As we prepare the way for Christmas, we look at Luke 3 where John the Baptist is trying to motivate his listeners to change their negative ways and sync up with what God expects of those awaiting the coming Messiah.
In this message Matt challenges us to put serious effort into preparing our hearts and minds for Christmas, as well as gives specific next steps that will encourage that process throughout the days leading to Christmas.
In preparation for Christmas:
Full Sermon Script:
For those of you who are new to Blue Oaks, my name is Matt VanCleave. I’m one of the pastors here.
Let me say a word of prayer before we get to the message.
God, we’re grateful for this season when we get to prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Christ.
Would you protect us from making Christmas about us and neglecting to celebrate the birth of Christ. We don’t want 2019 to be a plastic Christmas.
God, I thank you for this place where we can gather and get perspective.
God, I thank you for people who are new with us at this service, for whom church may be strange and new and uncomfortable. I pray in the next few moments, as your Word is opened, people who are exploring faith will really get something out of this service.
I pray for the weary among us — I pray for those who have had disappointing weeks, that you will lift their spirits by the teaching of your Word.
God, would you speak to us all by your Spirit… and help us listen for your voice amidst the noise.
We pray this in Jesus’ name… and for His sake… and everyone said… Amen.
In my opinion one of the toughest assignments God has ever asked a human being to carry out was the assignment given to John the Baptist in the first century.
Old Testament prophets had been predicting for hundreds of years that someday God was going to interrupt human history, wrap himself in human flesh, and come be with us on this earth.
But as century after century after century came and went, the idea seemed less and less likely… because people didn’t see anyone coming from heaven down to earth.
And then John gets tapped on the shoulder by God.
God says, “I want you to be the one who tells every single person you can get to listen to you that the Messiah is, in fact, coming. And not only is he already on this Earth walking around right now, but his ministry as the Messiah is about ready to kick into high gear. So, John, you tell people it’s game on, right here and right now.”
Now I think John knew this was going to be a tough sell. He could imagine the responses of people: “Right! Our day. Soon. In our lifetime. Like, anytime now he’s going to show up. Where did you get that information, John, and don’t say God told you.”
Who is going to believe John? And why should they?
But God has asked John personally to spread this news, and John decides to bring out the heavy guns first.
One of the most famous and respected Old Testament prophets was Isaiah, and so John reads this text from Isaiah:
Prepare the way for the Lord; make the path straight for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation. Luke 3:4-6
This is Luke 3:4-6, quoting from Isaiah 40:3-5.
This is a prophecy that had been made 700 years earlier. And John is making the point: “I’m quoting the big gun, Isaiah. And I’m telling you, this is going to happen within days.”
Some of you probably wonder what that ancient prophecy really meant — all that imagery about filling in valleys and smoothing out mountains.
It’s poetic, but you wonder does it mean anything.
It was actually a road-building metaphor.
In ancient times when a king announced that he was going to make a visit to a particular village, he would send word ahead to people in that village about when he was going to arrive.
People in the village would immediately start repairing the primitive road on which the king would be traveling.
They would want the king to know that they were so honored by his choosing their village to come to that they would break their backs for weeks, sometimes months, making the incoming road and main street of their town very special.
When Isaiah made this prophecy, he was making the point that the person coming to visit this Earth was a different kind of king.
A king worthy of a cosmic road repair.
A king that deserved the filling in of every valley on the planet.
Smoothing out every mountain peak in the world.
Making the kind of road no one on earth merited to move upon.
This road was to be made, metaphorically, for a king from another world.
And John makes exactly that point as he reviews that prophecy. And then he adds these words — He said,
This king that is coming, I am not worthy to untie his sandals. Luke 3:16
How would we say that in our culture?
To shine his shoes. I would be unworthy to shine his shoes. That’s who’s coming.
And John is making the point that he’s going to swing into action, so people better prepare. And they better prepare on a whole new level than for anything that’s ever happened before in their life. Because the time has come.
Before I move on to the next part of this passage, I want to ask you what preparations would you be making now if you learned that the Messiah was going to come and visit your house or your apartment about four weeks from now? If word came to you that he’s coming to stay with you?
When you go home from church today, would you straighten up anything at the house?
Would you throw anything out that you just wouldn’t want the King to see?
Would you get some stuff fixed to honor the King?
Would you vacuum a little? Would you sweep? Would you wash? Would you paint anything… if God’s Son were coming to your apartment, your house, your condo four weeks from now?
This is what the tradition of Advent asks us to think about.
But instead of us thinking about preparing our house for the coming King…
It’s about preparing our inner lives for what’s about to happen as Christmas comes.
