To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
At one and the same time, sin makes all the sense in the world and no sense at all. To the old nature living inside each of us, sin makes all the sense in the world. It’s what makes us feel good, what makes us smug and proud, what seems to make us happy with our place and lot in life. At one and the same time, sin makes all the sense in the world and no sense at all. To the heart of faith given to us by the Holy Spirit, sin and all of its works are unthinkable, shameful, and are to be avoided at all costs. At one and the same time, sin makes all the sense in the world and no sense at all. This is the constant battle of the Christian living in this world. This struggle becomes even more evident during these days of Advent preparation leading up to Christmas as we hear the clear call of John the Baptizer, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John’s message was clear – not only does sin make no sense at all, it’s what separates us from a holy God. So, his cry goes out again, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” It’s an important message, because proper preparation produces peace.
Just hearing that word might have made you cringe – preparation. Or maybe it reminded you of how much you have left to do on your to-do list before the calendar flips to January. Does it ever seem to you that a year’s worth of preparation gets crammed into the month of December? During this 31 day stretch, it seems like all the hens come home to roost – things you agreed to do months ago are still staring at you undone. A meeting you thought you’d have time for a few weeks ago, now gets squeezed between this school event and that party. The class you’ve been meaning to get serious about since August has its final exam next week. The email you need to return, the phone call you’ve been meaning to make, the milk you forgot to pick up at the store, the payment that’s now three days late - and oh, what’s that bright red and green day on the calendar sixteen days from now? Christmas is coming and as if the end of year busyness isn’t enough, add to it the pressure of throwing the perfect family Christmas, and it’s enough to break you! It’s no surprise that stress skyrockets during the holidays. People want a Norman Rockwell style family Christmas complete with a Martha Stewart menu, the perfect blend of nostalgia and newness, and all of it has to be Instagram worthy. We hear about preparation this time of year and we could immediately construct a mental checklist of all the things we need to get ready and get done so we can have a nice Christmas and at least have a chance at that ever fleeting moment of peace. If you were making a mental Christmas checklist while I was talking, I’ll bet you probably didn’t include one thing, but it’s the most important part of getting ready for Christmas – take a trip out to the wilderness.
The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’” Want to be prepared for Christmas this year? Take a trip out to the wilderness and see this man named John. John the Baptizer wouldn’t win any awards for his fashion sense – camel’s hair and a leather belt. He probably wouldn’t have many people take him up on a dinner invitation, with locust legs stuck between his teeth and the powerful smell of wild honey on his breath. Kind of a rough sounding guy, right? The type of person you feel like you have to make apologies for when you bring him into polite company. Why? He wore rough clothes, he ate rough food, and proclaimed a rough message. Repent! And that’s something no one really wants to hear, because, to the sinner, sin makes all the sense in the world.
Nobody wants to hear it, but everyone needs to hear it. Go out to the wilderness and listen to this voice, that’s all he is – a voice of one calling in the desert, but a voice sent by God with an all-important message. He proclaims one of the predominant themes of the Advent season – repent! Turn away from the sin that hurts and harms and divides and destroys. Reverse your thinking about a way of life that puts you at odds with a holy God. Turn from sin and trust your Savior, because the Lord is coming! It sounds simple, but by ourselves it’s impossible. On our own it’s impossible, because to the sinner, sin makes all the sense in the world. So where does that leave us? Scrambling and doing, hoping and trying…and failing. It leaves us listening to the voice – the one that proclaims the judgment of God against sin.
The Savior of the world is coming, how will we prepare to meet him? John’s work was to prepare the way for Jesus, and he prepares by preaching repentance. Will we welcome the King of kings and Lord of lords by coddling sins we should have put off a long time ago? Do my priorities need to be examined? Does getting ready for Christmas mean more Amazon Prime than Advent Preparation? Is my main December concern more about recipes and less about repentance? Do our Advent hymns sound like this? “Ah, dearest Jesus, holy child, prepare a bed soft undefiled within my heart – but don’t mind the mess I’ve left lying around. I’ll take care of those sins later.” Or maybe, “To thee my heart I offer, O Christ child sweet and dear. But I’m not offering the whole thing, at least not until the kids are grown; or not until things settle down at work; or not until I’ve stopped enjoying what I’m currently putting ahead of God and his Word.” John’s preaching was provocative, and hearing that voice calling for preparation forces to examine myself. Here’s the frightening question to ask: Has sin stopped making no sense at all and now it just sounds really good? If that’s the case, then we’re not ready to meet the coming King. If our hearts are filled with pride or smug self-righteousness or denial, then there’s no room for the Advent King, Jesus.
