The Proclamation of John the Baptist
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
There’s a method of calling to a crowd and catching its attention in which a speaker says, “If you can hear the sound of my voice, clap once.” Usually, in a gathered group, only a few closest to the speaker hear the instruction and clap. The unexpected sound of several people clapping once, however, catches the attention of a few more. The speaker then says, “If you can hear the sound of my voice, clap twice.” And a few more people catch on. It continues until the crowd is hushed as more and more people clap in unison, three times, then four times. It’s an effective way to gather the attention of a crowd without having to be the loudest one in the room, but it only works with the participation of more and more people. The speaker might talk in vain at an unresponsive, noisy crowd all day if the following of their instructions doesn’t spread throughout the group.
While the prophets of scripture may have felt at times that they were speaking in vain, they caught enough attention that we continue to hear their words reverberate today. “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” we hear from Micah 6:8. “Comfort, O comfort my people” encourages Isaiah 40:1. What was it about them that captured the attention of the people around them? Was there some kind of magnetic quality about them? Was it a fierce or wild look in their eyes? Or were their words from God simply so true in times so desperate that listening to them felt like solid ground in a shifting time?
We know theirs were not the only voices people could listen to. While the prophets were encouraging people to return to God, to care for the vulnerable, to be restored in relationship with one another, there were surely then, as now, competing voices for the people’s attention—voices of power, greed, despair, or complacency that were louder than the prophets’ call. And yet the prophets were heard through the generations.
The words of Isaiah were resonating so powerfully that John the Baptizer picked them up and echoed them centuries later: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” John heeded Isaiah and lived these words, calling those who heard him to repent and to begin anew, to prepare the way. In so doing, he invited more and more people to live Isaiah’s words with him.
Yet John’s voice was not the only one people heard.
Today’s passage from Luke begins with some of the other voices that competed for the attention of the crowds in the region near Judea and Galilee in the first century: Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and others. And yet amid these rulers’ claims to power and voice, people were drawn to John the Baptizer. John, who heard the word of God in the wilderness and went around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John, who answers later in verse 10 when the crowds ask, “What then should we do?” by saying, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” John, who showed them that valleys are filled and the mountains and hills made low when those with plenty share with those in need. They heard something they knew to be true in his words and the crowds flocked to him, hushing as they approached and listening. In his words, they heard restoration, justice, and hope.
But John was not the source of the words. Nor was Isaiah the source of the words. Isaiah and then John were like the ones standing nearby who hear the sound of the speaker’s voice and clap in response. Because of their clapping, more and more people can identify and heed the speaker’s voice. They, too, can join in the clapping to draw attention to the speaker, so that more and more people in turn can hear the words.
The voice to which they draw our attention may not be the loudest in the room, but it is steady. It is persistent. It is the voice of God who continually invites us all to return, to care for the vulnerable, to be in relationship with one another.
After all, prophets’ words are not an end unto themselves; they point us back to God. They show the way when we’ve gotten a little turned around. They draw our attention when we’ve been distracted by the clamoring of other voices.
Prophets tell the truth about things as they are and remind us that there is a better way. Prophets call us to notice where we’ve gotten off the path and call us to return to relationship with God and with one another—to share a coat when we have two, to share food when we have extra. Prophets are channels for the words of God so that we might hear those words, live them, and be channels too.
Like the accessibility demonstrated in John’s travelling prophecy and baptism “business,” the true depiction of the coming of the Lord, based on Isaiah 40, is accessible to everyone. Yes, we are commanded to prepare the way of the Lord, but then the rest of the work of doing so is done by God. Like when God held back the Red Sea so that the Israelites could walk across on dry ground, God is at work to make the path smooth and open to everyone. All of the obstacles to both God’s coming and our going with him once he is here, are being taken care of by his mighty hand.