It’s figuring out what needs straightening out in our inner persons.
It’s figuring out what garbage we finally need to throw out of our minds or our hearts.
It’s pondering what needs repair work in our inner worlds, what needs some sweeping up, what needs a thorough washing.
Some of you have reason for wanting to be a little extra prepared for this Christmas season.
For some of you this is the first Christmas you’re going to celebrate since you’ve actually become a Christian, since you’ve actually stepped over the line of faith and trusted Christ as the forgiver of your sin and the leader of your life.
And so you’re preparing for Christmas for the first time as a Christ-follower. This is a special Christas for you. It’s important. And it’s a habit you can develop that will serve you well the rest of your life.
For some of you this is the first Christmas as an engaged couple or as a married couple.
So the question for you is — can you prepare with a partner? How do you both get on the same page in the preparation process? Do you try to do this together? Do you do it alone?
For some of you this is the first time you’re preparing for Christmas as parents of a little one… or as grandparents. Can you prepare as a family? Are there some things you could do together as grandparents, parents, and children? What does that look like?
For some of you this is the first Christmas as a divorced person. You know it’s going to be a whole different thing for you now.
I know people who have lost a spouse over the course of this last year. I’ve actually had a couple of conversations with some people who are preparing to be alone this Christmas for the first time in like fifty years.
But my point is — whatever is happening in you that will make this Christmas different… allow whatever that is to motivate you to better prepare this year.
I’m going to give you some specifics on that in just a few moments, but let’s look back at Luke 3 first.
After John quotes Isaiah 40:3-5, he can read the cynical responses of the people. Isaiah doesn’t impress them very much.
“Make the road straight, the paths smooth and all that — yeah, right.”
And so John the Baptist does what every good prophet does when he gets a bad reaction: he just turns up the prophetic heat.
He’s like, two can play this game.
Look at Luke 3:7-9:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.
The ax is already at the foot of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Luke 3:7-9
I wonder how my pastoral ratings would go if I welcomed you at a given Sunday service: “Merry Christmas, you unrepentant reptiles.”
John is not worried about his polling numbers.
He’s obsessed with the hardness of hearts that he sees in people right in front of him.
He sees their reaction to his message. He can discern the games they’re playing in their minds. So he goes after two of those games.
The first is the lineage game… and the second is the dress-up game.
The lineage game is — “I’m a Jew. I’m a child of Abraham.”
John discerns that some of his listeners are actually saying, “Look, I don’t care who is coming and what his new requirements or expectations are. I’m already a card-carrying member of God’s chosen race, Israel. I’ve got nothing to sweat. So I’m good. I’m in. No worries.”
To which John says: “In the new reality, that Abrahamic membership thing, that Jewish card, is going to count for exactly nothing. These stones will have every bit as much eligibility in the kingdom that’s coming as you have. The kingdom-coming Messiah plays no favorites.”
That thought, in and of itself, would have stopped the average Jew in his tracks.
But John plows ahead and exposes the second game that I’m calling the dress-up game.
Some of the people in the crowd are thinking, “All right, big deal: the Messiah is showing up. All I really have to do is put on a little better religious show. I’ll dress up my act a little bit, as minimally as possible. I’ll pretend that I’m preparing. I’ll look like I’m preparing. I’ll talk like I’m preparing. I’ll fool everyone. Who’s going to know?”
John sees this game being played. And he says: “You’re not even fooling me. I can already see the hardness of your hearts. You think you’re going to fool God in the flesh when he sees your little dress-up game? Bad plan.”
This is what provokes John to say in Luke 3:8: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
His point is this: Genuinely repentant people demonstrate their contrition with changes in their attitudes and behaviors.
In other words it’s more than just talk. It’s more than just dressing stuff up on the outside.
Their lives should begin to produce a new kind of fruit, a fruit that everyone can see and feel and taste.
Anything less is a false repentance and that just won’t cut it, John says, because God is going to see right through the lineage game and he’s going to see right through the dress-up game. Don’t play those games, John says. Don’t play those games.
And I want to gently remind you as we’re all trying to prepare ourselves for Christmas that God can see through any game I’m playing or any game you’re playing if we’re only pretending to get our hearts ready for Christmas.
He knows — he actually knows — if we’re spending more time decorating our houses than we are discerning the true condition of our hearts.
He knows if we’re really more worried about Christmas parties going right or gift-buying adventures going well than we are making sure that our relationship with him is right and well.
He sees through all of this. He knows if we’re preparing or not.
Studying this text this week has been quite profitable for me on the personal side.
