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Preparation

Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on December 6 2009.

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-18 

 

            Now that it is December, not only are we anticipating the coming of Christmas, but we are nearing the end of the year as well. And every year we wonder where the time has gone. It seems that just about the time we actually get used to the idea of what year it is, we find it over.

                                                                                   

            You can figure with a great deal of certainty that once Christmas is past the retrospectives will begin. All the media – newspapers, television, the Internet – will begin reminding us of what happened in 2009 that was significant enough for us to remember. A part of that looking back will be the reminder of the famous people who died during the year.

 

            Allow me to remind you of one. Walter Cronkite, the long-time CBS evening news anchor, passed this year at the age of 92. To those of us who grew up with Uncle Walter, it is no surprise that in his prime he was considered to be the most trustworthy person on the planet. If Walter said it, then it must be true. He had a combination of humility and forthrightness that simply made you believe him… and believe in him.

 

            Walter would give it to us straight, and when it was appropriate for us to grieve, as when President Kennedy was assassinated, Walter showed us how to do that, to take off our glasses and wipe our misty eyes… right there in front of all those who were viewing him on television. When it was good for us to celebrate, as when man first walked on the moon, Walter, in his rather understated enthusiasm, gave us permission to jump out of our viewing chairs and express our giddiness for such an unbelievable accomplishment.

 

            Walter Cronkite was one person who was just right for the time in which he lived. I’m not sure he would have survived our current age of 24/7 news that inundates us with a lot of stuff that really isn’t news and that we certainly don’t need. But when the message was limited to a thirty-minute evening time slot, he was the one we wanted to see and hear. He gave it to us straight…

 

            As did John the Baptist, who also was a man of his time. And if you tend to doubt that, then let Luke, the author of our third New Testament gospel, tell you specifically when it was that the Baptist appeared on the scene. Did you notice that? How Luke was so specific about when it was that John arrived?

 

            They didn’t use a dating system back in those days, so Luke didn’t tell us – couldn’t tell us – it was 4 B.C., or somewhere thereabouts, when John first came preaching in the wilderness. No, it was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. And just in case you are a bit fuzzy on when that was, it was when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. You’re not sure when Pilate was in charge? Well, it was in the days when Herod was the ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip was in charge of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias governed Abilene. Tetrarchs is what they were called. Sounds pretty important, doesn’t it? Speaking of importance, just in case you still aren’t clear about all this, Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests, the highest religious office in the land. That’s when it was that John came preaching and baptizing.

 

            If that still doesn’t help you in terms of dating, then you’re on your own. Luke has exhausted all his historical data. He’s conjured up all the names of all the notable people he can think of. He’s got nothing else to offer in that regard.

 

            But as famous as all these people are, Luke wants to talk about John, the son of Zechariah, instead. You see, if you’re looking for the Walter Cronkite of his day, somebody who will give you the straight stuff, you’ve found your man in John the Baptizer. He doesn’t mince his words, nor does he skirt around an issue. Luke tells us he came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That’s hard to do if you can’t convince people they are in need of repenting and are prime candidates for forgiveness. John had a way of doing just that.

 

            Yet, John knew he wasn’t the man. He was simply a forerunner, a messenger, a stage manager, if you will. His job was to prepare people for the One who was to come, who would embody the salvation of God. Still, you simply can’t tell the story of Jesus without first talking about John. And to talk about John is to talk about his message:

 

Prepare God’s arrival!

Make the road smooth and straight!

Every ditch will be filled in,

Every bump smoothed out,

The detours straightened out,

All the ruts paved over

                                                                                    (The Message).

 

            John was aware that when a king traveled in those days he did so with a large entourage. Some of the people in the king’s employ would see to his personal needs. Others acted as front men. They would go to the cities and villages along the route where the king was to travel and let the people know their leader was coming. Not that the people would need to be told what to do, but it was the job of the messengers to tell the people to prepare for the king’s coming.

 

            What do you do when company is coming, especially if company is the king? Everyone gets involved. You spruce up the place and make it look good, and you make his visit as pleasant as possible. One way to do that is to make sure his travels are as easy as possible. John was not employed by AAA, but he knew the townspeople, as a vital part of their preparation, would go out into the surrounding areas from whence the king would come and pick up loose rocks, fill in the potholes, and make the road as smooth as they could. Think of it as the first century equivalent of the Adopt-a-Mile program. Roads were primitive in those days, to say the least, but the people did what they could to accommodate their coming king.

