Pastor Joel Leyrer

Text: Luke 3:1-6

Watch Service Video

Dear Friends in Christ, there is nothing subtle or difficult to understand about the connection between our first reading from Isaiah and the Gospel reading we just heard. What Isaiah prophesied approximately 750 years earlier was fulfilled in the person and message of John the Baptist. Without a doubt, John is one of the more interesting and compelling figures in the Bible, and we are given a lot of information about him in the Gospels. Every Wednesday morning we hold Children’s Chapel for our St. John’s school children. Today John the Baptist was the subject. We talked about the miraculous events surrounding his birth and the impression John must have made on those who came to the wilderness to see and hear him. We said he was probably one of those people you find yourself staring at when you think he isn’t looking.

But more than anything else, John is the ultimate Advent figure. So, on this second midweek Advent service we’ll be taking up the life and work of the person our Savior once referred to as having no equals among those born of women.

And as we will quickly determine from our text, not only is John an example of

PROPHECY FULFILLED,

he also has an important and relevant message for us as we continue our countdown to Christmas. Without further introduction, let’s turn our attention to this text.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberias Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanius tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. There are two particular items about John the Baptist that the inspired writer, Luke, wants every reader of his Gospel to know.

Number one is this simple fact: John the Baptist was real. We can’t help but notice that a significant amount of historical data is given. Luke does not begin his information about John the Baptist here by saying this happened “once upon a time.” Rather, he gets specific. He pinpoints dates and years and events and people.

Why? He is impressing upon us once again that what we have in the Scriptures are not just a collection of Bible “stories,” but an assembly of historical accounts. He places John the Baptist squarely on the plane of space and time. He was not a mythical or make-believe character, but a real flesh and blood man.

But certainly not an ordinary man. Because the second thing we are to know is that John the Baptist was special. He had a specific role to play. In one of his Advent sermons Martin Luther makes repeated mention of the “finger” of John the Baptist. By that he meant that John pointed to the Savior who was to come. His was the privilege of introducing Jesus to a watching and waiting world. John was the “forerunner.”

That he did not assume this role for himself our text makes clear when we are told “the word of God came to him.” In other words, God himself chose and commissioned John to his position. Meaning, he was not expressing his own ideas or opinions out there in the Judean wilderness. What he said and did came from God. The next verse tells us just what exactly that was.

He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Here we are given the scope of John’s work. He preached and he baptized.

John’s baptism, we are told, was connected with repentance. He talked about law and gospel, man’s sinfulness and God’s amazing grace. Those who were baptized made confession of their sins and found forgiveness in the Messiah, the long-promised Savior, who was to come – and who, shortly after this, did come and reveal himself to the world. That Savior, of course, was and is Jesus Christ.

Our text goes on to reiterate how the work of John the Baptist was all part of God’s plan. The final verses indicate John was the direct fulfillment of an important Old Testament prophecy: As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for 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.’”

Symbolic language is used here to explain how John, through his preaching and baptizing, was to prepare the people to meet their Lord. On the one hand, many in his day (our day as well) had bought into a performance-based system of salvation that essentially said, “I can make myself right with God on my own.” Those mountains of self-reliance and steep hills of work-righteousness and pride had to be leveled.

On the other hand, there were also those who were well aware of their sin, their failings and their inability to stand on their own two feet before a holy and just God. Such valleys of hopelessness and despair would be filled in with the Gospel message; for with Jesus Christ comes “God’s salvation.”

What can we learn from this man and his message and apply to ourselves today? There are three important Advent thoughts we can glean from this text.  The first has to do with the importance of repentance as a part of our lifestyle.

John told people to meet their Lord by first performing a personal spiritual inventory.  He instructed people to acknowledge their sinful ways, rejoice in the forgiveness that Christ brings, and then go forward with joy into a better life – a life of voluntary service to a Savior who paid the ultimate price, so we might never have to confront the rightful consequences of our sin.

How do we prepare to meet the Lord in the two weeks that remain before Christmas? The same way. Through the practice of repentance. Like the Lenten season, Advent was originally designed to be a penitential season. Certainly, it is a period of preparation; but the preparation is to begin with honest introspection.

Another John (the Apostle) declares: “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Driven by the message of John, let us ask God for the courage to own up to our personal sins (each of us knows what they are). Then let us repent of them, experience the joy of forgiveness in Christ, and go forward with a stronger resolve to live our lives for Christ before a watching world.

A second, related Advent lesson has to do with the value of contemplation. Recall where John did his work. In the desert. Wasn’t this a poor marketing choice? Couldn’t he have reached more people by going to the big city of Jerusalem?

Maybe. But by coming out to the wilderness, away from the hustle and bustle and distractions and pace of the city, people could slow down. Focus. Contemplate.

Good advice. For many of us the pace of life is fast as it is, but may get even faster during the holidays.  The result can be – and mental health professionals will verify this – feelings of stress or a sense of overload or a tendency toward irritation and even sadness, all of which are intensified by the fact we are continuously reminded in the Christmas song that “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”  Not necessarily.

Without making comment on the way any of us traditionally observe Christmas, we do have to be careful that the busyness and clamor prevents us from taking time to hear the voice of God in Scripture. Because if we are too busy for that, we are just plain too busy. Always, but perhaps especially in the next two weeks, we need to carve out a personal wilderness area. We need to slow down as part of our personal spiritual preparation.

Because what we have is worth contemplating. And that is the third Advent lesson for today. John the Baptist cultivates within us an unending appreciation for “God’s salvation.”

“Salvation” is one of those religious words we hear and say so often that the impact of its meaning can be lost to us; so, let’s review.  

A couple of weeks ago one of the featured stories on the television show “60 Minutes” had to do with a fireman involved in those terrible California wildfires that caused so much destruction. He suddenly found himself encircled in a growing ring of fire from which he knew there was no escape. With his phone he began to video the scene and planned to say his goodbyes in what he thought for sure would be his last act.

Then he heard a low rumbling sound and through the smoke and haze he saw two headlights slowly coming toward him. As it got closer, he discovered it was another fireman driving a bulldozer. There were several other people on that machine that had been in the same situation and now it was coming for him. He hopped on the bulldozer and they all made it to safety. The bulldozer driving fireman had become their savior.

That’s what the word “salvation means” – to be delivered or rescued from a desperate situation, one from which we could never extricate ourselves on our own; a situation where our survival depends entirely upon someone delivering us from danger. If left on our own, we perish. We need a savior to furnish us with salvation.

The spiritual parallel is apparent. On our own, we are unable to rescue ourselves from the death and hell that our sins deserve. Try as we might, there is no way out. Salvation lies outside of us.

But the good news is that it is there. Salvation exists in the person of our Savior, Jesus Christ. And it is ours. The Apostle Paul put it this way in his letter to the Colossians: “For he [God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” This is the time of year to especially contemplate – and appreciate anew – our salvation.

So, let’s be sure to do that over the next couple of weeks.

Before this sermon began we sang: “There’s a Voice in the Wilderness Crying.” That voice belongs to John the Baptist. And we always do well to listen to this extraordinary man’s extraordinary message of personal repentance, quiet contemplation and the glorious salvation that is ours in Christ. Amen.