(Isaiah 60:1-3; Luke 1:67-80, John 1:6-8)
As we saw last week, the herald of salvation, the one who came to announce that God’s great promise was at last being fulfilled, arose not in the capital, not among the powerful, but out in the wilderness. The word of life came in a place hostile to life; the message of hope rang out in a land of desolation. Redemption for the fallen, healing for the broken, and love for the deserted was proclaimed in the desert.
And as we said, so it must be, for in the desert, there is silence for us to hear God speak. The world makes an incredible racket, trying to get its way through manipulation and coercion, through bribery, seduction, flattery, threats, and blunt force trauma. It shouts down and corrupts, lies and cheats, and shades the truth until there’s nothing left but shading. Politicians talk about spinning the story, but what they’re really spinning is us; give them the voice of God that thunders over the waters, and they’d deafen us in the space of one 30-second commercial. God doesn’t do that.
Instead, he calls us from the wilderness—he calls us into the wilderness. He calls us away from all our striving to control our lives by controlling those around us, and all our attempts to control our world through the application of whatever power we can grab. He draws us away from our efforts to cover up our sin and hide from our inadequacy. He leads us out where our maps don’t work, we have no landmarks to steer by, and we do not know the way. He brings us to the point where all gods fail, and we have no one else but him—where he is our only hope, and our only way—where we have to face the bad news of our life: we are broken and we can’t fix it. Our world is fouled up beyond our ability to make it right. And once we understand in the marrow of our bones and the pit of our stomach that we are in desperate need of a salvation that we cannot provide, then we know that we need a Savior; then we can hear the good news as good news.
And once we get to that point, we can begin to see something else: if the problem of our sin is far greater than we would otherwise believe, so too is the salvation God is working. What does Zechariah say of his son? “You will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.” If you have an ear tuned to the Bible, as Zechariah most certainly did, that’s a cataclysmic statement.
Remember Isaiah 40
valley shall be lifted up, and every
mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level
, and the rough places shall become a plain
. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh
shall see it together
, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” In Isaiah 43, God declares
, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert . . . to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.”
God calls us into the wilderness so that we must face our need, but also that we might see his power and his glory. He brings us out where the lights of our cities no longer protect us from the darkness of the night—where the darkness goes on forever, leaving us isolated and alone with the darkness of our hearts and the shadow of death, crying out for any light we can find; and then over us like a sunburst comes the word of his promise: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you! Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness all the nations, but the Lordwill arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
This is the knowledge of the salvation of God which John proclaimed to his people, the forgiveness of all our sin; it is the sunrise of the grace and mercy of God in the darkness of our guilt and shame and the black shadow of death, to give us light and hope and guide us in the way of his peace. God isn’t just about making the wilderness a little easier to live in, or giving us a little better flashlight so we can walk a little more easily. The purpose of God is the utter obliteration of all that is evil and unholy and wrong, and the redemption and healing of all creation, us most of all; it’s to bring life where there is death, and light up the darkness from horizon to horizon. God is making all things new.
This is the message John was given, to proclaim that God was coming to his people—not to do anything for himself, but all his life dedicated to bearing witness to the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. This is the message we have been given, to proclaim that God has come and is coming again, to bear witness to his light in all that we do and all that we say; and in that, there are some things we can learn from John’s example.
One, he reminds us that spiritually, we too live in the wilderness. We talked about this as we were going through
Romans 8; as followers of Christ, we have passed out of the land of slavery, but we have not arrived at the promised land—we are in the land between, the place of testing and challenge, where we have to live by faith and we have to follow God because he’s the only one who knows how he got us here, and he’s the only one who knows how to get us where we’re going. We’re still in this world, but we no longer belong here; and like John, God has raised us up as his heralds to call others into the wilderness, to hear his promise and to know his hope.
Two, this means that our focus needs to be as laserlike as John’s was if we’re going to do what God has called us to do. He had one task and one message, to proclaim to Israel that the kingdom of God was at hand, that the day of God’s mercy was dawning, and to call them to seize the opportunity and repent; and so to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. That was the content of every sermon, and the purpose of everything he did, down to where he lived, what he wore, and what he ate.
This doesn’t mean we need to do exactly what John did; but as for him, in everything we do and say, our goal should be to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ. In our preaching, in our teaching, in our programs, as we give counsel to one another, we only have one word that gives life. The late ex-Communist Arthur Koestler once declared, “One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up”; I don’t think ruthlessly is really the right word, but we have been brought into relationship with the One who is truth, and we should follow the spirit of Koestler’s advice. We should relentlessly proclaim the truth of the gospel, in every situation, in every issue, by our words and by our actions, or else we should be silent: God is speaking.
Now, Jesus isn’t literallythe answer to every question; if someone asks you what has four legs, a bushy tail, climbs trees, and eats nuts, well, sometimes a squirrel is just a squirrel. Even John, if you’d asked him the best way to prepare locusts, probably would not have said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” There are technical questions and technical challenges that need technical answers. But those questions and challenges come in the broader context of life, of how do we live and why do we do what we do and what are we living for; yes, fixing the washer just requires the ability to identify and replace the broken part, but knowing why you do the laundry—that requires the gospel.
We need to be honest with ourselves, with each other, with the world, that we need more than just better tools, better skills, and a better to-do list; that the problem with us, with our marriages, with our children, with our relationships with our family, our friends, our co-workers, is not a technical problem, and can’t be solved by trying harder or managing things better. I have sometimes regretted letting off that crack about “disorganized religion” where Dr. Kavanaugh could hear it, but I stand by it, and I don’t think he’s wrong to keep bringing it up. The problem with organized religion is that it too easily communicates the idea that being organized is the answer; being honest about it when we’re rather less than organized keeps our hearts soft to be honest about our greater struggles and failures, and keeps us honest about our need for grace.