I preached this sermon in Dawson Creek, BC on November 21, 2010.
PREPARING THE WAY FOR THE LORD
A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, To give knowledge of salvation to His people in the remission of their sins.” (Luke 1:76-77)
When John the Baptist was born, his father Zacharias prophesied that the child would “go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways.” In every gospel, John is said to fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.” Three months before the Lord was born into the world, John was born to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth; and before the Lord began his ministry, John went before Him to prepare His way. The children of Israel had to be prepared before they could accept the Lord – and in the same way, we have to prepare ourselves for the Lord to be born into our hearts, as He was born into the world at His first advent.
The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that John would go before the Lord in the “spirit and power of Elijah.” Elijah was the greatest prophet of Israel, and like all the prophets, he represented the Lord’s Word – he told the people what the Lord’s will was. John, too, was a prophet, and so he also represented the Word. Like Elijah, John clothed himself in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. The people of Israel would have recognized this clothing as the sign of a prophet: Elijah had worn similar clothing, and the book of Zechariah speaks of false prophets who wore garments of hair to deceive people into thinking they were true prophets. In all of these cases, the garment of hair represents the power of the literal sense of the Word. Thus, John represented the Word, and especially the literal sense of the Word.
But why did John have to come as a representative of the Word, when the Lord, who was the Word itself made flesh, was about to come? One of the primary reasons that John had to come before the Lord was that if he had not come, the children of Israel would not have been able to withstand the presence of the Lord Himself among them. In the prophecy we read from Malachi this morning, the Lord said that one would come “to turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.” The angel Gabriel revealed to Zacharias that John was the one who would fulfill this prophecy. And if John had not come, the children of Israel would literally have been cursed – diseases would have broken out – when the Lord came to them.
The book True Christian Religion says,
John made ready the way [of the Lord] by baptism, and by announcing the coming of the Lord. Without such preparation all on earth would have been smitten with a curse and would have perished. (TCR 698)
The passage we read from True Christian Religion this morning explains how John’s preparation kept the people from being cursed – it associated them with angels from heaven who could protect them from the evil spirits who would kill them. Whenever the Lord draws close to a person, the evil spirits are stirred up in reaction – and so when the Lord came into the world, the evil spirits who were present with people at that time were stirred up. Their power at that time was so great that if the people had not been first prepared, the evil spirits could literally have killed them. But when a person is baptized, the symbolic act actually brings a person into connection with certain angels – and John’s baptism brought people into connection with angels who could protect them against the forces of hell.
But it was not just John’s baptism that served to prepare the way of the Lord. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias in the temple, he told him that his son would “turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” John would teach the people to turn away from evil. And so besides baptism, the primary way that John prepared people was by preaching repentance. The waters of baptisms represented a washing away of sin; but our evil habits and desires are not actually washed away by the water of baptism. The deeper way that we prepare for the Lord is shunning evils as sins.
A passage in the book True Christian Religion says, “Repentance is the first thing of the church in a person.” (TCR 510) What is repentance? Repentance is more than simply feeling bad about the things we have done wrong. Another passage in True Christian Religion says, “The question therefore is, How ought a person to repent? And the reply is, Actually; that is to say, he must examine himself, recognize and acknowledge his sins, pray to the Lord, and begin a new life.” (TCR 530) Repentance means not only feeling sorry, but also making a commitment to change our lives.
So John’s primary teaching was a teaching of repentance, and the first step we take in our spiritual lives is to flee from evils as sins, or in other words, to shun them. There was a very specific purpose behind John’s teaching of repentance. Several times the gospels tell us that John was preaching repentance for the remission of sins. Often this is translated as, “the forgiveness of sins”; but the word used actually means a “taking away” of sin. When we fight against our inclinations toward hurting other people, toward selfishness, we gradually create new habits of serving others, of kindness. Our desire to do harmful things lessens. That’s what it means to have our sins “remitted” or “taken away.”
Now, the word “repentance” can sound very weighty. The idea of battling against evils can sound intimidating. But what we are talking about is a very down to earth, everyday thing. John was not asking impossible things of the people. When the tax collectors asked him what they should do, he simply told them not to collect more than they were due. When the soldiers asked him what they should do, he told them that they should not intimidate anyone or accuse them falsely, and that they should be content with their wages. Repenting of evils means looking for the everyday things that we might do that are contrary to the Lord’s commandments – tearing people down behind their backs, for example. We can get into habits of hurting other people in little ways – sometimes just in the way we talk to someone who has done something that frustrates us. Repentance means noticing that we do those things, praying to the Lord to help us stop, and making a conscious effort to break those habits. When those evil habits are broken, that is the remission of sins.
And in the remission of sins, we get a glimpse of heaven. We’re able to feel love and peace in ways that we were not able to before. In our reading from Luke this morning, we read Zacharias’s prophecy – and in this prophecy, Zacharias declared that John would “give knowledge of salvation to [the Lord’s] people in the remission of their sins.” In being freed from their sins, the people that John baptized would taste the Lord’s salvation – they would know salvation, not just in the sense of knowing about it, but in the sense of experiencing it. In the same way, when the Lord puts our sins off to the sides, we experience a taste of salvation. That is the effect of repentance.
But a question arises: if John was baptizing for the remission of sins, why did the Lord need to come after him? Why did those who were baptized by John need to be baptized again into the name of the Lord Jesus Christ? The passage we read from True Christian Religion this morning answers this question. That passage said, “The baptism of John represented the cleansing of the external man; while the baptism of Christians at the present day represents the cleansing of the internal man, which is regeneration.” The same passage goes on to say that those who were baptized by John became internal people when they received the faith of Christ. This is important for us to keep in mind – John, who represents the Word, prepares the way for the Lord – but the end in view, the purpose of it all, is that the Lord may be born into our lives with His love and His wisdom.
