The Pardon of Christ
Ever been stuck in a wilderness? We encounter many wildernesses in life–some financial, some job related, some family, some physical. John the Baptist was a voice crying “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s role was to lead us to the One has experience with wildernesses–Jesus Christ. He could share our wilderness experience because he personally experienced hunger and temptation, pain and rejection. Even more, he is the one who could deal with an even deeper wilderness. He is the one who brings pardon for our sins and restoration of our relationship with God. Let’s talk about wildernesses..
Susan and I decided at one point that we would explore Texas. We started with the Big Bend country. As we were driving down a road I noticed that there were a large number of Tarantulas on the pavement. “Look at the spiders,” I said to Susan. She said, “I don’t like spiders that you can see in the rear view mirror. It was from there to west Texas. You have to understand that west Texas is nothing but miles and miles of miles and miles. Not desert with the gigantic sand dunes that the image of desert implies, but hard pan gravel—wilderness. Hot, dusty, waterless, forlorn. Every year a number of immigrants die trying to cross the Texas and Arizona wilderness.
Have you ever been in a wilderness—not a literal wilderness, but a wilderness of life. Most of us have at one time or another. Some wildernesses are financial. I remember a time when the stream of winter visitors dried up, because a recession played havoc with their 501-Ks and they couldn’t afford the gasoline to make the trek. Sometimes a wilderness is job related. One of the things that I’ve discovered about bosses is that most of them don’t know how to work with people. Some wildernesses are family. Nothing is more heart-rending then when our children get cross-grain with each other and are not speaking. They don’t seem to realize that the only ones that they are really hurting are Mom and Dad. Some wildernesses are physical. How do you deal with a physical condition that you know is not going to get any better—that you are going to just keep on having to deal with it? Where is the comfort and joy in the midst of the wildernesses of life? Or as a Jewish psychiatrist put it in a little book illustrated with Peanut cartoons: “When will the Good Times begin?” The real wilderness within which we find ourselves, however, is much deeper. The real wilderness is that we are sinful human beings, estranged from God. We live in a broken world, and, let’s face it, bad things do happen to good people.
The people to whom Isaiah was writing were in exile. They really faced two kinds of wilderness. The first was their life situation. They must have asked themselves many times, “when will this end? When will the Good Times begin?” There was another kind of wilderness. Between them and home were many miles of wilderness—real wilderness—hard pan gravel—hot, dusty, waterless. To them the words of Isaiah came: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord.” The Lord himself was going to prepare the way. Every valley would be filled. Every mountain leveled. Words lifted right out of Handel’s Messiah, or maybe the other way around. God was going to bulldoze a superhighway. That was the promise of Isaiah. God was not only going to take them home. God was going to take them back to Himself.
Flash forward some six hundred years. Another voice was crying in the wilderness. There was little punctuation in the Hebrew of that time, and John heard the words as a voice crying, “In the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord.” So he went away from the city into the wilderness. When I hear the words “camel hair and leather,” my first thought was “nice threads, John,” but John was a true ascetic. He wore what he could scrounge. He ate locusts and wild honey, whatever he could pick up in the desert. His message was simple. You have to meet God in the wilderness. No, a better way to say it is that God meets us in the wilderness. God chooses to meet us where we are.
John’s message was simple. People came to him asking “what should we do?” To those who were able, he said “share.” To tax collectors he said “don’t take more than prescribed.” To soldiers he said, “Don’t use your position to extort money. Be satisfied with your wages.” But there was more. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. And there is a starting point. You don’t look for help until you know you need help. We discovered in the Tuesday evening and Wednesday classes about a Man Named Martin, that Martin Luther learned the same thing. You don’t look for a Savior until you know you need a Savior. The Ten Commandments can’t get you to heaven because you can’t do them. At least you can’t do them as Jesus understood them. All the Ten Commandments can do for me is demonstrate how far I’ve fallen short of what God desires. But Luther pointed out that’s a good thing. Because if I can understand my own inability to please God, then I can grasp the gift that God has given me in Jesus Christ.
People thought that John the Baptist might be the Messiah, but John had something more to say than simply do this or do that. “There comes one after me who is more powerful than I. I’m not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. I baptize with water. He will baptize you will the Holy Spirit and fire.” Jesus is the one who meets us in the wilderness. He’s been there. He doesn’t just meet us there, he joins us there. He has understood hunger and temptation. He knows what pain is all about. He has been subjected to mockery. And he has experienced rejection, rejection greater than anything that we will ever experience—rejection by God Himself. A recent film on the crucifixion showed us just how bad things were for Jesus, but the film missed the Gospel point. The Gospel message was not “this is how bad it was for Jesus. The Gospel message was “this was done for you.” The one who meets us in the wilderness is the one who has the ability to pardon our sinfulness and restore us to wholeness with God.
That pardon, that forgiveness is the starting point. The recognition that God has redeemed us permits us to face all of the other aspects of the wilderness within which we find ourselves. In our exploration of Texas we discovered that it takes quite a while to get out of the wilderness of west Texas. Texas is a big state. We drove up into the panhandle and then looped into east Texas. Suddenly there were trees, real trees, not twisted, gnarled mesquite or the ubiquitous cactus, but towering pine and oak. West Texas taught us that things won’t necessarily be immediately different. Sometime you have to be patient and go a long way before you begin to see a change. The same is true in getting through the wildernesses that we find ourselves floundering in from time to time. We have to be patient. Sometimes we have to go a long way before we are finally out of the wilderness. In our lives the journey is worth it. There are many things that we can never predict—challenges with people, economics and politics. Yet with the Jesus Christ who has met us in our own personal wilderness, we know that God has blotted out our transgressions and remembered our sins no more. Then we as one who has been pardoned by his grace can deal with the rest in complete confidence. That’s when we can understand the true meaning of comfort and joy. And who knows, God may get out the bulldozer once again and fill a few valleys and level a mountain or two for our benefit—that’s when the good times begin–through Jesus Christ.