Every night we read to our children from the Read-N-Grow Picture Bible and, every once in a while, it catches me off guard. It does a pretty good job of covering most of the Bible but it obviously it has to condense quite a bit. This could sound like a weakness but it actually is its strength. I have discovered patterns and themes from a child’s picture bible that I had not noticed before. Sometimes they are big and span chapters – other times they are short and only cover a few verses. One such short pattern was that of John the Baptist’s message and how he anticipated the arrival of the Lord would be ushered.
John’s mission was to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4) through his “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). He came to clear the way for the Lord’s arrival. John was the fulfillment of the long-awaited Elijah character that every Jewish family looked for at every Passover meal. Elijah would be the sign of God responding to the oppression of His people. I like to view him as a bulldozer that clears the trees, removes the hills, and fills the valleys in order to create a landing strip for a plane to land. In fact, that is almost the exact language of the prophecy he quotes (Luke 3:4-6) from Isaiah 40:3-5;
“…make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
When John had completed his work “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” John came to make God show up and this work was not with hills and valleys but with people. Isaiah did not intend this to be the responsibility of a singular person but of God’s people in general. John was more the “voice” crying to the people to prepare the way (Isaiah 40:3). So, what were the people to do to prepare the way? How was it that they could help make God show up in their lives? How were they to “bear the fruit of repentance” (Luke 3:8)? After the first quote of Isaiah in Luke 3, three different types of people ask that question: the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers. These are not the people you should expect to be open to John’s message. The crowds, maybe, but not the tax collectors or soldiers. You would expect the zealots, the Essenes, the Pharisees, or the general crowds. The spectrum Luke highlights is not simply a coincidental detail. His point is that even these people can and want to prepare the way for the Lord. So how is it that they should respond to usher the arrival of the Lord?
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
– Luke 3:10-14
These three things are how we are to respond for the Lord’s impending arrival: share with those that have none, don’t take advantage of people, and don’t extort people. Where’s the prayer, the worship, the sacrifice, and the Baptist altar call? Indeed, there are proper expressions of these as responses to the Lord, but for John the Baptist the primary way to make God show up was by actively treating our fellow humans rightly. This is not a new idea that John whipped up but rather was birthed from pages of Isaiah just as was his calling. The answer he provides to the first people, the crowds, gives us the clue where he is pulling his material from. He tells them that their proper course of action is to provide clothing and food to those who do not have it. This is the same type of response the Lord makes to his people through the prophet Isaiah;
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
– Isaiah 58:6-7
The discussion was different in this section of Isaiah than that with John’s audience, but the answer is still the same: cloth the naked and feed the hungry. John is calling his audience to a truth that had been revealed long before – if you want God to respond, do the things of God. When we serve those around us, when put back into proper position the things in our world that haven been broken, when we lift those up who have fallen, when we heal those who have been hurt, and when we stop pitting ourselves against each other, that is when God’s presence will be fully realized. John’s mission in life was to inspire people to prepare the way for the Lord – to go before Him to make sure that the people were ready. His message was one of repentance, that is, to return to the life they were always meant to live. It was through the proper treatment and care of others that the way could be cleared for the Lord’s presence. And this is exactly where Isaiah goes next. Look at the very next verses of Isaiah 58:8-12:
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
God is looking for partners. When we align ourselves with His redemptive work in a broken world, He also restores us. When we show up for others, He will also show up. If you’re searching for God’s presence, find someone without a tunic.