“Prepare… with John” – Luke 3:1-16
1.Unprepared for bullies
Nadin Khoury was thirteen years old, five foot two and weighed – soaking wet – one-hundred pounds. Nadin and his family escaped war-torn Liberia. Once in America, his family settled in Philadelphia. In 2011, Nadin Khoury was a new kid in Philly with a single mom who was an African immigrant looking for work. That’s the kind of kid bullies spot from a million miles away. One day, for thirty minutes, seven teenage bullies kicked and beat Nadin, dragged him through the snow, stuffed him into a tree, and hung him by his jacket on a seven-foot spiked fence post.
Nothing, NOTHING could have prepared young Nadin for something like that. War in Liberia… yes, you might expect him to be familiar with soldiers and guns and violence and to hide and escape with his family from that bloodshed. But not a personal beating and humiliation from your classmates on your way home from school – not in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Nadin survived the attack, and would have faced another one, if it hadn’t been for the folly of one of the bullies. He filmed it all and posted it on YouTube. Police saw it and threw the bullies behind bars.
A worker at the nationwide morning show heard about it and invited Nadin to appear on the broadcast. Unknown to Nadin, the producer had also invited three members of the Philadelphia Eagles football team to appear on the show.
One was All-Pro wide-receiver DeSean Jackson. Jackson said, “Nadin, I’m here for you, man, anytime you need me.” Then, in full view of every bully in Philly, DeSean Jackson gave Nadin Khoury his cell phone number. Bullies think twice before they harass a kid who has an NFL player’s number on speed dial. Now, Nadin would be prepared for the bullies to come!!
2. Prepare (for bullies)… with John
We all have our fair share of bullies – bullies at school, bullies at work, bullies in the family. Sin and shame, guilt and blame are also bullies. The biggest bully on the block, however, is a liar and the father of lies. We know him as the devil and Satan. Satan hits us with his lies and rubs our face in the dirt. He wants to destroy us. So we run. And we run some more. Then we keep on running. That’s why God sent a man named John – John the Baptist.
a) The setting
In his first two verses of chapter three, Luke provides the setting for the sending of John the Baptist – answering the questions: when? who? and where? “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
When? The Word of God came to John in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar – that is 29 AD.
Who? Luke also tells us that John is the “son of Zechariah,” thus reminding us of God’s amazing intervention that led Zechariah and Elizabeth – too old to have children – to have their miracle son named John. (We will hear from Zechariah and Elizabeth on the next two Sundays.)
Where? John’s birth is foretold and also told in Luke 1, and by the end of Luke 1 John is already a young man in the wilderness, waiting for his public appearance to Israel. Now, at the beginning of Luke 3, John is still in the wilderness, but the waiting is over. John’s ministry is set to begin. And his ministry is for people frantically on the run from bullies.
This isn’t identified in Luke 3, but we can ask… who were the bullies? The Romans who exerted military power and authority over the little Jewish nation of Israel. The religious leaders who exerted threats of God’s wrath for those who didn’t follow God’s laws perfectly. Even pride was a bully – “Oh,” the Jewish people would say, “we have Abraham as our father.” Yes, they rested on their religious laurels, the fact that they were God’s chosen people from ancient times. But for them, too, the biggest bully on the block was Satan, the father of lies who rubbed their own religion in their faces, and who rubbed their failures in their consciences, and who rubbed their dashed long-awaited hopes of a Messiah into their hearts. Besides that, the Romans occupied their God-given land.
b) The salvation
But then comes John’s message, which was really the prophet Isaiah’s message centuries before: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Although it sounds like construction work for the building of a new road for that Lord to travel on – like a coming king – it is really a call for a change of heart – that’s what repentance is – and a commitment to holy living. To the people who had gathered around him in the region around the Jordan River, John cried out, “Prepare the way for the Lord to come into your heart. Repent of the ways that you have disobeyed God, and then live lives that show that you are genuinely repentant.” And the people got it. They asked John what they should do, and he gave them practical examples – based on their station in life – of how to bear the fruits of repentance: share your extra tunic, don’t collect extra taxes, don’t accuse people falsely.
But the real heart of his message, the heart of preparation, is the end result: “All flesh shall see the salvation of our God.” This is great news! “ALL FLESH shall see the salvation of our God.” This means that salvation is for all people – even people who feel as though they are running for their lives. People running from problems that no one else understands. People running from bad relationships, bad feelings and bad breaks. People running from a painful past; a perplexing present; and an unwelcome future that looks like a train wreck waiting to happen. For such people there is salvation!
“All flesh shall see the salvation of our God.” The shepherds in the Christmas story see the salvation of God – that’s why they went to Bethlehem. After Jesus’ birth, the aged Simeon says, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” During Jesus’ public ministry, fishermen, foreigners and sinners see God’s salvation. And from a sycamore tree even height-challenged tax-collector Zacchaeus sees the salvation of our God. The angel puts it this way on that first Christmas, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today a Saviour has been born to you!”
When the liar is rubbing my face in my sin and shame, guilt and blame, too often I run to all the wrong places. It’s easy to look to other people. And my job. And my accomplishments. And my money. And my vacations. And my stuff. These are good gifts. These are grand gifts. But these are not my salvation. There is only one salvation that can defeat devils, demons and darkness. But watch out!
We can all be self-deceived. The God-chosen Israelites were deceived. John advised them: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” The Pharisees and Sadducees missed God’s salvation because of their pride. They believed that – by virtue of their Jewishness – they were guaranteed a place in the covenant. “We have Abraham as our father.” Have you ever had that kind of attitude? I’ve been a church-goer all my life so I’m going to heaven. I’ve worked hard for the Kingdom of God so I’m going to heaven. Don’t be deceived. Those things don’t get you into heaven.
