Prepare the Way

Today’s reading is Luke 3:1-6Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Helen.

Four hundred and sixty-five hours to go till Christmas day. I wonder if you are eagerly anticipating Christmas? Or maybe there’s something else which you are eagerly anticipating. Some of you may know that I am due to become a grandmother in just over a month—I’m eagerly anticipating that!

Well, by the time they arrive in the 3rd chapter of Luke, his readers will be tingling with anticipation. There have been 2 very special births—Jesus and John. Following Zechariah’s wonderful outburst of praise at the end of Chapter 1, we left John as a boy—we read this—‘the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel’. Note that this does not mean that John lived grew up amongst the sand dunes—his parents lived in a small town in the hill country of Judea. We left Jesus as a boy at the end of Chapter 2—you’ll remember that at the age of 12, he was found in the Temple—in his father’s house, as he told his anxious and bemused parents! In the last verse of the chapter we read that ‘Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men’.

A big question hangs over the reader at this point. And then? It’s like a well made Netflix drama which manages to finish an episode on a knife edge so that you carry on watching and get to bed ridiculously late.

And so to our reading for today.

At the beginning of the gospel, Luke promised his friend Theophilus an ‘orderly account’ so that he might know ‘the certainty of things you have been taught’. And so we have in these first verses the first precise time marker for the events of the gospels. And it all stacks up. This is not a legend.

Tiberius succeeded Augustus as emperor on 19th August D14. This fits in with the others whom Luke mentions: Pilate was procurator of Judea from AD 26-36. Herod Antipas reigned in Galilee from 4BC to AD39. Philip rules the northern Transjordanian territories form 4BC to AD34. Less is known about Lysanius of Abilene—he’s our mystery man. When we say ‘ruled’, we remember that the tetrarchs only ruled with the approval of the imperial authorities. In the first century BC the Roman legions had marched into the historic land of Israel—it was a land under occupation.

Luke also introduces us to the characters of Ciaphas, the high priest, and his father-in-law, Annas. Like the tetrarchs, the high priests served at the pleasure of the Romans. They had become political rather than religious figures, despised by many ordinary Jews of the time.

Against this backdrop of political and religious rulers, John the Baptist bursts onto the scene.

Five words which will herald the most momentous event in human history. Verse 2: ‘the word of God came’. Five words which break a prophetic silence of 400 years (think about that—the length of time which has passed between and the Tudor era). ‘The word of God came’. Five words which draw a striking contrast between the kingdoms of this world and the new kingdom which will come through Jesus. ‘The word of God came’. It came to John as Luke reveals his true identity and purpose, which is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s 700 year old prophecy.

We will read later in the gospel how John goes on to fulfil this prophecy with his apocalyptic preaching and his call to people to repent and be baptised in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

Let’s dwell on the words in V3 for a moment: ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. John called people to do more than simply say sorry. The word repentance (from the Greek metanoia’) is a lot more than regret for past misdeeds. John called people, as did Jesus, to a change of mind and heart, to an inner transformation which bears visible fruit. He challenged tax collectors to stop collecting more than they should—he called soldiers to stop extorting money from people. Values of the new kingdom to come. John was offering a sort of ritual purification, but one which started from the inside. It echoes the words of Jesus who reminded us many times of the glaring contrast between a merely external, superficial attempt to please God and the purity He demands within human hearts.

John’s purpose was to prepare the way for the Messiah—and I think that in this season of Advent he still does. I think that the words of verse 4 are as relevant to us as they were to John’s hearers. ‘Prepare the way for the Lord—make straight paths for Him’. It’s a shout of joy of anticipation, of excitement.

When I thought about this passage, I felt prompted to look at my spiritual road—the road which leads to Christ. There are some potholes, there are some are some boulders blocking the way, some parts which need retarmaced.

John and Charles Wesley took their road resurfacing seriously. I read recently of a club which they founded at Oxford in 1729. It was rather disparagingly referred to as the ‘Holy Club’. Members asked themselves 22 questions every day—yes, every day. The questions were designed to keep them on a straight road in their spiritual journeys. Great questions for Advent. I share just 5 of them with you—I’m going to try to commit to asking myself these each morning between now and Christmas.

  • Is Christ real to me today?
  • How do I spend my spare time?
  • Did the bible live in me today?
  • Am I enjoying prayer?
  • And this one as I embark on Christmas preparations: Do I pray about the money I spend?

465 hours to go till Christmas day—my prayer for all of us is that we may use them well to prepare the way for the Lord in our hearts, and to recapture the joy of this special season.

There will be a video version of the service.

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