ISAIAH 40:1-5 AND JOHN 1:6-9
Do you put up a creche or nativity scene at Christmas? We have a beautiful one set up in Fellowship Hall with white and gold figurines. Who and what are some of the images we expect to see in a nativity set? Shepherds. Angels. Mary and Joseph. Baby Jesus. Some animals. Nowhere in any nativity set will you find John the Baptist; this interesting individual who, we are told, lived in the wilderness, wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. (Mark 1:4-6, Matt 3:4)) Yet, he is an important part of Christ’s story. We sing of him, when we sing the hymn, “Comfort, Comfort You My People,” we read of him when we read Isaiah 40, “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”(Is 40:3), all four gospels speak of his ministry as a prelude to Jesus’s own ministry. Our passage from John today calls him a “witness” who has come to testify to the true light, which is Christ. He had a vision to proclaim So even though we do not see John the Baptist as part of the Christmas story (no figurine in our nativity sets of a guy wearing camel’s hair attire)– perhaps we should, for his role in the life of Christ is key and the vision he brought to the wilderness of the coming Christ was transformational.
Did you know that when he first appeared on the scene his presence was so powerful, his message so compelling that many asked him, “are you the Messiah?” But he was not and he knew it. He knew he was one preparing the way for another. In the Gospels, John is described as a voice crying in the wilderness. He proclaims, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me” (Mark 1:7; matt 3:17; Luke 3:16). And of course, that one is Jesus, the Messiah.
The wilderness is one of the most important, significant symbols we find throughout the Bible. It is a place apart, and it stands in contrast to the city – a symbol of security. Presumably, in the city you are protected from the elements and predators, there are resources for the things you need, and you can be secure in your surroundings. The wilderness, however, is a whole different story, it is cast as an undesirable place to be. There is no pre-built map, there is no straight path, the ground is uneven and footing is uncertain in rough places. It can be easy to feel lost there. When you are in the wilderness you may not know where your next drink of water is coming from, or where you will sleep, you are at the mercy of nature, and you feel all alone. In the wilderness the protections you are used to are not readily available. It is in the wilderness that we encounter John, and honestly, that is very often where we encounter God.
Life can sometimes have the feeling of a wilderness. Hardships and suffering are all around us. During our lifetimes we will experience at least one time, if not many, in which we feel we are in a wilderness ourselves. Many things can happen – a troubled marriage, loss of a loved one, addictions, joblessness, family troubles. Whatever it is, it is a hard place to be. If you are there, you know how that feels. If you are not, I can tell you that it is a place where we must show compassion for each other – grieving with those who grieve, praying with those who need strengthened, reaching out for each other.
The wilderness can also be a place of opportunity, things are not always as they seem there. Though it may feel as though we are alone, or lost we are not, the Lord is there with us. Our passage from John 1 last week says that in Christ is the life and light of all people, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” (1:5) John comes as a witness to tell the world about this light. The Message translation says, “John came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in…he was there to show the way to the light.” (1:6-8 MSG). Sometimes when we are feeling lost, we need that signpost.
When we are in the wilderness it can be easy to forget God, or to complain against God, to hold God in contempt. Remember the Israelites? They longed for freedom from their Egyptian slave holders, but once they were free they longed for Egypt and the old ways that had held them captive. The wilderness can be a place of finally letting go of all that has past. We can use it to grow in maturity and wisdom, and depth.
The wilderness is an opportunity for Faith. We know that even though hardships may come, Jesus has gone before us, he knows us, in fact he knows how hard it is, since he, too spent time in the wilderness (at the beginning of his ministry/tempted by satan). Can we believe and trust in God when our circumstances seem dire? Will we?
All things considered, it must have been difficult (don’t you think) for John to do what he did? To find himself in a wilderness place, to then pull himself together, to submit to the unknown. Scripture tells us that he did not know who was coming, just that “someone” more powerful, more worthy was to follow him (Matt 3:11). What must it have taken to call out with a message that you believe will be fulfilled in another, whom you do not even know for sure exists, but whom you have been called to proclaim anyway, and so you do. I believe that takes, well, that takes, a tremendous amount of faith, trust and some character traits that I think we can learn from.
1) I believe it takes humility. John obviously had a powerful message. People were willing to believe he was someone really important. Yet instead of making his message about himself, he proclaimed the one coming who is even greater. “He himself was not the light,” but he was a reflection of the true light. He did not draw attention for himself, but in order to draw others to Jesus Christ.
For us – living with humility means the same thing – our lives are to be a reflection of what we know to be true in Christ. In Luke, we are told the crowds pressed John to tell them more about what that meant in practical terms. “What then should we do?” they asked him. (Luke 3:10) He then laid out a way of living that reflected what he knew: share what you have, be honest in your dealings with others, be grateful for what you have, let go of the need to always be right, live at peace with others. (Luke 3:10-14)
2) Next, I believe it requires responsibility. As far as we know, John never wavered from the vision he was given – which was to prepare the way for the ministry of the Messiah. I don’t know if he had any idea what lay before him (for you may recall that he was later imprisoned and beheaded). But he certainly took his responsibility seriously. He did not look behind or before, but only to the task at hand. As a result, his efforts straightened the path and prepared the way in many hearts, for the work that followed through Jesus Christ.
How can we take responsibility. What are ways that we can “prepare the way” so to speak for the work of Christ in the hearts of those who do not yet know him? In just a few minutes we will commission a new Stephen Minister. Certainly, Stephen Ministers take on such a responsibility. Suzanne as she leads our adult Bible study is responsible. God will give you a creative vision, too, one that is meant to make a path or smooth the way for others, then it is your responsibility to submit to and trust that vision.
3) Preparing the way requires a level of sensitivity. John needed to see the obstacles in the way and remove them. For him, this meant helping people to look closely at their lives; he called on them to repent and seek healing. John had to really look at people and recognize their deep and individual needs.
We too, are called to cultivate our sensitivity toward others as well. Being sensitive means showing compassion toward others who may be going through difficult times. How can we be a witness in the wilderness? How can we level the field that others may find their way?
John was an unlikely person to be called out to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. He was rough around the edges, a bit of a wild man. But God does not always call the most likely candidate. I like to think that means there is hope for me, and for you. That there is room for us to participate in the lives of people who may be seeking in the wilderness.
During this advent season, as we prepare a way in our hearts for Christ – can we focus on God’s presence, and power in our lives. Can we also keep an eye out for those among us that find themselves in a long term wilderness. Can we, like John, have a vision to help make the way straight for someone by offering life and light of Christ. Can we like John reflect the light of Christ?