Luke 3:2-6 2 During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As 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. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all mankind will see God’s salvation.'”
We are still celebrating the Christmas Season this morning as Christmas is a twelve-day experience if you follow the Christian Year calendar. It starts on December 25th and goes until January 6 which is the day Christians all over the world celebrate Epiphany. Epiphany marks the moment the Wise Men found Jesus. Hence the word, “Epiphany” as the Wise Men had the epiphany or the “aha” that Jesus is the Messiah for all of the world and not just for the Jews.
One character who is part of the Christmas story but who is often overlooked during the Christmas season is John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus. He was another miracle baby in the Christmas story. His mother, Elizabeth, couldn’t have children, but an angel appeared to his father, a priest named Zachariah, and told him that Elizabeth was going to have a baby who would be filled with the Holy Spirit and who would prepare the way for people to hear the message of Christ.
We see evidence here in Luke 3 that John the Baptist lived up to his calling. He went around preaching a message about repenting from sin. He helped people understand that forgiveness comes after repentance. Repentance is the action of not just being sorry for sin, but it is actually the action of turning away from sin to the Savior. Forgiveness doesn’t come without repentance. John the Baptist was sent to prepare people not just to hear something different, something new, but to live differently, to walk in newness of life. His ministry was a ministry to people’s hearts to ready them for Jesus. Religion can ready a mind and influence behavior, but only an experience with Jesus can change a person from the inside out.
In ancient times when a king would travel in the desert, servants would go ahead of him to actually clear debris and to smooth out roads to make sure his trip would be easier. The idea of preparing the way for a king was really a thing. When Luke quotes Isaiah in verse six and says, “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth” in a very literal sense, as much as possible, that is what would happen when a king would travel. People would go ahead to make his moving about as easy as possible.
John the Baptist was going to try to smooth out the landscape of people’s hearts to enable Jesus to come, to preach and teach, and to enable people to receive the messages Jesus would proclaim. In one sense, John would do the “heart work” so the “hard work” was done and people were ready to receive Jesus.
In a very real sense, you and I are called to be “preparers of the way” for people to hear and see Jesus. How can we fill in valleys, level mountains and hills, straighten out crooked paths and make rough ways smooth so that more and more people can see, hear, and experience Jesus?
One challenge when it comes to preaching or witnessing about Jesus is that people often hear what they want to hear rather than hear what is actually being said or see what is actually being demonstrated. Often people put up walls that keep them from hearing the truth of Jesus. There are roadblocks to receiving the Gospel message. With that realization, how can we be prepares of the way? What is our role in clearing the way for the King?
Prepare the way verbally. Verse 4 is a prophecy from Isaiah that talks about John being a voice that was calling out or crying out. John wasn’t a quiet Christian. He was passionate. He was determined to be heard. We can’t prepare the way for people to experience Jesus if we never talk about Him. We need to cultivate a passion for testifying about our relationship with God.
Romans 10:14-15 tells us that people can’t call on the name of the Lord if they don’t know who He is. They can’t hear about Jesus without someone preaching to them. And for the most part, the world isn’t coming to Teays Valley Church of God so that I can preach to them, and they aren’t really making a bee line for other Bible-teaching churches to hear the latest sermon. Most of the time, people first hear about Jesus from people outside of the walls of the church.
Now I grew up hearing there were two things you shouldn’t discuss in public. Religion and politics. Well, we know at least part of that rule has been set aside because political debates are raging, right? I would venture to say politics has taken the top spot everywhere in conversation. Why can’t we just go ahead and set aside the second part of that rule and see if Jesus can’t take overtake politics for the top spot? There are believers who are bold witnesses for Christ, for sure, but what about the rest? This morning can we say about ourselves that we are bold witnesses for Christ?
It takes courage to be a true Christ-follower. John the Baptist had guts. His mission was too important to be a quiet Christian. He had to get his message across. Hearts had to be ready for Jesus’ teaching. He had a job to do.
