“A voice cries in the wilderness, Prepare a way for the Lord,”
John the Baptist is the central figure of Advent season. His message can be hard for us to understand as it was for the people who gathered in the wilderness to hear his words some 2000 years ago. Few people then really comprehended what he meant when he declared his mission was “to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight”. Fewer still could even begin to understand him when he said, “After me comes one whose sandals I am not worthy to untie”. And fewer still when he said, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”. What was John talking about? And what does the message mean for us today?
John the Baptist is the very voice of Advent: He is the last of the prophets and the greatest of them all. He is the voice of the coming of Jesus to earth to make straight the relationship between God and ourselves. We are reminded of the loss of paradise and the promise of the redeemer. The preparations were on down through the centuries, but John had the privilege of immediate preparation by inviting everyone to repentance in order to welcome the messiah into the world. “ As for you little child you shall go before the Lord to prepare His way.” He baptized the giver of baptism and identified him to the world- “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Billy Graham, who often played the 20th century role of John the Baptizer, had these comments about the disease running rampant in the world: “We’re suffering from only one disease in the world. Our basic problem is not a race problem. Our basic problem is not a poverty problem. Our basic problem is not a war problem. Our basic problem is a heart problem. We need to get the heart changed, the heart transformed.”
John presents an image of the mountains and valleys being made flat and smooth as a sign of Israel’s repentance and moral transformation. Preparing “the way” means to create a favorable environment or to make it easy for someone to come to one and operate in one’s life. The quotation which John’s work fulfills is taken from Isaiah 40:3-5, where the prophet was calling the people to prepare for the Lord’s visitation. The preparation on which he insisted was a preparation of heart and of life. “The king is coming,” he said in effect. “Mend, not your roads, but your lives.” The quotation, “making straight the paths of the Lord,” means clearing the path of sin, which is the major obstacle preventing the Lord from coming into our lives. The valley here stands for the estrangement of man from God.
There are mountains that need to come down – mountains of pride, anger and prejudice that blocks our way to healthy relationships with one another and with our Lord. There are valleys to be filled – valleys of depression, despair, loneliness, grief, pain, any of which can keep us from the rich relationship the Savior offers and that keep us from enjoying the fellowship of the faith. There are crooked places to be made straight – yes, there is perversity, even among those we might never imagine; fine exteriors mask rotten interiors of abuse, neglect, immorality, even violence. There are rough places to be made smooth – rough places that have come because of oppression and injustice.
John called people to repent as a way of preparing their hearts and lives for the Lord’s visit. He is calling us, too, to get ready for something so great that it fills our emptiness with expectation. A smooth road means nothing to God, but a repentant heart means a great deal. Hence, the truly important goal for us is to prepare our hearts to receive the Lord. By emphasizing the last line of the quotation “All flesh will see the salvation of God,” Luke stresses the universal aspect of God’s salvation. Having begun the section with a list of rulers who did not bring wholeness or salvation, Luke ends with the expectation of a true Lord Who can bring these about.
We need to prepare the way for the Messiah in our hearts: We have to fill in the “valleys” of our souls, which have resulted from our shallow prayer life and a minimalist way of living our Faith. We have to straighten out whatever crooked paths we’ve been walking, like involvement in some secret or habitual sins or in a sinful relationship. If we have been involved in some dishonest practices at work or at home, we are called to straighten them out and make restitution. If we have been harboring grudges or hatred, or failing to be reconciled with others, now is the time to clear away all the debris. If we have been pushing God off to the side of our road, if we have been saying to Him that we don’t really have the time for Him, now is the time for us to get our priorities straight. As individuals, we might have to overcome deep-seated resentment, persistent faultfinding, unwillingness to forgive, dishonesty in our dealings with others, or a bullying attitude. And we all have to level the “mountains” of our pride and egocentrism.
We need to repent and seek forgiveness from God and our fellow-human beings: John’s message calls us to confront and confess our sins. We have to turn away from them in sincere repentance and receive God’s forgiveness. There are basically two reasons why people who have recognized their sins fail to receive forgiveness for them. The first is that they fail to repent — but the second is that they fail to forgive. Jesus is very explicit about this in Matthew 6:14 and 15. He says, “For if you forgive men their transgressions, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Is there someone I need to forgive today? We must not let what others have done destroy our lives. We can’t be forgiven unless we forgive. We must release our bitterness if we are to be able to allow God to do His healing work in our lives.
We don’t live in a perfect world, and we don’t look to this world to see God’s salvation. For salvation, we have to look to Jesus — Jesus present in Scripture, Jesus present in the Sacraments, Jesus present in our coming together in his name, Jesus present in the lives of his followers. Perhaps if we began to see Jesus in each other and in ourselves, and started to treat one another (and ourselves), as we would treat Jesus, more of the world might come to see God’s salvation.