Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
Back in April I attended the Star Wars Celebration in Chicago. As someone who loves Star Wars, it was a wonderful experience. The big highlight, not just for me, but the main feature of the show was the Episode IX panel. This is the event that everyone wanted to attend, and I was lucky enough to win the lottery draw to get in. The reason why there was so much hype for this one panel is because everyone there knew that it would end with the first ever trailer for the new Star Wars movie. There was an hour long panel with the director and actors to further hype it up. It all indeed culminated with showing the first trailer. All that build up was for 120 seconds of footage for a movie that, at that time, would not be out for another eight months. I realize all of that build up for what is essentially a movie commercial is objectively ridiculous, but subjectively it was all pretty awesome!
Trailers have come a long away. These previews of movies are called trailers, because they used to be shown after a movie ended. They trailed after the movie, hence the name. However, when that was the case most people did not stick around to watch them, which is why they are now shown before the movie begins. Trailers went from being an afterthought to advertise coming movies to becoming an event in itself. Some movies even now have short trailers announcing their trailer. Once a new trailer is released, fans then spend hours poring over it. For instance, just this last week the first trailer for Black Widow, the next Marvel super hero movie, was released. Already there are hundreds of videos on YouTube offering breakdowns, analysis, and immediate reactions. Often these reaction videos are optimistic and full of enthusiasm as the person on the video talks about all that they are now expecting out of the movie. One of the reasons movie trailers build so much expectation is that they give the fans a glimpse of what to come. It is not a full picture but it gives tantalizing hints for what is in store when the movie drops. It is these glimpses that create the expectation.
In the first century they clearly did not have trailers, at least not in the traditional sense. However, in a lot of ways John the Baptist functioned as a trailer for the coming messiah. He came first, he gave a glimpse of what was to come, and he helped create a sense of expectation. He prepared the way of the Lord. John the Baptist teased the savior of the world. During this church season of Advent, it is common to have scriptures with John the Baptist come up because Advent is a season of preparation. John the Baptist reminds us that today we are still supposed to prepare the way for the Lord. Like, John we are to be a teaser trailer that gives people a glimpse of Jesus the Messiah.
John the Baptist was clearly a person who created a lot of expectation and excitement. The traditional baptism site that John operated at was along the Jordan River outside of Jericho. Verse 5 mentions that people from Jerusalem and all of Judea came to see him. From Jerusalem to Jordan would have been a day journey both ways. John the Baptist was not some sort of roadside attraction that people stopped at because they happened to be passing by. It required real effort and intentionality to get to him. It is easy to see the appeal of John the Baptist and why he brought so many crowds. His choice of camel hair clothing harkens back to prophets like Elijah. Like those prophets, we see in this morning’s scripture that John had no problem speaking his mind and saying it like it is. The excitement around John stemmed from the fact that he seemed like a return to the prophets of old. Yet, it goes a bit deeper than that. First century Israel was a time of intense Messianic expectation. The people were expecting that the promised messiah would come soon. Rumors of a man in the wilderness who spoke looked and spoke like the prophets drew the curious. It drew them in hopes that perhaps this is more than a prophet, perhaps this man in clothes made of camel hair and leather belt around his waist was the promised Messiah.
John was clear though, he was not the Messiah. He was the voice crying out in the wilderness. He was there to prepare the way. He was the teaser trailer. John gave a glimpse of the Messiah through his practice of baptism. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. This was in line with the Jewish tradition of ceremonial washing, and the Jewish mindset of taking outward, physical actions to display an inward change. People came to John because they wanted to turn their lives around. They wanted to leave behind their sin and their baggage to begin anew. In John’s baptism the person entered the water as their old self ready to repent and emerged as the repentant ready for a fresh start. A fresh start was only a teaser of what the Messiah was going to bring. As John himself said “I baptize you with water for repentance. . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John offered a fresh start, but the Messiah-Jesus offers a fresh start and a transformed life. John offered repentance but Jesus also offers forgiveness. John was clear. He was not the Messiah, but he was a trailer for Jesus, and he gave a glimpse as to how Jesus was to change everything.