I hear some people say their faith is personal and private. Faith that is personal and private isn’t faith. It might be a conviction, but it isn’t faith. Faith is something that is demonstrated. It is seen. The Christian faith isn’t just an ideology, but it is a theology that says God lives in His people, that the life of Christ is replicated in Christ’s followers. And the life of Jesus wasn’t and isn’t a quiet life. Jesus never went anywhere to try to blend in.
What populates our Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook? Think about your last 25 posts. How about your last 50 or even your last 100? Did any share an element of faith, a mention of Jesus? How many one-on-one spiritual conversations have you had with your family, your friends, with people you have met during the Christmas season, a season that sort of lends itself to talking about Jesus?
How can Christians justify silence about the Savior when we read Scriptures like this: Matthew 5:14-16 14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
“What if the darkness in the world is in direct correlation to the faithfulness of God’s people to shine the light?”
I think sometimes we think the darkness and chaos in this world is just the result of sin running rampant. I agree that sin is rampant, but what if it isn’t a sin problem that is the “reason” for the chaos in our culture as much as it is a light problem, a disobedience of God’s people to shine the light?
Do you realize that John the Baptist’s words helped to break a 400 year period of silence? God hadn’t communicated through the prophets or any angelic visits until that first Christmas, and John’s bold words of repentance and the need to be cleansed of sin through forgiveness as is symbolized in baptism were radical. Jewish people didn’t get baptized. Those converting to Judaism did, but Jewish people didn’t get baptized. The Jews had ceremonial washings, but not baptism tied to an inward change of heart. John’s message was risky. It wouldn’t sit well with his community, but He proclaimed it anyway.
In a message on this idea about being undercover Christians, Evangelist Mark Cahill said this:
“We are salesmen, who happen to be Christians. We are mothers and fathers, whose faith is only seen on Sundays. We are plumbers, but our customers never know that we read the Bible. We are politicians, but we don’t want to mix our faith with our job. We are teachers, but we leave our Christianity at the front door with the metal detector. We are students, but we think we don’t need to raise our hands up to speak up against the false teachings that are being propagated on college campuses. We are . . . and you can fill in the blank, but yet, we keep the most important part of ourselves—our relationship with the Almighty God—to ourselves. So when this world is in desperate need of eternal truth, it comes down to the fact that we are either scared or ashamed to tell these people the truth, as if it is really not my job to do so, anyway.”
Our job is to lift up the name of Jesus verbally, out loud to those we interact with in order to prepare the way for people to meet Jesus. In John chapter 1, when asked who he was, John talked about Jesus. He talked about Jesus being the greatest. He talked about being a servant of Jesus. On more than one occasion he pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He said Jesus was the One who would baptize people with the Holy Spirit. In John 1:34 he said, “I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.” Talking about Christ was the preoccupation of John’s life.
In 2020 will you make a decision to prepare the way for people to encounter Jesus by living out loud?
Prepare the way illustratively. Live like a follower of Christ. This was also part of John’s message in Luke 3:7ff
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
Our lives are supposed to bear fruit. People are supposed to be able to see from our actions that our hearts belong to God and are right with Him. We cannot just proclaim faith, but we must produce fruit in our lives. In other words, we need to walk our talk. And we do that by cultivating our relationship with God. One way we show we are repentant is by staying near God, by investing in our relationship with Him. Or as Pastor David says, “We need to stay bowed down.”
It’s a Vine/branch thing. The closer we are to Jesus, the Vine, the better that connection, the better the fruit will be in our lives. Sin will keep us from connecting correctly to God, but a life of repentance will help us stay close, and the closer we are, the more fruitful we will be. The story is told of a farmer who planted two fruit trees on opposite sides of his property. One was planted to block out the view of an unsightly old landfill. The other was planted to provide shade to rest under near a cool mountain stream which ran down beside his fields. Both trees produced fruit, but the tree planted by the garbage heap produced bitter, inedible fruit. The tree planted by the cool stream produced sweet and delicious fruit. The two different fruits were obviously affected by the nutrition of the root. The tree that grew by the landfill was bitter. The tree by the stream produced sweet fruit.
