Luke 3:1-6 (NIV)
Prepare Your Desert for the King (click for Word file of this sermon)
The great prophet Moses kills a man early in life and gets found out. Where does he go? The desert.
The great prophet Elijah defeats more than 400 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel but is crushed when, the very next day, the Baal-worshipping queen of Israel has him running for his life. Where does the Lord go to encourage him? The desert.
The greatest prophet of them all, our Lord Jesus, lives a perfect life on earth, but will not start his prophetic ministry until directly called by the Spirit to do so. His time finally comes! He is raring to go! So where does the Spirit send him first? To the desert.
After a while you start to wonder: What is it with the Bible and all these deserts? Jesus before his ministry, John throughout all of his, the Israelites before being allowed into the Promised Land—what are we supposed to be learning from all these deserts?
Truth be told, there are many powerful lessons that can be learned nowhere better than in a desert. However, there are two things about the desert that we can learn right here as we consider how to prepare our own, personal deserts for the arrival of our King this Advent season. 1. Work in the desert is always harder than work that is done under “ideal” conditions. 2. The coming salvation makes it all worthwhile.
The desert changes a man. Remember talking about that a little while ago? Our steady flow of discretionary income; our nice, warm homes; all our entertainment options—these make us comfortable, but they don’t make us invincible. They simply distract us from the reality of our true helplessness against things like illness, poverty and death. But you can’t ignore your helplessness in a desert. Conveniences and amenities are stripped away, and we must face the truth: we do not control this life the way we like to think we do, nor is the One who does control it under any obligation to run things the way we want him to.
The desert focuses people on that lesson. I remember once spending thirteen straight hours on the hottest day of the summer mixing, turning and hauling wet cement by hand. I was on a road crew. We were on a deadline. The cement mixer had broken down, but we had to keep going. It was hot, it was hard, it was unpleasant and it was exhausting. But I’ll tell you what: never did I appreciate the simple blessing of a cool drink of water more than I did that day. My dependence on God for every little thing was clear.
Uncomfortable, uncivilized settings tend to teach such lessons in humility to you, so it was in the desert where John the Baptist was called to preach “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” No matter who you were in the civilized world, you had to face the same treacherous Judean wastes to hear John. You quickly learned that it was the Word of God that called John to preach in the desert. What else could? And you learned that the Word of God is “living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The Word doesn’t judge based on personal status. “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong” (Colossians 3:25).
The Word of God, when it comes to us pure and undiluted, strips away everything that might distract you from the judgment you deserve. Any influence you might have in the world becomes irrelevant. The Word of God strips it away by saying, “Is [the Lord] not the One who says to kings, ‘You are worthless,’ and to nobles, ‘You are wicked,’ who shows no partiality to princes and does not favor the rich over the poor” (Job 34:18-19)?
We may feel that we have bargaining chips with God because of our family’s connection to the church, but God tests the heart and mind (Jeremiah 11:20). “For there is no respect of persons [favoritism] with God. For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law” (Romans 2:11-12—KJV).
We may feel that God will have mercy on us because we have done our very best and tried all our lives to do many, many good things, but this does not make us guiltless. God says to be holy as he is holy (Leviticus 19:2; Matthew 5:48). He demands that we live a life in which there is nothing but good, not just more good than bad, and so, despite our efforts, he looks down from heaven and says, “there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 53:2-3).
Facing the desert strips away luxury and position and leaves us with the reality of our susceptibility to weakness, illness and death. Even harsher than this exposure, however, is exposure to the pure, unmitigated, blinding light of God’s holiness.
But we need that exposure. You probably think that ideal working conditions include comfy chairs on rollers and air conditioning, and so you may think that the ideal conditions under which to meet God include pleasant sunsets, cool breezes and a full belly. But the exact opposite is true. Ignoring our sins and becoming comfortable with our unrighteousness does not make God ignore them nor make him comfortable with us.
Such harsh, wilderness truths are difficult to face, but the salvation which John prepared people to meet made it all worthwhile! John was the “voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.” The hearts of the people were full of impenitent obstacles, mountains of pride and valleys of despair. That would be difficult and unpleasant to face up to, but it would be worth it, because it was all about preparing for the fulfillment of this prophecy from Isaiah: “And all mankind will see God’s salvation.”
After all that the Scriptures say about our utter sinfulness and hopelessness before the righteous gaze of our holy God, “salvation” is just about the last thing you would expect him to bring to us. And that’s fine. We cannot expect God’s salvation on the basis of thinking that we are in any way deserving of it. As harsh as the distraction-less desert is to face, a true understanding of how undeserving we are before God is the only thing that brings the full joy with which Jesus’ coming was intended to provide us.
Only an understanding of the harsh realities of God’s condemnation of sinners gives the proper perspective for hearing Jesus coming to say, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Only an understanding of how much we deserve God’s condemnation provides the proper framework for the joy such a statement about our deliverance from condemnation is intended to bring.
We are indeed deserving of eternal death—eternal separation from the love and blessings of our Father—for that is the curse of the law on lawbreakers. But “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). Ignoring sin does not make us ready for the truth that this child came into the world to hang by nails from that cursed tree for us. Being called to a recognition of our sins by proclaimers of God’s Word certainly does, though—and only that proclamation can ultimately provide us with the pure joy that the message of his salvation is intended to bring!
John the Baptist didn’t just preach in the desert. He was born in one. Spiritual life was going dry in Israel, and the political environment was hostile. It was more than simple historical context that Luke was providing by saying that a heathen dictator, Tiberius Caesar, was the ultimate worldly authority over the nation that God had chosen as his very own. The Roman heathen, Pontius Pilate, should not have been governing Judea, the home of God’s Temple. Nor should the northern lands of Israel be divided into four parts ruled by Roman lackeys! And the fact that two men are listed as high priests instead of just one, as God had established, is evidence of just how far the chosen people of God had fallen under worldly influence. It was a harsh reality to face.
But no reality is too harsh to face when our salvation in Christ is so very complete. There is no sin, no sin, that has not been nailed to the cross along with the One that became the curse of sin for us. If there were any sins left unpunished, then there would be no way that our King could have possibly risen from the dead, for there would still be death to pay! Yes, even the barrenness of our own spiritual deserts is not too difficult to face when our Savior has already born our guilt for us, coming out on the other side as our victor!
Prepare yourself this season not with the distractions of a world trying to dress itself up nice for a cute little baby that it doesn’t even recognize. Prepare yourself by recognizing that you live in a desert in this sinful world, in this sinful flesh. Prepare yourself by facing your own desert of spiritual waste, your own apathy toward the Word, your own arid fields of faithless distraction. Remove the stones of impenitence and prepare to meet your Savior! Make straight, honest paths on which the King may proclaim his infinite mercy and all-powerful salvation, and make a permanent home in a new heart, free from fear and guilt and dedicated to him. Amen.
December 6, 2009
Pastor Aaron C. Frey
Emanuel Lutheran Church