Preparing the way
We all know the story of the man who, when questioned as to whether he was a regular churchgoer replied ‘ Yes, I go once a year at Christmas.’
We can be a bit cynical about all this, but once a year is better than never coming at all, and who knows what God might do with this once-a-year opportunity?
An opportunity for many people to hear the life changing news of the Gospel.
And an opportunity for US to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus.
Preparing the way.
Our two set readings today give us, I believe, three key secrets as to how we might prepare the way for Jesus to come, to come to us, and to come to others. Both Luke and Paul, in their own way, did just that.
First, the Desert.
Luke introduces us to John the Baptist with the words’ The word of the Lord came to John the Baptist in the desert. ‘
The desert, a place where there is seemingly no life, all is arid, barren, dried up.
But it is there that God speaks to John.
It was in the desert that God spoke to Moses when Moses had given up on God.
It was in the desert that God spoke to Elijah when he had given up on trying to serve God.
And the so-called desert experience comes in many forms.
Exhaustion, not least from Covid and Lockdown.
Domestic and family breakdown.
Times we all have had of spiritual dryness, doubt, questioning.
And yet it is precisely in those times that God speaks. God is there in the desert with us.
We catch a sight of the burning bush; we hear that still, small voice ‘ What are you doing here, Elijah?’
Luke first heard the voice of God through the preaching of Paul, probably in Antioch. Was he, a doctor, having a desert experience at that time? Had he given up on the Roman gods? Had he come to the end of himself as a GP? We don’t know, but we do know that he heard God speak.
The young Saul of Tarsus went into the desert of Arabia immediately after his conversion on the Damascus, and it was there that he received his call from God to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. And it was a few years later that, when he and his companions could not seem to find the way ahead, when every opportunity to spread the Gospel came to nothing and they were having, if you like, a desert experience, that, in the night, Paul had a vision. A man from Macedonia appears and Calle him ‘ Come over, cross the sea, come over and help us ‘. God spoke, and they came to Philippi.
Advent is a time for each one of us to retreat into the desert to hear God speak to us. Preparing the way for his coming begins there. Just as Jesus was led (driven, according to Mark’s account) into the desert before he could begin his ministry, so must we.
The second secret that Luke and Paul share with us about preparing the way for the coming of Jesus is Confidence.
I have often thought that the Christian Faith is like a classical pediment standing on two very solid pillars. One pillar is the objective evidence for the truth of Christianity.
The other pillar is the subjective experience of the Holy Spirit within every believer.
(a) The objective evidence.
Luke is very strong on the objective evidence of the truth of the Gospel. Read Ch 1: 1-3.
And here in chapter three Luke firmly and confidentially puts John the Baptist in his historical context.
He has no less than 6 contemporary datings:
Anna’s and Caiaphas
And Luke has been shown to be thoroughly trustworthy diarist and historian.
After his conversion Luke joined Paul on his travels and landed up in Palestine for 18 months while Paul was in prison in Caesarea. During those 18 months scholars agree that he would have met and heard the many accounts of the ministry of Jesus. He would have met Mary and heard about the birth of Jesus, the shepherds and so on; he recorded her great song, the Magnificat – Tell out my soul; he would have met the disciples, heard their stories, perhaps met people like Zacchaeus first hand and so on.
We have all had our doubts of course. But examining the evidence can help us through those.
I myself went through a period of double during my first curacy on a council house estate in Chatham. It was all to do with the problem of suffering. When I saw a man dying in great pain from bone cancer and when I visited a young couple with a thalidomide baby without his arms. I asked myself if, after all, my experience of God was all make believe, auto suggestion. So I decided to take a deeper look that ever before onto the trustworthiness of the Gospels. I came away convinced that the objective evidence for the truth of Christianity was solid.
Today many people put Jesus, especially at this time of Christmas and all those lovely nativity plays, on the same level as Father Christmas…a lovely rather quaint fable. No!
Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, fails utterly to examine the historical evidence for the truth of Christianity. We can have total confidence in its historical reliability..
(b) The subjective experience.
Luke clearly came to experience the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. He writes a two-volume work: the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. No one could possibly have done this without first of all experiencing deep within themselves the reality of the indwelling Jesus.
Francis Bacon wrote: ‘ A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit’. That’s Luke and his two books. In those books Luke has given himself to countless, nay millions of others.
And of course, Paul was a man inspired and impelled by that same Holy Spirit. And, again and again, he witnessed that power in others.
So when he reaches Philippi he and his friends go to a place of prayer where he preaches the good news to s group of worshippers. They are spiritual people, reaching out somehow to ultimate realities. As Paul tells them about Jesus Luke, who was there at the time, tells us that ‘ the Lord opened the heart ‘ of Lydia, a local business woman. She experiences Jesus coming to dwell within. She is changed. She becomes part of that growing number people who, as we have heard, had their lives transformed by the Holy Spirit.
And so, in his letter to them, written later from prison in Rome, Paul writes that he is confident that ‘ He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion…’
Whenever you and I seek, in some way, to prepare the way for Jesus to come into people’s lives, we can be utterly confident that the Holy Spirit is doing something…that He is at work.
And so, what is the greatest gift you and I can give to others? It is ourselves! Ourselves, filled every day with the Holy Spirit. Obeying his promptings. And leaving the rest to Him.
So to the third secret that Luke and Paul pass on to us.
It’s the value, the importance, the significance of the of the individual.
As a doctor, Luke would have valued and given huge importance to each individual who came to him.
So, in his Gospel he does the same.
Of all the Gospel writers, only Luke tells the stories of the fido of Nain, and of Zacchaeus.
Only Luke tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, the only one who crossed over to have compassion.
Only Luke tells the parables of the Lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son.
Only Luke tells us about the one Samaritan leper who gives thanks for his healing.
Only Luke tells us about the penitent thief on the cross.
And Paul, too, as it were, stood back and watched individuals out of crowds respond to the Gospel. In Philippi it was first Lydia, then a slave girl and then the jailer. From that tiny group of individuals a church was formed.
Three secrets passed down to us about preparing the way for Jesus to come.
Confidence in our message.
The value of the individual.
In it all, God.