Sermon: Making Crooked Paths Straight

Making Crooked Paths Straight
Luke 3:1-6
December 6, 2015 RUMC

Jimmy had trouble pronouncing the letter “R” and because of this, his teacher gave him a sentence to practice at home.

“Robert gave Richard a rap in the rib for roasting the rabbit so rare.”

Jimmy instead rattled off this phrase.

“Bob gave Dick a poke in the side for not cooking the bunny enough.” 

What did Jimmy do?  He evaded the letter R.

There are a lot of people today, including Christians, who go to great lengths to avoid the “R” word which is ‘repentance.’

In the season of Advent, which means “coming or arrival” this is the time when we are to reflect on our spiritual journey, to make sure we are going in the right direction.

What I would like to do this morning is to relook at the message of John the Baptist with the “R” word, with ‘repentance’ as our main focus.

My text is Luke 3:1-6:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler[a] of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler[b] of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler[c] of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”  This is the word of God.

 Every year in the second week of Advent, we are reintroduced to one of the most colorful characters in the gospels.  John the Baptist was one of these ascetic type of prophets who felt home in the desert.  Strong, courageous and fearless, he was the voice calling in the wilderness.  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth.”

And to those who went out into the desert to hear, they understood its cultural meaning.  In ancient times, when a king was about to visit a city, a messenger would come and notify city leaders that the king was about to come and prepare for his visit.  Workers were then employed to fix the road where the king was to travel on.  When John the Baptist had spoken those words from Isaiah, what he done was take the ancient practice of repairs for the king and apply it to the prophecy of the Messiah that everyone was to prepare one’s heart for the coming of the Lord.

For modern day Christians, in addition to getting our hearts right before God, our valleys might be worry, grief and doubt and to fill the void of our souls, we do it with the awareness of Christ.  Our mountains could be pride or prejudice and when we take steps to correct that, it is like we level the rough edges and turn the crooked paths into straight ones is when we control our temptations and forgive those who hurt us.

But John’s main message was the “R” word or repentance, which means to ‘turn back, change, or turn around.’  In other words, it is a call for us to be intentional in the way we include God in our lives.

In 1949, Evangelist Billy Graham held a series of revival services that lasted 9 weeks and attracted some 350,000 people in Los Angeles.  One person who attended one of the services crusade was the notorious gangster Mickey Cohen.  Mickey was much like Al Capone in the sense that he handled a half a million dollars every day from his organized crime activities.  Because Mickey loved to be around celebrities and liked Billy Graham’s sermon style in the 9000 seat tent, that crusade drew him like a magnet.  As events unfolded, Mickey asked Jesus Christ to come into his heart.

And as you could imagine, the news of Mickey’s conversion had become an overnight sensation, but nothing in Mickey Cohen’s life changed.  He continued to lead the life of a gangster.  When crusade staff confronted Mickey about this, the gangster scolded them and said:  “You did not tell me that I would have to give up my work.  You didn’t tell me I would have to give you my friends.”

You see, Mickey had seen certain actors, actresses, singers, politicians, and sports heroes all sit on the platform with Billy Graham at the crusade where they had been seen by thousands who came night after night.  These celebrities were the ones who had publically proclaimed their Christian faith.  So Mickey figured he could be a Christian gangster.

Many of the people, who came to John the Baptist, came in response to his message of repentance.  In repentance, they changed the direction that they were going, and as proof of that changed life they were baptized.

Maybe you didn’t realize this, but here in this church, true repentance has happened to many.  At one time in our lives, perhaps when we were younger, we went in one direction.  But when we asked Christ in our hearts or found the Lord, we began to move in another and live according to the gospel.

When most people think of repentance, the image is no more fun, but it is not.  I see it as positive.  Repentance is like the U Turn sign.  It is the living proof our lives have been touched by the mercy of God.  If I could use a modern term, it would be like hitting a spiritual reset button.
Those who have invited Christ into their hearts, but their lives have not been changed by the gospel, perhaps need to take that “R” word more seriously.  Mickey Cohen thought he could be a Christian and continue his gangster activities of money laundering, drug running, gambling, extortion, racketeering, prostitution, pay off and bribes.  But the Kingdom of God doesn’t work that way.

I learned early on in my Christian walk, that for Christ to truly live in my heart, he had to be Lord of all my life.  That meant I had to “repent” or do those things that would please him.  When all of us come to church, it is like we come and hit the spiritual reset button, to get us back on track or have our spiritual batteries recharged.

Here is an inspirational story.  It was a bright Sunday morning long ago in London, England, but Robert Robinson’s mood was anything but sunny.  All along the street, people who were hurrying to church, but in the midst of the crowd, Robinson was a lonely man.  The sound of church bells reminded him of years past when his faith in God was strong and the church was an integral part of his life.

But it had been years since he had set foot in a church.  It was a time of disillusionment, and gradual defection from the God he once loved.  That love for God-once fiery and passionate had slowly burned out and now he felt dark and cold inside.

When Robinson saw a horse drawn cab, he lifted his hand to hail the driver.  But when he saw the cab was occupied by a young woman dressed in her finery for the Lord’s Day.  He waved the driver on, but the woman in the carriage ordered the carriage to be stopped.

She said to Robinson, “Sir, I’d be happy to share this carriage with you.  Robinson reluctantly got in.  As the carriage rolled forward, he introduced himself as Robert Robinson, and when he said that, there was a flash of recognition in her eyes.

She said, “That’s an interesting coincidence.”  She reached into her purse and took out a small book of inspirational poems.  She opened it and handed it to him and said.  “I just read a poem by the name of Robert Robinson.  Could it be?”

He took the book and looked at it and said.  “Yes I wrote those words years ago.”  Then the lady said, “Oh how wonderful, imagine I am sharing a carriage with the author of these very lines.”  But Robinson barely heard her.  He just became absorbed in the words that he wrote.

Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace.  Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. 

Then his eyes slipped to the bottom of the page and continued.

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love:  Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for the courts above. 

Robinson’s words were later put to music.  The hymn is called “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing.”  We often sing it here at RUMC.

As Robinson sat in the carriage, he could barely read the last few lines and his eyes were filled with tears.  He said to the woman, I wrote these words and I have lived these words.  Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”

Then the woman suddenly understood, and said “You also wrote, Here’s my heart, O take and seal it” She then said, “Mr. Robinson, you can offer your heart again to God, it’s not too late.”  And it wasn’t too late because in that moment, he turned his heart back to God and walked with the Lord the rest of his days.

That is what repentance is.  It is when we turn in another direction; when we hit the spiritual reset button.

This past Thursday evening, I attended the Narcotics Anonymous meeting that is held in our church and as I listened to the men and women speak of how they turned to God, got off drugs, found a sponsor and began to attend meetings, all those things are like a form of repentance.  It is like filling in the valley, smoothing out the rough edges and taking the straight paths.

John’s message is an invitation for all of us to do some type of spiritual reflection, to take stock of our souls.  To set aside some time to look honestly at our lives and see if we might be out of balance and of course clean out the spiritual trash.

In my opening, I told you about the little boy who avoided the R’s in his speech lesson, but in the Kingdom of God, we cannot avoid the R word.  It is a way to help us get back to harmony and balance, a time to rethink and redo.