Luk_3:4-6. It is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
THERE is an abruptness in the language of the prophets, which, though it sometimes casts an obscurity over their writings, often gives them very peculiar force and energy. This may be noticed particularly in the passage referred to in our text. At the beginning of the fortieth chapter of his prophecies, Isaiah, without any particular intimation of it breaks forth into a distinct subject, which from that time occupies his chief attention. He has indeed in the preceding chapters occasionally spoken of the Redeemer’s kingdom: but from the beginning of this chapter he almost loses sight of the deliverance from Babylon, and dwells, even in the primary sense of his words, on the more important deliverance of men from their bondage to sin and Satan. He informs us [Note: ver. 1, 2.] that God had commissioned him to comfort his drooping people with assured prospects of his returning favour through the intervention of the Messiah. Then, passing over eight hundred years as scarcely more than a single day, he seems to himself to hear the very voice of Christ’s forerunner, and to see him occupied in preparing the Messiah’s way: and then, with a confident expectation that God’s word should stand, he predicts the ultimate and universal establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom.
The passage is quoted by St. Luke as actually fulfilled in the preaching of John the Baptist; and it may well be considered as of peculiar importance, since it is quoted by all the Four Evangelists. In considering it, we shall be led to shew,
What are the chief obstructions to our Redeemer’s kingdom—
Some there were peculiar to the apostolic age—
[The Jews were so attached to Moses and their law, that they could not endure any thing which appeared to weaken their authority, and to transfer the people’s regard to any other teacher. Knowing that their religion was from God, and not aware that it was intended only to be of temporary duration, they accounted it the vilest blasphemy to speak of the ministry of the one, or the authority of the other, being superseded.
They had also very erroneous notions of the Messiah’s kingdom: they supposed he would be a great temporal prince, who would deliver them from the Roman yoke, and raise their nation to the highest pinnacle of human grandeur. Hence they were quite indignant that a poor despised Nazarene, who himself their Messiah.
These prejudices greatly obstructed the establishment of Christ’s kingdom among them, and proved an almost insurmountable bar to their conversion.
Nor were the Gentiles in a state more favourable than the Jews. They were addicted to the vilest lusts, the grossest superstition, the most confirmed idolatry. The more learned among them were still further from the kingdom of God, and more hostile to it, on account of their philosophic pride, which led them to reject every thing which did not savour of human wisdom, and the Gospel especially, which appeared to them so repugnant to it. To be saved by a man who was crucified, and therefore apparently unable to save himself, was in their eyes a most flagrant absurdity.
Thus St. Paul informs us, that “the preaching of the cross was to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness.”]
But there are others, which are common to all ages—
[It is not needful to distinguish between the different parts of the imagery, whereby these obstructions are described; else we might see in the elations of pride, the stubbornness of passion, and the gloominess of despondency, a correspondence between the terms that are used, and the obstacles that are depicted. Certain it is, without intending to refine upon the text, that these are the most common impediments to the establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom.
Men will not endure to be told that they are justly obnoxious to the wrath of God, and utterly incapable of saving themselves; and that all, the best as much as the worst, must be indebted to the Lord Jesus Christ for all their hope and all their salvation. The pride of the human heart rises against this, and turns from it with disgust. The lusts and passions of men also are averse to the dominion of Christ: they hate controul: they will not submit to the restraints of the Gospel: to have them mortified, is like the plucking out of a right eye, or the cutting off of a right hand: the spiritual, as well as the fleshly, filthiness that is in us, pleads for indulgence: and every disposition of the mind, as well as every appetite of the body, sets itself against the authority of Christ, and rejects his yoke.
But besides these, which are the more obvious impediments to the Gospel, there are some others, which, though little noticed, are both powerful and common. There is in most men a tendency to despair. Whilst the unbelief of some leads them to despise the Gospel as an idle tale, in others, it operates to keep them back from embracing it, under an idea, that they never can be brought to the state that it requires. Either their guilt appears too great to be forgiven, or their lusts too strong to be subdued, or their circumstances so peculiar, as not to admit of so great a change in all the habits of their life.
These are obstacles which we all feel in a greater or less degree; and which must be removed, before Christ can enter freely into our hearts.]
That a view of these things may not discourage us, let us consider,
How they are to be removed—
As there were some peculiar obstacles in the apostolic age, so were there also peculiar circumstances calculated to remove them—
[The general expectation of the Messiah, which prevailed about the time of his coming, certainly tended to prepare his way. The preaching of John the Baptist, who with holy firmness laid his axe to the root of Pharisaic pride and hypocrisy, awakened a great and general attention to religion [Note: Mat_3:5-6.], insomuch that many doubted whether he were not the Messiah himself. The ministry of Christ also produced a general sensation through the Jewish land: the holiness of his life, the wisdom and authority of his words, and the number and beneficence of his miracles, wrought conviction upon the minds of thousands, and drove his enemies to the necessity of putting him to death, or of leaving him in the uncontrolled possession of universal influence. The ministry of the Apostles, confirmed as it was by the descent of the Holy Ghost, by the gift of tongues, and by miracles unnumbered, had yet greater effect: it bore down all opposition, and triumphed over the united powers of earth and hell. The universal extension of the Roman empire contributed also not a little to the facilitating of the establishment of the Redeemer’s kingdom; since it gave to the Apostles an easy communication both with Jews and Gentiles throughout the world, in almost every part of which the Jewish Scriptures had already prepared their way.]
