"Spirit of God, make the way straight for us to hear and believe your word, for your word is truth and life. Amen"
In ancient times, when a king was going to visit a city, he would send before him someone to herald his coming, someone to announce that he would be arriving soon. The herald would go around the city, and go before the leaders of the city, telling them all, “The king is coming. He will be here any day. So clean up your lives. Make sure you are all in obedience to the kings commands so that you will not be punished when he arrives.”
This herald also served as a city inspector. He would go around the city and make a list of things that needed to be fixed. He would tell them, “Clean up your city. Sweep your streets. Get rid of all the rubbish lying around. Round up any criminals to make the city safe. Fix the roads; make them smooth and straight. Make sure the city is fit for a king to ride through.” If he came, and they were not prepared, he might mete out some judgment and punishment upon the city and its rulers.
As we look at Luke 3, this is what we see going on. The King is coming, and He has sent a herald to announce His imminent arrival. The king, of course, is Jesus Christ and the herald “the one who will pronounce His coming” is John the Baptizer, John has come to prepare the way. John, out in the desert, was aware that time was running out. With his burning message he had no time to splash about in the shallows. He was on a mission for soon the sword of Herod's guard would flash and he would lie silent in the grave.
Luke was a very accurate historian, in his gospel he provides a detailed time frame for the events he is writing about.
Listen to the opening verse again Luke 3:1-2a. Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests,
All of the names mentioned here tell us that these events happened around 28 A.D. But aside from including these names to set the date for us, Luke includes them to show how far Israel had fallen. Politically, the Jews were ruled by foreigners, and religiously, Annas and Caiaphas the High Priests had been illegally put into their positions by the Roman authorities, and constantly used their power to line their own pockets and increase their own authority. Annas was even sometimes called a viper who hissed or whispered in the ears of judges and politicians in order to influence their decisions. That becomes key when we look at Luke 3:7. John calls them a generation of vipers.
To fulfil all of the Old Testament prophesies the pattern must be followed which said that before the Messiah is fully revealed, a prophet must rise and call the people back to God. And that is exactly what happens.
Though we have just read of one emperor, one governor, three tetrarchs, and two religious high priests, – quite a list of people who are important and prestigious in the eyes of the world, the word of God does not come to them. It comes to a relatively unknown man living in the wilderness. Do not feel like you have to be somebody well known and of great influence to be used by God. God uses you and me, not the most prominent or popular. That is what we see here with John. He was in the wilderness, and the Word of God came to him.
And I can tell you how the Word of God came to him. Back in the Middle Ages, from about 500 to 1500 A.D. men and women who wanted to hear from God would go out and live in the desert for years on end. Many of them became known as the desert fathers. They would fast and pray and do some of the strangest things. One named Simon the Stylite spent 37 years standing on top of a pillar 60 feet high without coming down. His only exercise was bowing, which he did a lot of. Simon tied himself up on top of that pillar with a pole and ropes so he wouldn’t sit down or fall off when he slept.
Why did he do all of this? Because he wanted to be a spokesperson for God. And many people did come to him, just as they did with many of the desert fathers, for blessings, prayers, and to listen to their words, which were written and we can still read some of them today.
Word travelled that there was a wild man preaching repentance. They were fascinated by his camel hair coat, wild hair, weird diet and home-made leather belt – not to mention his fiery and passionate message. "Who are you?" they asked. His answer was short. "I am not the Christ." "Are you Elijah?" "No" he answered. "Then who are you?" they persisted. They had their doubts about who he was but his message was clear: Repent.
So why are we looking at repentance at Christmas? Isn’t that the message of Lent, when we focus on the torture and suffering of Jesus. But not at Christmas! Christmas is nice. Christmas is about a cute little baby and carols and presents and food!
Yes, repent approaching Christmas. John calls us to approach Christmas with honesty and openness to the Word of God.
Advent means “coming” and it requires a thoughtful and reflective approach to the coming of God into our humanity; Repenting for John is more than having a change of heart or a feeling of regret. It is more than a New Year's Eve resolution. Repentance is a turning away from ourselves, and in simple trust and faith in God’s grace, turning back to him.
Advent marks the start of a new church year, and it is customary at the start of any year to reflect on the past, look at the present and contemplate the future. In the tough times when we feel alone, it is easy to start to worry about our future and feel as though we have to make everything happen by ourselves, without God! It is fuelled by those things we see and hear on TV with so much fear and terror. So many tragedies, so much suffering.
It is into this state that John comes. He calls us away from our worries and puts our life into perspective -God’s perspective - and points us to the antidote to our worry, the security for our future – Jesus.
Each of us is invited to come to Jesus. John says prepare for the advent - the coming - of Jesus. We can’t rely on our pedigree as a dyed-in-the-wool Anglican. There is no room for pleading ignorance concerning God’s call to repent.
Isaac Watts’ famous hymn, “Joy to the World,” has the line: “Let every heart prepare him room.” and there will be room in our hearts for the grace of God when we have repented and have things right with God. It is not the big things that catch us out, we know when we have done those things and can quickly sort those out, it is the silly little things, usually pride-based, that we just don’t want to say sorry for. So we bury them and hope they will go away.
God knew the world of John and Jesus and he knows our world. He is calling us and the rest of the world to come clean about who we really are, and what we have done. John’s message to us is that there is only room in our hearts for simple trust in the grace and love of our God, and points us in the direction of his only Son, Jesus, the One who has come, and who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. He is the One present with us now to love, to heal and to give us peace and life; He is present in the bread and wine.
John has prepared the way, Jesus is the way, all we have to do is turn to him this Advent so that our joy may be fulfilled this Christmas.