Here’s the thing: All of us will produce fruit. It will either be rotten and good for nothing or sweet and productive depending on where we are planted. John the Baptist said we are to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The fruit of sin will be rotten. It will stink. It will be bitter. It will not only make our lives harder, but it will be a turn off to unbelievers when they hear us say one thing but watch us do another. The fruit of a repentant heart will be all of the good things God can deposit into a heart that has made room for Him to work, and when God has had his way with us, we will be so loving and peace-filled that others will want what we have. When other people see us, they will know what we have been up to. They will know we have been spending time with Jesus and giving Him room to nourish us and flourish in our lives.
John the Baptist went on to say in verse 8:
And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.
John was cautioning the Jewish people about trusting in or relying on their religious pedigree. Just saying they were Jewish didn’t mean they were living in an appropriately connected to the Vine. They couldn’t presume to be right with God just because of the religious history their ancestors may have had with God. Listen, your grandpa’s relationship with God was his relationship with God. It has nothing to do with who you are before the Lord. It’s cool that your grandma bore spiritual fruit or that your dad bore spiritual fruit, but what fruit are you bearing?
What are WE doing with our faith? How are we modeling what it means to have a connection with Christ? Are we a life-giving illustration of what it means to walk with Jesus? How does our life express that fact that we are connected to God? It isn’t about who came before us, but it is about our individual, personal relationship with Jesus.
John the Baptist went on and talked about the consequences for Christians who won’t bear fruit:
9 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.”
That sounds serious, right? Why is this fruit thing so important? Bearing fruit is critical because it proof to those who are watching that God is real. The fruit is the evidence that God is truly living in us and is producing the life of Christ in us. So the people listening to John the Baptist got really serious and they asked in verse 10:
10“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
Let me just insert this thought for all of us here today. Preachers love those kind of questions! We love to have people ask, “In light of what we have come to understand about God’s Word and desires for our lives, what is our next step?” Well, John gave them some action steps that would illustrate to those who were watching that knowing Jesus and following Him make a difference in the way we live.
11 John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”
In other words, John said, “Be generous.” Generosity is a way to illustrate that you love the Lord and are seeking to live out His life. Christian people should be the most generous people on the planet. We should be the 20 percent tippers. We should be the people who buy two of something so that we have something extra to give away. We should set aside a portion of money just to use as God directs us to bless others. Our hearts should long to give, to pay it forward, to help out, to sacrifice to make sure others don’t go without. What an illustration of God’s love for us to those who are watching our lives. Isn’t God generous with us? Haven’t we been blessed as His children? We are to pay that blessing forward. That was John’s response to the first group of people who had a question. Right behind the crowd were the tax collectors. Verse 12:
12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
What is our takeaway from John’s answer here? It’s simply this: Be honest. Christians who lie and cheat and skirt tax paying and income reporting and who look for loopholes in order to fly under some radar for a personal benefit aren’t illustrating the life of Christ. Jesus said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” (Matthew 22:21) We are called to be honest. We don’t fudge reports and tell half-truths also known as lies, in order to look good or to help someone else look good. If it is cheating on any level, it is wrong.
Well, after the crowd and the tax collectors, some soldiers asked John the same question in verse 14:
“And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.” John helped them understand the life of a Christ-follower is a life of contentment. We need to be content. We aren’t living for more and more of the things of this world, but for more and more of Jesus. If none of us received anything for Christmas this year, we’d all still have more than we deserved and needed. What John wanted people to understand was that the Christian life isn’t a life of preoccupation with the “stuff” of this world, but it is a life focused on the stuff of Heaven, the stuff that lasts for eternity.
I am urging you to be bold for the Lord in 2020. There are some valleys to build up, some mountains to tear down, some paths to straighten out, some dark places to light up, and that can happen and will happen if we will prepare the way for Jesus verbally and illustratively. May people not only hear about Jesus from us, but may they see Him living His life though ours as we bear the fruit of generosity, honesty, and contentment.