John says that we are saved, not by grace, but by God’s grace – God’s amazing and life-changing and full and free grace! Grace, John says, comes through repentance and baptism, in which our roles are completely passive as we surrender to God’s love, distance ourselves from our past ways of sin, and profess our allegiance to the coming one – Jesus. “Prepare” is John’s message. “Prepare” is Advent’s message. Prepare for the Saviour to come by checking your prideful attitude at the door, by thoroughly examining your lives, and by genuinely confessing your sins. Don’t let the liar, the bully hold your sins and guilt over you, dragging you morally through the snow and suspending you on a 7-foot fence spike to be ridiculed and condemned as a failure. Prepare, be ready for those assaults and attacks.
3. Jesus: hero, rescuer, Saviour
You do that by having your hero, your rescuer, your Saviour on speed dial. Jesus, is that Savior. “As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’” John is not the Christ – the anointed Davidic deliverer and king. John is the proclaimer, the pointer, the preparer. Jesus is the one who has the power!
And Jesus comes to fight the bullies on our behalf! That’s what Luke chapter 4 is all about! Jesus meets the bully – the devil – in the wilderness and is Himself tempted by the devil, but three times Jesus defeats him with the thunderous words and truth, “It is written!”
Throughout Luke’s gospel Jesus casts out devils and demons. Jesus binds the strong man, the enemy, the spiritual Goliath. Jesus announces the salvation of our God, the Kingdom of our God!
Oh, did you pay attention to how young David, in the Old Testament reading, prepared for his battle against the Philistine giant Goliath? King Saul wanted to prepare him for what was sure to be a military mismatch by equipping him with Saul’s own coat of armor, helmet and sword. But David took them off for he recognized that they were too big, they would be more of a hindrance than a help, and that he wasn’t used to them. Instead, he prepared by picking up five smooth stones from a stream – ammunition for his sling. Oh, and he also prepared by taking a healthy dose of faith in his all-powerful God. He said to Saul, “The Lord… will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” To Goliath he said, “I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty… this day the Lord will hand you over to me… and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel… for the battle is the Lord’s.” Like young Nadin had DeSean Jackson on speed dial, David had his God on speed dial – especially for a battle like this one.
4. Prepare: call on Jesus!
That’s what John the Baptist and this season of Advent encourage us to do – prepare! Prepare the way for the Lord! In the same way as DeSean Jackson was Nadin’s hero, in the same way as David was Israel’s hero, Jesus is our hero, our rescuer, our Saviour. Jesus fights the bully Satan for… our health and for our family. Jesus fights for our forgiveness, for our salvation and for our restoration. And Jesus fights for our final resurrection.
Do you feel like the odds of life are against you right now? Is the coach against you? Is the boss against you? Is your health against you? Are your emotions and discouragement against you? Does it seem as though everything is against you? These times are difficult, for sure. But Jesus fights for…
You. Yes, you. You with the broken past. You with the aging body. You with the absentee father. You with the lost job. You with the bad back, the bad credit score and the bad grade. Jesus fights for the “yous” of the world. Are you a you? Then Jesus fights Satan for you. Jesus defeats Satan for you. And the day is coming when Jesus will conclusively destroy Satan for you – once and for all. Jesus even gives you his number on speed dial. And what would that be? 1-800-B-I-B-L-E. Bible! All the help you need is in the Bible – in the stories, in the promises, in the encouragement, in the truth. Or maybe 1-800-P-R-A-Y-E-R. God invites in Psalm 50 – “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you.” You prepare for life, you prepare for attacks from bullies by being connected to Jesus, by calling upon Jesus, by holding on to Jesus.
Reed Lessing is a runner – you know, somebody who prepares for marathons. He runs a lot. He used to have a cute beagle dog, named Howard. And Howard could run, too. Man, could Howard run! Reed would take Howard running with him, and Howard could put in eight miles like nobody’s business!
Problem. Sometimes Howard would run away. One summer day, Howard was running away, again! Reed caught up with him, within ten feet of that dog. Howard stopped dead in his tracks. They looked at each other straight in the eye. Howard had a choice. He could either listen to Reed or take off running. What did Howard do? You guessed it. Howard took off running, again, because Reed was after him!
So do you. So do I. We all run. And we run some more. And then we keep on running. Because he’s after us. “He?” You know. The bully on the block – the father of lies, the devil himself trying to, again, rub our face in the dirt, the snow, and hang us up on that spike to ridicule and condemn us. But we don’t have to keep running through life. Why is that?
God sent a man named John – John the Baptist. God sent him to prepare us for this Advent season, to prepare us for the Lord. The setting? 29 A.D., in the wilderness, and also 2020, here… wherever you live. The salvation? For all people, ALL people, for YOU! The self-deception? It’s the same… we still are tempted to say “I don’t need repentance and baptism. I don’t need a hero. I’m OK on my own, thank you very much.” The Saviour? The Saviour! The Lord… Jesus! The same yesterday (in 29 A.D.), today (in 2020), and forever, for all eternity!
And it’s that Jesus that invites us to stop running, to turn around and to look straight into his tender eyes, trusting those magnificent words of 1 Samuel 17, “The battle belongs to the Lord.” Amen.
By Reed Lessing. © 2020 Creative Communications for the Parish, 1564 Fencorp Dr., Fenton, MO 63026. 800-325-9414. www.creativecommunications.com. All rights reserved.
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