“Prepare ye the way of the Lord …” are the opening words of the Broadway musical Godspell, that was released in 1971. The lyrics pick up the theme of John the Baptist’s preaching some two millennia ago as he prepared people for the coming of God’s promised Messiah or King. All four Gospels record John’s ministry.
John the Baptist was a great preacher. He drew thousands from the cities and towns to the wilderness region near the Jordan River. He may have been a member of the Qumran community which was located around the northern shores of the Dead Sea.
In his preaching John used the symbolism of the exodus from Egypt. God’s people, Israel had endured the wilderness for forty years because they had not listened to Moses. Now God, in his mercy, had sent John whose role was to prepare the way for God’s Messiah. John’s mission was to call Israel back to God through preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (3:3).
For John, repentance and baptism are tightly linked. We men and women fail to honor God in our lives. This is our real sin. And we need to change. ‘Repentance and baptism’, said John, ‘were signs of a change of heart towards God and a renewed relationship with God’s people.’ In calling both the Jewish people and Gentiles to repent and be baptised, John angered many Jewish leaders. Baptism was a ceremony typically used as a sign of the incorporation of non-Jewish people, that is, outsiders, into the Jewish faith. When John preached that Abraham’s descendants should also be baptized, he was implying that God saw them as outsiders and not automatically as his people.
The glory of the Lord. To enable us to understand the significance of John’s ministry, Luke quotes Isaiah 40:1-9, the chapter from which the opening lines of Handel’s Messiah are drawn: Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God …. Isaiah 40 continues in verse 3: In the wilderness a voice cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight … a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;… Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (40:3-5).
The preaching of John the Baptist was a wake-up call for all of God’s people. ‘God is about to do a new thing; there will be a new exodus,’ John was saying. ‘God is going to fulfill his promises that prophets like Isaiah spoke about: he is about to send his Messiah who will offer comfort and hope to a broken world. My task,’ said John, ‘is to prepare you. You need to repent – to turn back to God – and, as a sign of your changed hearts, be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins’ (Luke 3:3).
Significantly, Luke emphasises LORD rather than God. John’s preaching is focused on God’s Messiah, namely, Jesus. This is significant. Luke is telling us that God is about to do a new thing. God is about to provide the means of the rescue of a lost world and with it, offer the comfort and hope the world longs for. All flesh shall see the salvation of God, we read in Luke 3:6. With reference to freeway or highway construction, cutting through mountains and filling in valleys, John’s ministry was to make the way ready for the Lord.
The priority of John’s ministry is preaching (3:7-18), the ministry of the sacrament is dependent on the ministry of God’s Word. This is important for us who live in an age when churches focus more on the outward signs of faith rather than an inner personal response. God uses the instrument of words, not signs, to bring people to himself and change their lives.
John likened his hearers to a brood of vipers (3:7). These people were descendants of Abraham and yet he told them that they were alienated from God. “Who warned you,” he asked, “to flee from the wrath to come?” (3:7).
‘The time is critical,’ he insisted: “Even now the axe is laid at the root of the tree” (3:9). The true children of God are not those who have the right credentials (physical descendants of Abraham, 3:8), but those who bear fruits that befit repentance (3:8). ‘Do not be complacent or self-satisfied about your lives,’ John declared, ‘for you do not bear the marks of godly living. Like the very desert you are standing in,’ he implied, ‘you are barren; be warned of God’s coming judgment’ (3:9).
Godspell dramatized the first coming of the Messiah. The words prepare ye now serve as a reminder of his return. The season of Advent, which is the first season in the annual Church calendar, and which began on Sunday, November 28, focuses on the second coming of the LORD Jesus.
The return of the King one day will surprise us all. We need to be prepared. We also have the task of preparing others for that great and glorious day. Will you join me in praying that all of us will look for and take up opportunities to introduce family and friends to Jesus, the Christ, especially over the Advent and Christmas seasons?
You can still register for the recent Anglican Connection seminar that introduced The Word One-to-One as an effective way we can introduce family and friends to Jesus. The Word One-to-One is an annotated version of the Gospel of St John. Here is the link: https://anglicanconnection.com/seminars/.
A Prayer. Blessed Lord, you have caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning, grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, encouraged and supported by your holy Word, we may embrace and always hold fast the joyful hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
© John G. Mason
Note: My comments on Luke 3 are drawn from my book, Luke: An Unexpected God, Second Edition, Aquila: 2019.