1. Preparing the Way (verses 2-3)
2. Preparing the Hearts (verses 4-8)

We just finished our Christmas season, with all of its songs and festivities. One of the songs that was sung during the Christmas season was that famous hymn of Isaac Watts: Joy to the World. I know that you know the words, ...

Joy to the world! The Lord is come:
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing.
And heaven and nature sing.
And heaven ...
and heaven and nature sing.

The call in this song is for joy. Joy to the world! "Let ... heaven and nature sing!"

Now, there is a reason for the joy. The joy comes because Jesus has come! The king has come to earth! "Joy to the world! The Lord is come!" It’s how the stanza begins and ends. "Joy to the world!The Lord is come: ... Let ... heaven and nature sing." But, there’s another theme in these words. They come in the middle of the stanza. "Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare Him room."

When a guest is coming for dinner, you make preparations in your home. When relatives are coming from out of state, you make preparations for their arrival. When a special guest is coming to speak at your organization, you make preparations for his coming. And when Jesus comes to earth, there are some preparations that must take place.

What was true in the first century is true in the day in which we live as well. We need to be prepared for the coming of Jesus. We need to be prepared for the second coming of Jesus. If you knew that Jesus would return tomorrow, how would you act? What sort of preparations would you make? Would you pray? Would you read your Bible? Would you repent of sin? Would you speak with others? Would you confess your sins and seek to be right with God?

I remember a business man that I knew. He was a very influential business man. He was a godly, Christian leader, who had done much good for the cause of Christ. But, he had a medical condition with his heart that debilitated him. As a last hope, he underwent a heart surgery. He knew that the surgery was difficult and that he might not survive the surgery. So, before he underwent the knife, I heard that he worked the phones, calling people that he knew, with whom he experienced conflict. He sought to make things right with them. He was seeking to clear his conscience before his surgery. As it turns out, he died quickly after the surgery and entered glory with His Savior. Is that how you would act if you knew that Jesus would return tomorrow?

Well, that question is the thrust of the application that will come out of our text this morning. I have entitled my message, "Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room" (from Isaac Watts’ hymn). That’s what was taking place in the days before Jesus came. That’s the call for us today in our own hearts -- to prepare Him room in our hearts.

Our text this morning begins in Mark, chapter 1, verse 2 and continues down through verse 8. It gives the account of John the Baptist. It gives the account of John the Baptist preparing the way for the coming of Jesus (who comes in verse 9). Let me read the text for you this morning.

Mark 1:2-8
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

"Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the LORD,
make his paths straight.’"

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey. And he was preaching, and saying, "After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Indeed, this is the "beginning" of the gospel of Jesus Christ (verse 1). The stage was being set for His arrival upon the scene. The main message of these verses is clear. The Messiah is coming, so get ready. This is the message of the prophets (verses 2-3). This is the message of John the Baptist (verses 4-8).

My first point comes in verses 2 and 3, ...
1. Preparing the Way (verses 2-3)

This was the prophesied role of John the Baptist. I get this from verses 2 and 3, ...

Mark 1:2-3
"Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the LORD,
make his paths straight.’"

When Jesus came to earth, it was no great surprise. The prophets of old had anticipated that the Messiah would come. The prophets had written of His coming. And before He would come, one would come before Him to prepare the way for Him. All four gospels identify this man as John the Baptist. All four gospels quote the same Scripture, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make ready the way of the Lord" (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:2; Luke 3:4; John 1:23).

This quote comes from Malachi, chapter 3, verse 1, in which Malachi is prophesying of the coming of the Lord. The verse continues in Malachi, "And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming" (Mal. 3:1). Indeed, this took place. Shortly after the appearing of John the Baptist, Jesus came into the temple. Jesus came, just as had been prophesied.

It was John’s job to be the forerunner to the Messiah -- to announce His arrival. He was, as it says there in verse 3, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’" These words come from Isaiah, chapter 40, verse 3. Which, again, like the quotation in verse 2, describes the preparation that must take place before the Lord comes.

It says in the next verse, ...

Isaiah 40:4
Let every valley be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill be made low;
And let the rough ground become a plain,
And the rugged terrain a broad valley.

These words describe what it meant to "make His paths straight." The idea is that the way must be smoothed out before the Messiah comes, that He might be received with joy!