But it is of more practical importance to shew how our difficulties are to be removed—
[As these are the same in every age, so the means of removing them are such as are open to the use of all. We need notice only two; and these are, repentance and faith. Repentance is the great leveller of all obstructions: it “humbles the loftiness of man,” and “brings into captivity every thought that exalts itself against the knowledge of Christ.” Wherever real penitence exists, it brings the soul into the dust before God. No longer is the Gospel deemed unnecessary or severe: the penitent sees, that without it he must inevitably perish. Whether he have been more or less moral, he is equally disposed to smite on his breast and cry for mercy. His vain conceits of his own goodness all vanish; and, instead of despising others as inferior to him in sanctity, he accounts himself rather “the chief of sinners.” And it deserves particular attention, that the Baptist himself prescribed this as the very first and principal means of smoothing the way for the reception of Christ [Note: ver. 3.].
The next means, and that which renders the other effectual, is faith. This, no less than repentance itself, is an universal leveller. If repentance brings down the hills and mountains, faith exalts the valleys, straightens the crooked paths, and smooths the rough. Wonderful indeed is the efficacy of humble faith: it dissipates at once all desponding fears: the things which appeared utterly insurmountable, now become plain and easy: the blood of Christ is acknowledged as sufficient to cleanse them from all sin; and the grace of Christ as sufficient to make them victorious over every enemy. It is remarkable that our blessed Lord, on his first entrance on his ministry, united this with repentance, as the grand, the effectual expedient for establishing his kingdom in the world [Note: Mar_1:15.]. And his Apostles after him continued to further his interests in the very same way: they preached everywhere “repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”]
To stir us up to that exertion which is necessary, let us contemplate,
The blessed consequences of their removal—
The manifestation of Christ’s glory is that which ever did, and ever shall, follow the removal of those things which have hitherto veiled him in obscurity.
See how it was on his first appearance—
[The clouds which surrounded him, concealed in a measure the bright effulgence of his rays: his humble birth, his mean appearance, the contempt and abhorrence in which he was held, all tended to cast a veil over his divine majesty: yet even then his own more immediate Disciples “beheld his glory, as the glory of the only-begotten of the Father.”]
See it more particularly after the day of Pentecost—
[Till that time his very Apostles saw but very imperfectly the nature of that kingdom which Christ came to establish: but when the Holy Ghost had opened their eyes, and had sealed their testimony on the hearts of others, what a splendour beamed from the countenance of our incarnate God! Then it was seen, that he who had been “crucified, was the Lord of glory,” the brightness of the Father’s glory, and the “express image of his person.” Every eye looked to him: every heart trusted in him: every soul “received out of his fulness grace for grace.” He was that object which, if I may so speak, was the centre and circumference of the globe: in him all united; and beyond him none aspired. “In him the whole body of believers, collectively and individually, were complete.”]
See it at this hour—
[Who is loved? who is honoured? who is served? who is glorified, wherever the Gospel prevails? who, but that adorable Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ? Those who once saw “no beauty or comeliness in him for which he was to be desired,” now behold him as “fairer than ten thousand, and altogether lovely.” “He is truly precious” to their souls; and to call him “their Friend and their Beloved,” is the highest object of their ambition, or, rather, the only thing about which they have any material concern. It is the same in every quarter of the world: it is the same amongst high and low, rich and poor, learned and unlearned: if “God have shined into their heart to give them the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” they “determine to know nothing else,” to“glory in nothing else:” “this is all their salvation, and all their desire.”]
But who can tell what it shall be in the latter days?
[The text informs us, that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Hitherto, notwithstanding all the efforts that have been used to spread the Gospel, darkness very generally prevails, and the obstacles to the Redeemer’s kingdom are but partially removed. But the day is near at hand, when “all nations shall serve him,” and “all people shall know him from the least of them to the greatest.” Yes, “the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it;” and therefore it shall assuredly come to pass. Obstructions there are, no doubt, both great and numerous: but “before Zerubbabel the mountains shall become a plain.” The extension of vital Christianity through the world is not more incredible than the establishment which it has already gained in the earth; especially when we consider, that, what has been already done, is, under God, the work of a few unlettered fishermen. O that that day may appear! O that God would “hasten it in his time!”]
[As “a voice crying in this our wilderness,” I would now say to you, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” He has entered into the world: he has established his kingdom among men; he now “stands and knocks at the door of your hearts,” and desires admission into them. O think what is it that obstructs his entrance into your hearts? Is it a proud conceit of your own goodness? Let this mountain be brought low, comparing your lives with the demands of God’s holy law. Is it an inveterate love of sin, and of this present world? let it give way to penitence and faith, that your path may be plain and smooth. Is it a doubt of the practicability of your salvation? Rely on Christ: “all things are possible to him that believeth.”
Perhaps you will say, that “a preparation of heart must be from the Lord:”true; but it must be sought by you in the daily exercise of meditation and prayer. If you need any incentive to these duties, do but reflect upon the benefits resulting from them: think of a revelation of Christ to your soul! think of his glory exhibited to the eyes of your mind, and shining with increasing brightness to the perfect day! think too in how little a time you will “see him as he is,” and “be with him for ever!” Dearly beloved, beg of God to “take the stumbling-blocks out of your way:” he is the same gracious God as ever he was; and if you cry unto him “he will make an high-way for you, like as he did for Israel in the day that he brought them out of the land of Egypt [Note: Isa_11:16.];” he “will make darkness light before you, and crooked things straight: these things will he do unto you, and not forsake you [Note: Isa_42:16.].”]