“The voice of one crying the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Isaiah 40:3)
The road Jesus traveled was a perilous road, but it was also a prepared road. In one of his most familiar Messianic prophecies, seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God’s prophet, Isaiah, prophesied that God would send a special prophet to prepare the way of the Lord. He did not give him a name, but said he would be a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
That was not a prediction, but a prophecy. Do you understand the difference? Predictions seldom come true, for they are in the final analysis a matter of guesswork. However, prophecies always come true in the fullness of time, for they are God-given. So, when the time was right, according to God’s predetermined plan, a bold prophet of God appeared in the Judean wilderness crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” He was given the name John the Baptist. He was baptizing many believers in the Jordan river and announcing the coming of one much greater than himself, the mighty Messiah whose sandals he would not even be worthy to untie, who would not baptize people with water, but with the Holy Spirit. The day finally came when Jesus came to where John was, along the Jordan river, to launch His ministry by being baptized by him. John hesitated, for he felt so unworthy to baptize the One he knew to be “the Son of God,” destined to become “the Lamb of God, who would take away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29-34)
From that moment on, the road Jesus traveled was a rough road, a road that would take Him finally to the cross. It was a road He could not avoid, with no detours, for He had come into the world for this purpose, to suffer death upon the cross as the one sufficient sacrifice for the salvation of all sinners, for all time. Furthermore, Jesus made it abundantly clear to all prospective disciples that they too must take up the cross and follow Him. He did not make it easy for anyone to become one of His followers. In fact, He spent almost as much time trying to persuade people not to follow Him, as He did to follow Him. He asked, “Are you sure you want to follow me? Have you counted the cost? The birds of the air have their nests, and the foxes have their holes, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” In other words, “Are you prepared to follow One as disenfranchised as I am? Are you ready to deny yourselves, to leave everything else behind, and to not look back? For those who do look back will not be fit for the kingdom of God.”
There is a poem by Leona Gates, In His Steps, that expresses the cost of discipleship so well. It is written in the form of a dialogue between Jesus and one of His future followers, who had found the road he was traveling harder than he had expected it to be:
“The road is rough,” I said, “Dear Lord, there are stones that hurt me so.”
And he said, “Dear child, I understand, I walked it long ago.”
“But there is a cool green path,” I said, “Let me walk there for a time.”
“No child, ” He gently answered me,”The green road does not climb.”
“My burden,” I said, “is far too great, How can I bear it so?”
“My child,” said He, “I remember its weight, I carried my cross, you know.”
“But,” I said, “I wish there were friends with me who would make my way their own.”
“Ah, yes,” he said, “Gethsemane was hard to face alone.”
And so I climbed the stony path, content at last to know
That where my Master had not gone, I would not need to go.
And strangely then I found new friends, the burden grew less sore,
As I remembered long ago, He went that way before.
Yes, for Jesus “…came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” (John 1:11) “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, as one from whom men hide their faces, we esteemed him not (did not consider him worthy of recognition)…He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that makes us whole, and by his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned each to his own way (not a bad definition of sin), and God has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:3-6)
Is it not ridiculous, even blasphemous, to think that the road we travel with Jesus in our own time should be easy? How can the true cost of discipleship, taking up the cross of Jesus, nailing ourselves down to die, being crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20), ever be reconciled with the alien gospel so many contemporary preachers are proclaiming—a prosperity gospel, a gospel of health and wealth, a gospel offering a cushion rather than the cross of Christ?
The Apostle Paul warned young Timothy, “In the last days, distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusers…unholy… swollen with conceit…lovers of pleasure… holding to an outward form of godliness, but denying the power….people will have itching ears, and will no longer put up with sound doctrine….choosing for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth.” (II Timothy 3:1-5, 4:4)
Has that time come? Could these days be the “last days?” I find myself wondering and asking myself this question, for these words of Paul seem to be as relevant for our times, and as descriptive of these times, as any words of scripture could be.