Now, if you have been paying attention, you might have a question here. Mark says that Isaiah wrote these words. But, Steve, you said that verse 2 was from Malachi and verse 3 was from Isaiah. Isn’t that a problem? Not really. Well, it’s a problem if you don’t know how the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament, and expect them to quote their sources exactly, word for word, like we are taught in our schools today. There were no chapters and no verses until about 1,000 years later.

The writers of the New Testament are often very loose in the way that they refer to the Old Testament. And in this instance, Mark gives credit to the dominant prophet, rather than worrying about the details of the two prophets. I don’t think that Mark only mentions Isaiah because he didn’t realize that Malachi contained one of the quotes. I think that he knew. He was just like his contemporaries. (See Matt. 27:9-10.)

But, regardless of how Mark introduces these quotes, both of these quotations were well-known to the Jews of Mark’s day. There is no doubt that they exist in the Old Testament. There is no doubt that they predicted the coming of Christ, hundreds of years before He came. Malachi prophesied somewhere around 400 B. C. Isaiah prophesied somewhere around 700 B. C. Now, if you look carefully, you will notice that these prophets don’t actually speak of Jesus. Rather, they speak of the one who would come before Jesus. They speak of the forerunner.

In ancient times, it was customary for messengers to come before a king and announce his arrival. Kings often sent pioneers ahead of them to remove any obstacles in their way as they arrived at a particular destination. The same is true of the Messiah. Before His arrival, one would come to announce his arrival. But, this is more than merely announcing the arrival of a king. This is "preparing" the way. Look again at the role of John the Baptist. Verse 2 says that he will prepare the way. Verse 3 says that he will make ready the way; he will make straight the paths.

Here in the United States, we have an agency of the government called the Secret Service. Their task is to guard the president and prepare the way for his travels. Wherever the President is going, the Secret Service will arrive hours or days ahead of time to secure his arrival at a particular place. They will section off streets. They will section off buildings. They will perform security checks. All of this is to prepare the way. Then, upon his actual arrival, there is often an announcement: "Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States of America." Then, the Presidential music begins to play.

This is a bit like the role of the one announcing the coming of Jesus. Rather than saying, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States," this one would say, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Messiah, who came to redeem Israel." Preparing the way for the president of the United States is important, but preparing the way for the Messiah, was much more important.

Let’s look further into how exactly this way will be prepared. It’s not with security. It’s with earth-moving equipment. I brought a toy earth-mover today. You may call it a bull-dozer or a loader. These types of machines literally move the earth to prepare it for something else. They re-shape it. They can make it smoother and straighter than it was before. That’s the idea here of "making His paths straight" (verse 3). Every valley is lifted up. Every mountain is made low. The rough ground is made into a plain. The rugged terrain is made into a broad valley (Is. 40:4).

Now, obviously, this is symbolic. John the Baptist didn’t come with a bull-dozer before Jesus came. Rather, he came preparing the hearts of the people, "Let earth receive her king!"

That is my second point, ...
2. Preparing the Hearts (verses 4-8)

Really, the points of my message are the same. One speaks of the general task of the fore-runner. The other speaks of the specifics of how John did this. John did this by preparing the hearts of those who were awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. We see the detail in verse 4.

Mark 1:4
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John is identified here simply as "the Baptist." Literally, this is, "the baptizer." That is because his work consisted of "baptizing" people.

Baptism, simply means, "Immersion." It means, "dunking." It means "engulfing." It means, "getting people wet all over."

In ancient literature, over and over and over again, "baptism" is used to describe the state of ships that have sunk and are on the bottom of the sea. The word is used to describe soldiers passing through the river. They were "baptized as far as their waist." [1] In other words, those parts of their body that were under water were baptized, but not the parts above water. When a flood came upon a region, some of the animals were "baptized" and drowned, while others escaped to high ground and were saved. [2]When objects floated on top of the water, they as said, "not to be baptized, but to be lifted out." [3]

John was receiving those who came to him and was immersing them in water. Now, we read in verse 4 that John was doing this "in the wilderness." This ties us back to verse 3, in which the forerunner would be identified as being "in the wilderness." According to John 3:23, we know that He was baptizing in the Jordan river, east of Jerusalem, "because there was much water there." As you trace John’s ministry in the other gospel accounts, you discover that his ministry drifted from place to place, up and down the Jordan (John 1:28; 3:23).

