Perhaps three qualities stand out. (1) It fills some physical, emotional, or mental need. A chore becomes easier. A friend is happier. A child knows he is loved. (2) Whoever receives this ‘perfect’ gift will benefit. Life gets better, not worse. (3) Finally, the receiver understands just how much he will benefit from this gift. Let’s summarize those points like this: What makes a gift ‘perfect’ depends on how prepared a person is to receive it. If you see no need for this gift to fill, then you will not understand why you need it or how it benefits you. That gift is not appreciated. It’s rejected. It’s forgotten. If you identify a need, then you understand how this gift fills a void in your life. You will appreciate it. You will treasure it. You will hold it up for all the world to see it as it really is: the ‘perfect’ gift.
Preparation is key in receiving the ‘perfect’ gift. So, God prepares us for his perfect Gift. He wants you to fully appreciate just what it is Jesus comes to do. So, he sends a special messenger to Prepare Your Heart for the Lord! You get ready for this gift by straightening out the rough places so that you can see the salvation of your God.
When you think about, not many were ready for the first Christmas. Mary and Joseph were really the only ones expecting Jesus to arrive soon. Angels had to broadcast the good news to a handful of shepherds (Luke 2:8-15). The Holy Spirit leads an elderly prophetess (named Anna) and lifelong believer (named Simeon) to Jesus (2:25-27; 36-38). A star guides wise men (Matthew 2:1-12). Really, Jesus’ birth is almost a well-kept secret. In fact, from age 0 to 30, you hear very little about him. He has not started his ministry. He does not have disciples. He has not performed miracles. No one knows the Son of God has come to earth! If no one knows he has come, then no one is looking for him. If no one is looking for him, then no one will pay attention when Jesus preaches. People would consider him as just another great teacher.
Enter John the Baptist. The Prophet Isaiah tells us that John is the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’
Isaiah pictures an old practice. In ancient times, kings sometimes traveled from their country to another country. Yet, you did not cruise down concrete highways or graded dirt roads. You had an almost impassible trip across an untouched desert with boulders, cliffs, and valleys. So, an official went ahead of this kingly procession. He hiked through cities and villages, trumpeting: “Hey! The king is coming! Get ready for his arrival!” Citizens prepared by clearing a path through the desert. They pushed aside boulders. They filled in swampy areas and low-spots. Steep inclines were leveled. They removed obstacles so the king could come to them.
John the Baptist is that forerunner of Jesus; his ministry starts first. Yet, John does not live in the desert to clear away boulders. Instead, he Prepares Hearts for the Lord. He clears out spiritual boulders, fills in despair over sin, and levels off arrogant pride. He straightens out the rough places [of the heart]. He gets us ready to appreciate God’s gift of a Savior.
He does this by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To ‘repent’ means “to turn”— much like making a U-Turn. So, imagine you are driving north on US-127. If you make a U-Turn, then you have completely changed direction; you are now heading south. That’s why John trumpets: “Repent! Look at your life. Turn from what is wrong. Face what is right!” That is the only way you will ever be prepared for Jesus. Because repenting means you must turn. It means you are not as perfect as you might think. It means you need a Savior.
Stand before the mirror of God’s commands. How do you measure up? Have you loved God with all your heart, mind, and soul? (Matthew 22:37-39). That means, you never once worried about your financial picture, about your health, or about the future because you trust you heavenly Father always provides and protects. Have you respected God’s Name? That means, you never cursed out of frustration; you never used the Lord’s Prayer as a good-luck charm for success. That means, you brought every single anxiety to God in prayer because God is capable of handling it. Have you made time with God a daily priority? That means, you made an honest effort to be in worship every opportunity— even if it meant skipping Sunday sports because they interfered, even when it meant waking up and you really wanted to sleep in, even when it meant turning off the television for a 5-minute devotion. Have you shown respect to your government officials— including the ones you did not vote for? Are you treating your body as the temple of God? Do you guard your heart from greed and give generously the work of your congregation? Are you free from jealousy and willing to admit when you are wrong? God demands that you be holy because he is holy (Leviticus 19:2). That does not include a “Yes, but…”
That’s the automatic impulse. We often think we are morally better than we really are. That attitude flourishes when we bend God’s commands. We know we should be in worship, but we make up the excuse: “God knows what’s going on in my life. He understands.” We know God’s blueprint for marriage, but we still say, “Well, God just wants me to be happy.” Maybe you feel you could give more generously, but still comes the thought, “Well, I have that trip and this new gadget. I just have nothing.” The heart constantly pumps out exceptions to God’s commands. It enters God’s courtroom, sits in his judge’s seat, and begins interpreting the commandments God set down. Then it acts as though God must approve our interpretation.