 

            They were grateful to get the word in advance that the king was coming. And maybe that is why so many people heard what John said to them and took it to heart. John wasn’t telling them to get their shovels and rakes. He said they needed to prepare their hearts.

 

            We get a picture, not only in Luke’s gospel but the others too, that John’s preaching was met with a tremendous response. People were walking the aisle and getting baptized to the point that John was finding it difficult to accommodate everybody. He dunked so many folk we can’t help but wonder if he developed back problems.

 

            We’ve heard all this before, you and I, but we don’t respond to John the way they did back when Tiberius was the emperor and Pilate was the governor of Judea and on an on. In fact, we might even resent the fact that John is given so much air space during Advent. We didn’t come here to listen to that crazy evangelist who dressed funny and had the weird diet. After all, he had a way of getting in peoples’ faces and calling them the kinds of names nobody wants to hear. Who wants to put up with that? Especially at Christmas time?

 

            We are told that this is what John told the folks who came to see and hear him, “You brood of vipers!” How’s that for a sermon introduction? How would you like it if your pastor came in here calling you names like that? “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” he demanded. That’s his first sermon point and while there’s a question mark at the end of that sentence, don’t be fooled into thinking it is really a question. No, it’s a demand pure and simple. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he exclaimed. That’s point number two. But he saved his best for the third and final point when he got really personal…

 

            “I’m talking about you!” John said to them loudly as he pointed his bony finger in their faces. “Don’t say to yourselves ‘we’ve got Abraham as our Daddy,’ or ‘my family founded this church,’ or ‘I tithe!’ I tell you, you better turn around, get washed, get right, repent. God can raise up a family out of the stones in this river, if that is what God wants.”1

 

            What John is telling them is they need to prepare. The King is coming, and there isn’t much time. Says it in rather blistering terms, too, doesn’t he?

 

            We do a lot of preparation at this time of year, but is it the right kind? When that newspaper came on Thursday morning a week ago, how many of you went immediately, not to the front page or to the sports, but to the advertising supplements that made the cotton-pickin’ thing weigh about thirty pounds? You were going to get up at 3:00 the next morning, Black Friday we’ve come to call it, and find those bargains! You can’t do that without preparing for it, so you poured over every last item in those circulars. You knew where you wanted to shop and you knew what you were going after… because you had prepared.

 

            We clean the house, haul down all the decorations from last year and maybe add a few new ones just to spice things up a bit. If you’re into that sort of thing, you make out a list of those who will receive your Christmas card, complete with the form letter informing all your friends and family of what happened to you and yours during this past year. There’s a lot of work, a bit of expense, to say the least, and a great deal of preparation involved in this busy, busy season.

 

            But that isn’t what John is talking about, is it? When he tells us to prepare, it has nothing to do with early morning sales or decorations for the house or the other things we think about this time of year. No, he wants us to look into our hearts. He wants us to repent of that which we have done wrong and make sure we are ready when the King comes to pay a visit.

 

            And that’s fine with us… the King coming to visit, that is. After all, as the song goes, we want to see Jesus. That’s what this season is all about, right? Well, consider this: all four of the New Testament gospels – all four! – begin by telling us first about John the Baptist before they ever get to Jesus. So there must be something about him that deserves our attention, don’t you think? If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John think the baptizer is that important, then we better listen to him, right?

 

            Well, here is what he has to say. No, before we go there, let’s consider to whom he wants to say it. His first congregation was composed largely of the contented, self-satisfied religious folk who went to church every week, gave their tithe, prayed daily, and did everything they thought was required of those who would go to heaven. And it was to these people that John said, “Change! Change! Turn around (which is the literal meaning of repentance), don’t expect your religious affiliation to be enough to put you in favor with God.”

 

            If John had these folk as his audience, then could it be possible that what he had to say is a message for us as well? If you’ve come to worship this morning feeling you’ve done nothing worthy of repentance, then John might just have a message for you.

 

            It is the season of preparation, and it begins not in the usual places but in the heart. Did you hear this morning’s gospel reading from The Message? The Baptist is speaking of Jesus when he says, “He’s going to clean house – make a clean sweep of your lives.” So the next time you take up a broom to clean your home in preparation for Christmas, remember John, will you? “Come clean and come empty”2 when it is time to meet your King, and recognize there may just be a few cobwebs in your soul. It’s cleaning time, time to get ready for the coming of the King, and the best preparation begins inside, right here (the heart).  How will you respond?

 

 

            Lord, show us your way and help us prepare for the coming of our King. Enable us to reject our self-sufficiency and depend on your for what we need as we seek to follow our Christ… in whose name we pray, Amen.

