A blessed second week of Advent to you all. I pray that my last devotion was helped you in your Advent preparation.
As I mentioned last week, Advent is about preparing for the arrival of Jesus, and that preparation is twofold, preparing for his birth which we celebrate at Christmas, and also preparing for his second coming when He will come again to judge the living and the dead and that we’d be doing that by taking a look at some of the hymns of the Advent season.
The devotions today, based on the hymn “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry” talks bit more about this preparation.
“Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” (v. 4). John the Baptist. How would you have reacted to the sight? You see, even back then, that would have been an odd sight. But even with that, people were still coming from miles around to see him and hear his message: “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him,”(v.5)
But what was that message? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Again, I don’t know how many people would be lining up today to hear that message – far too few I’d wager. So what was it that drew the people in? What message, apart from telling them to repent, could have drawn in such a vast crowd?
Well, His message had three main points, actually. 1st – He was trying to wake people up from their spiritual slumber. 2nd – he was trying to get the people prepared for the coming of the Messiah, and 3rd – he was pointing them to that Messiah, Jesus Christ their Saviour. For help in explaining, I’m going to be using Hymn 344 – ‘On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry’ as my outline, as it gives a very accurate description of just what he was doing:
On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is Nigh. Awake and hearken for he brings glad tidings of the King of kings.
At that time, the people were spiritually asleep. They had slipped away from the true worship and teachings of God and were putting more stock into traditions and the teachings and interpretations of men then they were in God’s actual Word. They needed a wakeup call, and just like the parable of the ten virgins who were awaiting the bridegroom explains, even the wise fall asleep. They needed “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (as Isaiah had foretold) to bring them out of their spiritual slumber so that they could greet the new day. And his cries are just as important to us today – especially in this season of Advent as we prepare for our Lord’s second coming as much as His first.
We are a spiritually tired generation. Our attention is slipping, and our eye lids closing. And I’m not just saying you in the pews, or the Lutheran church on the whole, I’m talking about our whole country.
Canada is spiritually asleep; it’s the only possible explanation to all the sin we are seeing around us in everyday life. Not only do we live in a country that has passed a laws to allow gay and lesbian couples to be married, effectively re-writing the God given definition of marriage into something it was never intended to be, but also its where the majority of protestant denominations have claimed that not only is homosexuality not a sin, but it is an acceptable life style – so much so, that they have no problem ordaining them into the office of pastor, and even bishop – and those who dare to speak out against it at all are brought up on hate crimes and charged. We can now select our own genders, completely ignoring God’s hand in creating us to be who we are. For many, actually marrying, making families and raising those children in the faith have taken a backseat to making money and gathering creature comforts. Apparently, the vast majority of protestant Christians have already fallen asleep and don’t know the difference between God’s will and man’s will. And there are more…so many more examples of our sleepiness.
I look in the mirror, and then at the world around me, and I hear Jesus as He spoke to the disciples in the Garden: “So, you could not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41) I look around and hang my head. “Yes, Lord. You’re right. I have fallen asleep.”
But then, I hear the voice of John in today’s Gospel: “Prepare the way of the Lord…” I hear the Baptist’s cry, and remember that the Lord knows my weaknesses as well, if not better then myself, and He has done more then just send this one messenger to awaken me.
Then cleansed be every life from sin; Make straight the way for God within, and let us all our hearts prepare for Christ to come and enter there.
This was something that most Jews had been anticipating for years! The coming of the Messiah! “Finally we’ll be free.” most of them thought to themselves, “Free from oppression, free form tyranny, free from the Romans! But why would the coming king, send this man to tell us of his coming? Why not a proper herald befitting his status?”
Their ears perked up, despite the fact that they didn’t understand exactly what the strange man was saying. After all, most of them expected a military strategist, a great leader of men, they didn’t know the true reason for Christ’s coming, the true freedom He would offer. The freedom from that invisible oppression, tyranny and bondage: Sin. But we do.
When we hear the voice of the Baptist calling, we remember that Christ’s coming meant more than just a good example to live by. He didn’t come that in the hard times we might ask ourselves: “What Would Jesus Do” but to ask in those same hard times: “What Did Jesus Do.” With His life, death and resurrection, we were cleansed from our sin.
We are called, this Advent Season, to ‘make straight the way for God,’ and ‘prepare our hearts.’ We know that God has already started that process in us. Through the waters of Baptism we know that He has made us His own by marking us as His child. As St Paul reminds us in His letters, we died and were buried with Christ in His tomb through Baptism, and just as He was raised from the dead on the third day, we too emerged from those waters a new creation: a child of God.
