Summary: Number two in a series looking at the imagery in the modern Hymn These are the days of Elijah, looking at John the Baptist and repentance and holiness.
As we said this morning we are going to be looking at some of the imagery from These are the Days of Elijah to help us understand the idea of renewal and how it is God can move on us. The imagery from These are the Days of Elijah is all Biblical, which is good, but unfortunately it also means that it is unfamiliar to many.
Tonight we are going to look at “Still we are a voice in the desert crying ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’”. There are two references in scripture on which this is based. One is a prophecy the other is the fulfilment. The prophecy is from Isaiah 40:3 and the fulfilment is found in the gospels for example Matthew 3, which claims that John the Baptist was the fulfilment. In both, the idea is one of preparing the way for God, although in John the Baptist’s case it becomes clear that it is Jesus who he is preparing the way for. But I guess what we really need to understand if this is to be relevant to us, is what does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord? What does it mean to prepare the way for God?
John prepares the way
We often pray that when we go and talk to people about the gospel that God will send his Holy Spirit ahead of us to prepare the way for us, so that people are receptive to the gospel. But what could it possibly mean for us to prepare the way for God. He is everywhere, he is omnipresent. Therefore where can we go that God is not there to prepare the way for him. Of course for John the Baptist this was not really such a problem. Jesus arrived as God as man. John the Baptist’s mission was to prepare the way for Jesus. He was to prepare the people for Jesus mission. Gabriel tells us he is to do this by turning the people from their wickedness back to righteousness. When John begins his mission, he preaches a message of baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
This could be considered a little strange. The Jews already had a method for finding forgiveness of their sins. They should go to the temple and offer the prescribed sacrifices and they would be forgiven for their sins. But John said they shouldn’t go to the temple and make the sacrifices that God had proscribed, the way to forgiveness was through his baptism, being dunked in water. The word baptism literally means immersion. Why? Why should John offer forgiveness outside the temple system. There are a number of reasons we are going to look at, but the first one we need to consider is that he was preparing the way for Jesus who offered forgiveness outside the temple system. He just forgave people. John’s baptism of repentance paved the way for Jesus message of repentance and forgiveness through him.
But there was also other reasons for John’s Baptism. There were problems with the sacrificial system, not so much in what it was but in the way it had been abused. The idea behind the sacrifices was that when people realised they had sinned and were in violation of the law they could get back into a right relationship with God by repenting and offering the correct sacrifice. The sacrifice was a way of symbolically transferring their guilt and sins to an animal which was then killed in their place. Or it could be viewed as an identification with the animal, so that the animal’s death became your own death, a death to sin. This pointed to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. However, while this may have been the ideal the problems that arise with all symbols eventually arose. People forget what the symbols stand for and think that it is the action itself that is important.
Thus, the sacrificial system had come to be separated from the act of repentance. People thought they were ok with God, if they just performed the correct sacrifices. God didn’t care whether they were sorry or whether they continued to commit the same sins over and over again as long as they performed the correct sacrifices. John says “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” John was telling the crowd that it didn’t matter what kind of act they went through if they didn’t actually repent then there was no forgiveness on offer. It didn’t matter if they performed the right sacrifices, said the right prayers, even participated in John’s baptism, if there was no repentance there was no forgiveness of sins. Repentance is not only being sorry for sin but turning away from sin and doing it no more.