In the great commission Jesus gave the instructions to make disciples of all the nations. Yet, ultimately we are not the ones who make disciples, because we are not the ones who forgive sins or changes lives. Only Jesus does that. Jesus is the one that transforms hearts and makes disciples. Our job is to follow in the tradition of John the Baptist, our job is to prepare the way. The way that we make disciples is by introducing people to Jesus, the savior they need. We prepare the way so that Christ can transform their lives. This is not really intended to be an optional thing either. If Jesus is our Lord and Savior then preparing the way to make disciples is something we have a responsibility for. In his book Multiply Francis Chan writes, “From the start, God’s design has been for every single disciple of Jesus to make disciples who make disciples who make disciples until the gospel spreads to all peoples.”
This should cause us to evaluate ourselves and ask ourselves how well are we doing at following the example of John the Baptist? Hopefully, some of you individually do a wonderful job at preparing the way and introducing people to Jesus. However, we have to confess that collectively as American Christians we have some problems with this. Unfortunately, too often we have gotten in the way instead of preparing the way. The evidence of this is all around. American churches have been posting net losses for years, trust in clergy has reached an all-time low, and people who claim no religious affiliation has reached an all-time high. A research study by David Kinnaman revealed one of the biggest way we failed to prepare the way. Kinnaman wrote about this study in his book UnChristian. According to him, non-churched young people know Christians by what we are against and not what we are for. They characterize us as people who hate not people who love. Young adults outside the church do not see us as preparing the way to meet the prince of peace and the Lord of love. Rather they see us as gatekeepers jealously guarding a reward that is only for people who meet a certain criteria.
I understand the knee-jerk reaction, to immediately dismiss these findings. I understand the desire to say, “well if they would just give us a chance, they would see that is wrong.” The point is, right now they are not going to give us a chance because we have not prepared the way. Even if it has not been our personal experience, we should listen to those voices that say the church functioned as a gate that got between them and Jesus. We should listen to those voices, repent, and do better. It is not for us to get to pick and choose who should come. It is our job to prepare the way, and then get out of the way so Jesus can save.
All of us should be preparing the way so that people can come to know the king of kings and Lord of Lords. Like John the Baptist, we should be a teaser trailer that points to Jesus. Just like a trailer builds expectation and gives a glimpse as to what is coming, our lives should be a preview of what it means to know the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Just like the best movie trailers make the movie a “must see”, the way we live our lives should prepare the way for others to want to move closer to Jesus.
To follow John’s example does not mean we need to go set up shop down at the lake and invite people to come and get baptized. John the Baptist functioned like a trailer because he gave people a glimpse of the new life that Jesus offered. All of us in our own unique way can prepare the way. In the kingdom of God, there will not be the lines of division that we create. There will be complete unity and inclusion, so perhaps the way that you prepare the way is through how you radically accept and welcome all people without judgement and without condition. One of the spiritual fruit that is to come from the Holy Spirit and knowing our sins are forgiven is an unquenchable joy, so perhaps the way you prepare the way is being a bright spot of joy in the midst of dreariness. Because of the mighty acts of Jesus Christ on the cross we can have an unshakable assurance in God’s love that keeps us grounded, so perhaps the way you can prepare the way is by being the non-anxious presence in the room. If you are a disciple of Jesus Christ then encountering the Messiah should have changed your life in ways that is almost hard to put into words. Even if you have a hard time articulating that change, the way you live your life can and should show that change.
Despite a decades long cultural push to make Christmas into a generic holiday that celebrates good cheer and Christmas magic, it is still a special day that exist to celebrate the day that proved God so love the world that he sent his only son. It is a day where the people who normally want nothing to do with Christianity are at least a little bit more aware of Jesus. Advent is a spiritual season of preparation. This Advent I challenge you to prepare yourself to prepare the way. Your life should be a preview that lets others get a glimpse of Jesus. All of us are uniquely suited to show Jesus to the world in a way that only we can. I challenge you to consider the way that you can be that preview, the way that your actions can most show how Jesus changed your life, and then lean into that. Realize that everyday people see us, and every time that is an opportunity where someone can get a glimpse of the grace and forgiveness that comes from Jesus.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem so that the whole world could be saved, remember we are to take the good news of Christ to all the nations. May we do our part in making disciples. For someone who has not yet met Jesus, may we be the voice crying out in the wilderness that they hear. May our lives be a teaser trailer that gives them a glimpse of our Lord and Savior. On December 25th, we remember and celebrate that the kingdom of heaven has come near, so may we prepare the way for the Lord.