Pastoral Message – December 5, 2021
Luke tells us that Zechariah looked upon his newly born son and said, “you, child…will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” When he grew older, we read that John told all who would listen that they should, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John was a man of preparation!
As an Eagle Scout, the words “Be Prepared!” have a very special significance in my life. Scouting taught me that there were few greater sins than failing to prepare for all possibilities (whether likely or not). Neither the “once in a lifetime” fall snow storm nor the curious bear should catch a Scout unprepared. I have carried this lesson with me for more than fifty years. Our readings this Second Sunday of Advent focus us on the importance of being prepared for our personal encounter with Jesus Christ. The consequences of failing to prepare for this encounter are far more devastating than a ruined camping trip.
The word Advent comes from the Latin advenio which means “to come to,” and refers to the coming of Christ. The Advent Season gives us a stark reminder that we must prepare our hearts and homes not only for the celebration of Christ’s birth in three weeks, but also for his ultimate coming at some point in the future. The season of Advent begins our liturgical year and reminds us to prepare for both the celebration of Jesus coming 2,000 years ago as well as His coming again. It is the classic paradox of “already” and “not yet” which is ever present in our faith journey as Christians.
The Gospel passage opens with a listing of seven seemingly important men (emperor, governor, tetrarchs, and high priests) who were living at the time that, “the word of God came to John.” Yet, while these men have worldly prominence, the word of God does not come to them. Instead, God sends his word to John, a relatively unknown man living in the wilderness, the son of a small town priest. Perhaps because of his simple, humble presence, John is not only open to the word of God, but is also moved by it to call for repentance and forgiveness of sins. He also precedes, prepares the way for, and foretells the coming of the Messiah, the one who is the salvation of Israel.
Then Luke repeats several verses from the prophet Isaiah. By referring to Isaiah, Luke makes it very clear that John is the herald for the Messiah who was foretold by Isaiah. At that time, a herald’s job was to warn all leaders and residents of a city that the king was arriving soon and to urge them to clean up their city and their lives so that they would not be punished when the king arrived. John does exactly as Isaiah foretold. John is the herald who pronounces the coming of the one true King to prepare the way. He comes from the wilderness to warn people to make the paths straight, smooth the rough ways, fill the valleys, and bring every mountain low. Luke used this language intentionally to connect Jesus to the ancient prophesy of the Messiah.
Luke reaches across history to claim all of his readers — then and now — who have put their faith in Jesus. As we listen to this reading about a nobody named John, gripped by the word of God in the nowhere of the wilderness, we are also suddenly, mysteriously, and powerfully included in the story of repentance, forgiveness, and salvation that John inaugurates and Jesus completes.
Both John and Jesus preach repentance and forgiveness. John prepares us for Jesus. Jesus prepares us for the Eternal Kingdom. From an earthly perspective, both will lose their lives because the “important men” mentioned by Luke refuse to heed their warnings. Yet, even in death (and through Christ’s resurrection) they will shake the foundations of earthly power. Indeed, by the time Luke writes, all seven of those Luke mentions are also dead. Their lives had little impact when measured against the lives of John and Jesus which have sparked a flourishing Christian community. This reminds us that we do not have to be well known or of great influence to be used by God. He can and will use each of us to do His vital work. We can be prepared and can help others to prepare. The goal of our preparation and repentance is that we “may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”
We are certain that the “coming” of the king – heralded by John – occurred two thousand years ago. The imminent “coming” of the King – that Jesus Himself heralded – is just as certain. In each instance, the coming was and will be profoundly joyful for those who were and are prepared. It will be far less joyful for those who are caught off guard or are prevented from recognizing Christ due to fear, anger, pride, or other deadly sinful tendencies. The good news is that being well prepared is entirely within our control. We make choices each day which contribute to or distract us from our preparedness. As my wife and I used to tell our son when he was in high school, “Make good choices today!”