December 9th, 2018, Pastor Galen, Second Sunday of Advent
Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6
Wrong Way on a One-Way Track
How many of you have ever been driving in your car or riding a bus or train and realized you were heading the opposite direction of where you wanted to go?
I think one of the worst feelings in the world is when you miss your exit on the highway and you realize that you’re going to have to keep driving for several miles in the wrong direction before you can get off at an exit and turn around in order to go the right way.
Now most of us in our society don’t like to admit that we’re wrong, and we like it even less when someone else points out that we’re wrong. But even though it’s not very much fun to have to admit that you’ve made a mistake, it’s much better to turn around and go the right way, than to continue stubbornly on in the wrong direction, and if and when someone helps us realize that we’re going the wrong way, we should be eternally grateful to them because they might have saved us a lot of wasted time and hassle.
Prepare the Way for the Lord
In our Gospel Lesson today, John the Baptist preached a baptism of “repentance.” Repentance literally means “a change of mind.” It implies a recognition that one is looking at something from the wrong perspective, and it involves humbling yourself to admit that you’ve been wrong, and to turn around and face the right direction.
John the Baptist’s call for repentance was not random or out of the blue, even though it did take place in the wilderness (of all places). John the Baptist was the voice crying in the wilderness, calling people to a mindset change in order to “prepare the way for the Lord” (Luke 3:4), and this was done in accordance with the prophecies in Malachi and Isaiah.. John the Baptist’s call to repentance was about preparing the way for the Lord, helping people get ready to welcome Jesus as their King.
In the Isaiah prophecy, this voice in the wilderness calls out that “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth” (Luke 3:5), so that all people can see and experience the salvation of our God.
Rolling Out the Red Carpet
Filling in valleys, leveling mountains, and making rough paths smooth in preparation for a king — this is sort of like rolling out the red carpet for a celebrity in our day.
You know, I was thinking about why we roll out the red carpet for celebrities to walk on. It’s not like famous people can’t walk on the ground, that they necessarily have these dainty little feet that have to walk on soft carpet.
Really the red carpet is meant to call attention to them, to show everyone around them that this person is special, and to make it easier for people to see them and know that they’re important. Red carpet makes it obvious that this person is supposed to be the center of attention.
In the same way, John’s call to repentance and the call to fill in the valleys and level the mountains was about helping people to see and recognize Jesus, to get ready to experience the salvation that he came to bring.
Not Who They Expected
You see, Jesus was not at all the type of King they were expecting. The people John the Baptist was speaking to probably did not think the Messiah would be born in the tiny town of Bethlehem, laid as a baby in a manger, born into the family of a poor carpenter.
They most likely thought the promised Messiah would be born in a palace, or perhaps come as a conquering military hero. They thought he would overthrow the Roman government and restore the kingdom of Israel. I’m sure their minds went in countless different directions as they imagined who he would be and what he would look like. But no matter who they thought he would be or what they imagined he would look like, their imaginations fell far short of who he really was and what he came to do.
And so, John knew that they needed to have a mindset change in order to see and recognize Jesus when he came. They needed to turn completely around, to face the opposite direction, to look the other way. They needed to give up their preconceived notions of who they thought the Messiah would be, to recognize they were looking in the wrong direction and to turn around in order to welcome Jesus. They needed the valleys to be raised up, the mountains to be lowered. They needed the rough paths made smooth, the red carpet to be rolled out so they could recognize their Messiah.
That’s why John the Baptist came. To prepare the way, to encourage them to repent, change their minds, and turn around. They needed a whole new perspective so that they didn’t miss him when he came.
Now, the people who didn’t do this, the people who didn’t repent and allow God to change their mindset, in fact did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. And ironically they were the religious elites of the day. The priests, the Pharisees, the teachers of the law. They didn’t heed John’s call to repent because they didn’t think they were going in the wrong direction in the first place. And so they just kept going stubbornly in the wrong direction, zoomed right past their exit, with no inclination of turning around. And they essentially missed Jesus when he came.
On the other hand, the people who did heed John’s call to repent, the people who turned around and allowed God to change their mindset — they recognized Jesus when he came along, and they welcomed and received him as their king. These were the people who knew they weren’t perfect. They were the common everyday folks. They were the sinners, the tax collectors, the marginalized and outcasts, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. These people admitted they were wrong, they accepted John’s invitation to a baptism of repentance, and because they did, they recognized Jesus and received him accordingly.
This Christmas season it strikes me that there are a lot of people in our world who are in need of a mindset change in order to recognize Jesus for who he really was and is. Even around Christmas, which is supposed to be the celebration of Jesus’s birth, all of us can get so caught up in the busyness of the season that we miss the whole point.
Some of us are only thinking about ourselves, and what we want for Christmas. But I find that for many of us, especially those of us who are parents or grandparents, it can be so easy to get so caught up in trying to make it a wonderful and memorable experience for our children or grandchildren or for those around us that we forget to step back, and to remember and reflect on the miracle of Christ’s birth for ourselves.
And still others of us find ourselves around this time of the year constantly chasing those ever elusive feelings of peace and joy and satisfaction that we think we’re supposed to feel around the holidays.
I think for each and every one of us, it’s possible for us to miss the point of Christmas, to miss Jesus for who he really is and why he came. Advent, this season of preparation leading up to Christmas, is an invitation for us to have a mindset change, a perspective shift, in order to see and recognize Jesus and to receive him anew this Christmas.
You see, Jesus wasn’t born in a manger just so we could have an excuse to give each other wonderfully expensive gifts, nor did he come to make us really stressed out every December, trying to make sure everyone around us is having a good time. Jesus didn’t come to this earth to make us more busy than we already are, nor did he come just so we could experience some ephemeral feelings of peace and joy in the midst of a chaotic world.
Jesus came to bring hope in the midst of despair, love that shines in the midst of darkness, a joy that remains even through suffering and loss, and a peace that surpasses all understanding and lasts forever.
This Christmas, let’s remember that all of the holiday lights, the trees, the songs, the times together with family, the gifts, the decorations — they’re all meant to highlight and to showcase the amazing, miraculous and wonderful gift that we’ve already been given — Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is the point.
When we set up the decorations and turn on the lights, let’s think of it as rolling out the red carpet to welcome our King. It may give us a sense of satisfaction and joy to look at the holiday lights, but they’re not ends in and of themselves. Let’s remember that the lights point us to the One who is the true Light of the World. And as we give and receive gifts with our friends and loved ones this Christmas, let’s remember together the true Gift that we were given in the person of Jesus Christ.
This morning I want to invite us to ask God to give us a perspective shift, to change our mindset. Let’s ask God to prepare our hearts to welcome our King Jesus. Let’s ask God to make us over anew so that instead of trying to make Jesus into who we want him to be, we would receive Jesus for who he is. Let’s allow him to change us from the inside out, so that we would experience the true and lasting peace and joy that only Jesus can bring.