John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord. To make straight paths for him – straight to the hearts, minds and lives of the people of God.
How should we respond today? In this season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the first coming of the Lord and we anticipate his second coming, what are we supposed to be doing?
John focuses on repentance. What does that look like?
When John challenged the crowds to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, they asked what they should be doing. His response was in terms of economic justice: share with those in need; if you’re a tax collector don’t cheat people by taking more than you should; if you’re a soldier be content with your pay. He exhorts them to concern for those less fortunate, to fair dealing and to contentment.
That’s a pretty good check-list to apply to our lives. Do we relate our expenditure to the needs of others who may have much less than we do, locally and globally? Are we careful not to exploit those who are economically dependent on us? Are we cultivating contentment, acknowledging that enough is enough?
God is not a killjoy and Jesus was known to enjoy parties. Life is meant to be enjoyed. But it will in fact be more enjoyable as we cultivate concern for the challenges presented by John. In so doing, we make a path for the presence of God with us.
In Malachi’s time the people were asking questions of God: “Where is the God of justice?” they asked (Malachi 2.17).
They were putting God on trial. Why are the promises of God so long delayed? What does he think he’s doing? God responds by saying that he will send his messenger to prepare the way for his own coming, and he will indeed come to fulfil his covenant promises and bring his Kingdom to reign.
But there is more to justice than they realize. Malachi has God saying:
‘So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me.’Malachi 3.5
God seems to care a lot about economic justice.
Our faith doesn’t exist in a sealed-off compartment which doesn’t touch the real world of money, business, politics and so on. Luke locates the coming of the word of God to John in the wilderness to the world of power and politics in Rome and Judea, the places where people think the big decisions and the key events take place. But Luke is telling us that what really matters is what you and I do and think today and tomorrow.
Jesus wants a straight path into the whole of our lives, including the quite large part of our lives which involves our money and how we spend it, our readiness to care for the poor, our willingness to enjoy what we have without always restlessly wanting more.
Repentance is not just about things we do or don’t do. It also encompasses how we think: it involves a change of mind, a mental shift, a reassessment of our thoughts about God and ourselves.
Ever since the Garden of Eden humanity has had a distorted idea of itself and of God. We don’t think properly.
This is an extract from the diary of a junior doctor:
Tuesday, 5 July 2005: Trying to work out a seventy-year-old lady’s alcohol consumption to record in the notes. I’ve established that wine is her poison. Me: ‘And how much wine do you drink per day, would you say?’ Patient: ‘About three bottles on a good day.’ Me: ‘OK . . . And on a bad day?’ Patient: ‘On a bad day I only manage one.’Adam Kay, This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor (Picador, 2017) p26
This person is radically confused. She needs a total rethink of her life.
The problem isn’t confined to alcoholics or addicts. Despite a good education I didn’t really learn to think till I came to faith in Jesus Christ. Why is it that so often Jesus didn’t give a straight answer to a straight question? Because he wanted people to learn to think.
In Malachi chapter 3 God confronts people’s questioning of him with a question he addresses to them:
‘ … the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.Malachi 3.1-2
When the time came, Israel didn’t do very well in responding to the Messiah. How is that? How did Israel manage to miss their Messiah? How did they get to crucify him when they had the scriptures to guide them, John the Baptist to prepare them and Jesus himself to heal them, feed them, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, deliver those oppressed by demons and teach them the truth? How is that so many took offence at him? At one point even John himself, languishing in Herod’s dungeon, wasn’t sure that Jesus was the real thing. Jesus sends a message back to John citing the amazing things he was doing and challenging John not to take offence at him (Matthew 11.1-6).
John was puzzled because things weren’t working out well for him, or so it seemed. We can take offence at God when things don’t work out well in our lives or the lives of our loved ones. This can be immensely painful. And God doesn’t expect us to enjoy the pain and he wants us to articulate that pain in prayer. He also wants us to trust him. To trust him that, somehow, in the long run, he will work all things for good. Not immediately, not necessarily so that we can see that in this life, but in his time and in his way.
The other way people take offence, then and now, is because they don’t like the picture of God we find in Jesus and his followers. The Pharisees didn’t like him eating with the riff raff of Jewish society. They thought he was far too lax about the law. Some people took offence because he didn’t seem to be interested in booting out the Romans (that may have been the problem Judas had). Some people took offence because he treated women and children as just as important as men. Some people took offence because he ministered to Gentiles as well as to native Israelites.
Probably none of those are our issues. But we can still have issues. We can take offence when we come across things in the Bible which we don’t like or don’t understand. Some people just give up on the Bible at that point. But that is a mistake. Don’t take offence. Be open to the possibility that you might come to understand something which seems difficult. There is a repeated prayer in Psalm 119 for understanding. Ask the questions, do the research. Be prepared to wait for understanding. But don’t take offence. Repentance involves a renewal of the mind, a willingness to let our minds be shaped and changed to conform to the mind of Christ.
Graham Kendrick’s song “Make way, make way for Christ the King” includes the line:
Fling wide the gates and welcome him into your lives.
We are invited to open up the gates of our hearts and minds to him, allowing him to shape both our actions and our thoughts. That is the heart of repentance.