In the ancient world the position of forerunner was far more common than we might be familiar with today. As those who ruled the people got further and further from the everyday muck and poverty of their subjects it became increasingly more uncomfortable for them to be reminded of that difference. Thus the role of the forerunner was established. Any time that a king or ruler would need to travel the forerunner would go on ahead to prepare the way. Roads would need to be repaired or even sometimes built so the king would have the smoothest ride possible. People and towns, would need to be cleaned up so as not to offend the aristocratic sensibilities of the king. It was an important position, but the forerunner was never respected for who he was – only for who he heralded.
John the Baptist is himself probably the most well known forerunner in history. “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” John’s message was also strikingly similar “a voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”
John the Baptist was a herald of Jesus, a prophet in a long and distinguished line of prophets. He wore the same dress as the great prophets of the past: camel hair robes and cheap leather bindings. He lived a prophet’s life of poverty and self-denial, wild honey and locusts were not the fare of kings and the nobility. For the better part of a millennium there had been men prophesying the coming Christ, but John was the last, John was the forerunner. Jesus was coming. He was so close that the way had to be prepared, and quick.
Yet John was also very different from the normal concept of a forerunner in several ways. John, unlike most forerunners, was famous of his own accord. He was attracting a large following. He was seen as the first real prophet of God in several hundred years. His dress, his lifestyle, his diet, these were all things that hadn’t been seen in Judea for many generations.
But strangest of all was his message! This man who lived out in the wilderness was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The Jews had heard of baptisms before, anyone who was not born Jews but wanted to become part of God’s chosen people had to be baptized. Never before, though, had any child of Abraham been called upon to be baptized! They already had favour with God, because of their birthright. No Jew had ever before been told that they needed to be baptized to have their sins forgiven. This was the path that John the Baptist had come to make straight. Not some stretch of highway between towns but rather the hearts of people. John’s call to repentance was the means by which he prepared the way for the Lord.
In the same way, we Christians have been called to be forerunners of our Lord. When John preached his message Jesus had already been born but had not yet come into his ministry. As we have gathered here today, Christ has indeed already come. We will celebrate shortly His first coming, as a lowly child, destined to suffer and die. We are his forerunners, however, not because He came, but because He will come again. It is that Second Coming that we need to prepare for now.
We prepare ourselves and others for Jesus’ arrival, we “mak[e] straight paths” by preaching repentance just as John himself did. Repentance isn’t any more enticing today than it was in John’s time. Repentance, we are told by the world, is an archaic, and morally stifling concept like sin and guilt and hell. There is actually a growing movement out there to have such concepts removed from the Christian Faith. Because there is a strong sense of regret tied to the word.
Nobody likes to feel regret. Nobody likes to be told they need to repent. And so, often it’s just easier for us Christians to leave things alone. Just as the Jews of John’s day, we can be complacent in our position as God’s chosen ones. “Let the pastor talk about all that hard-line and controversial material, after all that’s what he gets paid for. People expect a little doom and gloom from people like him, but if I went around telling people to repent I wouldn’t have any friends left. I’d be ridiculed. I’d be shunned. Nobody likes to be “the heavy”. No one is comfortable leaving themselves open to attack.
And yet, in preaching repentance, we are told that John was practically swamped with people from Jerusalem and all over Judea! What gives? Was this just a case of different times, different values? No. When we preach repentance, there is so much more to the message than mere regret. In the Scriptural use of the word repentance, we refer to that looking- back in regret, but also of the heart which then turns from sin and guilt to cleansing and forgiveness by God’s Grace.
Repentance is a source of joy and strength for the Christian. Acts 3:19 reads: “Repent then and turn to God, so the your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Is this something that we can do on our own? Is this repentance to be seen as something that we must first fulfill before God will be gracious to us? If it were, we would not have much call for joy. Repentance is itself, a gift of God, given to us through faith and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is that which has been given to each of us through our baptism in Christ. As John said: “I baptize with water, but He will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” That faith given us through the Holy Spirit claims for its own the suffering and death that our Lord underwent on that cross.
And that leads me to the final difference between John the Baptist and usual forerunners: the Lord who was being proclaimed. As I said earlier this morning, the kings that sent out forerunners had distanced themselves from their subjects. They then used their power and influence to remain at a distance even when they occupied the same place geographically. That was the role of the forerunner, keep the king from experiencing the common man’s muck and poverty.
We too have a Lord who is powerful. But our Lord Jesus Christ used that power not to remain distanced from his people but rather to become one of them! He shared in our muck and poverty. He took upon himself all of that sin and guilt, and paid its price in full. Through his actions our sins are forgiven. The word for forgiven comes from a verb meaning to send away. In Jesus our sins are taken from us and sent so far away that even God will not find them on the Day of Judgment.
We have been called to be forerunners as John the Baptist was. We are to make straight paths for our Lord’s Second Coming by preaching repentance. The camel hair robes and locusts are optional. Truth be told, however, we will often fall short of our calling. In those times we have yet another comfort to be gained from all of this. Because he joined us here in our muck and poverty, we have a sure hope of joining him there in heaven. The one whom we go before, here on earth; has gone before us into heaven. Jesus himself is our forerunner in the kingdom of God. Our God loves us so much that Jesus has gone ahead to prepare our place in heaven for us. As John 14:2-3 reads: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” The way has been made ready. The paths to heaven have been made straight by our Lord and our Forerunner Jesus Christ.