We read there in verse 4 that he was "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." In other words, John was preaching that people would turn from their sins, and call upon the Lord. As a sign of their repentance and forgiveness and cleansing, he was baptizing them. He was dunking them in the Jordan river. John’s ministry was one of preparing the hearts of the people, softening them for the coming of Christ. Nothing softens the heart like confession of sin.

In verse 5, we see a bit more detail given, ...

Mark 1:5
And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

John was taking people and dunking them in the water as a sign of spiritual cleansing. This wasn't simply a bath for anyone who wanted to join the party. No, John was baptizing those who responded to his message (verse 4). John was baptizing those who repented of their sins (verse 4). John was baptizing those who were confessing their sins (verse 5).

Let’s make it clear here that the water itself didn’t cleanse the people. Rather, it was a sign that they had been cleansed -- a result of their repentance -- exactly what was needed in the hearts of people to receive the Messiah. This concept here carries through to the practice of the early church, which we practice at Rock Valley Bible Church -- believer’s baptism. When people come to faith in Christ, the Scriptures are clear, they ought to be baptized.

Look back a page in your Bible to Matthew 28. The last three verses of this chapter are called, "The Great Commission." They are Jesus’ final instructions to us.

Matthew 28:18-20
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

I trust that you see a subtle difference between John’s ministry and the ministry that Jesus calls us to do. John was one of receiving the multitude. But, we are to be in the business of going to the multitude, going into "all the nations." As we go, we are to "make disciples." You make disciples by preaching the gospel, and calling people to believe in Christ. When they believe, we are to baptize them and teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded us to do.

We don’t have time today, but all you need to do is take the book of Acts and walk through it, looking for those who believe. As people believe in Christ, they are quickly baptized by immersion. And those who are baptized have first believed. (If you are curious, you may read my sermon here, entitled, "Water Baptism" in which I look at the baptism passages in Acts to prove my point.) This, by the way, is why we don’t practice infant baptism. Because infants don’t believe. We baptize those who believe. But more specifically, we baptize those who repent (verse 4). We baptize those who confess their sins (verse 5).

We don’t have a baptismal font here at the church building. So, our practice has been that we gather at Olson Lake to do our baptisms. It’s a very public thing, just like John’s baptism. It’s there for all to see. It’s there for all to hear. All hear those who give testimony to their saving faith in Christ, what they were like before coming to Christ, how they came to Christ, how God has worked in their life to change them. Those who testify to these things, we take out into the water and dunk them as a sign of the cleansing that they have experienced in Christ.

And I just say this: If you have repented of your sins, and have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, and have cried out to Him, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner," but have not been baptized, you should change that. You should walk in obedience to the Lord and do what He says. He calls you to be baptized. So, if this is you, come and talk with me and we can arrange your baptism this summer. It’s always a great time of rejoicing.

And there were many rejoicing on the shores of the Jordan river when John was baptizing people. Look at how popular John the Baptist was.

Mark 1:5
And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem;

Now, obviously, there is certainly some hyperbole here. Jerusalem wasn’t left desolate in the days of John the Baptist. But, crowds were coming to see him! Picture thousands of people along the riverside. Picture scores and scores of people being baptized as they confessed their sins. And it wasn’t an easy trek out to see him. From Jerusalem to the Jordan river, it’s about 20 miles. Furthermore, there’s a drop in elevation, some 4,000 feet. It’s a hard day’s journey to get from Jerusalem to the Jordan river. And yet, they were coming from all around.

Now, this shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Before John was ever born, the angel told Zacharias, John’s father, "He will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God" (Luke 1:16).

Why were they coming? What made John’s ministry so attractive? Was it his physical appearance? Look at verse 6, ...

Mark 1:6
John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey.

You might say, "Wow, that's strange!" I would tell you that it is strange. The fact that Mark mentions John's attire and diet demonstrates that he was a little different than everybody else. This wasn't the common dress and diet of the day. It was, however, the dress of a prophet (Zech. 13:4). In Hindu lands, the holy men walk around barefoot with orange garments. In Buddhist lands, the holy men walk around with reddish-purple garments. And in Israel, the holy men walked around with hairy garments and leather belts. This is what Elijah wore. In 2 Kings 1:8, we are told that Elijah was a "hairy man with a leather girdle bound around his loins."

