Prepare the Way! (part I): Hype

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An advent sermon from Micah 2 & Luke 3:2-9

November 28, 2010 ~ Tom VanderPloeg


            Hype; so much hype.  Do you know what I mean by hype?  The Minnesota Vikings had a lot of hype this year; hype that they would be the football team to beat.  The Dallas Cowboys had that same kind of hype.  I better not even mention the Broncos here, should I?  You know what hype is.  Hype is when a group of people carry high expectations…for a team—a school—an organization—a political party—another person.  Hype usually implies expectations that can never be met.  Very rarely do we say that a person or team actually lives up to the hype they receive.

            Well, Christmas time is filled with an awful lot of hype, isn’t it?  There are expectations for the perfect family gatherings; expectations for finding the perfect gift to give; expectations that we will sense and feel the joy and peace that we associate with the Christmas season.  Don’t get me wrong; Christmas time inspires the whole world with a hope that can only come from God.  But somewhere along the line, the hope that comes from God at Christmas gets a bit sidetracked when we pile on all those other unrealistic expectations that we build up around Christmas.  It becomes a lot of hype.

            Sometimes it seems we lose a piece of Christmas in all that hype.  The constant expectation of joy and love and peace…all the expectation of building a season of perfect happiness; in that kind of Christmas haze, these words we read this morning from John the Baptist strike us as awkward.  Where is the joy in this message?  Where is the peace in this judgment?  But this is what we’ve got.  This is what the Bible says.  This is the message of the prophets about God’s coming redemption…his coming salvation.  So this morning we better re-examine our Christmas hype.

Micah’s message to the people

            So let’s take it back to the world of the Old Testament and begin there.  We’re going to be working our way through the book of Micah over the coming weeks, so placing a little background information would be helpful for us to understand how this prophesy relates to John the Baptist and the coming Messiah.

            We did not read through chapter one, but let me highlight some historical detail there to help set the story.  Chapter 1:1 talks about three kings in Judah: Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.  We know the date of these kings so we can easily place the time during which Micah prophesied.  Jotham began his reign in the 750 BC.  Kingship then proceeded to Ahaz, and then to Hezekiah who reigned until 686 BC.  This makes Micah a contemporary with Isaiah—who would have lived and prophesied during the same time as Micah.

            Here is another major historical event that happened during this time.  We also notice that chapter one begins with a judgment concerning the destruction of both Samaria and Jerusalem.  Remember also—as we have already noted—that Micah lived and prophesied between the years of 750-686 BC.  Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC.  So the prophecy Micah brought against Samaria would come to pass very quickly—certainly within Micah’s own lifetime.  This would be enough to jolt a wake-up call to all those living in Judah around Jerusalem.  If Micah was right about the destruction of Samaria, could it be that his prophesy about the destruction of Jerusalem is true as well?

            But let’s also remember this, comparing Samaria to Jerusalem is comparing apples to oranges.  After all, Jerusalem was built upon mount Zion; God’s temple was there.  Sure, Samaria might have fallen to a foreign invader, but surely God would never allow his temple to be destroyed; certainly Jerusalem would never be taken.  At least that’s what they thought.  It wouldn’t be for another 100+ years, but in 586 BC the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and the people of Judah are taken into captivity.  This happens during the time of Jeremiah—who quotes Micah in his prophesy against Jerusalem.

            So there’s a real quick history lesson about Micah and what was happening during the time that he lived and wrote.  His message was intended to get the people ready for what was coming.  God was going to do the unthinkable.  No one in Judah or Jerusalem would have ever imagined that this could possibly be a part of God’s plan for his people.  After all, they were supposed to be the chosen people.  Zion was supposed to be the place where God’s temple would stand forever.  This is where the great king David’s legacy was to go on for all eternity.  This cannot be right.  This cannot possibly be what God has in mind for his people; can it?

            But Micah lashes out against the injustices of God’s people.  And notice it is not so much that people have left God; the judgment is not so much that the people have abandoned and disowned God.  In fact, just the opposite; they are leaning upon God to sustain them.  But the problem that Micah points out is their injustice—their lives of sin and wrongdoing.  They have abandoned the ways of God.  They have ignored the commands of God to live as those who would be used by God to spread his blessing to the entire world.  This is their sin; this is why God brings judgment to them.  It is God’s intention to use his people as his ambassadors to change the world; to redeem what is broken and wrong.  But instead, they ignore the commands of God and only add to the problem of evil in our world.

            Take it forward.  In the passage we read from Luke’s gospel we see that John the Baptist quotes the prophet Isaiah—who, remember, lived during the same time as Micah—and John brings a message that seems equally judgmental.  Just like the people in the time Micah, Luke describes a people who lived in disbelief that God would bring this kind of judgment.  They thought, “but we are children of Abraham.”  And John tells them that their heritage is not what matters…at least, not anymore.  He says the ax is at the root and ready to cut them down.  But they did not believe it either.  They are just as guilty of ignoring the justice and truth of God’s commands.  They are just as culpable for failing to live as those who would be used by God to change and redeem the world for God’s glory.  John makes it clear: change is coming.  God will triumph.  God’s will cannot be stopped.  God’s plan of redemption for this world will happen.

