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.'”Luke 3:2-4
John was waiting for this, for the word of God to come to him. In fact, he was born for this. Living in the wilderness, becoming strong in spirit, waiting for the day that he would be called to appear publicly to Israel. And now, that day has finally come. The word of God has come, to John the Baptist, in the wilderness.
The word of God comes to us, too, and in many and various ways. The word of God comes to us in whatever way that God wants, I suppose, because God is God. But it is worth asking today, what are some of these ways? John was in the wilderness, waiting for this event. He spent his whole life waiting for this moment. But what about us? When and how has the word of God come to us?
Moses, Samuel, and Others in Scripture
To help us think about this, let me offer some famous examples from scripture of when and how the word of God came to God’s people. Think of Moses, to begin with. Raised in Pharaoh’s home, but a Hebrew by birth. Upset to see his fellow Hebrews being beaten as slaves. Killed the Egyptian who was beating his kinfolk. Escaped to the land of Midian, and was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, when the word of God came to him. How? An “angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” Moses turned aside, looked at this great sight. And the word of God came to him.
In seminary, I was taught to help people see events in their lives as “burning bush” moments, inviting us to turn aside and look and listen. We learn this from Moses.
Or how about Samuel? A boy when the word of God came to him. Asleep. Not sure what was happening to him. The priest he was working for, Eli, instructed him not to ignore the voice; but instead to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” He did, and the word of God came to him. Sometimes, sleeping can lower our defenses enough to let God in. Sometimes, we need someone to help us listen. We learn this from Samuel.
How about Jonah? The word of God came to him at various times, but most famously in the belly of the great fish. God had to work a little harder to get through to Jonah. But God doesn’t give up. Not if Jonah teaches us anything. Sometimes, the word of God comes to us whether we want it to or not. We learn this from Jonah. Then there is Elijah, fleeing from Jezebel, who has vowed to kill him. Alone in a cave. Scared. Uncertain of what to do, or where to go. Desperate for a word from God. And the word of God came to him – not dramatically, like in the wind or the fire or the earthquake, but rather in the still, small voice of the Lord.
And then there is the New Testament. Think, for example, of when the word of God came to the father of John the Baptist and the mother of Jesus. Both Zechariah and Mary were approached by an angel. And so were the lowly shepherds,“living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Sometimes, the word of God comes to us in miraculous ways. We learn this from Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds.
And then there is Jesus himself. The word of God came to him, too, in many and various ways, but one well-known time was when he was baptized by John in the wilderness. After his baptism he heard a voice from heaven say to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The word of God can come to us in traditional ways, too, like baptism and communion.
These are just a few of the many ways in which the word of God can come to us. Indeed, the writer of Hebrews tells us, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” And this living, active word comes to us all. Not just the people of scripture.
I can’t help but think of people that I have known in my ministry. People that I have been blessed to see the word of God come to, in all sorts of circumstances. A cancer diagnosis that led someone back to church. The sudden death of a loved one. A youth retreat. In many different ways. Some welcome, some not. But the word of God came. And the word of God still comes to us all. Calling us to new ways of living and looking at our life.
When God Is Ready, God Will Come
The word of God comes, when God is ready. “The Coming of God” is the title of the first poem in Ann Weems’ collection of Advent and Christmas poetry, “Kneeling in Bethlehem,” that describes this well. Here is her poem:
The Coming of God Our God is the One who comes to us in a burning bush, in an angel's song, in a newborn child. Our God is the One who cannot be found locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary. Our God will be where God will be with no constraints, no predictability. Our God lives where our God lives, and destruction has no power and even death cannot stop the living. Our God will be born where God will be born, but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us. When God is ready God will come even to a godforsaken place like a stable in Bethlehem. Watch . . . for you know not when God comes. Watch, that you might be found whenever wherever God comes.
When God is ready God will come. To a stable in Bethlehem, and so anywhere. Our God comes. So watch, for we know not when God comes. Watch, that we might be found whenever and wherever God comes. Isn’t that all that John the Baptist is really saying to us today? Prepare the way of the Lord. By waiting. By watching. By listening.
Saying Yes to God
And then, by saying “Yes.” The renowned Lutheran statesman, Dag Hammarskjold, describes the power of this saying “Yes” in a wonderful way, in a remarkable journal of his describing his inner life of faith (Markings). In that journal he wrote:
“I don’t know Who — or what — put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone — or Something — and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.
From that moment I have known what it means ‘not to look back,’ and ‘to take no thought for the morrow.’ Led by Ariadne’s thread of my answer through the labyrinth of Life, I came to a time and place where I realized that the Way leads to a triumph which is a catastrophe, and to a catastrophe which is a triumph, that the price for committing one’s life would be reproach, and that the only elevation possible to man lies in the depths of humiliation. After that, the word ‘courage’ lost its meaning, since nothing could be taken from me.”
That is what it means, I think, to have the word of God come. And to say yes to its call. It means being certain that existence is meaningful. It means being led through the labyrinth of life. It means that our life, in self-surrender, now has a goal; it now has a purpose.
On the outside, it may mean being involved in business or politics or teaching or nursing or caring for little ones or any number of other things. But below the surface, all that now matters is serving our God. In the place that God has put us; in the circumstances that we have been given. With the gifts that we have. Faithfully sharing our time, talent, and treasure. Being good stewards of what God has given us. And the only way to do that faithfully is by hearing God’s voice. By doing as John the Baptist teaches us today.
After the word of God came to John in the wilderness, what did he do? Today’s gospel reading tells us:
“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.’” – Luke 3:3-4
John begins proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And calling on everyone to prepare the way of the Lord. What are we to do? Repent, and prepare.
There is a famous Christian from the 2nd century, Tertullian, who combined these two aspects when he wrote that to prepare the way of the Lord through repentance is to “prepare the home of our heart by making it clean for the Holy Spirit.” Prepare the home of our heart by making it clean for the Holy Spirit. Or, as the great Christmas hymn, “Joy to the World,” puts it: “Let every heart prepare him room.”
And isn’t that ultimately what all of this is about? Preparing the home of hearts for the coming of Christ? That’s what really matters this season. Preparing the way of the Lord, by preparing the home of our heart.
Here’s a simple suggestion for doing this: As we decorate our homes this season for Christmas, we can at the same time reflect on how we can decorate our hearts for Christ. What items in our hearts need to be dusted off, or repaired, or simply thrown away? What things in our life need changing? What areas in our hearts might need additional decorations? These are all ways to prepare the way of the Lord through repentance. To get ready for the word of God to come to us, just as it came to John in the wilderness, and to all of God’s people in so many different and wonderful ways.
And that is really all that John the Baptist is trying to get us to do today, when he calls on us to prepare the way of the Lord. He is inviting us to repent. To clean up our hearts. And to focus on our relationship with Christ. His call to repent is really a call to turn from all the stress of the season, and simply return to the Lord.
It’s why we are here, after all. To listen again to the word of God as it comes to us. And to focus ourselves back on what truly matters. And when we do this, we find again the thread that can lead us through the labyrinth of this life. The thread that shows us the way. The way that fills our valleys, and makes low our mountains. The way that helps us to hear the still, small voice. The way that leads us to turn aside to see the burning bush. The way, above all, that leads to a life like no other, the life that is promised to all who desire it, the life that comes from life with Jesus. Let us follow this way always. To the glory of God. Amen.