Prepare the Way

Day 2

New York

To “live” in Matthew 3 and 4 and not just read it, I think you have to catch the sense of expectation that permeated Judea and Galilee around the year A.D. 30. Everyone felt that something big was about to happen, although they would not agree on what it was. For some it was an eager anticipation of liberation, for others I suspect it was more a dark foreboding of impending doom. But there definitely was a palpable sense that change was coming — there was just too much tension for things to stay the same. For the Jews these expectations were focused on the appearing of Messiah. Those who were expecting Messiah to appear (and there were many) were correct that Messiah would soon appear, but the Messiah turned out to be different than anyone anticipated. So in the end, everyone wound up being at least surprised, if not flat out wrong.

Today we live in a similar time, except that today it’s not a localized region or society possessed by a sense of expectation — today there is a global phenomenon of expectation. And like it was in the days of John the Baptist, some have an eager expectation, while others have a dark foreboding, and for many it’s a mixture of both.

Something big is about to happen. God will be involved in it. His redemptive purposes will be at work in awesome ways on a global scale. But be careful about being too locked into a specific notion about exactly what is going to happen or how it will happen. This is the bane of overconfident prophecy “experts.” If you doubt it, read some of their old books. Remember, even John the Baptist didn’t get it exactly right regarding what Messiah would do in His first coming, so beware of getting too set on a particular prophetic scenario. Two things I do know: 1) God is about to do some big things on a global scale. 2) God is full of surprises.

John the Baptist steps onto the stage of redemptive history for an explosive and extremely brief performance. John’s public ministry lasted less than a year. His role was to prepare the way for Messiah. Of course God had been preparing the way for Messiah since the calamity in the Garden of Eden. God had been preparing the way for millennia through prophets and patriarchs, through kings and nations, though world events and obscure happenings. But John had the role of finalizing these preparations and ultimately the honor of baptizing and introducing Messiah.

In reading Matthew 3 and 4 I noticed that John the Baptist and Jesus began their preaching with the same message:

“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.'” (Matthew 3)

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee…from that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.'” (Matthew 4)

John and Jesus both preached the same theme: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Yet there was a difference in their preaching that was as different as the stark contrast of where they preached. John preached in the bleak and barren Judean wilderness; a foreboding landscape. Jesus came preaching in the green hills of Galilee; a landscape, that as G.K. Chesterton put it, “has a real hint of Eden.”

Even though they used similar words, the difference in the tone of John and Jesus is as different as the Judean desert and the Sea of Galilee. John was austere and definitely something of an ascetic. He used prophetic metaphors such as axes being laid to roots and chaff being burned with unquenchable fire. John thundered his rebuke and denounced broods of vipers.

Jesus on the other hand was never counted as an ascetic (His critics would call Him a winebibber and a glutton) and His announcement of the Kingdom was decidedly good news. More often the prophetic metaphors Jesus used to describe the coming Kingdom were lost sheep being found and buried treasures being discovered.

Here is the principle: Understanding the bad news (we are sinners and guilty before God) prepares the way to receive the good news (we are invited into a Kingdom of God’s grace). Until the bad news of the human condition is appreciated we are not fully prepared to receive the good news of the gospel. Until we understand the bad news, the good news will essentially be no news.

Bonus Blog

I am composing this blog ten hours into a 15 hour flight from New Delhi to New York. When I left home twelve days ago I brought five books with me and I have read them all. So yesterday I went to a bookshop in New Delhi to find some reading material for the flight home. I ended up buying a book of essays by Salman Rushdie. Over the past few years I have become a real fan of the highly regarded Indian born writer Salman Rushdie — no doubt one of the greatest living writers. (Please note that I said writer and not teacher. Salman Rusdie is not a Christian and doesn’t write Christian books. I don’t read him for spiritual edification. I read him because, in my opinion, he uses the English language more skillfully and creatively than anyone and I enjoy his writing. He’s also a deep thinker.) Last night before I went to sleep on the plane I read several of the essays. One is on them was on the Taj Mahal. I want to share some of this essay with you because what Rushdie is saying about the real Taj Mahal as opposed to cheap replicas, is exactly what I mean when I talk about discovering the real, unvarnished Jesus as opposed to the cheap imitations. As I read this last night, I knew I had to share this with someone. Just substitute Jesus for the Taj Mahal and you will see what I mean. (By the way, Rushdie is right about the Taj Mahal).

“The problem with the Taj Mahal is that it has become so overlaid with accumulated meanings as to be almost impossible to see. When you arrive at the outer walls of the gardens in which the Taj is set, it’s as if every hustler and hawker in Agra is waiting for you to make the familiarity-breeds-contempt problem worse, peddling imitation Mahals of every size and price. This leads to a certain amount of shoulder-shrugging disenchantment. Recently, a British friend who was about to make his first visit to India told me that he had decided to leave the Taj off his itinerary because of its over-exposure. If I urged him not to, it’s because of my own vivid memory of pushing my way for the first time through the jostling crowd of imitation-vendors, past all the myriad hawkers of meaning and interpretation, and into the presence of the thing itself, which utterly overwhelmed me, and made all my notions of about its devaluation feel totally and completely redundant. The building itself left my skepticism in shreds. Announcing itself as itself, insisting with absolute force on it sovereign authority, it simply obliterated the million million counterfeits of it and glowing filled, once and forever, the place in the mind previously occupied by its simulacra.”

From Step Across This Line by Salman Rushdie