Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Scripture: Luke 3:1-9
For the most part, I’m a planner. And I come by it honestly. Both of my parents are planners, too. As an adult, I often quote the phrase “you’ve gotta have a plan” about everything. Going on vacation? You’ve gotta have a plan. Cooking dinner for 90? You’ve gotta have a plan. Driving down the interstate at 75 mph on a sunny day with a new set of tires? You’ve gotta have a plan. You never know when you might have a blowout.
So in reflecting on Luke 3:1-9, commonly thought of as the “prepare the way” passage, you can see why it first struck me that John the Baptist is saying, “A Messiah is coming; you’ve gotta have a plan.”
But as I spent more time with this passage – and by ‘more time’ I mean in Googling commentaries about it – I quickly realized there’s a lot more going on here, so much in fact, that I typed nearly two pages of possible themes for a passage that’s probably worth a dissertation in more capable hands. So I’ve still as many themes left to study as those that made the cut:
1. Salvation isn’t all sunshine and roses.
This passage isn’t exactly an invitation to a candlelit Christmas dinner. We can’t, after all, get to the nativity
story without going first through John the Baptist and his “brood of vipers” admonishment for our sins. It’s hardly a Hallmark greeting card. Only two of the gospels mention the birth of Jesus, and who do both accounts start with? You guessed it. Not-So-Jolly John. So we can’t ignore that through this passage, God is setting an expectation that we own our sins and acknowledge the harm and hurt they’ve caused us or others. In other words, while salvation is readily available, it does require repentance on our part. It’s a two-way street.
2. Power and polish are not required to speak truth.
In John’s time, it was not uncommon for a herald to be sent ahead when someone important was coming to visit a town, so his call to the people to prepare for the coming Messiah mirrors the way the Romans might have told a city or town that the King was coming, a la, “Pick up the trash, sweep the floor, polish the silver!”
In the opening of this passage, we read a litany of names of officials. They are all people in positions of power, presumably ‘in the know’ and therefore reliable, who could report that a king is coming, or send a typical herald to do it. But who does God send? A guy who lives in the woods, wears funny clothes and subsists on grasshoppers and honey. And what does he tell us to do? He doesn’t tell us to tidy up what’s on the outside. He tells us to clean up what’s on the inside – to get our hearts right. We’ve been asked to prepare for an esteemed guest for sure, but not in the ways to which we are accustomed. But then again, Jesus is a different kind of king, asking us to live a different kind of life, so it’s fitting that John is a different kind of herald.
3. Forgiveness isn’t as much about sin as it is about our freedom from it.
Say what? Hang with me – we’re about to get deep, but it’s still pretty simple, I promise. If you’re anything like me, you might think of forgiveness in terms of cataloging the things you’ve done wrong, with an emphasis on you, and wrong. But in researching this passage, this self-proclaimed “words girl” was again reminded, words matter.
In this case, we’re talking about the Greek word for forgiveness, Aphesis. And here’s the thing about aphesis – it’s closest translation is probably a word like “release,” which suggests the forgiveness made available to us through Christ offers us liberation, freedom from worry and fear and the guilt we carry about our sins. So maybe it’s more about the hope forgiveness offers us than the reasons we need to ask for it. God’s forgiveness frees us to be a better, more Christ-like person, who does not carry the shame of sin, but who instead carries the promise of a better tomorrow, a tomorrow that looks more like the kingdom than today.