Preparing the Way of the Lord
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 28, 2020
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
On the sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.” So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak: “You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. For about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance for about four hundred fifty years. After that he gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel. Then they asked for a king; and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years. When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.’ Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised; before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his work, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.”
“My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent.”
The time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
In 1971, Stephen Schwartz began his off-Broadway musical, Godspell, with Jesus declaring: “My name is known: God and King. I am most in majesty, in whom no beginning may be and no end.” Jesus is then joined by the rest of the cast. Each cast member sings a solo representing the views of a different philosopher before all begin to sing their various songs at the same time. As you might imagine, these melodies are by no means compatible. So, when sung together, they create a terrible racket more reminiscent of the tower of babel than the coordinated harmony of a symphony.
Quite suddenly, this discordant chorus is interrupted by the shrill report of a shofar, an ancient ram’s horn used in Jewish synagogues on Rosh Hashanah and at the very end of Yom Kippur. And just as abruptly, John the Baptist burst forth from the rear of the theater belting out the now famous tune, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord!”
Much like the gospel of Mark, Godspell’s good news begins with John the Baptist fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah. John is the voice crying in the wilderness that Isaiah foretold. “Prepare Ye the way of the Lord” is his message. If you want to get a visceral feel for the power of this prophecy, I invite you to listen on Youtube to the Godspell rendition of John the Baptist’s song as performed by the Fairfield County’s Children Choir. (See “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” on the internet at (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfxDUNMfry4).
It may have escaped your notice that the nativity of the last prophet of Israel, John the Baptist, was to be celebrated by Christians this past Wednesday. Only three of the gospels in the New Testament quote Isaiah’s prophecy as an explanation of where John the Baptist stood in relation to Jesus of Nazareth. But all four gospels credit John the Baptist with bearing witness to Jesus from the first. A remarkably accurate artistic depiction of John the Baptist’s role as witness is provided in the central panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece painted by Matthias Grunewald in the sixteenth century. In that central panel of the image of that altarpiece shown below, Jesus hangs crucified on a cross. To the left of the cross stands his mother, Mary. She is being comforted by Jesus’ disciple, John. To the right of the cross stands John the Baptist pointing to Jesus on the cross. Above John the Baptist’s hand that points to Jesus are these words in Latin: “illum oportet crescere me autem minui.” The phrase means “He must increase, but I must decrease.” It is a quote from the third chapter in John’s gospel where the disciples of John the Baptist ask him what they are to make of the man Jesus of Nazareth. John the Baptist tells them that he, John, is not the Messiah. He is only a “friend of the bridegroom” sent before the bridegroom. The clear implication of his response is that Jesus is the bridegroom sent by God to marry the people of God whom he shall save.
Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald, Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, France
John the Baptist said that he was not the messiah. According to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, he was, instead, the one who Isaiah foretold would come before the messiah. He was the one who prepared the way of the Lord by pointing to the messiah as he does in the Isenheim Altarpiece above.
The world has always been full of would be messiahs. But, unfortunately, we have been woefully short of those like John the Baptist who was humble enough to avoid mistaking himself for the messiah. Nevertheless, John’s role was anything but lowly. John, like the Apostle Paul after him, never faltered in preparing the way of the Lord by pointing to the Messiah wherever and whenever an occasion permitted.
Do we do the same? Are we prepared to do the same? Preparing the Way of the Lord involves more than just crying in the wilderness or from our rooftops that Jesus is Lord.
The example of Paul in Act 13 is instructive here. When visiting the synagogue on the Sabbath, Paul heard the invitation from the synagogue officials: “Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.” So, Paul gave it. But he did not simply say, “Jesus is Lord!” No, he pointed to Christ by recounting all the significant events in the history of the people there assembled in order to help them see that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of all that they had wished for in the past and would require in the future.
The witness of John the Baptist and Paul raises the question: Where is our life pointing? Of course, when we ask ourselves this question, we normally are referring to our material fortunes. Am I advancing in my career? Are my finances growing sufficiently to assure for me and mine a promising future?
But John the Baptist would ask us, “Where is your life pointing spiritually? Are you preparing the Way of the Lord in your spirit? Are you making straight a highway for God to enter your heart and that of your neighbor and your community?”
Paul’s witness in Act 13 shows how Paul had prepared himself for such a calling. He had studied the Hebrew scriptures and made their story his own. At the drop of a hat or an invitation like that offered him by the synagogue officials, he could recount the past mighty acts of God reaching all the way back to Abraham. He could do this with such verve that one might think that he had actually been there. He could retell Israel’s past history with such vitality that it seemed that it had happened only yesterday. But more than that, Paul had pondered every twist and turn in Israel’s story – making connections between God’s active presence in Israel’s past and the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah for his generation and future ones as well. Paul had prepared himself to show how in God’s inexorable plan, Jesus had been present at the beginning and would be present at the end of time to bring salvation to all who believed.
How does one today prepare oneself so that our life points straight to Christ as the words and actions of John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul did? How do we prepare ourselves for such a witness?
We prepare, of course, through worship by listening to the Word of God read and proclaimed so that the Lord’s Word becomes our word ushering forth from our mouths with the same ease and facility that we discuss present day events with our friends or family.
We prepare as well through our engagement with Christian education offerings. Christians have been tailoring their words to express their faith and shaping their actions to embody their faith since Jesus Christ rose from his tomb. We need to read and discuss among ourselves how former generations have expressed their faith and how Christians elsewhere in the world do the same today. We do this so that we can learn from their witness how we can voice and embody our witness adapted for the times and locale in which we live.
Finally, we prepare ourselves to point to our spiritual “true north” found in Jesus Christ by regularly sharing with our church family the ups and downs of our own personal walk with God and His love for us revealed in the sacrifice of his Son. We first learned to speak the king’s English in our family. Even with the help of parents and siblings, this lesson was not learned quickly or easily. It took many years of conversation with them for us to grasp how to express our needs, our desires, our fears and our hopes. Why, then, should we expect that it would be easy to quickly acquire the language of witness so that we can articulate and embody with clarity and ease the needs that have been addressed by our relationship with Christ, the desires that he has fulfilled, the fears that he has helped us overcome, and the hope that his promise of redemption brings us?
In a similar fashion, it took an equally long time in our homes for us to grasp from our experience with other family members the sacrifice that love requires, the blessing that love offers and how love is best conveyed or, in some cases, how it should not be conveyed in word and deed to others.
If we learned all these lessons in our homes, then where else should we expect to learn the words and actions of Christian witness but in our church home?
Long before we began to keep our distance from friend and neighbor for fear of catching the coronavirus, we have likely been keeping our distance from one another in our church family for fear that our doubts be exposed and our actions be found wanting. The current ban on close contact with our friends and neighbors will eventually be lifted in the days ahead. Let us pray that with God’s help, we will likewise lift our self-imposed ban on sharing with our church family the questions and challenges that we have faced and are facing in our personal faith as well as the grace, love and mercy that God has shown to each of us in our personal walk with Christ. No doubt, that is the first step to preparing the Way of the Lord at Good Shepherd and beyond.
Prayer: Almighty God, by your providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by preaching repentance. Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life that we may truly repent according to his preaching and, by following his example, point always to Christ who is our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
(Collect for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, slightly amended)