The prophesies here in verses 2 and 3 refer to the forerunner of the Christ, which the Jews knew would be Elijah. At one point in the ministry of Jesus, he identified John the Baptist as Elijah, ...

Mark 9:11-13
They asked Him, saying, "Why is it that the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" And He said to them, "Elijah does first come and restore all things. And yet how is it written of the Son of Man that He will suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you that Elijah has indeed come, and they did to him whatever they wished, just as it is written of him."
How appropriate that John the Baptist would wear Elijah’s garments.

John didn’t have to live this way. His father, Zacharias, was a high-priest (Luke 1). His father was one of the top, ruling members in the Sanhedrin. He had ascended in his religion to a prominent position. Perhaps this didn't make him rich, but it certainly provided for him. His family wasn't so poor that this is all that they could afford for John was a bed sheet and a few grass-hoppers from the back yard.

By dressing this way, John was intentionally living a life of humility and poverty. His clothing wasn't particularly comfortable. His food wasn't particularly tasty. This garment of camel's hair was a cheap cloth, which he simply wrapped around his body, and secured with a leather belt.

There is a subtle application here for us. The feel of our age is that in order to have a successful ministry, you need to be attractive to other people. You need to have an attractive personality. You need to have attractive buildings and have attractive programs. You need to put on an attractive worship service. Yet, the reality is that God will use the one whom He delights to use. Whether he is poor or rich; whether he is in the wilderness or in the city, God will accomplish His work in His way.

But there is something about a man who is passionate for God that will attract others because of his godliness, because of His love for the Lord, because he really believes what he says. And a man like that will do God’s work. You will attract people in the same way -- through godliness. And people saw that in John the Baptist. And people were attracted to that in John the Baptist.

Why? There is no earthly reason why people would go and confess their sins and take a wash in the river. Just try that today. Hey, let’s go out and have a special meeting and confess our sins and pledge ourselves anew to obedience to God with a ceremonial cleansing! You probably won’t get a crowd. (You might). The only way that you will is if the Spirit of God moves. And I believe that this is the key to John’s ministry: it was a stirring of the Spirit of God in the hearts of His people. Because that was John’s role -- to prepare the hearts of God’s people.

John knew his role. John knew how his ministry was only temporary. That’s the point of verses 7 and 8. We see John’s humility in verse 7, ...

Mark 1:7
And he was preaching, and saying, "After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals.

In that day, it was the business of the lowest of servants to remove the sandals from another. Feet are dirty from walking outside in the dirt and dust. There were no paved roads for them. The feet were smelly, as they picked up all of the smells from the ground as well as the natural body odor. The servant who removed his master’s sandals would get down on all fours, placing his nose right into his smelly, dirty feet. When John compared himself to the Lord Jesus, he said that this was too honorable a task for him to do. Such was the humility of John.

Furthermore, John knew that his ministry would soon be eclipsed by that of Jesus. John wasn’t into building his own empire. He said in verse 8, ...

Mark 1:8
I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

John again puts his work low and Jesus' work high. John's baptism wasn't anything supernatural. It wasn't anything that he forced or caused. He identified the repentance of others with this outward symbol of cleansing. But look what Jesus will do! Jesus will baptize in the Holy Spirit.

The best way to understand this is to go to the book of Acts. When Jesus was with His disciples after His resurrection, He gave them explicit orders. He said, in Acts 1:5, "For John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." This came initially on the day of Pentecost. In Acts 2:4, it says, "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance." This came also a few years later, when Peter preached at the household of the gentile, Cornelius, "the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message" (Acts 10:44).

Peter later ties all of these events together. "The Holy Spirit fell upon them [Cornelius and his household], just as He did upon us at the beginning [i.e. in Acts 2:4]. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, 'John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'" (Acts 11:15-16).

What was begun in the early church continues today. Paul speaks in Romans 8 about how the Holy Spirit dwells in believers (verses 9, 11). In 1 Corinthians 12:13, we are told that "in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we are all made to drink of one Spirit."

