68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
3In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing (partnership [NIV], fellowship [KJV]) in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Reverend Billy Graham tells of a time early in his ministry when he arrived in a small town to preach a sermon. Wanting to mail a letter, he asked a young boy where the post office was. When the boy had told him, Dr. Graham thanked him and said, “If you’ll come to the Baptist Church this evening, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to heaven.”
The boy replied, “I don’t think I’ll be there… You don’t even know your way to the post office.”
We all need directions from time to time, don’t we? As much as we hate to admit it, even the most gifted navigator needs help getting where they want to be from time to time. And we might have maps, atlases, even GPS equipment in our cars, but you can’t beat good directions from a local person. A local person can give you landmarks to look for, like drive to the water tower and turn left. If you get to the fire station, you went too far.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to give directions to people traveling through this world. And today we are going to look at one way that we can give direction to people that are wandering, by paving the way for them, by pointing out the way that God is active already in their lives. Today we will look at the ultimate way-paver, John the Baptist, to see how we too can pave the way for Christ.
Our first text from Luke 1 is commonly called Zechariah’s song or Zechariah’s prophesy. The first eight verses of our scripture from Luke chapter 1 talk about what God has already done, even though verse 67 calls this “prophecy”. I would say that the first eight verses are praise and then the rest of the verses are Zechariah prophesying over his new born child. Notice how he is speaking in the past tense, saying things like God has redeemed his people, looked favorably upon his people, shown mercy to his people, rescued them from their enemies. What Zechariah says here is that truly God has been with his people from the very beginning, helping them along the way. Zechariah does not deny that God’s people have often failed to serve God from time to time. But the point that he is making is that God kept his end of the agreement and has seen them through the thick and through the thin. So since God has been with his people all along, God will continue to be with them. God is with them, even now as Israel is under the occupation of the Roman Empire. God is with them, even now when they are slaves in their own land, the land that God had promised to them long ago.
Then Zechariah changes the focus of his song. He goes from talking about what God has done to what God is doing right now. Zechariah knows that God is upholding his end of the covenant by giving him a son. He speaks to his son and says, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” V. 76.
That’s no small job for this baby who is only a few hours old! You are going to prepare the way of the Lord, little man. I am sure that everyone that has ever had a child has set high goals for their offspring, “Yeah, he is going to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or president…” But what Zechariah is saying here isn’t just his desire for his son. He is passing on the word of God that came to him from the angel Gabriel nine months earlier.
Gabriel told Zechariah that he and his wife, who was getting up in age, were going to have a son and he was going to prepare the way for people to turn to God. Zechariah didn’t believe Gabriel, so Gabriel gave Zechariah some time to think about it. Zechariah became unable to talk until the birth of his son, and I assume that is why he was able to write such a beautiful song. He had nine months without talking, which gave him time to compose this!
But this passage of scripture raises a few questions for me. As I read this scripture, I have to ask, Why does the Lord need someone to prepare the way for him? Isn’t he God? I thought about this for a little while and I came to the conclusion that God chooses to use people like John the Baptist to prepare the way because some people, both in John’s day and in our world today, have gotten so far away from God that they wouldn’t even recognize God if he took on human flesh and walked around with them, healing the sick, raising the dead, and performing other miracles as well. One who prepares the way, or a way-paver as I like to call them, is someone that draws people’s attention to the way that God is moving in their day and age so that they will not miss an opportunity to experience and worship God.
And this is what John did, he was a paver for Christ. He prepared the way. He told people about the forgiveness that was available to them through the repentance of sins. He told them that a different world was available to them and that they should change their ways. But I think that they role of one who is preparing the way of the Lord is much more than proclaiming the Good News. The role of one preparing the way of the Lord requires living the Good News.
In chapter 3, Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah as a reference to John the Baptist. In verses 4-6 he writes, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Pavers don’t just proclaim the Good News, they live it. Make the paths straight, the valleys, mountains, and hills level, smooth out the rough spots. And then, THEN, all flesh will see the salvation of God.
We too often look at salvation as being forgiven for our sins. And yes, it is forgiveness of sins, but it is much more. God doesn’t just want to forgive us of the mistakes that we have made, God wants to save us from making those same mistakes again. Salvation is not just forgiveness of sin, but being led by God out of a life that does not glorify him. And John the Baptist, and we as followers of Jesus Christ, are called to pave the way for other people to be able to see the life-changing, life giving salvation that Jesus offers.
Close to where I grew up there is a small town that had an interesting historical downtown area. And in the downtown area they had uncovered a brick sidewalk from probably 100 years ago. By the time the renovations were done, this sidewalk was beautiful. The red bricks lined the road on both sides and led you right up to the storefronts. However, there was a problem with this reclaimed sidewalk.
When I walk, I tend to keep my feet pretty close to the ground. I do not lift my legs high like I was marching in a band, but rather I just kind of shuffle around. So if there is any kind of rise in the direction that I am walking, I tend to drag my feet a little.