The devil has done such a good job of getting us to believe just that. That in the end, God will listen to us. That we have more authority than God.
That kind of attitude really does not want a Savior. It says, “God, there is nothing wrong with me or the way I live.” To live in the wrong piles up boulders of excuses. Pride carves out low-spots and hills so that God cannot live in us.
That is why John preaches: Prepare Your Heart for the Lord! Your God is coming. Yes, he came once as a little baby and conquered sin. Soon, he will come in his final victory march. Prepare Your Heart for the Lord. Straighten out the rough places. How does John straighten out those rough spots? With God’s Word. That is the tool God gives him. [T]he word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. John preaches law and gospel so that all may see the salvation of your God.
God’s law Shows Our Sins. It holds you (and me) up to God’s holy standard and says, “You have fallen short. Close enough is not good enough. Nor am I asking what you think. I am telling you what you must be.” (Roman 3:23) Stare at that law and you reach the conclusion that you can never approach God by yourself. The law Shows Our Sins, but God’s gospel Shows Our Savior.
“Gospel” means “good news.” John tells us good news: “Jesus walks into spiritually devastated hearts.” He lifts us from the valley of despair over sin. He removes the boulders of guilt. He levels towering hills of shame. Jesus, with his life, has made straight our hearts. With his Word, he carries the good news of salvation.“Salvation” simply means “to deliver” or “to rescue.” Jesus has rescued you (and me) from the hell we deserve. Look at Jesus and you see this is the One God has sent for your future. Jesus is God’s salvation.
How does Jesus’ work enter your life? Through baptism. [John] went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So, why does John baptize? For what purpose? For the purpose of forgiveness. John’s baptism washed hearts clean; it flooded life with forgiveness.
You see, baptism is not something you are doing for God. You are not declaring your commitment to be God’s follower. Nor do you have to be re-baptized because you were too young to remember it. Baptism is something God does for you. God comes to you. God enters your heart. God smoothes outs sin and paves a road that welcomes the Word.
Your baptism has marked you as God’s child. If God’s child, then different from those who want nothing to do with him. It means you will stand out. You might be the only one in your family who worships. You might feel a little uneasy when Christmas concerts intentionally omit any mention of Jesus. People might look at you weird because you have a church home. You may feel out of place. You may feel this pull to behave more like the world, than as God’s child.
Martin Luther wrote in his 95-Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Remember, “repent” means “turn.” Each day you compare your words, thoughts, and actions to God’s commands. When you do wrong, you see it. You admit it. You confess it. You hear God’s forgiveness. God’s Word turns you from what is wrong and faces you to what is right. You turn to see the salvation of your God; and you see that God has delivered you from hell and soon will deliver you into heaven.
That makes a ‘perfect’ Gift. Yes, Jesus is ‘perfect’— and remains perfect, regardless of what anyone thinks of him. Yet, he is your perfect gift. God’s law reveals our sin. We see the need for forgiveness. We see the void of life. The good news is that God has straightened out crooked hearts and has smoothed out the rough spots.
Preparation is key in receiving the ‘perfect’ gift. So, God prepares us for his perfect Gift. He wants you to fully appreciate, to grasp just what it is Jesus comes to do. So, he sends a special messenger to Prepare Your Heart for the Lord! Keep clinging to this perfect Gift. Straighten out the rough places so that you can see the salvation of your God.