THIS VOICE CRIES OUT TO YOU
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St. Paul confesses that, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.” He speaks that way because before God called Him to be an apostle he persecuted the church as vigorously as he now defended it, and also because when he examined his heart in the light of God’s Law he saw nothing there but sin and death. He was so appalled by his “lost condition” that he laments in Romans 7:24, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
What about you? Do you see yourself in that same light, or do you think that your flaws are relatively minor, that you are a pretty good person, and that God owes you His blessing. If so then either the church is not teaching aright, or you are not listening aright, because the church is not a first aid station where life’s little booboo’s are kissed and covered up with Tweetie Bird bandages. Instead it is more like a cancer unit where people who are sick unto death come for radical surgery and strong medicine.
This is the message of John the Baptist, and through him God still calls men to repentance today. Repentance is a word we often hear but do we remember what it means? To repent means, first of all, to stop what you are doing. To stop following the natural impulses of Sinful Nature that store up more and more judgment for us. It means to lament our sins, to detest them, to feel the same malice towards them that we would toward a tumor that might invade our body. It means to realize that our wrongs are odious to the Almighty, and harmful to our neighbor. To repent also means to use every ounce of spiritual strength that God gives us to live a holy life, and to resist the devil the world and the flesh. This is the spiritual warfare John the Baptist has in mind when he says, Repent. But there is more because repentance, above all, means faith. It means to trust fully in the One whom John announced, the Lamb of God who was sacrificed on the bloody altar of the cross in order to expunge the sins of the world, all sins, our sins.
There can be no question that God loves us, that He has given His Son to die for us and that He calls us to Himself, but we should also remember on this Fourth Sunday of Advent that He does it in ways that defy logic. All Scripture testifies to the fact that He loves to demonstrate His strength by using what the world considers weak, and His wisdom by employing what the world considers foolish. We learn this today from John the Baptist who did not conduct His ministry in Jerusalem, the religious capital of the Jewish faith, but instead set up shop on the other side of the Jordan, so that if a person wanted to hear him, he had to make a long and perilous journey to the Jordan Valley, 1400 ft. below sea level, where there were no established roads, or any of the amenities of civilization, but plenty of danger and hardship instead. In spite of the obstacles, despite the non-user friendly location, people came; streams of them, from all over Jerusalem and Judea: tax collectors and soldiers, Pharisees and Sadducees, and when John’s ministry could no longer be ignored a delegation of Priests and Levites, those ministers of the Temple religion, came from Jerusalem to inquire of John who he was and what exactly it is that he thought he was doing.
His answer was simple: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said. What did he mean? In ancient times whenever a king would visit the far flung reaches of his kingdom the neglected roads would be upgraded, smoothed, straightened and beautified in a way befitting royalty, but the smoothing operation that John has in mind was of a different kind. It was an inner preparation consisting of the repentance we mentioned earlier; accomplished by confessing our wrongs, receiving the absolution, and by bearing the fruits indicative of true repentance.
St. Paul gives us some specifics in today’s epistle lesson when He says, “let your gentleness be known to all men, the Lord is at hand.” He says this because he knows that it is not within our nature to be gentle, moderate or patient with the weakness of others, but rather short-fused and hot-tempered should anyone push too hard. He knows that we each think of ourselves as the long expected messiah, and all others as our servants who are fit only to untie the laces of our shoes. Every time we wrong our neighbor we prove it to be true, but Jesus came to call sinners, not the righteous, and He does it with a powerful voice indeed. What is the proof? The thing that John was prescribing when he said, “make straight the way of the Lord” is impossible for any man to do. He might just as well ask us to “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” but we need not worry because God’s Word is Alive and Powerful, and contains within it all that is necessary to accomplish the thing that it says. Thus when Isaiah prophecies, “He will feed His flock like a shepherd, He will gather the lambs in His arms,” Jesus the Good Shepherd is born in a manger, welcomed and adored by jubilating shepherds from the surrounding Judean hills.
When the Angel Gabriel says to the perplexed young maiden, “ the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” then the Virgin conceives and bears a Son, she becomes the Mother of God and gives birth to the Savior of the nations.
And when St. John the Baptizer says, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” his words still delight us, still excite us, and give us fresh vigor to turn from our sins, greater faith to believe that Jesus cleanses all of them, and renewed devotion to live out our days in His grace and to His glory. Amen.
~ Rev. Dean Kavouras