1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
‘Gospel is a familiar word.’ It means Good News! Some of you may remember when the Good News bible translation came out – but actually our faith in God is all about good news!
When we look at our reading from Isaiah it is all about good news, hope for the future.
‘he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion’
Take note that it is good news for the broken hearted. For the sorrowing, for the prisoners. God is concerned with helping those who really need it.
It doesn’t say, good news for the arrogant, for the selfish, for those who already have too much, for those who ignore the poor.
Whenever we find ourselves in lack, whether for resources or for joy God’s good news is proclaimed!
This seems to me to be core of the Christian message, that God will comfort those who need it, God will address our lack, our loneliness, our captivity.
This may mean different things for different people. It’s a re-balancing of the
world – if we cry out to God, God will hear us and restore us.
From time immemorial people have been looking for God to help them. John the Baptist came to the land of Judah, in a time of occupation, when for the last 400 years the people had surely been oppressed. They were looking for God to deliver them, for the saviour to save them, for a military solution.
When John starting preaching in the wilderness, there was a lot of excitement, but tempered with a certain cynicism. He wasn’t the first one to be proclaiming the Lord. There were many who had inspired hopes of the coming of the Messiah.
So the people went out to ask John, who are you? He knew they were looking for the Messiah, the anointed one, so he set their minds at ease and said, nope, not me. Then they started going down the list of potential candidates – are you Elijah? They must have believed in reincarnation to ask this I think. No, not Elijah. Are you the prophet? Which prophet did they mean? The one foretold in Isaiah? But he answered no to that one too, before quoting from Isaiah.
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’
He claimed to be no one. Just a voice crying in the wilderness. John was careful not to let the people set him up on a pedestal – he was adamant they were not to worship him. He was a very humble man, living on insects and what he could find in the outback. His clothes were fashioned from what he could find, and he is usually depicted with a wild beard and long messy hair.
The people were desperate for the Messiah to come and save them, but John’s message was clear. I am not the Messiah, but you need to make straight the way of the Lord.
What does this mean?
In the old days whenever a high dignitary was expected to visit a city, the roads were smoothed and made straight, the potholes were filled in, and the bumps removed, so that the king could ride in triumph into the city. No windy, bumpy roads covered in orange cones for the motorcade! Or the camelcade!
Somehow I think that John was not addressing the local city council to fill in the potholes though.
‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’
Make the way clear for God to come into your life. Remove obstacles, holes, rough patches, and let God in. In our world there are so many obstacles to letting God in. One of the most common ones is busyness. This is seen to be a virtue these days –
‘how are you? oh, I’m so busy.’
That seems to be the usual response, with a bit of a smirk of virtue at our busyness. But actually most of the busyness is just distraction, it’s unnecessary. You may have met people who are recently retired, and they say they are so busy they don’t know how they ever had time to go to work!
But John is telling us to re-jig our priorities. If we are going to allow God to ride the straight path into our hearts, we need to clear this path. To put priority on it, to make time, to clear the decks. Even when we have nothing in the diary for the day, it’s easy to fill up all our time with distractions, like reading books all day, scrolling through Facebook, doing puzzles … these are some of my distractions, yours may be different. The priority is that if God is going to come to us, there needs to be our hopeful expectation, that there is actually room for God in our lives. Room for God in our thoughts, in our prayer time.
The people questioning John were the Pharisees, who were always good for a legal argument, and for getting all the details straight.
So they asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”
They were suspicious that here was someone who was breaking the rules, going against authority. Note that baptizing was not a new thing – it had long been a Jewish symbol of repentance and readiness to embrace the new.
John’s answer is the climax of the passage –
“I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
Here we see the message of who John is pointing to. It’s still not really clear who and what to expect, but in John’s humble way he points to Jesus. The next bit of the story, which we didn’t have in today’s reading, shows John baptizing Jesus, and all becomes clear.
Who has been a John the baptist in your life? Who has pointed the way to Jesus for you? Christian journeys often grow in fits and starts, with potholes and bumpy roads. Someone who can point out the straight path to us can be very helpful as we learn to trust God in all things. Who have you been John the Baptist to? As we learn the way, we can show others. In the real world, folk are usually helpful if they see someone pulled over at the side of the road, wrestling with the map on the bonnet. I think if we know the way to God, we have a responsibility, and a joy, to share that path, to encourage others to make their path straight in the desert, so that God can come in and set them free.