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-18 

 

            Now that it is December, not only are we anticipating the coming of Christmas, but we are nearing the end of the year as well. And every year we wonder where the time has gone. It seems that just about the time we actually get used to the idea of what year it is, we find it over.

                                                                                   

            You can figure with a great deal of certainty that once Christmas is past the retrospectives will begin. All the media – newspapers, television, the Internet – will begin reminding us of what happened in 2009 that was significant enough for us to remember. A part of that looking back will be the reminder of the famous people who died during the year.

 

            Allow me to remind you of one. Walter Cronkite, the long-time CBS evening news anchor, passed this year at the age of 92. To those of us who grew up with Uncle Walter, it is no surprise that in his prime he was considered to be the most trustworthy person on the planet. If Walter said it, then it must be true. He had a combination of humility and forthrightness that simply made you believe him… and believe in him.

 

            Walter would give it to us straight, and when it was appropriate for us to grieve, as when President Kennedy was assassinated, Walter showed us how to do that, to take off our glasses and wipe our misty eyes… right there in front of all those who were viewing him on television. When it was good for us to celebrate, as when man first walked on the moon, Walter, in his rather understated enthusiasm, gave us permission to jump out of our viewing chairs and express our giddiness for such an unbelievable accomplishment.

 

            Walter Cronkite was one person who was just right for the time in which he lived. I’m not sure he would have survived our current age of 24/7 news that inundates us with a lot of stuff that really isn’t news and that we certainly don’t need. But when the message was limited to a thirty-minute evening time slot, he was the one we wanted to see and hear. He gave it to us straight…

 

            As did John the Baptist, who also was a man of his time. And if you tend to doubt that, then let Luke, the author of our third New Testament gospel, tell you specifically when it was that the Baptist appeared on the scene. Did you notice that? How Luke was so specific about when it was that John arrived?

 

            They didn’t use a dating system back in those days, so Luke didn’t tell us – couldn’t tell us – it was 4 B.C., or somewhere thereabouts, when John first came preaching in the wilderness. No, it was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. And just in case you are a bit fuzzy on when that was, it was when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. You’re not sure when Pilate was in charge? Well, it was in the days when Herod was the ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip was in charge of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias governed Abilene. Tetrarchs is what they were called. Sounds pretty important, doesn’t it? Speaking of importance, just in case you still aren’t clear about all this, Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests, the highest religious office in the land. That’s when it was that John came preaching and baptizing.

 

            If that still doesn’t help you in terms of dating, then you’re on your own. Luke has exhausted all his historical data. He’s conjured up all the names of all the notable people he can think of. He’s got nothing else to offer in that regard.

 

            But as famous as all these people are, Luke wants to talk about John, the son of Zechariah, instead. You see, if you’re looking for the Walter Cronkite of his day, somebody who will give you the straight stuff, you’ve found your man in John the Baptizer. He doesn’t mince his words, nor does he skirt around an issue. Luke tells us he came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That’s hard to do if you can’t convince people they are in need of repenting and are prime candidates for forgiveness. John had a way of doing just that.

 

            Yet, John knew he wasn’t the man. He was simply a forerunner, a messenger, a stage manager, if you will. His job was to prepare people for the One who was to come, who would embody the salvation of God. Still, you simply can’t tell the story of Jesus without first talking about John. And to talk about John is to talk about his message:

 

Prepare God’s arrival!

Make the road smooth and straight!

Every ditch will be filled in,

Every bump smoothed out,

The detours straightened out,

All the ruts paved over

                                                                                    (The Message).

 

            John was aware that when a king traveled in those days he did so with a large entourage. Some of the people in the king’s employ would see to his personal needs. Others acted as front men. They would go to the cities and villages along the route where the king was to travel and let the people know their leader was coming. Not that the people would need to be told what to do, but it was the job of the messengers to tell the people to prepare for the king’s coming.

 

            What do you do when company is coming, especially if company is the king? Everyone gets involved. You spruce up the place and make it look good, and you make his visit as pleasant as possible. One way to do that is to make sure his travels are as easy as possible. John was not employed by AAA, but he knew the townspeople, as a vital part of their preparation, would go out into the surrounding areas from whence the king would come and pick up loose rocks, fill in the potholes, and make the road as smooth as they could. Think of it as the first century equivalent of the Adopt-a-Mile program. Roads were primitive in those days, to say the least, but the people did what they could to accommodate their coming king.

