Saturday, December 8, 2007
I grew up with a father who was very big into Boy Scouting. Scouting was by far the religion practiced by my family when I was growing up. I knew the Scout promise before I knew the Ten Commandments. And “Be Prepared” was etched into my soul at such an age that I still don’t know the Ten Commandments in order—that’s in part that they are in different order in different parts of the Bible….but that is another sermon.
For those of you who did not live with “Be Prepared” sewn to your sleeve, we have John the Baptist. The character of John Baptist is an interesting one in the New Testament and in history. He was according to Luke, a cousin to Jesus. In Mark it seems as though Jesus and John have never met until Jesus is baptized by John at the river Jordan. We do know that John the Baptist was a holy man called a Nazir, or a nazirite. This does not mean that he was from Nazareth. It means that he was dedicated to God in a way that he did not eat or drink anything from the grape family, he did not cut his hair and did not touch the dead. It also seems that he wore camel skin and ate locusts and honey. Such practices were not uncommon for those who were dedicated as a Nazir. Such nazirs were to be respected by the faithful and they occasionally carried on the prophetic tradition that so characterized the Jewish faith. John saw himself as a herald. He was to remind the people of their faith, of their heritage and what had happened to Israel in times past when they had forgotten God.
John’s work was to wake up the people and prepare them for the Messiah. It was a difficult time in the history of the Middle East. It was easy to just ignore the law of God. It was easy to just go along with the injustices that the Roman Empire was perpetrating. It was safer to just ignore that King Herod Antipas was consorting with the enemy, ignoring the needs of the poor, rejecting the commandments of God and being a tyrant. But John Baptist was not the kind to keep quiet about those injustices. John said, “Be prepared.”
What was he preparing his listeners for? Just how can you be prepared for the Messiah? John is not too nice to the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the religious leaders of his time. Why? I believe it was because he thought that the religious leaders were leading the people astray—allowing them to ignore the requirements of faith—the care for the poor, the sustenance of widows and orphans, the injustice in business practice, the need for repentance at all levels of their lives. These are the same things that we, two thousand years later still need to heed. John Baptist’s call is still as fresh for us today. We too need to know what it means to be prepared to meet the Messiah, the Christ.
Being prepared for Christ is not just a matter of having our packages wrapped or knowing Jesus as our personal Savior. Being prepared for the Christ to come again is being about the work of being fair and honest. It is about being willing to forgive and be forgiven. It is about not attributing motives to people are wrong: such as blaming the poor for being lazy, or the sick for not taking care of themselves. We do it all the time. We don’t like having to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves, and yet that is exactly what Jesus tells us to do.
Another thing that John Baptist preached was that we cannot depend upon our status in life. There were those Jews who thought that just because they were ethnically Jewish, they were justified. John reminded him that such happenstance as our ethnic background had nothing to do with fidelity.
John baptized with the water of repentance. There are two words in Hebrew for repentance. One is the word for “to return” shuv. The other is nicham which means “to feel sorrow.” These words show that repentance was an activity--it was something that we are called to do. That’s what it took to “Be prepared.” It meant that there was a sense of humility that was required in being prepared for the Messiah. It recognizes that to be ready for God to be present, to be Emmanuel, the God-with-us means that we must be supple, we must not be so convinced of our own righteousness, that we cannot hear God calling us to new depths in our faith.
We often confuse this call from John Baptist as a call to those who have never heard of salvation. Salvation is just the beginning of our journey in the kingdom. Salvation has been worked for us by Christ two thousand years ago on a Friday afternoon. But the constant encounter, the continuing relationship is what it means to “Be Prepared”, to be ready to meet Christ at each moment of our day, at each turn in our journey, at every difficult task we have before us.
So often I see people who see hardships in their lives as punishment by God. They want to know what they have done “to deserve such a misadventure.” Faith in God does not mean that we won’t have trials or tough things happen in our lives. Coming to Christ merely gives us a way to be prepared for the tough things that come--to face the hardships. We have someone who will walk with us through the tough times. It means that we have the humility that allows us to know that we cannot and do not have to go through things alone. ‘Being prepared’ for a Christian means we can always call Christ into our lives to walk with us.
Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the Christ, is the one who reminds us that ‘being prepared’ is a matter of constant vigilance. ‘Being prepared’ requires constant refresher courses. And those refresher courses are held while we are at prayer, studying Scripture, sharing faith, doing good works. Each time I am doing any of those things, God brings me another step closer. And the closer I get to God the more I am clear that I am not as prepared as I would like to be in the presence of the Lord of my life. That is why repentance is a constant part of my life. It isn’t because I am so sinful, although I am. But it is because I want to be prepared when my Savior is with me—I want my house straight, or my nails clean, or whatever it is that means ‘ready’ to you. This is the reason for the season of Advent. It is to remind us how much we anticipate this coming of Christ.
I have friends who make their own Christmas cards. Libby is an accomplished photographer and each year I look forward to their cards. But one year there was a picture of their two cats up on their hind feet with their whole attention looking out the window. My cat has the same attention whenever I run the electric can opener! It is that kind of anticipation that we need to look forward to the Second Coming of Christ.
I do not believe that the God that I know is going to come with war, pestilence or fire. I do not believe that the God I know is going to come and slay those that don’t follow some kind of rule that they do not understand. I do not believe that the God I have committed my whole life to is the kind who would leave any behind. The Second Coming is not a time to be fearful of. Death is not a time to fear either. The God that I know is one who welcomes those whom God made from the beginning of time. The God that I know that loves me and whom I love is one who is waiting for us to treat one another with the kind of respect that we desire to be treated with. The God that I know wants us to anticipate the full meeting of God and humanity with the kind of celebration of a new year, a new era, a new life in Christ.
In Jewish spirituality it is considered appropriate to repent before you celebrate. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement comes just 10 days before the New Year celebration. It is considered inappropriate to celebrate if you aren’t cleaned up both physically and spiritually. Advent is a time of repentance for the same reason. Before we celebrate the wonderful season of the Incarnation, of God with us, I invite you to clean up your spiritual house, to ‘be prepared’ for the coming of the Christ child. This does not mean that God is going to love us any more. It is just good manners! I don't know if your mother had the same mantra as mine had--"you don't decorate a mess!" and "Clean up your room before you invite your friends in."
If you need help cleaning up you spiritual space, feel free to call upon me. Pastors do that sort of thing. That is what the old idea of confession was all about. It was about inviting someone in on your spiritual journey and asking for help when you wanted to reach a new depth in your faith life--not stand between you and God. I know that “Lutherans don’t do confession.” But I do know that at times we all need someone to help us to discern what is next in our journey in faith. I am here to do just that.
So our ‘Be Prepared’ is not attached to our sleeve as Christians, but it is a part of what we as are called to do. I pray that this time of spiritual house cleaning is full of the joy of the season. AMEN