December is typically the most intense month of my year. And I think any teaching pastor would agree with that. It’s pretty much full-on every day and night from December 1 through Christmas.
And I had a wake-up call this past Monday because of this very text.
It was like I could hear God whispering to me:
“Matt, is this going to be another December when you’re full-on for the church and you’re full-on for all those Christmas Eve services and you’re full-on for parties, and compassion ministries, and friends and family, and all those gatherings?
“Is this another one of those Decembers when you realize on December 26th that you did it again — when you realize you did the Christmas season, but you just didn’t do it with me as closely as perhaps you wanted to.
“When you realize you did a lot of stuff. It’s just that you did it with more anxiety or you did it with less joy than would have been possible had you done it a little differently.”
I was really convicted by that, so I made a deal with God —
“Not this year, God. It’s you first this Christmas. It’s us together first this Christmas. It’s being full-on with you first, God, and trusting with your help that these other things can get done.”
I wonder how many of you have a to-do list on your refrigerator, a list in your journal, a list on your phone — stuff you’ve got to get done.
Anyone deciding these days that maybe what needs to get done most…
is to create space and time to be with God
and to think new thoughts about him
and to open up your spirit in new ways to him
and to figure out new relating patterns to this Christ that you’ve given your life to
At the end of this message, I’m going to give some of the most specific next steps that I possibly can for those of you who mean business as I do this year — of this being a God-first-on-my-list Christmas… not God-last-on-my-list Christmas.
Alright, let’s look back at the Gospel of Luke.
Believe it or not, John’s words start to penetrate the hearts of some of the people who are listening that day. They start getting convicted by his words.
They cry out in Luke 3:10:
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. Luke 3:10
“You’re killing us, John. Your words are making sense. If this is all true, what should we do?”
And John answers with very specific action in verse 11:
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Luke 3:11
Share your food with those who have none.
This is very interesting.
How will the Messiah know if you are actually preparing for his arrival?
By how you’re caring for the poor.
“Because that’s what’s going to be one of his highest priorities when he begins his ministry,” John says.
So let the Messiah know now that you’re getting on the same page with him as his arrival is coming soon.
Start syncing up with his program now, so that upon his arrival you’re both on the same page, caring about the same stuff.
I have a word of commendation and challenge for you all on this one.
First the commendation.
God has seen the beautiful fruit, and I mean it’s beautiful, in the lives of all of you who have been involved in compassion initiatives over the course of this past year — those of you involved in supporting one of our Compassion partner organizations.
God saw all of what you’ve done and noticed that you’re getting synced up to what matters most to his heart. You’re getting on his page of caring for the poor. I don’t know the number of volunteer hours, but I know the stories. And there are a lot of them.
And I know we as a church have given over $500,000 to our Compassion partners this year.
Our budget is a little over 2 million so that’s a significant amount.
And that doesn’t include what you give directly to those organizations, or the kids you sponsor through Compassion International.
God notices what this church is doing to make a difference in this world.
God also probably notices those of you who are still playing lineage games or dress-up games about the plight of the poor.
It’s not enough for you to come to this church and to brag to your friends about all the fantastic work with under-resourced people locally and globally that our church does, when truth be told, you haven’t gotten in the game yourself.
You’ve never volunteered.
You didn’t step up.
You didn’t serve anyone.
You didn’t give anything.
You’re just really glad you’re part of a church that’s doing some cool stuff.
There’s a difference.
Are you playing dress-up? Are you saying, “Hey, I’m a Christian. I don’t have to be on the same page with God on every little thing.”
But you really kind of do if you really want to prepare.
Allow me to be about as candid as John the Baptist would be.
Are you just playing dress-up? Or are you really getting synced up with God on these matters and is there really a change of heart that’s coming over you over time? Because that’s what he looks for, of course.
John says compassion for the poor and generosity are ways to make sure your heart is getting synced up with the coming King.
But then he talks real rapidly to two more groups of people: tax collectors and soldiers.
They cry out: What should we do.
To the tax collectors who always overcharged people and skimmed money for themselves, John says in Luke 3:13,
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” Luke 3:13
No more gouging people.
No more deceit.
No more deliberately deceiving people for personal gain.
It all stops now. Do your job with integrity. It matters. God sees it. The coming Messiah will expect total integrity from his followers, so get on that page now.
I want to say this again because we need to be reminded: If you’re preparing for the coming of the King, the King is a King of integrity.
If you’re involved in any deal that’s slippery ethically, if you’re involved in any kind of financial or other deceit at work…
If you’re going to do the real business of getting prepared for this Christmas…
You’ve got to eliminate deceit from your life.
You’ve got to get out of the deals that compromise your integrity.
