“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. ‘” Luke 3:3
If we had to look around us to pick out the prophets in our own time, I wonder who we would pick? Who on television or in the newspapers would stand out as being the sort of person who in thirty years time people would say that he or she was a prophet. The painful part of being a prophet is that the prophet’s role is to stand against the rulers and the spirit of the time, it is to look at the society around and to denounce what is wrong and to call people back to the ways of God.
People, of course, do not like being told that what they are doing is wrong and prophets become very unpopular if they make direct challenges to people’s lives. Prophets are troublesome people and, on the whole, life is much easier and much more comfortable without them. If we can be troubled by the sort of words we read in the media, imagine how much more troubled we would be if we encountered the likes of John the Baptist?
John’s father, Zechariah, had been a priest in the Temple at Jerusalem, a professional religious man. John chose a very different lifestyle. He became deeply angry with the religious people. He saw them as guilty of corruption and hypocrisy and he told them so in no uncertain terms. Not a dangerous thing to do nowadays, but in the days of John the Baptist taking on the priests and religious meant taking on men with power and influence. They come to see what is going on at the Jordan and John denounces them as, “You brood of vipers!” John carried great influence with the people and his insults could not be ignored. Eventually John’s denunciations were to cost him his life.
We can concentrate so much on John’s words to the men of power, on his anger and rage at their corruption, that we forget the message he had for the ordinary. people. Jesus describes John as being the one forecast by Isaiah who comes with a message for ordinary people.
The words we have in our version of Saint Luke are punctuated differently than the ones in the prophet Isaiah.
Saint Luke has:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: (colon)
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’
A voice cries out: (colon):
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’
When the New Testament was written there was no punctuation and when the punctuation was put in centuries later the break came at the wrong point. John was indeed a voice in the wilderness, only there could he find an escape from the corruption and injustice of the world. But the point of John’s message was that God’s people should prepare the way for God in the most difficult places.
It’s much easier to think about John’s colourful insults than it is to think about what is being asked of us. What we’re are being called to do is to prepare a way for God in the hard and the difficult places. The wilderness we face is not the dry, barren, wild and rocky place in which John lived, it’s the spiritual wilderness of much of 21st Century life.
Jewish people in John’s time would have regarded themselves as good people. They went to synagogue, they made their offerings, they obeyed the law. But their religion had become dry and lifeless, they went through the words but didn’t really take it to their hearts. John arrives and he preaches, “repent”, “turn around”, “begin a new life”, and these people who were looking for something more flocked to him in huge crowds. Baptism in the Jordan was for them a sign of putting off the old past and beginning again.
The problem with the churches in our time is that we have often allowed ourselves to become as dry and formal as the Jewish faith had become in John’s time. Looking at most churches, can we honestly say there is much to excite or inspire? Look at ourselves, when we come to church do we come filled with excitement and anticipation? The Jewish people felt their religion should be that way. They went out to John from Jerusalem and Judea and from the whole region of the Jordan because they were looking for something more than they got from the rabbi Sabbath by Sabbath.
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’. Just think about the news stories of the past week, how on earth do we start to try to take on what is going on in the world around us? The answer is that we don’t. We are not asked to do so, we are asked to prepare the way of the Lord.
We ourselves have nothing to offer the world. It is God who offers people the life they cannot imagine. We are to prepare the way for this God; we do so by doing what people have done since the days of John the Baptist, we repent for the past and we pray for the future.
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” It’s up to you and me.