So as a young man, I am walking along this reclaimed brick sidewalk dating back to the 1800’s and sure enough, my foot catches a brick and I end up stumbling into the person walking in front of me. Pavement is a great way to ease someone’s travels. But pavement gone bad becomes a stumbling block.
So my difficult question for you all today is Are you making the path to God easier or more difficult? Are you placing stumbling blocks between other people and Christ or are you making the way straight, level, and smooth? And if we are making the way smooth, do we ever make that path too smooth?
Following Christ is difficult enough as it is. Following Christ may require that we sell all of our possessions, give the money to the poor, and live a life of poverty. Following Christ means that we put nothing before our relationship with him, not money, fame, fortune, even family. Unfortunately, I think that some people in an effort to be a good paver for Christ have reduced Christianity to praying a simple prayer and not requiring anything of the “converts”. But as Luke says in chapter three verse three, John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance means not only acknowledging sinfulness, but making an attempt to change our ways. Repentance means asking for forgiveness for your past mistakes and making an effort to break your sinful patterns.
When I talk about being a paver for Christ today I think we need to be careful not to reduce what Christ has called us to do, but we also need to not put any additional stumbling blocks in the way. Unfortunately, the way some Christians live and the things that some Christians say so often become stumbling blocks to those who are not in the church. In their book UnChristian, Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons report on their findings from a large poll of people outside of the church. They wanted to know what people outside of the church thought of those that are inside of the church. These are the words that those outside of the church used to describe Christians: hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental. They say something along these lines in their book, “To say that we as Christians have an identity problem is an understatement.”
Now I understand how and why we Christians come off to non-Christians in such a way. And some of these things are justifiable. But if someone was asked to describe me as a Christian, I would hope that none of those six words or phrases would come to mind. Those are not paving words. Those are stumbling blocks. I would hate to be accused of being so focused on saving souls that I neglected the present needs of a person. I believe it was Shane Claiborne that said A gospel that isn’t good news to the poor is no gospel at all.
If someone was asked to describe me, this church, or Christians in general, the word that I hope that they would use is “love.” In John 13:35, Jesus tells his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Those words or phrases that Kinnaman and Lyons found non-Christians using to describe Christians did not include the word love.
You may have noticed in today’s bulletin that we have a new line item revealing a local relief fund that has been started. Currently that fund contains $1,700.00. This fund is designated for a project here in town for a young couple. I got a call from Pastor Luke, one of the pastors at Harrisonburg Mennonite, saying that a friend of his knows this couple and was wondering if there was any way that we could help them out. I didn’t agree to do anything at first except for to look into the situation and see if there was any way that we at Staunton Mennonite could help.
They purchased a house in the city at the beginning of the summer with the intentions of renovating it and being able to live in it by the end of the summer. The house had been condemned and is one of the oldest houses in Staunton. So they got it pretty cheap. But just because they got it cheap doesn’t mean that they got a good deal on it.
They had to replace the entire foundation of this house by jacking it up and putting new concrete pillars underneath it to bear the weight of the entire structure. They gutted the house, carrying out lathe and plaster, old electrical work dating back to when electric was first put in homes, plumbing, all this was torn out and hauled away in a garbage truck. They had purchased supplies like drywall and insulation for the home. Then something happened. They ran out of time and their experience with construction was no longer adequate for the work that they had left to do.
When they purchased the home, they only took out a large enough loan to cover what they had estimated to be the cost of renovation and enough money for them to live on for the period that they believed it would take them to fix up the house. But when they ran into problems with the foundation, they found that they were going to need more time and they were going to need more money and they were going to need more experience.
So this friend of Luke’s that lives in Maryland, his name is Levin, started talking with me about how he would be willing to do some fund raising if we could be in charge of dispersing the money. Essentially, people are donating money to the church with the intention of the church using those funds to help this couple. And as I spoke with Levin on the phone, he told me a little more about this young couple and their three-year-old boy.
They are not Christians. In fact, I have been told that they have been hurt by Christians in the past and are somewhat suspicious of Christians. I hope that they have had some good experiences with Christians as well. Glenn and I have been out to help give some direction to the young man trying to figure all of this out. Money has come in from Christians to help them in their project. And all of this has been done with out of Christian love.
My friends, we have the opportunity to pave the way for Christ. If you remember, the definition that I used earlier was “A way-paver is someone that draws people’s attention to the way that God is moving in their day and age so that they will not miss an opportunity to experience God.” I hope that I, that we can be way-pavers as we point out to this couple the way that Christ is moving through so many people to help them establish a home.
In Philippians 1:3-6 the Apostle Paul says that he gives thanks to God every time he thinks of the Christians in Philippi. He prays with joy because they are sharing in the gospel, participating in the gospel, living in and living out the gospel. My friends, there is no better way to pave the way for Christ than to do just that.
I love the idea of living in and living out the gospel. As redeemed people seeking to follow Christ, we dwell within the grace of God daily. As workers for God’s kingdom, manifesting the kingdom here on earth, we are living out the gospel. We are making the high places low, the valleys high, the rough places smooth. We are removing the stumbling blocks so that all people can come to know Jesus as Lord.