And so, we prepare for His return, His second coming, by reading His Word and coming to His house regularly to receive the gifts that He’s promised to give us there. In His Word and His house where we learn about Him and His desires for both our lives, and the lives of all those who live on this world that He created. In His house to receive His Word and Sacraments for the forgiveness of our sins and strengthening of our faith! In His Word and His house to be prepared and equipped by our Lord to stay awake, and not fall asleep. It’s like our spiritual coffee time that keeps us awake and alert for the week to come.
Another thing that this verse reminds us of is the current residence of Christ. He lives in our hearts. He’s there with us every day helping us – He shall never leave us, nor forsake us. He doesn’t leave us high and dry; He doesn’t say: “OK, I showed you how to do it, now you can do it on your own.” No. He stays with us, and right there to help when we ask. He has sent us His Holy Spirit to do just that, to plant the seed of faith in us and help it to grow.
The only time we have real trouble, the only time we fall asleep, is when we think that we can do it all on our own. When we decide that church isn’t as important as doing last minute Christmas shopping, that being in His house and worshiping isn’t as important as being entertained or getting some exercise by joining a sport that meets at the exact time you know service to be. When we claim to be Christian, but ignore His voice as it tries to speak to us through His Word by not picking up and actually reading it outside of church. When we walk away from Him and His Word because we don’t agree with what the Bible says, because what the world is saying is so much more appealing, or ‘makes more sense’ than the way the creator of the universe explains it – and instead of asking His chosen representatives for help in explaining it, we write it off as being an error in an old book that only has glimpses of the divine: instead of the God breathed, inspired, inerrant Word that it is.
But the thing is, no matter how far you’ve wandered, He’s still here, and willing to help the next time you remember to ask. I know I’ll fall asleep again, I know I’ll stumble and fall, but I also know that it’s not my actions, or my inactions, that save me: it’s the sacrifice that Jesus freely gave for me. And it’s with this thought in mind that we sing the next verse of the hymn.
We hail you as our Saviour, Lord, our refuge and our great reward; Without your grace we waste away like flow’rs that wither and decay.
The people continued to gather around the prophet, the one who many of them knew by this point to be the herald of the coming Messiah, and then one day, they heard him cry something different as he pointed to someone who was approaching. They saw the excitement in his eyes, and heard the love and conviction in his voice:
29 “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
That He, Jesus, might be revealed to the world. John showed them where their salvation was coming from. Let’s go back to the hymn verse for a second, what about that last part?
Without your grace we waste away like flow’rs that wither and decay
Along with the proclamation of the Messiah, there is also a warning. A warning that states what will happen to those who do not believe but try to attain their own salvation by the work of their hands; those who separate themselves from the Messiah. To those, like the Pharisees at the time, who refuse the Lord entry into their lives thinking they can do better, or even those who turn from it permanently into unbelief.
This verse also tells us what we would have had to look forward to had Jesus NOT come down from heaven to win us back from sin. “Without His grace,” we would have ALL been condemned. We would all wither and decay. As St Paul tells us in Romans: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23)
But thanks be to God that He has not seen fit to pay us back according to what we deserve. The next verse of the hymn does a good job of telling us what He did instead, even though we in no way merited such generosity.
Stretch forth your hand, our health restore, and make us rise to fall no more; Oh let your face upon is shine and fill the world with love divine.
And Christ did ‘stretch forth his hands’ on the cross that fateful day and with that action ‘made us rise to fall no more’. Not only did He make the ultimate sacrifice, endure suffering because of our sleepiness, and die for our times of slumber, but He also rose again from the dead so that we would wake up, and know His amazing forgiveness.
-His forgiveness for the times we stumble.
-His forgiveness for the times we snooze.
-His forgiveness that won for us eternal life.
It was through John’s words and actions that the people along Jordan’s banks recognized the Christ that day, and we too can thank him for pointing the Lamb of God out to us. If we have any doubts of the truth of John’s teachings, we have only to go to the words of Jesus himself:
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11: 7-11)
Despite his exalted status, however, John was humble. He lived off the generosity of God, and quite frequently rubbed the wrong people the wrong way. He lived not for the world, but for God.
But it’s through the same Christ and Saviour that John pointed too, that you and I today have the assurance of eternal life despite our many failings. Christ has sent His messenger to awaken us so that we will not miss the heavenly banquet to come. In our season of repentant preparation, this season of Advent, it would do us well to heed the words of the prophet, John, and remember that the kingdom of heaven truly is at hand, and we don’t know the day or the hour of its arrival…so stay awake!
And regardless of our imperfections, God calls us to be like John as well. Maybe not getting up on a soap box in the centre of town, and yelling about the second coming of our Christ, but to daily remember our baptism, through which we were washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. To remember His Word, where we hear about our God, the mercy He has on us. To remember our Lord and Saviour and witness about the Lamb of God who paid for the sins of the world in our own lives to those who God has gathered around us, through both our actions and our words. That we too might be the voice crying in the wilderness to those who are still walking in darkness. Amen.