Sunday, December 11, 2011

Prepare the Way for the Lord

Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord! Ever heard that song with all the angels clapping in a gospel choir? Everyone is dancing and smiling and singing? What a grand old time! And yet, what does preparing the way of the Lord mean? Well, it's not creating a little space in a field, like for a spaceship to land and for Jesus to pop out! It means something that will shake your soul to the core and won't make you dance and clap and sing and smile. It's not gospel choir stuff! It's get yourself into a quiet room and start praying to God with all your might stuff! Preparing the way for the Lord means to repent among other things!

From this passage about John the Baptist in the first chapter of John's Gospel, we learn a few things, but the first and primary thing is that first, before Jesus comes into a community, before he lifts us out of the depths of our despair and into salvation, there comes a loud cry of repentance. Essentially a John the Baptist must come before Jesus can. Someone has to help the community remove the massive boulder of sin that is weighing the community down. The community just sits there, thinking to itself, “something really heavy is pressing down, but I just can't figure out what it is!” Somehow the message gets through that the boulder needs to be removed so that Jesus' salvation can work. We have to clear the boulder out. We have to roll it away before we can plant the seed that will yield a harvest. Like those fields in Ireland you see that are lush and green and perfect and level and pure: they once were overgrown and weedy and rocky and uneven. Someone had to get on his hands and knees and pull all those rocks out by hand. Someone had to level the ground and plant the seed and water the land and nurture the soil. That's why the land looks that way.

After the hurricane there was a brick house on Colington that was ruined. I hear the owners donated the land and house. The bricks were removed from the foundation and the sides until there was only a wooden frame. Then the fire department came and burned the wood to the ground. Now there is a bigger and better place being built there as we speak. It looks like it is going to be huge and beautiful, but it wouldn't be possible until the old, ruined house had been completely and utterly destroyed. We can't just add Christ to our old house. We have to raze the old, sinful house, and allow Christ to build his new house on our foundation. No trace of the old house can be left. Our own foundation, too, is inadequate. Christ must come and level off the ground and remove the stones and establish a firm foundation upon which we can build.

Before Jesus can save us, we need to repent, and there needs to be a call to repentance. There needs to be someone who will say, make straight the way of the lord, get those rocks out of the way, level the ground! When we say make the paths straight, we are not saying that we need to remove our own sin first. We are saying that we are so protective of our sinful lives that we create little mazes around ourselves, so that Jesus will have trouble navigating the mazes to our hearts. When John exhorts us to make our paths straight, we are opening up a direct path to our hearts for Jesus, and then he can get in there and to the work that we are unable to do. Aside from all the metaphors, though, what does it mean?

Repentance takes a complete change of mind. It means that we have realized with our whole beings that we were on the wrong path and we are taking active measures to get ourselves on the right track, even if those measures are preparing the way, making God's path straight to our hearts. This is why planning to repent on our death beds won't work. We may be able to repent so late in life, just as the thief on the cross repented, but to plan to repent does not work, because our hearts have to change due to Christ's grace. We can't just force our hearts to change at the last second.

This is also why sandwich board preaching doesn't work. Seeing a sign on someone saying “the end is nigh” is not going to change our minds with the true, deep changing that the grace of Christ does. It takes a full-fledged change of our natures from head to toe. We are creating an environment for Jesus to do his work. We are making his path straight, his efforts easier. He could navigate the mazes we have set up in front of our hearts, but he sees the intent behind them, the intent that says, “I don't WANT you to come into my life, Christ.” He sees that intent, and he backs down, because he loves us. He doesn't try to beat love out of us. He won't abuse us. We won't stalk us like a rejected boyfriend who cannot understand why his girl doesn't want to be with him anymore. Jesus Christ is the perfect gentleman, and he backs down when we ask, because he actually loves us.

So, we make the environment, and we try to make a space for Christ to descend and do his work. I send out an email or two each week to almost 200 people on our newsletter list. Each week I get at least one person who responds that the message that week really moved and touched them. It's a different person each week. Something I write one week won't resonate, and then the next week, I put something out there, and someone really gets it and writes to tell me. One thing removed an obstacle for one person, made the path straight, and another thing removed someone else's obstacle.

The second thing we learn from this passage is that when Jesus does come to a community to save it, we recognize his presence by the descent of the Holy Spirit. John saw the Spirit descend and testified to it. Jesus received the Spirit with a prepared heart for the sacrifice that he would undertake. Do we see the fruits of the Spirit manifesting themselves among us? We healed a woman in this very room by laying hands on her. She had chronic headaches and after we lay hands on her, the headaches stopped and they didn't come back. We have served the community successfully a few times this past year, and each time we did it, we knew that we were doing what God had called us to do.

John the Baptist tells us, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” We may have seen the Spirit descend in this group, but has he remained? We may have a testimony of our fruits to the outside world, but do others see the Spirit manifest in our group when they see us? Does anyone say, Good Shepherd is the Spirit-filled church?

The third thing we learn from this passage is that in order to experience Christ's saving power, we must accept him as a sacrifice for sin. John the Baptist saw Jesus coming and said aloud, “Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sins of the world.” Now John was the son of a priest, and he may have been a priest himself, so when he said these words, there was only one meaning to his words: that Jesus was to be the lamb of sacrifice under the Mosaic law, and that all previous animal sacrifices were figuratives, and his sacrifice was the only REAL and TRUE one.

Finally, the last thing we learn from this passage is that wherever Christ is saving people, the attitudes of those people are altered in such a way that they wish to follow him with the deepest part of their being. John the Baptist never played himself up but always pointed to Christ. He always took the attention from himself and put it where it rightly belonged—on Christ. Christ was to be magnified, and we disciples, we apostles, must always stand in the shade. We must shrink as we grow him. Because when Christ begins to save a community, we are naturally inclined to draw near to him, not for our own glory—not to be celebrities by association—but to become small and cling to him like little mites. When we say things like, “God spoke to me and told me to tell you,” or “God is speaking through me,” or “I am God's messenger,” we are magnifying ourselves and not God. It's a sign that Jesus is NOT working in the community.

John pointed out Jesus to the disciples, and they immediately began to follow him. Jesus even turned to them and asked them what they were looking for. The response? Not, we are looking for salvation. Or we need redemption. Or even we don't know what we need. They merely responded, “Teacher, where are you staying?” We don't care what we are looking for, we just know that you, Jesus, have it! That's why we don't need to stress out about what programs we are offering or what strategy we have for reaching the community. If Jesus Christ is in the process of saving this community, he will be followed. People on the Outer Banks will have this undying urge to live life IN him. They will follow. They will cling to him. If and when Jesus saves this community, the church will grow and revitalization and awakening will take place.

So, four things happen when Jesus is going to save a community. One, the community is called to repentance. Two, the Spirit descends. Three, the community recognizes Jesus as the only true sacrifice for sin. And four, the community follows him and grows in him. Let us pray for those four things to happen not only in our church but on the entire Outer Banks.