When you believe in Christ, the Holy Spirit comes into your life and will empower you to walk in the newness of life. John’s ministry paved the way for these greater things which came later.

As I work on closing my message, I want to take you back again to John’s baptism for a bit of perspective. When John came preaching a baptism of repentance, the Jews knew the sign. The Jews knew about baptism. They practiced baptism. They practiced confession of sins. They practiced immersion as a symbol of cleansing.

When Gentiles came into the synagogues and heard the law of God and repented of their sin and wanted to follow the Lord, the Jews required that they go through this baptism ritual. They were unclean Gentiles and needed a display of their cleanliness before God and His people.

And yet, here, the baptism of John wasn’t for outsiders to come in. It was for those inside to seek cleansing for themselves before the coming of the Messiah. It was for Jews. It wasn’t the Gentiles who were going to be baptized by John. It was the Jews, who were going!

It’s because God was preparing the hearts of the Jews for the coming of their Messiah. In other words, John’s ministry was a ministry of stirring among the people of God. We can easily bring the application to us. We are like insiders. We are the church, part of His chosen people.

Are you prepared for the coming of the Lord? Is your heart soft before Him? The application here isn’t for us to go and to be baptized again. No, the application here is for our hearts at Rock Valley Bible Church. We can play the religious game. We have a church building. We have lots of spiritual activities. We are "good people." But, is there room in our hearts for Jesus.

Almost 20 years ago, a wave of revival swept across America. On college campuses across the land, college students were gathering for times of confession and restoration. Students stood publicly and confessed their sins and sought forgiveness in Christ. The movement started on a college campus in Texas and spread around the United States. I was able to attend one of these events and witnessed students confessing their sins publically. Sins against their fellow students. Sexual sins of the past. Cheating and lying and hatred and theft and rebellion and blasphemy. Everything that you could think of was confessed that night. Immediately after the confessions were made and the student would come down from the podium, a crowd of other students would surround the one who confessed his (or her) sins. They would pray over them, seeking God’s favor in their lives.

It was a great time as people were getting right with God. Many tears were flowing as people were confessing their sins. Much rejoicing was taking place as people felt the freedom of forgiveness. [4] And that’s what was happening in Judea with John the Baptist. But, rather than immediately being surrounded by people after they confessed their sins, John baptized them in the Jordan.

Sadly, the revival was short-lived. I have heard from those who lived on the campuses and knew those who had confessed their sins. Within a few weeks or months, their lives returned to normal, back to what they were before. It was the same with Israel. Just a few years after the baptism of John, those same people who had confessed their sins were demanding that Jesus be killed. They shouted to Pilate, "Crucify Him! ... Crucify Him!" (Mark 15:13, 14).

J. C. Ryle gives a good perspective on it.

If ever there was one who was a popular minister for a season, John the Baptist was that man. Yet of all the crowds who came to his baptism, and heard his preaching, how few, it may be feared, were converted! Some, we may hope, like Andrew, were guided by John to Christ. But the vast majority, in all probability, died in their sins. Let us remember this whenever we see a crowded church. A great congregation no doubt is a pleasing sight. But the thought should often come across our minds, "How many of these people will reach heaven at last?" It is not enough to hear and admire popular preachers. It is no proof of our conversion that we always worship in a place where there is a crowd. Let us take care that we hear the voice of Christ Himself, and follow Him. [5]

Here’s the great lesson of our text. We can read the account of John the Baptist and marvel at what the Lord was doing in those days. We can rejoice in how hearts were getting right with God, and yet have hard hearts at the same time.

So, we come back to the title of my message this morning. "Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room." May there be room in our hearts for our Savior.

This sermon was delivered to Rock Valley Bible Church on January 15, 2012 by Steve Brandon.
For more information see www.rvbc.cc.

[1] The Meaning and Use of Baptizein, by T. J. Conant, p. 6, example 11. You can read the book here: http://books.google.com/books/about/The_meaning_and_use_of_baptizein.html?id=FHpCAAAAIAAJ.

[2] Ibid, pp. 7-8, Example 14.

[3] Ibid, p. 7, Example 12.

[4] http://www.grmi.org/Richard_Riss/history/college.html

[5] J. C. Ryle, the gospel of Mark, pp. 3-4, online here: http://www.gracegems.org/Ryle/mark01.htm.