These are the heart searching questions of Advent asked by Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptizer. Are you really ready to welcome God made flesh while you’re still holding onto the gods of your own making? After all, that’s what sin is – idolatry. Anything that takes the first place in your heart is what becomes your master. When we try to follow John’s advice to lower the mountains and raise the valleys and straighten out the crooked, we’re hopeless on our own. When was the last time you leveled Everest or filled the Grand Canyon? All that would be left for us to do is to cower in fear. Someone needs to effect this marvelous transformation, this repentance, upon us – from the outside. We desperately need the One whose way John was preparing.
John wasn’t just a doomsday prophet who ran around shouting, “The end is near!” John’s preaching had a purpose – to prepare the way for the coming Savior by preparing hearts to receive him. John went around preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. God’s message of law – pointing out our failures and how far short we’ve fallen of his demands – is always preparatory for the message of the gospel – that we have a Savior from every sin, who calls us to turn away from the sin we once held so dear and trust in his righteousness to cover over our every fault. As his father, Zechariah, said, John would go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. John tells us, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” And on your own, you can’t. So where does that leave you? Cut to the core by the demands of a holy God that you know you haven’t kept? Scrambling and doing, hoping and trying…and failing. It leaves you listening to the voice – the one that proclaims the end of your sin; the voice that declares you to be powerless to come to God so he came to you in Christ Jesus; the voice that proclaims Christ came for sinners, which means he came for you.
And how did he do it? Elsewhere, John made it clear. He pointed to Jesus and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus was the perfect sacrifice for sin – not just yours and not just mine, but for the sins of the world. This Advent season, take a trip out to the wilderness, listen to the voice, and see that God’s solution for our sin made all the sense in the world and no sense at all. The wages of sin is death, which means sin needed to be paid for by death – but not yours. Sin needed to be paid for with a perfect life free from every sin – which wasn’t yours and it wasn’t mine. God’s solution for our sin makes all the sense in the world, and no sense at all – because it’s the Son of God who picks up the tab. Jesus is the one who paid the perfect price to prepare you for his coming and bring you peace beyond anything this world has to offer. Jesus wants you to have peace that surpasses all human understanding. He sent John and he sends preachers today to point out your sin and prepare hearts for the rescue that Jesus gives in the gospel. That’s the only place you’ll find peace this Christmas – in Christ.
John’s preaching was purposeful. And now he points his message at you. What is there in your life that needs the bulldozer and steamroller of God’s law and gospel? What rough patches in your heart and Christian life need to be addressed, confessed, and covered in the blood of Jesus? Is there a lingering temptation that calls too sweetly and at just the right time? Look and see all the mountains and hills, valleys and crooked roads my sinful nature wants to put up in opposition to Jesus! Then go to the wilderness and listen to John’s message, urging you to put those things away for good. By the Spirit’s power, turn away from sin and all its lies and return to the waiting arms of your Savior whose entire purpose on this earth was to save you from every sin. Then, by God’s grace, and the Spirit’s power, you’ll welcome our Advent King and rejoice in the salvation he brings.
The end of the year is always a busy time. So many projects to finish, parties to attend, and people to see. But during this busy time of year (and every day), don’t forget the most important part of Christmas preparation – a trip to the wilderness. Listen to the voice that proclaims judgment against sin and the perfect rescue and peace in the Savior. This Advent, remember the peace that Christ comes to bring. Preparing for Christmas isn’t just about a huge meal with family, it’s about feeding on the feast of the gospel in Word and Sacrament. Preparing for Christmas isn’t just about a pile of presents, it’s about your spiritual stocking stuffed with Christ’s righteousness for you. Preparing for Christmas isn’t all about the feeling of being warm and cozy around the fire. Because of Jesus, you know you are safe in your heavenly Father’s embrace, rescued from the fires of hell. Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of Christmas, there’s a brief moment – when the food is ready, the cookies are baked, and the house is cleaned, but the guests haven’t arrived yet. Everything’s ready, and you get that moment just to sit down and soak it all in. It’s peaceful, because you’re prepared. But do you know what’s even better? The peace to know that Christ has taken away your sins, and you have peace with a holy God. Listen to John’s message today – see your sin and the damage it causes. Repent…and rejoice, because here is Christ, the end of your sin and your peace with God forever.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.