

Yet we experience the effects of sin all the time:  anger, hopelessness, lies, greed, violence, despair, and broken lives. John the Baptist reminds us of our great need for God. We’ve all sinned against God and other people. We shouldn’t be surprised people act like sinners. God isn’t. That’s why God sent Jesus.

If we wish to see the salvation of God in Christ, Emmanuel, God with us, then our task is to prepare room for Christ to dwell in us at Christmas and all through the year.

Later this week the Cape Cod Christmas bird count will begin and hundreds of people will go traipsing all over trying to see and identify as many kinds of birds as possible, it’s possible one might see 125 to 135 species of birds. While I’ve never done a bird count, when Jill and I are walking this time of year I enjoy looking into the trees and seeing all the nests that have been hidden among the now fallen leaves. Building a nest requires tremendous amounts of energy and time to construct.

Joyce Rupp is a spiritual writer whose prayers, poems and writing are engaging and vivid. In her book Fresh Bread she writes the following about Advent and preparing a place for Jesus in the nest of our hearts.

“If you look high into the trees on December days can you see little nests everywhere? They remind me of Advent. Instead of getting a nest ready that will be round and welcoming for an egg, and the future young life, I am getting a Christ-home ready within my life. I am trying to prepare a dwelling place for the Lord, a warm, well-hollowed place where the life of my God will deepen and mature in me.

I believe that the word comes ever so quietly and in ever so ordinary a way. The twigs of our trials and tensions, the soft down of our love and fidelity, the pebbles of our patience and pain, the straw of our struggles and strivings, the mud of our humanness and growing, the dry grass of our surrender and our daily dyings. These are the content of our nests where God asks us to hollow out a welcoming place. Jesus comes to us in the midst of everyday fragments and asks us to create space for him where he has never been before, or places where he is no longer welcome. All the bits and pieces of our lives, like those bits and pieces that form bird’s nests, are where he awaits a birthing. All of us are meant to know and to deeply appreciate the joy and privilege of this nesting, of this homing of the God who waits for us to openly receive the life offered to us.

Advent, then, might be called a season of nesting. Human hearts are asked to prepare a way for the Lord.

Just as Christmas celebrates the coming of Emmanuel so many years ago and how he continues to come and dwell among us, so Advent is the time to prepare each year for the coming of God-with-us. Emmanuel comes, filling the nests of our hearts repeatedly with a special presence that we sense and know a presence that we can quickly disregard because of the inner traffic and noise of our daily activity.

Advent beckons to us. Be still. Be alert. Get into the spirit of the Old Testament and yearn for the Savior. Cry out to God. Cry out to be open and receptive. Sharpen your awareness of the God who dwells within. Open up. Hollow out. Receive. Welcome the one who comes.

In these next few weeks of Advent, I invite you to prepare a dwelling place for Christ in your life. Prepare your heart daily.

Develop a deeper awareness of how the Lord dwells among us.

Each morning pray a simple prayer of “Come Lord Jesus, dwell with me this day.”

Each evening take a few minutes to think about the nest you are preparing for the Lord; reflect on how God has been in your life that day and how you’ve been open to his dwelling.

You might look at the trees more often; even take a walk to do so. Stop to look at the nests. Ponder the message that is there for you.

Think about returning to the Lord as birds do to their nests.

Keep welcoming Emmanuel into your heart-nest this Advent season, remembering that it is there that Jesus continues to be born and desires to make a home.”

Prayer: Loving God, help us hear the message of your salvation and to live as your people, always ready to seek forgiveness and to return to you. May we always have a heart nest with room for you to dwell and live within us.

Questions for Discussion or Reflection

  1. Look at Luke 1:67-80, which contains the Holy Spirit-inspired song that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, shares about his new son. Take note of the things for which Zechariah praises God. What does Zechariah’s song tell us about John the Baptist and salvation?
  2. About how much time passes between the appearances of John the Baptist in Luke 1:80 and in Luke 3:1-6? What do you suppose John was doing in those intervening years?
  3. Why do you think Luke lists all the political and religious figures in verses 1-2? Of all the people listed in verses 1-2, to whom does the Word of God come? Where is the Word received? What might this tell us about how God often works?
  4. Luke quotes Isaiah 40:3-5 and applies those verses in a new way to John. How does John prepare the way for Jesus?
  5. Luke summarizes the content of John’s preaching as (Luke 3:3), “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” “Repentance” is the English translation of the Greek word metanoia, which means “a change of mind, turning about, conversion, a new way of seeing.” How does repentance look in your life?

What can you do to return to the Lord this Advent season and to prepare more room for Christ in your life/

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