“O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?” [Acts 13:10]. Thus spoke St. Paul to the sorcerer Elymas. Do you ever wonder if Paul would say that to us? “O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?”
That word straight is the heart of John the Baptist’s identity. John the Baptist was the last and greatest prophet. His mission was foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord.”’”
What does that mean?
How is the way of the Lord made straight?
We start with what is crooked in our lives. What in your heart and mind is crooked, corrupt, perverted? St. Paul identified some of that with the sorcerer. Deceit; fraud; enemy of righteousness. Whom have you deceived? Are you a fraud?
The crooked path, Proverbs says, is with “the immoral woman … the seductress who flatters with her words” [2:16].
The serpent is crooked, bending its body to slither in the low parts. The ways of the serpent are the crooked ways, and he still approaches us as he did our first parents. He first creates doubt about God’s Word. “Did God really say…?” From there he leads us to deny God’s Word, calling God a liar.
The crooked path is the lie. The great twentieth century theologian Hermann Sasse said, “The lie is the death of man, his temporal and his eternal death.”
One great lie has led astray the world today: A world with no creator brought forth mutated men with no purpose. We came from nowhere and are going nowhere. Let us amuse ourselves until the world burns.
In a meaningless world, power is the chief currency. From congregational squabbles to international conflicts, the heartless lie to achieve control over others.
All this is crooked and perverse. Into this world still cries John the Baptist, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Leave the lie, and come to the truth.
One word in John’s preaching summarizes half of his message. Repent!
The call to repentance is the call to change.
What in your life needs to change? What is perverted and corrupt? Even when we are victims of hatred, the object of lies, when others sin against us, have we kept our hearts pure?
How easy it is to respond to evil with anger and supposedly righteous self-indignation. But the Lord Jesus says that anger in any circumstance is a sin.
We can make a list of Advent resolutions that we will pray more, be anxious less, give more, pursue less, put the best construction on our neighbor’s actions, stop gossiping.
Yet our history of the things we’ve done and left undone, the things we’ve said and left unsaid damns us. There is damage we cannot repair, and a heart we cannot cleanse.
What shall we do about the things we cannot change?
John’s Baptism dealt with both of these things.
John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins.
Christianity is for sinners – sinners who see that self-improvement cannot save them. Christianity is for sinners who confess, sinners who hate their sin, sinners who long for remission of sins like a cancer patient longs for the remission of the cancer.
This is what John’s Baptism was preaching. The Jewish leaders did not understand. They asked John:
Why do you baptize?
Baptism as we now know it was a new thing. However, it was not without precedent. Jewish priests would wash when moving between the altar and the holy place. Jews had developed various ritual washings, like the one mentioned in John 2, the Wedding at Cana, where the six stone waterpots (from which Jesus made the wine) were there, we are told, for “Jewish rites of purification.”
Most intriguing, however, is that there is some evidence that proselytes—Gentiles converting to Judaism—would undergo immersion in water, or baptism, as part of their conversion ritual.
What would that mean for the Jews who are coming out to John’s baptism?
John is treating the Jews like Gentiles.
John, and later Jesus, emphasized that you can’t rely on your heritage for salvation. You can’t assume that because you are born into the right family, or the right culture, this means that God is pleased with you. Prophets like Moses and Jeremiah said that it was the heart that needed to be circumcised. Now John takes it a step further and says in effect, “Don’t rely on being a child of Abraham. Repent! Bear fruits of repentance that are genuine! Wash yourselves as a new beginning, for you are just beginning to be a child of God.”
Now John’s baptism was not yet Christian Baptism. Jesus was not yet crucified and risen from the dead. Christian Baptism, St. Paul says, joins us to Jesus, His death, and His resurrection. After His resurrection, Jesus institutes Baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But there are some similarities. On the Day of Pentecost, for example, St. Peter says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, for the remission of sins,” which sounds very similar to John the Baptist. But now there is more – Peter adds, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the gift is for you and for your children.”
That’s the gift that David and Amy want for their children. That’s why they brought Sean to the waters this morning. He’s a wonderful baby boy. But he’s not innocent. He was born into the same corrupt world we all are, with a mortal body, and with the inclination to sin. We don’t see it just yet, but David and Amy will soon enough. So…
In Baptism, the child is not a sign of innocence. The child is a sign of helplessness.
Sean is helpless. He needs someone to feed him, clothe him, burp him, change him. And he needs a God who will be his god; a Lord who will be his lord.
That’s the position we are all in, however old, however learned, however strong, however prosperous. Before God, we stand helpless. In the Gospel today, John is preparing the people for the Helper by showing them their helplessness. He prepared them for their Savior by showing them their need for salvation.
Half of John’s message, I said earlier, is in that one word, Repent! The other half is in what John says immediately after today’s Gospel reading: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John’s baptism said this; and Christian baptism still says this same message to us.
Baptism directs us to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the world-sin.
I like to put the words in that order for a reason. Sin here is singular. It doesn’t mean a long list of every sin every person has committed. It’s true that all your sins are forgiven in Jesus. But there’s a different idea at work here. The world-sin is the situation where the entire human race said to God, “You are not our god. We will be our own lords.”
Jesus comes to deal with your specific sins, the sins that weigh you down. He comes to deal with your anxiety, your shame, your loneliness, your sorrow.
But Jesus comes to do more. He comes to address the root problem. He comes to take into Himself the world-sin, the cosmic problem of a world gone wrong. This is what we will celebrate at Holy Christmas. Not that a baby is born, but God has become a baby, God has become our poor flesh and bone. He becomes one of us, He takes our nature into Himself. He knows our weakness, He knows our sadness. And finally, He knows our death. God Himself takes our nature into death, to put to death the world-sin, and your sin. And He will bring our nature through death to life, the undying life He meant for us to have in the beginning.
That’s the promise poured over and into Sean Steven today. And that’s the promise He gives to you. Rejoice, you widows, for you have a God who raises the dead! Rejoice, you sinners, for you have a God who forgives sins! Rejoice, you anxious ones, for you have a God who holds all your cares in His own heart! “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” +INJ+