“St. John the Baptist, the Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness” (Matthew 3:1-12)

Midweek Advent Evening Prayer
Wednesday, December 14, 2022

“St. John the Baptist, the Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness” (Matthew 3:1-12)

Today’s midweek service is the last in our series called, “Three Saints of Advent.” We began on November 30 with St. Andrew, Apostle, since his festival falls on that date. Last week, on December 7, we remembered St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, since his commemoration falls on that date. Now today, December 14, is nobody’s festival or commemoration, but since the last two Sundays the Gospel readings have featured John the Baptist, that’s the saint we’ll go with today.

Now there’s quite a lot in the Bible about John the Baptist, more than what you might think. For instance, there’s the account of the angel Gabriel announcing to Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son and they were to name him John. Then Elizabeth, pregnant with John, is visited by Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and even in the womb John leaps to greet his Lord. John grows up and begins his ministry, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan. John points his own disciples to Jesus, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John stands up to Herod the tetrarch, calling him out on his adultery, and for that John gets thrown in prison and beheaded. So there’s lots to choose from when talking about John. Today we’ll focus on this aspect of his life and ministry: “St. John the Baptist, the Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness.”

Our text is from the reading from Matthew chapter 3: “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”’” And that verse, in turn, refers back to our reading from Isaiah 40: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Taken together, Isaiah is prophesying the ministry of John the Baptist, who will prepare the way for the Lord Jesus Christ. How John’s ministry fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy–that’s what we’ll explore now. And how all of this applies to us–we’ll get to that, too.

Let’s start back at the time of Isaiah, some 700 years before Christ. How did Isaiah’s prophecy speak to the people back then, at that time? What situation did it address? How did it apply in the short-term, before the coming of Christ? What Isaiah envisions, in the first place, is the time when Judah and Jerusalem would be off in exile in the land of Babylon–the Babylonian Captivity, we call it. This would be a difficult, depressing time for God’s people. The nation’s sins had cost them their place in the Promised Land. They had been deported as captives to a far-off pagan land. By the waters of Babylon the people sat and wept, longing for a return to their homeland–to go back home to Zion, back to Jerusalem and the presence of the Lord.

It is to that historical situation that Isaiah speaks. And he speaks a word of comfort: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” The time has come for the captivity to end. Jerusalem’s iniquity is pardoned, her sins are amply forgiven, more than enough. These are tender, comforting words that the prophet speaks.

And the voice that is prophesied does the same. “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” This voice heralds the coming of the Lord to deliver his captive people. The Lord is coming straightaway to save them. Their home is back in Judah, over in the west, not far from the Mediterranean Sea. But Babylon is hundreds of miles east of there. And in between Judah and Babylon, there is a vast expanse of desert. Normally you wouldn’t travel that direct route, because it was such a huge desert to cross. Instead, you would go up and around, where there was water and vegetation. But Isaiah says the Lord is coming by way of the wilderness, on a highway through the desert. This pictures very vividly the directness of the Lord coming to deliver his people. Help is on the way! The Lord is coming so directly, he’s even taking a shortcut through the desert! Here are words of comfort for people distressed by their sins and their sad situation. The Lord is coming to save you! He’s on his way! He’s taking a highway straight through the wilderness!

Now the return from exile, from Babylon back to Judah, did take place. And it was the Lord’s doing. But it was not enough to totally fulfill the glorious salvation spoken of in Isaiah’s prophecy. There would be more, much more. And this is where John the Baptist comes in. John is the voice announcing an even greater deliverance. He is the herald going ahead of the king, telling the people to get ready for the king’s arrival. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” John announces. “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

Appropriately, it’s in the wilderness that John does his crying out. The wilderness of Judea, along the Jordan–there John announces the coming of the king. There he calls the people to get ready for the Lord’s arrival. John is the voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. How? By calling God’s people to repentance.

“Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” In the ancient Near East, when a king would visit his people, his “advance men” would go ahead of him to get things ready. Part of the preparation was to get the roads ready for his arrival. You didn’t want the king traveling on bumpy roads in a state of disrepair. Get the potholes filled in. Get the rough places fixed. A king should travel on first-rate roads, smooth and straight.

Now think of the king that John was the advance man for. Whose way was John preparing? John says, “he who is coming after me is mightier than I.” This is the king, the Lord, who would bring in the kingdom of heaven! And that kingdom was right at hand. This king is none other than Jesus, who would come along very shortly, to be baptized by John and begin his public ministry. John is saying: The Lord is on his way! He’s coming speedily to deliver his people! Salvation is on the way! He’s coming soon! So get ready! Prepare for his arrival! Let’s get those roads in shape for our coming king! “Make his paths straight.”

This is repentance that John is calling us to. Repentance is not just covering up a crack here or there, to make a bad road look good. No, repentance is total road reconstruction. The repentance John is calling us to means turning away from our sins and turning to God for his mercy and his renewing Spirit. This is the highway fit for our king. However, holding on to our own goodness, as though it’s good enough to please God–that’s like a huge boulder blocking the road. It has to be removed. Our devious ways in life, the crooked ways–they need to be made straight. Repentance is giving up on being your own god. It means realizing that such a wrong-headed notion only leads to a dead end. Repentance means giving up on yourself. Then the road is cleared for the king to come in. God must work this repentance in us. It comes through that voice in the wilderness crying out, calling us to confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness.

This is Advent preparation, penitential preparation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The king is coming at Christmas, the Son of God in the flesh, born to be our Savior. Christ the king will come again at the Last Day, to gather his wheat into the barn and cast the chaff into unquenchable fire, in end-time judgment and salvation. Christ Jesus comes to us now in Word and Sacrament, and this calls for the Advent preparation that John is calling us to: the repentance of our hearts as highways fit for our king.

So here comes our Lord, coming with all his gifts! The king is on his way! The Lord Jesus is the source of our comfort. He pardons our iniquity, by paying for our sins with his death on the cross. The Son of God shed his holy blood as the perfect sacrifice, for you and for all people. As John the Baptist said when he pointed to Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness”: John the Baptist fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy, because it’s really not about John himself. John’s voice directs our attention to the coming king, to the one mightier than John. The king is coming, bringing salvation and deliverance! We were in captivity in the Babylon that our sins deserve. Yet the Lord is on his way to set us free. The king is coming, speedily, on the express route, on a highway straight across the desert.

John is the voice that calls us out into the wilderness to get things ready. Confess your sins, people of God! What is the uneven ground in your life that needs to become level? What are the rough places that need to be smoothed out? Confess your sins and receive God’s forgiveness, for Christ’s sake. You, dear Christian, you have been baptized into a life of daily repentance and forgiveness. This is true Advent preparation.

In the wilderness the voice is crying, preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins. In the wilderness the preparation is taking place, as God’s people confess their sins and receive forgiveness. In the wilderness the Lord is coming on his royal highway to deliver us and set us free. Comfort, pardon, the glory of the Lord, and the kingdom of heaven–all right at hand!

Today we wrap up our series on “Three Saints of Advent: Andrew, Ambrose, and John.” Today we remember St. John the Baptist. But notice, we spoke more about his message than about the man. And that would be perfectly fine with John. For John’s whole life was about preparing the way of the Lord. John said of Jesus: “He must increase; I must decrease.” And Andrew and Ambrose would agree. It’s all about Jesus.

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Published in: on December 14, 2022 at 1:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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