“Prepare the way for the Lord” is the note that sounds forth on this Second Sunday in Advent. It's a familiar chord; I don't know anyone who in some form or fashion does not prepare for Christmas. I know very, few people for whom preparing for Christmas is not a burden, and that is fitting because at least here the world's idea of Christmas and the Church's idea intersect in a way. Follow me.
As our text opens the people of God, the Old Testament Church are expecting the arrival of the Messiah, the Christ, the One whom God would anoint to be the Prophet who would speak God's eternal Word, to be the Priest who would bear their sins and intercede before God, and to be the King who would rule all things for their good. Actually, they've been fervently expecting the Christ for almost a 100 years. According to the Old Testament prophesy, the Christ would not come until God's people ceased to be an independent nation. That happened in 67 B.C. when Rome once and for all conquered them. That list of hard to pronounce names at the beginning of the text tells you how thoroughly conquered God's people were.
This is a low point for the people of God. They're looking for consolation, comfort, for help from God, but for about 400 years God has been silent. Since the Word of the Lord came to the prophet Malachi, there had not been a peep from God. O they had the Old Testament Scriptures. They had preachers applying that Word to their lives, but it wasn't like it had been in the days of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel or Daniel. And it certainly wasn't like in the days of Moses and the patriarchs when the Lord spoke to them as a man speaks to his friend.
Heaven was quiet; heaven was silent. Then out of the blue the Word of the Lord came to John. You know John; the child of Zechariah and Elizabeth late in life; the boy who grew up in the desert; the man who dressed like Elijah in a leather belt and a camel hair tunic; the ascetic who lived on grasshoppers and honey. John is the prototype for all the “crazy” guys over the centuries who've dressed roughly, looked wildly, and proclaimed the Lord was coming. He can't be ignored. People serious about things spiritual are drawn to him. The lone voice calling in a wilderness beckons all.
And what does that voice say to us this Advent season? It announces that the Lord, that is Jehovah, is coming. Jehovah who spoke to the patriarchs and Moses like a friend; Jehovah who walked with Adam in the cool of the evening; Jehovah who met with Elijah on the mountain, and spoke by the prophets was coming. Jehovah who had been silent for 400 years speaks again, and He's saying He's coming to the world in person. This reality demands and commands certain things from us. “You must,” thunders John, “prepare the way for the Lord. You must make straight paths for Him.”
And this is no big deal to you. It doesn't put the fear of God in you at all. In fact, you're more afraid of not being ready for Christmas than you are of not being ready for the coming Christ. If I told you President Bush was coming here next Sunday, O how you would prepare! What would not be cleaned, what would not be straightened, what would not be done? And O how nervous you would be! But I tell you Jehovah is coming whether to this altar or to end the world and you go on daydreaming.
That's because you sinfully, and foolishly I might add, think the commands “prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him” are doable. O the insolent pride of us modern people. Because we know we have bulldozers big enough to fill in a valley, we don't think it's that big of deal to fill one in for Jesus. Because we know we have explosives that can easily level mountains and hills, we don't think it's that big of deal to make mountains and hills low for Jesus. Because we have equipment that effortlessly straightens out crooked roads and smooths the rough ones, we don't think John is commanding us to do the impossible when he calls for straight and smooth roads.
I don't know what I can do for you. The word “prepare” doesn't strike fear in your hearts. It doesn't drive you to utter despair of your ability to prepare. If you had been alive when John the Baptist was calling in the desert, you would not have been among the thousands who streamed out to him to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. You would have been there with your little shovel and rake trying to fill in a valley, level a mountain, straighten the road, and make it smooth enough for the Lord.
Don't you see how utterly hopeless that would be? The people who heard John preaching sure did. Filling in valleys, lowering mountains, straightening roads, and smoothing them were IMPOSSIBLE tasks to them. They were beyond their ability to do them, and they knew it. But you don't think so, do you? You think you can be prepared to meet your Lord on your own. Go ahead and keep living in that fiction because one day the Lord will make it plain to you that you can't prepare to meet Him. It will be like the woman's nightmare of company arriving to a filthy house empty of food; it will be like the man's nightmare of not being ready for a public presentation. Only the shame, nakedness and panic will be real, and you will scream and scream and scream, but you won't wake up because you're not sleeping or dreaming. The Lord has come to you and you're not prepared.
If the commands of the Law, “You must be prepared for the Lord” and “You must make straight paths for Him” have left you helpless and certain you're damned, then you're ready for the promises that John goes on to make. The words “prepare” and “make” our imperatives; they're “must do” words of the Law. But the words about the valley being filled in, the mountain and hill made low, the crooked becoming straight and the rough smooth are words of promise. They indicate what will happen, what will be done not what must be done.
The promise of Advent is that Jesus is coming and nothing on earth, under the earth, or above the earth can stop that from happening. Not your sins, not your unbelief, not your doubts, not the hatred of the world, nor the plotting of the devil. Jesus is coming to save sinners. He has more desire to save sinners than sinners have sins. He has a greater love for sinners than sinners have hatred of Him. Unbelief digs a valley before Him, and Jesus fills it in and crosses it. Pride builds huge mountains and hills and Jesus easily makes them low and keeps on coming to us. We throw up doubts to make the road crooked and cynicism to make it rough, but Jesus is bigger than our doubts and more determined to reach us than we are to cynically reject Him.
Jesus has been called the Hound of Heaven. Like a Bloodhound baying in the woods tirelessly, relentlessly, continually seeking us; doing whatever, and I mean whatever, it takes to save us. When saving us required Him, God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity to take on flesh and blood in the tiny womb of a human, He willingly was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary. When saving us required Him who made all laws and was bound by none to go under the demands of the Laws and keep them, Jesus did this too. He submitted Himself to the endless “Do this and don't do that.” Never once did Jesus say, “You can't tell me what to do,” though it was true no one could. And when saving us required Him to take on our sins, to drink the cup of God's wrath, to suffer the flames and pains of hell, He did that too.
And on top of all this, when saving us required that we be prepared to meet Him, He prepared us. Paul says Jesus cleansed His church by the washing of the water with the Word so that “He might present to Himself the Church in all her glory having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless.” Go to Revelation. There too the Church is described as a Bride prepared for her husband. Has any groom anywhere at anytime thought that his bride coming down the aisle to meet him was not beautifully prepared? No! How much more so the Bride whom the Groom has personally prepared? How could Jesus in any way, shape, or fashion think His Bride was anything but wonderfully prepared, gorgeous!
So brothers and sisters in Christ, though your halls might not be decked; though your stockings might not be hung by the chimney with care; though you're not prepared for the company, traveling, or gift giving of Christmas, you are most certainly prepared for Christ. Preparing for Christmas and preparing for Christ are both burdens. Preparing for Christmas is a burden we largely put on ourselves or let others put on us. Preparing for Christ is a burden the Law rightly puts on us, but it's a burden the promises of the Gospel take away by pointing us to what Christ has done.
Therefore, this Advent, though you might feel behind, not ready, with too much to do, I want you to look at Christ in the manger, Christ on the Cross, Christ in your Baptism, Christ in your Absolution, and Christ in Communion and hear the words, “Done. Ready. Prepared.” You're the Bride of Christ; you're at the back of the Church and all things are ready, done, prepared for Him to come and meet you. The tone of your Advent ought to be that of a wedding where everything at last is done and all that needs to happen is for the Groom to claim His Bride and then the wedding reception begins. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent II (12-7-03), Luke 3:1-6