Summary: Even as we hear John the Baptist’s message to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord, we are to follow his example in ministry.
As many of you are aware, I love to hike. This is also a pastime enjoyed by my Dad and the rest of my family as well. So, a couple of weeks ago while we were on vacation in Destin, Florida, we decided to go on a little hike. Now, it doesn’t take much to figure out that hiking in Florida is very different from hiking in East Tennessee. To give you an idea of how different it is, I will tell you that on our way back to Tennessee, we crossed over the highest elevation in Florida – 345 feet above sea level. So on this particular day when we decided to go for a hike, we knew it wasn’t going to be noteworthy because of dramatic elevation changes or breathtaking overlooks. We chose a six mile hike in a state park about 20 miles west of Destin expecting interesting foliage and perhaps some views of the rare dune lakes, found in only two places in the world. We got that, but we also got something that we weren’t expecting. As we walked through the groves of long-leaf pines and scrub palms, we found that we were weaving in and out, circling around, and going around hairpin turns, despite the completely flat and sandy terrain. Now, those of you who have done any hiking in East Tennessee, know that such paths are standard fare in this part of the world where you have to make your way around rocks and up and down mountainsides. But in Florida, on this particular hike, there were no such obstacles. The path could have been as straight as an arrow, from point A to point B. But it was not, we walked along a windy and crooked path. The result was that we got a little bored; we were seeing the same things over and over and over again, but never really getting anywhere.
Have you ever had such an experience in your life? I don’t mean such a hiking experience. Rather, I’m thinking about those times in our lives when it feels like we are moving, moving, moving, and yet getting nowhere. Or we are following a path that keeps taking us to the same place. You probably know the feeling. Such experiences seem to send us into an apathetic drudgery; our minds numb, our spirits wane, our hearts harden, and though we are going nowhere, we seem to be getting farther and farther away from those who love us, and most especially from God. These are the wildernesses of our lives.
The “wilderness” was a significant part of Israelite history. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years as they made their exodus from Egypt and into the Promised Land. Then again, when exiled to Babylon, the “wilderness” was seen as that place that separated the Jewish people from their home in Jerusalem. Aside from the real experiences that the Jewish people had in the wilderness, “wilderness” also became a metaphor for those difficult places in our lives when we endure great trials or tests, or when we find ourselves lost and alone, or when we sense a great separation from God. I’m sure we can all think of such times in our lives; maybe we are there now.
Then, in the wilderness, we begin to hear a voice crying out loudly. The voice is clear, but the words aren’t what we expect. It is the voice of John the Baptist, sounding through the ages. Trumpeting the words of the prophet Isaiah, John boldly calls on the people to, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!” A voice in the wilderness talking about straight paths! This is what we’ve been longing for! Finally, a way out!
For the Israelites in exile in Babylon, Isaiah’s prophetic words had a very literal meaning; the wilderness was that place that separated them from their homeland, and the paths made straight were the roads that would lead them back to their home in Jerusalem. Isaiah is announcing God’s intention to build a wide, flat, straight highway across the mountains and desert so that the exiles in Babylon could return to their home in Judea. As John the Baptist carries this same message up and down Judea many hundreds of years later, the meaning is still the same – there is a way out of the wilderness and to the Promised Land. But now the method is a bit more figurative.
John in a sense is the courier of the King. When Kings would go out to tour their dominions, they would send a messenger ahead to prepare the roads. And this is what John is doing for Jesus, but the preparation which John is insisting upon is a readying of heart and life. Our task is not to move the rocks, and straighten the paths that lead out of exile and to Jerusalem. Rather, our task is to throw out the rocks and thorns of our lives, to level the valleys of our sin and weakness, to knock down the mountains of pride and greed; to smooth out the rough places in our lives. These are all the things that leave us stranded in the wilderness, and John is calling on us to repent; to get to work at letting God get our lives straightened out!