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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

A Voice In The Desert

Second Sunday in Advent

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,

‘Prepare the way for the Lord,

make straight paths for him.’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 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.

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Matthew 3:1-12

John the Baptist is the one heroic, dominant figure of Advent – until Christ himself appears on the scene. John carried his credentials with him in the Book of Isaiah, for centuries before, Isaiah had introduced him to the faithful, and had identified him as “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Preparing the way wasn’t a new thing for the people of John’s day – it was actually a profession. The Romans had a name for men engaged in way-preparing. They called them “stratores.” When eastern monarchs took a journey through the desert or the mountain country, they sent men ahead of them to prepare the way.

In the account of the march of Semiramis, the legendary Queen of Assyria, into Media and Persia, we have a description of the preparations of a way for a royal expedition. In her march, Semiramis came to the Zarcean Mountain, an area full of high, rugged precipices and deep ravines which couldn’t be passed without long, winding detours. So at great expense, she ordered the mountains to be graded down and the ravines to be filled up, making a smooth and easy way. To this day, it’s called the Road of Semiramis.

Today we’d call it an Interstate Highway. I can only imagine what it was like to drive up through West Virginia before I-77 was built! It must have taken hours of winding, back-and-forth driving – in good weather. Today you can cruise along in high gear all the way!

When the time came for the King of Israel to make His appearance, God sent John the Baptist to prepare His way. As Isaiah had foretold, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

John had two jobs, actually. He was the way-preparer of the Lord, and he was His herald, sent to announce His coming. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Heralds were commissioned to proclaim in the streets and in the fields what was committed to them by regal or public authority. And so John, the herald, came to proclaim news of great importance: to announce that the King of Kings was near to establish His Kingdom, of which Daniel had long ago said, “His Kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom, and His dominion is from generation to generation.”

John was preparing the roadway of the Messiah which began in the Garden of Eden and led to the very focal point of all history – the coming of Jesus, the long-promised Messiah – a roadway that’s been called “The Highway of the Seed.”

It began when God said to Satan through the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He will crush your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”

And then, down the road away, God said to Abraham, “In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

Isaac became heir to the promise when God said to him, “I will make your seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto your seed all these countries; and in your seed shall all the nations of the Earth be blessed; because that Abraham obeyed my voice.”

Following the “Highway of the Seed” the next promise was made to Jacob: “Your seed shall be as the dust of the earth… and in you and your seed shall all the families of the Earth be blessed.”

Jacob, on his deathbed, uttered the prophecy which pinpoints Judah as the tribe from which the Messiah would come. The road narrows as Isaiah prophesied – in our Old Testament lesson today – “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1)

And finally, the Lord speaks of Jesse’s son, David, and says, “He is the one who will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his Kingdom forever.” And now, at the end of this long road, this “Highway of the Seed,” comes the long-awaited Messiah, the One whom Matthew calls, “Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” And John the Baptist says, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

One day, a group of priests and Levites came to John. Drawn by his dynamic personality and his powerful message of repentance, all Jerusalem and the regions around it had come to hear him preach and to be baptized by him. And they asked him, “Are you the Messiah?” What might have been a real temptation to a weaker man didn’t tempt John at all! Without a moment’s hesitancy he asked, “Why do you ask who I am? I’m nothing. I’m just a voice. I’m just preparing the way for another.”

As soon as a person, be they saint or sinner, comes into the presence of Jesus Christ, their own virtues, achievements, ideas of greatness, and powers of personality are completely overshadowed. It was like that with John the Baptist. Where thousands had followed him, soon all were following Jesus and John was in prison. Some of Jesus’ disciples couldn’t understand it – but John did. “He must increase, and I must decrease,” he said. To John, it was as simple as that. Had John succumbed to the temptation to acclaim himself as the Messiah, we’d know as little of him as we know of other false Christs who preceded him. But because he steadfastly insisted that he was only a voice proclaiming that for which he was went, he’s still heard.

Again, in this Advent season, we hear the old familiar cry, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” And that cry will have to be repeated until the end of time, because people just won’t listen to it!

Once upon a time there was a perfect kingdom. Nothing ever went wrong, because the penalty for wrong doing was death. But suppose that one day someone did break the law and suppose that person was you. You’re put on death row, awaiting execution. You hear the footsteps of the guards. They’re coming for you.

But they go past you. Somebody else is taken out. The death hood is put over His head, and He’s marched out into the courtyard. Shots ring out! And the man dies!

And then you hear a grief-stricken cry from the King. He’s just read a note that says, “I have died for this person. Forgive him, and release him.” And it’s signed by the King’s Son! The King’s very own Son has died for you! Then the guards appear at your cell and tell you that you’re free to go.

So, what would you do? How would you respond if you’re like most people in the world? If you were like the majority of people you’d say, “No thanks. I don’t really deserve to be in jail anyway. I’m no worse than most of the people running around – and I’m better than lots of them! So, I’ll just stay here in jail and some day I’ll dig my way out with a spoon! The world still needs to hear the Baptist’s cry, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”

As you prepare for the celebration of Christmas, don’t let the material things crowd out the true meaning of Christmas! Remember that it was your sins too that made Jesus be born on Christmas Day – born that He might go to the cross!

Repent – and pray the Holy Spirit to help you sing, “Hosanna,” “Lord, save me.” And then at Christmas you can sing, “Halleluiah” “Praise to the Lord!”


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