When we first start to repent of the sins we see in ourselves, it is often for worldly, external reasons. We don’t want people to think badly of us; we want to get along with people; we’re afraid that we’ll get in trouble if we do not. This is good, and it is important for our development. The book Heaven and Hell says, “For everyone from his childhood is initiated into a moral and civil life, and learns what it is by living in the world. Moreover, everyone, whether evil or good, lives that life; for who does not wish to be called honest, and who does not wish to be called just” (HH 530). Living a life in accordance with the laws of morality – rejecting the evils of stealing, murder, theft, dishonesty – begins as an external thing. But this external life prepares us to receive spiritual life. The passage in Heaven and Hell continues:
The spiritual person ought to live in a similar manner, and can do so as easily as the natural person, with this difference only, that the spiritual person believes in the Divine, and acts honestly and justly, not solely because to so act is in accord with civil and moral laws, but also because it is in accord with Divine laws.
The difference between an external repentance and an internal one is that one comes from external things – from fear, from desire for reputation – but the other comes from a desire to follow the Lord, to live in accordance with Divine laws.
As we saw before, John represented the literal sense of the Word. The repentance of John was a repentance in following the literal sense of the Word. This kind of repentance is a step beyond repenting simply for worldly reasons – but even this kind of repentance is relatively external when we first begin to do it. We follow the literal commandments of the Word because we are afraid of going to hell, or because we want to earn heaven as a reward. John asked the people who came to be baptized, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It was in some ways baptism for a repentance that came from fear, which is an external thing.
This is not to say that simply obeying the literal sense of the Word is a bad thing. Not at all. In fact, it is absolutely necessary – John had to precede the Lord. But we should always keep in mind the purpose of repentance – we’re repenting so that the Lord can be born into our lives.
When we follow the literal sense of the Word partially for external reasons, it is like we are undergoing the baptism of John. But when we do this, a wonderful thing happens. When we are striving to put away evil and to do good, we are able to recognize the Lord when He comes into our lives. The gospel of John says, “He who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.” Those who do the truth are able to embrace the Lord when they see Him. When Mary came to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the babe leaped in Elizabeth’s womb. John’s leaping in the womb represents the joy that comes when a person who is living by the truth feels goodness and love flowing into them and recognizes that this is from the Lord. Something in John leaped for joy at the presence of the Lord in Mary’s womb. When we are living by the basic external truths of the Word, which John represents, and suddenly we feel the Lord in our lives or in His word in a much deeper way, there is a feeling of joy. We realize that the external actions are there to contain something internal.
And what is that internal thing that they contain? The passage we read from True Christian Religion said that those who repented according to John’s words were not able to become internal until they received faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, God shows us who He is. If we do not know the Lord, we feel as if our will to repent comes from ourselves. We take credit for resisting the evils in our lives, and we can look down on other people.
But when we acknowledge the Lord, the case is entirely different. We begin to recognize that none of the power we have to resist evil comes from ourselves – we can’t do it on our own. When we know the Lord, we know that He is an infinitely loving, Human God who wants nothing more than to conjoin people to Himself in heaven to give them happiness. We know that he gives us the opportunity to be vessels for that love for the human race. We know that he gives us the will to resist evils not so that we can feel superior, but because evils are impediments to His love acting in us and through us.
True Christian Religion says, “A person should shun evils as sins, and fight against them as if of himself. If anyone shuns evils for any other reason than because they are sins, he is not shunning them, but merely ensuring that they are not visible to the eyes of the world.” To shun evils as sins means to shun them because they destroy our ability to act from the Lord. And as we shun evil loves, good loves replace them. That’s why Zacharias prophesied that John would give knowledge of salvation in or by the remission of sins. In the remission or taking away of sins by external resistance, we make a way for the Lord to flow in. John’s preaching of repentance opened people up to loving the Lord when they saw Him. Just as John told people that the Lord was the Christ, our efforts towards shunning evil allow us to see that the Lord Jesus Christ is God. When we see the Lord, we rejoice – because in Him we see God Himself, the source of all our love, as a real person, a Divine Human God. With His aid, we are able to come into true love for our neighbor – out of darkness and into light. “The people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, Upon them a light has shined.”
Lessons: Malachi 4; Luke 1:68-80; TCR 689-690
TCR 689. The way was prepared [for Jehovah the Lord to descend into the world and accomplish redemption] by the baptism of John, because by means of that baptism … people were introduced into the future church of the Lord, and in heaven were inserted among those who were there looking for and longing for the Messiah; and they were thus guarded by angels, that devils from hell might not break forth and destroy them. … From all this it is clear that unless a way had been made ready for Jehovah when He was descending into the world, by means of baptism, the effect of which in heaven was to close up the hells and guard the Jews against total destruction [they would all have been struck by a curse and perished].
TCR 690. As to the baptism of John; it represented this cleansing of the external man; while the baptism of Christians at the present day represents the cleansing of the internal man, which is regeneration. It is therefore written that John baptized with water, but that the Lord baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and therefore John’s baptism is called the baptism of repentance. The Jews who were baptized were merely external men, and without faith in Christ the external man cannot become internal. Those who were baptized with the baptism of John, became internal men when they received the faith in Christ, and were then baptized in the name of Jesus.