An advent message for a broken world

            Don’t get caught in the hype.  Don’t overlook this piece of the advent story.  Don’t ignore this message.  God’s intention is to change the world.  Christmas is about God redeeming what was broken.  Christmas is about God coming to fix what was wrong.  Christmas is a remembrance of what God did to take this world crushed by sin and turn it 180° in the other direction.  Advent is remembering again just how far God is willing to go to see his will be done.  Christ came to turn the course of human history in another direction.  Ever since the fall in the garden of Eden when sin took hold in the world we had been going on a downward spiral, Christ came to turn that upside down.  Christmas is extreme makeover: cosmos edition.  It is the mark of our detox from sin.  It is the beginning of God’s complete renovation of everything. 

            But if you’ve ever seen the extreme makeover show on TV then you know that they cannot build something new without first completely destroying what was there before.  If you’ve ever known anyone who had to go through detox, you know it is not an easy process to endure.  If you’ve ever known anyone who has renovated an old car or a piece of furniture, then you know it takes a lot of hard work.

            You know, there are a lot of people in the world today who want all the advantages of Christmas—they want all the benefits of advent—without having to prepare the way.  Sometimes we want the joy of Christmas without having to endure the detox from sin.  Sometimes we want the peace that Christmas brings without taking on the extreme makeover that is required to renovate our souls.  Sometimes we want all the happiness of the holidays while ignoring the injustices around which we live, in which we participate.

            The message of the prophets comes to our world today.  It is the message of the prophets that cuts through the hype of Christmas.  The prophets give the same timeless message through God’s word.  Prepare the Way!  God’s salvation requires preparation.  And we live in a world that does not want to get ready for all that God brings.  This is a world that does not really want a gospel that radical.  We resist.  And we build hype.  And maybe then we miss Christmas because we have not prepared the way.

Hope in judgment

            There are words in these passages we read that shouldn’t be ignored.  There is a hope here that runs deeper than the message of despair.  Today light the hope candle.  And even in a passage like this there is always hope.  Look again at what the prophets say.  Micah concludes chapter two by pointing ahead to this coming Messiah.  He says in verses 12-13 that God will preserve his people; he will stay faithful to his covenant.  And he will raise a king that will break open the way so that they may follow him through.  God is coming to detox the sin and injustice from his people, but he offers a path.  He comes as the king who opens the gate that we could never do on our own.  He offers to go ahead of his people so that they may follow him.

            And John comes before Jesus in the New Testament to prepare the way.  John brings a message of repentance.  John prepares the people for Jesus by telling them to turn from their ways of sin and injustice.  John prepares people for Jesus by telling them to start producing good fruit—you see that there in verses 7-9. 

            Yes.  The salvation plan that God unveils at Christmas is an extreme makeover.  He takes what was broken and he makes it new.  God’s plan for the creation is a plan of renovation.  He takes what was old and restores it to something new.  God’s plan of salvation is a plan that will throw away everything that is wrong.  It is a plan that will destroy all that is evil.  And in that plan he chooses to change us.  Instead of tearing down absolutely everything, God chooses to detox his people from sin.  He chooses to open a gate so we may follow him out.

Response to the hope of advent

            This is an incredible message.  This is an amazing God who would do this all for us.  Our response to advent every year should be washed over by this realization that God has made a way for us and called us to be a part of something bigger.  You see, this is a hope of Christmas that gets at more than warm feelings.  This is a hope for Christmas that goes beyond hype.  This is a hope for Christmas that calls us to be a part of something hug…and life-changing.  This is a hope for Christmas that invites us down a path of discipleship where we will be completely renovated from the inside out.

            After all, this is what Christ came to do.  This is why he went to such extraordinary lengths for us.  I love how CS Lewis writes about it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  The children hear about Aslan the great lion.  And knowing a little bit about lions they have to ask, “Is he safe?”  And one on the other woodland creatures respond, “Aslan? No he is not safe; but he’s good.”  God is not safe, but he’s good. 

            Christmas is the time of year when we mark and remember God’s plan for renovating the world.  He came to expose sin and flush it out.  Christmas is a time to remember that Jesus opened the gate for us.  He opened the gates to our hearts; and he comes in to clean house—to make us new.  The Messiah that was announced so long ago came to this world to renovate and renew.  It is the most awesome Christmas gift any of us could ever receive.  But you know, a gift isn’t really a gift until it is opened.  It cannot sit in a corner or tuck away in a closet.  The best kinds of gifts are the ones we take out and use.  God’s gift is no different.

            So let’s think together this season about how it is we can make the most of the gift we have received from God.  Let’s take this season to listen to the prophets and prepare the way for our savior to come in and make us new.  Let’s get beyond the hype and find where true joy and peace comes from as he hear God calling us closer to him.

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