Getting ourselves ready, making straight the path to our heart, is enough work for us in and of itself. I think that’s why John’s prophecy is paired with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. No matter when or what kind of baptism it was, scripturally, baptism always signifies some sort of washing or cleansing. It also has calling overtones. In fact, it is believed that when John the Baptist led people through the experience of the baptism for repentance, he did so in a way that mimicked the Israelites’ entry into the promised land after their forty years in the wilderness—moving east from the wilderness through the Jordan River into the promised land of Israel on the west bank. Moving east to west is also the general direction of every return home Israel and Judah made from exile.
Re-enacting entering the promised land is to re-orient and re-center one’s self on the purposes of God, which is the second part of repentance. Once we’ve confessed what is not right, the other action that makes up our turning is to commit ourselves to the opposite action—to the way of God. And we do this because we are forgiven. We aren’t trying to earn it or make up for it, but out of the grace of forgiveness that washes over us, we know we can repent without fear and re-commit ourselves to God.
Even this grace-filled cycle speaks to the accessibility work of our amazing God. We know that John is telling the people to prepare for the ministry of Jesus without anyone really knowing who Jesus was or why he mattered so much. But through Jesus’ incarnated life, ministry, and death, Jesus made himself the mediator and the way for us to God. And like the message had meaning for Israel when the prophet spoke them (Isaiah 40) as well as when John spoke them, we know that they hold meaning for us today. Now, they speak of Jesus Christ’s accessibility work for the new heaven and earth. We continue to prepare for his return through repentance and committing ourselves to the way of God marked by baptism, but we do so in trust that God’s promise to eternally establish his kingdom will be done by him; we continue to prepare our hearts to receive his ways so that the turning is a little more natural.
Next week we get to hear the continuation of John the Baptist’s cries from the wilderness. So this week, it is our opportunity to celebrate and rest in what God is and will do. To celebrate the way that God works so that more and more people will come to know him and the truth, and will be enabled to live that truth.
From John being given a word that he then takes on the road so that more people can hear it, to God blowing up mountains and filling in valleys to come and get us, God is doing what needs to be done so that more and more of us will live with him. If we were to look at these two weeks as depicting both sides of the covenant, this week’s emphasis is definitely on God’s side of the commitment. Understanding and sticking with that awareness this week will make the invitations we hear next week all the more rich.
Luke’s gospel is a story about the good news of Jesus. Luke wants us to know that Jesus is the Lord that the prophet Isaiah was talking about when he said, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” And, John, son of Zechariah, is the one preparing Jesus’ way.
John is out there preaching, baptizing, and inviting people to turn their lives around to meet the Lord, who is on his way. The prophet Isaiah paints an amazing picture of how extreme this preparation should be. “Every valley should be filled. Every mountain and hill made low. The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” Any barrier for the Lord should be removed. Jesus’ way is barrier free.
This image is about making it easy for Jesus to get where you are now. This image is not just about little changes. It is about big things, too.
- Every valley, that means even the Grand Canyon.
- Every mountain and hill, that means the Rockies and the Alps and even Mount Everest. Crooked, straight.
Rough, smooth. No twisty-turny roads to get lost on. No bumpy stony roads to stumble on. Easy access. And this access is a two-way street.
If Jesus’ way to us should be made barrier free, then the same goes for our access to Jesus. Nothing should stand in the way of getting to Jesus. John the Baptist’s task, according to Luke, is to preach forgiveness for all who turn to Jesus, no matter where they find themselves in life.
Many things in our lives get in the way of hearing God’s word of forgiveness in Jesus.
- Sometimes it is the voice whispering in our ears, words of unworthiness.
- Perhaps it is the memories of traumatic things which keep us from believing that the way to Jesus’ love is easy.
- Maybe it is teachings we’ve heard which suggest that God’s love is not meant for us because of how we look or who we love.
So we think God’s forgiveness is not meant for us.
Isaiah’s words are about extreme, barrier-free love. That seems too good to be true. God couldn’t possibly love me or him or her or them. Or could God, indeed, love any of us at any time, all the time? How many people do we know who find themselves living in a wilderness of their own making, desperately needing to hear a voice crying out into their wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”? God’s love constantly breaks into the world and Luke points to it. Isaiah points to it. Others around us point to it. We, too, can point to “barrier-free Jesus, for ourselves and for others in the world around us.