New Road, by Rev. Fred Kinsey
Building a road in the wilderness is routine, if you’re a logger with a bulldozer. I saw roads like this when I lived in Michigan. The roads are necessary, especially for selective cutting, where you only take down the fully grown trees, which then lets more light in, helping the other trees to grow to maturity. But the Bulldozers – which can move pretty much anything and everything out of the way in preparing a new road – also did some tearing down, of course, some seedlings, flowers, and the like, are destined to be casualties. Symbolic of these wilderness roads, is the pungent smell of fresh soil being turned over – a whole new way has been made, for the logging trucks to come!
“In those days [after Jesus was born, says Matthew,] John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
John saw himself as a prophet, whose calling was to make ready for the coming Messiah – in the wilderness – which was not just a random place. The wilderness, or desert, was highly significant for the chosen people! There was probably no symbol that was more formative for Jesus’ fellow Jews than the Exodus, or wandering in the wilderness for 40 years! The release from slavery in Egypt, and journey back home to the Promised Land, was a journey through the place of a great wilderness, the Sinai desert. And the Exodus wasn’t a straight path, but had many twists and turns, due to the doubts and disobedience of the people. Yet God was true in word and deed, and when the chosen people finally believed and trusted, their Deliverer brought them to the land of milk and honey.
Isaiah of course, the prophet of the Exile some 1000 years later, was recalling and riffing on this Exodus theme, when he called for the Israelites to repent and prepare the way of the Lord – also in the wilderness. This return from Exile in Babylon, near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, was a slightly different wilderness. But it led to the exact same border crossing as the Exodus did, the crossing over from desert, to the Holy Land, into Israel, by way of the Jordan River.
Now jump ahead another 500 years to our gospel reading, and this is the place John the Baptist chooses. He too is crying out in the wilderness, on the eastern banks of the Jordan River to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” And John is wearing a familiar wardrobe, the “camel’s hair coat” and “leather belt” of Elijah. The prophet Elijah, everyone knew, would return in some form, to herald the coming of the Messiah! And so, all the parts were coming together – John the Baptist as Elijah; Isaiah’s proclamation to make his paths straight in the wilderness; and this place, by the Jordan River, where Moses and Nehemiah had led the chosen people back to the Holy Land. Matthew shows how all the signs are pointing to Jesus as the Messiah.
And, continues Matthew, “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to John, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan,” in a ministry of repentance.
But this was no mere tent revival or campfire get together! Repentance is much more than individual forgiveness of sins. That’s a part of repentance, but as the word indicates – repentance is a new start, and literally means to turn your whole self around, and with your whole life, to go in a new direction, down a new road. Repentance is about new life in Christ, about transformation, about coming up out of the baptismal water, a whole new person, who’s found a new path!
“…it's time for repentance to make a comeback,” blogs The Rev. Evan Garner, “It's time for repentance to be the new cool. Because repentance isn't about feeling sorry for yourself; [or] a simple diagnosis of all the things you've done wrong in your life. Sin – [with a capital “S”] – isn't a list of misdeeds. [It’s our] human condition [which] is the wrong-way path that we are on. [And] Repentance is the turning around that we need to get on the right path.”
This is the power of baptism for us, even today. Did you feel the transformative call in the baptism of Amelia last week, or for Erin in her adult baptism in September? Are we using the gift of our baptism “daily” as Martin Luther taught us in the Small Catechism? “What then,” Luther asked, “is the significance of a baptism with water? Baptism signifies that the old person in us, with all sins and evil desires, is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin, and through repentance,” says Luther, “and on the other hand, that daily, a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
We live in that in-between state. We are both sinner and saint, both repent-ers and receivers of new life. Baptism “brings forgiveness of sins, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare,” concludes Luther.
And so it is always through the loving Grace of God, and not our own merit, or even our own decision. In other words, nothing we do or don’t do, can save us – not even the rite of baptism itself. Baptism is only effective when we believe in the grace of God, by daily gathering up the courage, one more time, joyfully, oreven when we’re not feeling it, to live as the new person we were raised up to be before God in righteousness and purity. Salvation is God’s gift, and baptism is that immersion, into the depths of the water, to be washed clean and to be launched on a whole new journey, on a new straightened road.
John the Baptist came to prepare the way. He was the forerunner to Christ. He baptized with water for repentance, to make us ready. We the people, in a way, are the straight new path, prepared and hopeful, waiting in the wilderness for the Messiah to come – waiting like in Advent.
But John was only partially right, as it turns out, in his prophecy about Jesus! John was right that “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. I baptize you with water… but the Christ will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” But the part about “His winnowing fork… and gathering his wheat into the granary; [while] the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire,” not exactly.
Certainly, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, as we know. And also, with the Spirit’s wind, there was fire. But it was not the unquenchable fire John prophesied, but more like the “burning bush” fire that Moses witnessed, when God spoke to him. The Pentecost fire manifested itself as individual tongues of fire, flames over the heads of the disciples that did not consume them, but empowered them to carry-on the mission of Jesus, and gave them the confidence and joy to turn around and go down a whole new road.
Jesus himself did not include a ministry of baptism, either at the River Jordan, or anywhere else, as John did. But Jesus did refer to his journey to the cross, as baptism into death, a sometimes lonely walk in the wilderness, that would not be in vain, however, but would lead to the Promised Land, a gracious gift from the Father that would take him, as the Son of God, through the nearly impossible eye of the needle, from suffering and death, to a whole new road, in resurrection, the sign and promise for us, that through our baptism into Christ, we too might have new life. As St Paul says in Romans, “We have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Plowing up new roads in the wilderness is not without loss, and little deaths, but they can be, and are, worth the suffering, to the degree that they prepare the way of the Lord in our lives, to bring the health, salvation, and healing God so desires for each of us.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”