 

            They were grateful to get the word in advance that the king was coming. And maybe that is why so many people heard what John said to them and took it to heart. John wasn’t telling them to get their shovels and rakes. He said they needed to prepare their hearts.

 

            We get a picture, not only in Luke’s gospel but the others too, that John’s preaching was met with a tremendous response. People were walking the aisle and getting baptized to the point that John was finding it difficult to accommodate everybody. He dunked so many folk we can’t help but wonder if he developed back problems.

 

            We’ve heard all this before, you and I, but we don’t respond to John the way they did back when Tiberius was the emperor and Pilate was the governor of Judea and on an on. In fact, we might even resent the fact that John is given so much air space during Advent. We didn’t come here to listen to that crazy evangelist who dressed funny and had the weird diet. After all, he had a way of getting in peoples’ faces and calling them the kinds of names nobody wants to hear. Who wants to put up with that? Especially at Christmas time?

 

            We are told that this is what John told the folks who came to see and hear him, “You brood of vipers!” How’s that for a sermon introduction? How would you like it if your pastor came in here calling you names like that? “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” he demanded. That’s his first sermon point and while there’s a question mark at the end of that sentence, don’t be fooled into thinking it is really a question. No, it’s a demand pure and simple. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he exclaimed. That’s point number two. But he saved his best for the third and final point when he got really personal…

 

            “I’m talking about you!” John said to them loudly as he pointed his bony finger in their faces. “Don’t say to yourselves ‘we’ve got Abraham as our Daddy,’ or ‘my family founded this church,’ or ‘I tithe!’ I tell you, you better turn around, get washed, get right, repent. God can raise up a family out of the stones in this river, if that is what God wants.”1

 

            What John is telling them is they need to prepare. The King is coming, and there isn’t much time. Says it in rather blistering terms, too, doesn’t he?

 

            We do a lot of preparation at this time of year, but is it the right kind? When that newspaper came on Thursday morning a week ago, how many of you went immediately, not to the front page or to the sports, but to the advertising supplements that made the cotton-pickin’ thing weigh about thirty pounds? You were going to get up at 3:00 the next morning, Black Friday we’ve come to call it, and find those bargains! You can’t do that without preparing for it, so you poured over every last item in those circulars. You knew where you wanted to shop and you knew what you were going after… because you had prepared.

 

            We clean the house, haul down all the decorations from last year and maybe add a few new ones just to spice things up a bit. If you’re into that sort of thing, you make out a list of those who will receive your Christmas card, complete with the form letter informing all your friends and family of what happened to you and yours during this past year. There’s a lot of work, a bit of expense, to say the least, and a great deal of preparation involved in this busy, busy season.

 

            But that isn’t what John is talking about, is it? When he tells us to prepare, it has nothing to do with early morning sales or decorations for the house or the other things we think about this time of year. No, he wants us to look into our hearts. He wants us to repent of that which we have done wrong and make sure we are ready when the King comes to pay a visit.

 

            And that’s fine with us… the King coming to visit, that is. After all, as the song goes, we want to see Jesus. That’s what this season is all about, right? Well, consider this: all four of the New Testament gospels – all four! – begin by telling us first about John the Baptist before they ever get to Jesus. So there must be something about him that deserves our attention, don’t you think? If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John think the baptizer is that important, then we better listen to him, right?

 

            Well, here is what he has to say. No, before we go there, let’s consider to whom he wants to say it. His first congregation was composed largely of the contented, self-satisfied religious folk who went to church every week, gave their tithe, prayed daily, and did everything they thought was required of those who would go to heaven. And it was to these people that John said, “Change! Change! Turn around (which is the literal meaning of repentance), don’t expect your religious affiliation to be enough to put you in favor with God.”

 

            If John had these folk as his audience, then could it be possible that what he had to say is a message for us as well? If you’ve come to worship this morning feeling you’ve done nothing worthy of repentance, then John might just have a message for you.

 

            It is the season of preparation, and it begins not in the usual places but in the heart. Did you hear this morning’s gospel reading from The Message? The Baptist is speaking of Jesus when he says, “He’s going to clean house – make a clean sweep of your lives.” So the next time you take up a broom to clean your home in preparation for Christmas, remember John, will you? “Come clean and come empty”2 when it is time to meet your King, and recognize there may just be a few cobwebs in your soul. It’s cleaning time, time to get ready for the coming of the King, and the best preparation begins inside, right here (the heart).  How will you respond?

 

 

            Lord, show us your way and help us prepare for the coming of our King. Enable us to reject our self-sufficiency and depend on your for what we need as we seek to follow our Christ… in whose name we pray, Amen.