You’ve got to go into work and sit down with the boss or someone else and say it has to end and you can’t be part of it anymore.
Because the King that’s coming and that you want to get on the same page with is all about integrity.
Alright, look at Luke 3:14
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
In the first century, soldiers were often bullies who hid behind their uniform. They intimidated people and they ripped people off however they felt like it. It was obscene.
John said, “All that stuff has to stop. The Messiah will be asking two questions the whole time he’s on this Earth. He’ll be asking two questions: Do you love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? And do you love people?”
“So you’ve got to stop intimidating people. You’ve got to stop extorting from people. Just keep asking yourself every day wherever you are: Am I loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength? Am I loving people—radically? Because if I’m loving God and loving people, I’m getting on the same page that the coming Messiah is already on and I’ll be all synced up with him, ready to go when he comes.”
Alright, I want to read the final words of John in this passage… how he ends the conversation with the people that day.
He says these words, which I just think are awesome.
One who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. Luke 3:16
John just kind of shakes his head, and he might have dropped to his knees. We don’t have that information.
But he’s essentially saying:
You have no idea how good the coming Messiah really is.
You have no idea how kind he is, how thoughtful, how self-giving, even self-sacrificing.
You have no idea how good this coming Messiah is. I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals.
You have no idea how righteous and holy and just and pure he is. Because if you did, man, you’d sync up with him.
You’d stop a whole bunch of stuff because you’d realize how holy he is.
You have no idea how courageous and fearless this Messiah is going to be. Or how ferociously committed to the poor and the marginalized he’s going to be. Man, you wait.
And you have no idea how much impact he’s going to have on this planet for the next season of time. History is going to divide itself, B.C. and A.D.; and his followers are going to become his hands and feet after his ascension. They’re going to build churches and schools and hospitals and universities in his name. They’re going to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and welcome the strangers in his name.
John is saying: You have no idea who is coming. There has never been and will never be anyone like the one who’s coming.
So get prepared.
Start syncing up now. Get on the page now, so that you’re all just right by the time of his arrival.
I want to close this message by giving you some practical next steps.
Some of you feel the stirring that I felt this week, and you’re going: Man, I’ve just been playing dress-up; I’m not preparing really. God is nowhere near the top of my to-do list this Christmas.
So here are some suggestions I want you to consider.
Maybe you need to bow your head and just let the Holy Spirit talk to you right now.
Get a Christmas devotional of some kind. A little Christmas devotional book. Or start a devotional reading from the Youversion Bible app. There are a number of good ones.
Read a short devotional each day.
If you think about it, new attitudes and new behaviors are driven by new thoughts and new knowledge of God. You’ve got to be reading something fresh, loading your brain with something new and replenishing about God.
I started a plan this week called Names of God where I’ll look at various different names of God and their meaning leading up to Christmas.
I read it this morning. The name was Jehovah Jireh — my provider. God knows me so intimately and completely that he knows exactly what I need and don’t need. I need to surrender each day to him and trust that he will provide… in His perfect timing.
Do you need to get something like that to spur new thoughts about God so that each day leading up to Christmas, you’re thinking about those new thoughts?
A second challenge: Fill your car, your house, your office, fill every environment you’re in with Christmas worship music.
Every time you go in the house this time of year, flip on worshipful Christmas music so that you’re reminded who you’re trying to get synced up with.
Think of a random act of kindness or generosity that you could do in the name of Jesus for someone who is marginalized or forgotten or overlooked in this world.
And make it completely anonymous.
Think of something you could do for someone who’s always overlooked. And just do it in the name of Jesus.
That’s preparing your heart for his coming.
Anything in your heart need an old-fashioned cleansing? Do you need to sweep anything out? Do you need to take out the garbage?
Is there anything physically in your house that wouldn’t be right to be there if the King were actually coming to your house?
Would you make a covenant with God right now that when you walk in the door after this service, you’re going to identify that garbage and it’s going in the dumpster. It’s gone from the house. Sweep out that kind of junk so there’s more space for God to dwell.
Have you sat down privately with God yet and said: “God, this year is a God-first Christmas. Speak to me, God, during this Christmas and I’ll listen and obey.”
I think if you will take some of these simple steps and do them if God leads you, it will be a very different Christmas for you.
Now I’m going to let you do some business with God about the challenges I just gave you.
Some of you might want to sit here for a couple minutes.
Do some preparation before you leave here today. Make some commitments while you’re here, in the house of God, with the Spirit of God at work.
Just check a couple things on the next step card that you’re going to do to prepare.
Alright, let me pray for you while the band comes to lead us in one more song.