“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” – Isaiah 40:3 (NRSV)
The beginning of Luke’s gospel is structured in a very particular way. In chapter one, John the Baptist’s birth is foretold (Lk 1:5-25), followed by the foretelling of the birth of Jesus (Lk 1:26-38). Shortly after, the birth of John the Baptist is documented (Lk 1:57-66) followed by the birth of Jesus (Lk 2:1-7). Luke then records John the Baptist preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus (Lk 3:1-20), followed by the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (Luke 4:14-15). This dynamic of John the Baptist preparing for Jesus climaxes when John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River (Lk 3:21-22).
Why does Luke use this pattern of John the Baptist going before Jesus? Well, it was prophesied in the Old Testament that there would be a “voice in the wilderness” that prepared the way for the Son of God (Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 3:1). Luke, a student of scripture, understood that prophecy was being fulfilled in the life of John the Baptist. But beyond the fulfillment of prophecy, it is clear that the calling and purpose of John the Baptist was one of preparation. Preparation for something—Someone—much greater than himself. John’s own father, Zechariah, prophesied these words over his son’s life:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Lk 1:76-79)
John the Baptist’s role as the forerunner for Jesus and his Kingdom provides a crucial reminder for the Church this Advent season. We often view Advent as going through the motions of idle and patient waiting until we celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas, and though there is a powerful lesson for the Church in waiting, Advent is more than idleness—it is a season of active preparation.
John the Baptist’s life models this active preparation well for the Church today:
The Church as a prophetic “voice in the wilderness”
- The same prophetic Spirit that was poured out on the prophets, including John the Baptist, is poured on all believers today (Acts 2). Therefore, we as the Church have a unique role in the “wilderness” of our modern world, a world characterized by sin, haste, striving, and a desperate grasping for any semblance of contentment. This Advent season, let’s be reminded of our voice and our context so we can echo the invitation of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28 NRSV).
What is a “wilderness” in your life that you can speak the truth of Christ into?
The Church as counter-cultural
- Luke describes John the Baptist as wearing “clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him” (Mt 3:4-5 NRSV). John the Baptist was completely sold out to his calling as the one to prepare the way for Christ, leading him to stand out from the rest of society. We need to recover this posture of being so committed to our call that we, as the Church, look and act in a way that clearly contrasts with the world around us. The result of this is that people will come to see what is different about you and your community. This is why, I think, right after Matthew describes John’s strange appearance and message, he says that all the people “were going out to him.” Being counter-cultural attracts people to a different, better Kingdom.
Here at New City, one of the counter-cultural practices we focus on is resting in the promises of God. What is a counter-cultural practice that you can incorporate into your daily rhythm that would witness to others?
The Church must give all glory to Christ
- Many people who came to see John the Baptist thought that he may be the Christ. John, instead of reveling in the fame and glory, immediately shifted the glory to Jesus: “He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (Lk 3:16 NRSV). Oftentimes in our lives in the midst of our working, volunteering, helping, parenting, and listening, we begin to think of ourselves as saviors. This Advent season, we need to remember that in a world that craves credit and acknowledgment, whatever good we accomplish is because of Christ in us and it should always point to his eternal fame.
What is one way you can practice giving glory to God in your workplace, school, or home?
The Church as the preparers for the Kingdom of God
- John the Baptist’s ultimate calling was to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make his paths straight” (Lk 3:4 NRSV). Our primary calling, too, as we eagerly wait for Christ to come again, is to “make straight” the way of the Lord. We do this by loving those not yet loved, seeking justice for those on the outside looking in, speaking truth in the midst of chaos, pursuing reconciliation in all of our relationships, and being the hands and feet of Christ in a world that has lost its way. This is precisely why when the onlookers asked how they should prepare for the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist responded by saying, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Lk 3:11 NRSV).
How are you “actively waiting” for the coming of Jesus this Advent season? Who in your life needs the light of Jesus? Is there someone at work that needs someone to listen to them? Do you have a neighbor who is in need? Is there a relationship in your life that needs mending?
If we as the Church, the people of God, follow the example of John the Baptist, Zechariah’s prayer will be just as true for us today as it was for John: We will “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” by giving “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” so that God may “guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor