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“Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Luke 3:4b
Imagine going out into the wilderness to hear this man dressed in camel’s hair, with a belt of animal skin around his hip, who ate locusts and wild honey. Today, that would be really unusual, but even back in Jesus’ day, that was unusual. Even the most basic Jew would have worn a tunic, this “simple, one-piece robe, usually belted at the waist, with a hole for the head and two holes for the arms.” (Msgr. Charles Pope) Most people wore both an inner tunic and an outer tunic. The inner tunic only, was not a very respectable thing to wear by itself. It was like a loose T-shirt dress coming to the knees, made of linen, cotton, or soft wool. Over the inner tunic, an outer tunic was worn, that often had tassles on the corner called Tzittzit. If you were feeling penitential, like John or a prophet or the people of Ninevah, you might have worn sackcloth or camel hair. That means that this John the Baptist guy, preaching in the wilderness was quite a site in his camel hair paired with the message he was preaching. Here was a man demonstrating great humility in all areas of his life, calling everyone to humble repentance. Could John’s message be so important that he would choose to humble himself before God and the people to declare it?
What was John’s message? He was preaching the need for “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” (verse 3) John was preaching the need. He was telling us all that without repentance, without turning from our sin, we can not be delivered from it, forgiven of it. But it doesn’t just take repentance. It takes the baptism of repentance. I could repent on my own. I could be sorry and turn myself around. But that wouldn’t be the baptism of repentance.
John’s baptism was a picture. He dipped people in the waters of the Jordan River or where ever. But in truth, the Jordan River can’t take away our sins. So John was preaching something more powerful, but using a baptism that we could see to help prepare us for understanding how much we needed the baptism of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ to do the job for real, to do the job that we could not.
This baptiser was a voice in the wilderness crying out, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (verse 4-6; Isaiah 40:3-5) So, John’s “job” was to prepare people for Jesus. His job was to make Jesus’ path straight. What does that mean?
I don’t know exactly. But it makes me stop and think. Jesus didn’t need the earth leveled out to walk on it, so this is a word picture. What is the picture that God is trying to paint for me? How do you prepare the way for the Lord to enter? Enter what? Enter the earth? Or enter a man’s heart and life and mind? What if people need to be prepared to be able to look straight at Jesus and see him for who he really is and ourselves for who we really are? That word for path is like a worn rut, you know, like where the cows go back and forth every day, or a lion paces back and forth in his zoo cage. It makes a rut.
Then there’s that word “straight.” It can also mean level. And I’m thinking that’s it here. Why? Because we have ourselves in ruts in our lives. A rut isn’t level; it’s a depression in the soil. And then we come to the next word. We hear valleys being filled, mountains and hills being leveled, winding roads straightened, and rough ways made smooth. And when all this happens, boom, the salvation of God!
This is the call to repentance. We are called out of our ruts. We are called to get off our mountains and our high hills. We are called to walk away from perversity and crookedness. We are called to smooth out our rough and jagged edges. But then again, we can’t do that on our own. We need someone who can do this in our lives. We need someone who has the power to make the path straight, to fill and level the valley, to bring down the mountains of pride, to overcome perversity and crookedness in our lives, to smooth out our rough and rocky edges, to make us able to know our God and His salvation.
Who warns us to flee from the wrath to come, to flee from the anger of God? Who warns us to come to Him, to draw near to Jesus, to find refuge and forgiveness and power in Him? Unless it’s God working in us, it’s not real. The reality of God working in us and calling us unto Himself through His Son Jesus, works in us the fruit of real repentance. I will know that I can’t do any of this on my own. I will know that I need Him. I will know that I am lost without Him and He is my only hope for life, now and forever.
What shall I do, then, Lord? If you would hew down those who don’t bring forth good fruit, how can I be one who bears good fruit? If I can’t set the path straight on my own, how can I at all? Is it enough if I give one of my coats to someone in need? Is it enough if I am honest in my affairs with others? Is it enough if I refrain from violence, don’t accuse others falsely, and am content? No, that is not enough, but those things are the fruits of repentance, the fruits of one who is being humbled and humbling oneself. These are the fruits of one whose way is being prepared for the Lord.
John was not the Lord. But he was helping people be prepared. Jesus was coming. Jesus would baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Which we will be baptised with depends on if we let Him level our “playing ground” by humbling ourselves before him or if we refuse to let him. We can choose to hold onto our mountains of pride, our valleys of self-pity, our crooked ways of perversion, our habitual ruts. Or we can allow Jesus to lay them all out straight and flat so that they aren’t obstructions to our following His will any more, so that they are not obstructions to us knowing and following Him.
It’s my choice. I can humble myself before the One who humbled Himself on my behalf and gave His life a ransom for mine. He took the fiery punishment I should take so I wouldn’t have to. Why wouldn’t I humble myself to His love and His power and His ways? Why wouldn’t I submit to letting You, Lord, straighten me out and level me out so that You shine as the Highest of highests in my life? Why would I refuse, and bear the fiery punishment instead?
The truth is that all flesh, all people, shall see the salvation of God. “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:5) It doesn’t matter who you are or who I am. It doesn’t matter if you’ve allowed the Lord to humble you or if you have stood firm as the mountain against Him. The truth is, God will reveal His glory; we shall both see it. The only difference is that one of us will run to Him as our refuge, our God, our Father, our Saviour, because we are humbly covered by the blood of the Lamb, even as imperfect as we are. But the other, will be cast away, cringing in terror and eternal loss. Because as the Lord stands there before us both, purging the floor before him, fanning the wheat and the chaff, who will you be? The wheat he collects, but the chaff, He will burn with unquenchable fire.
Lord, I want to be Your wheat. I want to be humble and humbled. I want to see You as You are and other things as they truly are. I want my path made straight in You. And I want to be faithful like John and help prepare others to find your path, because there aren’t many paths. You have made one path for all. May I follow that as I follow Your leading, and may I be an instrument to draw others to Your path of You as well.