Saturday, December 3, 2011

Setting the Stage - Matthew 3:1-12 - December 4, 2011

Our traditional worship platform has been transformed into the heart of Bedford Falls.  The stage has been set for this week’s four performances of It’s a Wonderful Life: The Musical. If you had been in this room any time over the past two weeks you would have seen a steady stream of people armed with hammers and nails, power saws and measuring tape, each working feverishly to put every board in place. At the same time people have been putting countless hours of rehearsal time working on their lines, musical numbers, and dance moves; while still others were setting lights and still others gathering props and finalizing plans to make sure everything is in place so that show can go on. In a matter of days hundreds will find their way into the pews, the house lights will go down, the stage lights will come up and the grand story of grace and hope will be played out right where I stand. 

The time had come for the people of God to return from exile in Babylon back to the Promised Land.  You would think that people would be lining up to go, but many had settled down and settled in.  Others knew that the reality was that their former capital was in shambles; that there was not much to return to; and that those who did return had much work in front of them.  The words from Isaiah or those that followed in his footsteps brought a prophetic promise that would have spoken to the heart of the people.  God was going to do something that would change history forever.  One was coming who would help them set the stage for God and God’s dramatic act. In the first few verses of Isaiah 40 we hear; 3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

The people returned and built again. Time passed and one generation gave way to another and another, and one generation gave way to another, and another, and another, and another – the people waited with anticipation.  God had been faithful to His promises before. God would be faithful in fulfilling this one as well.  This morning we find the pages of the Bible turned from the Old Testament to the New, and the gospel story begins to be played out on history’s stage.  Isaiah’s prophetic promise is realized.  As Chapter 3 in the Gospel of Matthew begins we read; 1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:  “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” When the first people heard this promise I imagine that they envisioned a major road project to make the way for a grand military ruler and king. This is even probably what Isaiah would have dreamed When we learn that John is that voice crying from the wilderness we begin to understand that God has something very different in mind.  The cry to prepare the way for the Lord, to make the straight the paths for him, we be begin to see that the promise of finding our way home again with God was not a physical journey but a spiritual one.

John is an unlikely voice for God to use. He did not come from among the priest or the royal court.  He was the consummate outsider. The culture would not have known what to do with him.  While times had changed, John dressed, acted, and spoke like one of the prophets of old.  4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

People were responding to John’s call to confession and preparation.  They could look around and see that they were not where God wanted them to be.  Their leaders were corrupt, the Romans disregarded their faith and faith tradition, and the religious leaders seemed to be more focused being self-righteous than relevant, and even the Temple seemed to be more focused on income than it was on directing people to the feet of God. Jesus would later describe them as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36) The people came because they knew they needed to do something to prepare themselves for God great act.  The people came because they knew there were mountains and valleys, crevasses and potholes in their lives that need to be addressed.  The people came because they knew that they needed to make the paths straight in their lives that they might find the way back home to God.

The religious leaders of the era saw something going on and wanted to see if they could get in on it.  John has a hard word for them.  He wanted it clear that their self-righteous attitudes were not going to get them anywhere.  Verse 7 through 12 hears him proclaim; 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

John wanted the Pharisees and the Sadducees and all those gathered for baptism that God’s grand act was about to be unveiled. He had a very specific role. He was setting the stage for God’s great gift to them and for all of humanity. His father sung his story before his birth. We heard David Cochran read it before; 76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

What an incredible job description. Can you imagine being given the responsibility – the privilege – of being the one who is called to help prepare the way for Jesus?  Can you imagine the joy you could find if your primary job was to give people the knowledge of salvation, the promise of forgiveness, and to guide people’s feet into the path of peace found only in Christ?  While John embraced this role in advance of the public ministry of Jesus, we inherit this role from him as the people who have come to faith through Christ. As assuredly as those that helped set this stage with hammer and nail for the story to be on display, we are called to set the stage for the story of Jesus to be on display in our lives.

This is not a new message.  It is the common theme of the Advent season.  But, while we hear this message reoccuringly, we find it much harder to live out in real life. It is hard to lead people to the promise of peace when for many of us it seems so elusive in our own lives.  The problem is that sometimes we find the spiritual mountains in our life so high, that they look insurmountable. We know our foibles and our failures. In our eyes they are Rocky Mountain in scale and we have a hard time imagining that God can truly forgive us. For others the mountains are personal, financial, emotional, or relational in nature. The sheer face of the rock is so high and imposing we find ourselves paralyzed with fear and apprehension.  For others among us the spiritual valleys so deep we do not think we can crawl our way out. We think that if people really knew what we had done or what had been done to us that they would not be able to look us in the face.  The valley seems so deep we cannot conceive that God can reach in and pull us out.  For others of us, the spiritual potholes so distracting that we find ourselves again and again on the wrong path.  We want to find our way back to that road that leads us toward being at home with God.  We just do not know how.  It is hard to make the path straight to Christ for others when we still finding ourselves on wandering roads. 

We need to hear John’s call and confess our sins and prepare our own lives for the God’s great gift in Christ.  The mountains will be made low, the valleys will be filled in and we can find ourselves at God’s feet when we embrace the forgiveness and grace of God through faith in Jesus. Just like the stage has been prepared for this week’s musical presentation, we must not let anything stand in our way for setting the stage for Christ to be on display in our lives.  Over and over again you hear me say that the coming Jesus is the act of God on which the history of humanity hinges. But hear with equal passion that the coming of Jesus is the act of God on which your life hinges.  Through Christ we find the forgiveness, the salvation, and the peace of God. With Christ no spiritual mountain is too tall and no spiritual valley is too deep.  Apart from Christ we are defined by the mountains and the valleys.  We need to hear John’s call and claim our part in setting the stage that others might find that same forgiveness, salvation and peace.  Make the path straight – straight to the feet of God. Set the stage – so the story of Jesus is on display. 

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