Both of my parents love to work outside in the yard. They always have. Although we moved into the first house I remember when it was brand new on a muddy, messy plot of recently constructed ground, as far back as I can picture my parents’ yard has always been bursting with botanicals, vegetables, stepping stones and rock borders. They’re so good at it, and they both love it. We only lived on a third of an acre in Suburbia, VA, but my dad had stored under our gazebo the prized possession of a bright orange rototiller. Saturday mornings he was invariably outside shoveling, pick axing, hauling or on his favorite days, plowing our little plot of land for some new horticultural venture.
I still remember so clearly the look of solemn satisfaction the day he rented a bobcat rototiller for a bigger job in the back yard (this resembles a small bulldozer, but the front has a long roller of spikes that churn the soil ahead of it). If you know my dad, you can picture his face – not quite a smile, but there’s a depth of delight in his eyes. He was going to break up some serious ground today!
I’ve spent the last few weeks digging in to the book of Malachi, and now that it’s two days until Christmas I’m directing my attention to the familiar Christmas story, trying to see what connections there are to what I’ve been studying. I’ve been thinking a lot about John the Baptist. Malachi speaks of the coming of a messenger before the Messiah appears, and the question was posed “How did Elijah [later we know this is John] prepare the way for Messiah, and why was his ministry essential (see Malachi 3:1-2)?
I just kept thinking of that one word: Prepare.
How was he supposed to prepare the way? Why did he need to prepare the way?
I looked back at one of the more common passages that foretold about this messenger sent to "prepare the way". Isaiah 40:3-5
A voice of one calling: In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low. The rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
And it dawned on me: John was the rototiller. His entire purpose was to break up the hardened ground before the seed, the Word of God, was scattered.
I looked up “why it’s important to till/plow”. Here are some farming tidbits:
- it increases decomposition
- you can easily add nutrients from organic material into the soil (manure is rich in nitrogen)
- it helps control weeds
- it breaks up crusted soil
- it loosens the area for planting
- it creates air pockets which facilitates air and water penetration
See, my parents understood that they could plant whatever they wanted wherever they wanted. They could throw flower seeds over the grass, they could plant bulbs every 6”, they could even strap a seedling to a stick in the ground, but if that ground was hard, there would be no fruit. Since my parents wanted to see their gardens grow, they prepared the ground.
God didn’t send Jesus simply to condemn the hardened people of Israel. He wanted to see them receive Christ and be fruitful. It was always God’s plan to send Jesus, but in His mercy, He sent one ahead of Christ to prepare the hardened ground of Israel to receive him. John’s name actually means “God is gracious.”
“Repent!” John cried out! “Repent.” Digging, churning, preparing the way for the one who would soon come and say “No one comes to the Father except through me.” After 400 years of not hearing from God, the ground of Israel’s hearts had certainly hardened. But in God’s grace and mercy, He sent a rototiller to break through, that there might be fruitful growth.
I’m praising God for John in a new way today. Praising God for His mercy in sending one to prepare the way. I’m praising God for Jesus’ rototiller cousin.
Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”
They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
Now some Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”
So “How did Elijah (John) prepare the way for Messiah, and why was his ministry essential?” Because God is a merciful, gracious God, and he sent a rototiller before the seed so that the hardened, anemic ground might bear fruit. Praise God for John. God is, indeed, gracious.