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A People Prepared For The Lord
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LUKE 1:5-17

forerunner title 1Well, here we are at the beginning of Advent. I was thinking this week about when I was a kid and remembering that from Thanksgiving on it seemed as though Christmas would never get here. Now, as an adult and particularly as a preacher, it seems like we just had Christmas last week and here we are again. Time tends to go faster the older we get.

 

And that’s an interesting thing to consider because Advent is really all about time. I grew up in a Christian tradition where we didn’t celebrate Advent, so everyone was focused on Christmas. That song, “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute” described it perfectly, and I think it describes our whole culture. I marked down that Christmas decorations appeared in Costco this year on September 28. Christmas music has been floating around since October. We want Christmas and we want it now.

 

Advent puts the brakes on that rush to Christmas, however. It’s a time of waiting, of anticipating, of preparing—but preparing for what? For many churches and Christians who celebrate it, Advent has simply become an extended Christmas season leading up to the big event. In every church I have served, people want to sing Christmas carols during Advent, when I have insisted that we hold off on that. But I also have come to realize that there aren’t a lot of great Advent carols and few are writing them because, well, no one really wants to hear them. We need a little Christmas, right this very minute!

 

But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, as early as the fourth century, the early church engaged in a period of fasting and penitence in December that had no correlation with Christmas. It was only in the seventh century that the connection was made. Like Lent leading up to Easter, Advent was a period of fasting and penitence and preparation, and by the medieval period it was firmly established. But there was a big difference in their understanding of Advent from the way it is often celebrated today. While we see Advent as preparation for celebrating the first coming of Jesus, the medieval church saw it as preparation for Christ’s second coming—to engage in fasting and penitence in anticipation that the one who came in the manger would be coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Advent was an eschatological focus on the “last things” and that played itself out in practice.

 

Take the Advent candles, for example. They have represented a lot of different things over the centuries. Most years for us and for most Protestants they have represented Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy—wonderful themes anticipating Christmas. But in the medieval church, the meanings were quite different: the candles represented death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The Scripture readings for Advent were only secondarily oriented toward the birth of Jesus; instead the primary emphasis was on the coming “day of the Lord.” In other words, Advent wasn’t so much about getting quickly to the light of Christmas, but about acknowledging the darkness that appears before the dawn. Advent was a season for realism, not Christmas dreams and shopping. In fact, in the medieval age, the Christmas season began with Christmas Day and extended 12 days (the 12 days of Christmas). That’s when you went shopping for pipers piping, maids a milking, and a partridge in a pear tree!

 

Advent was a season acknowledging that we live between two ages—the present age and the age to come. It is the midnight of the Christian year; a time to be thinking about last things.

 

No one can help us understand this better than John the Baptist. Throughout church history, he has been the central figure of Advent. He is the herald of the age to come—not just the coming of Jesus in his immediate present but also the arrival of the Kingdom of God in its fullness in the last days. He is the herald whom the prophet Malachi anticipated—“the prophet Elijah” whom God would send before “the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5). It’s interesting that in the original order of the Hebrew Bible, Malachi does not appear last in the canon, but he does in the Christian canon of the Old Testament—it is a clear sign pointing to the ministry of John the Baptist who opens the New Testament narrative.

 

In fact, John is really the link between the Old and New Testaments and the link between the ages. His story contains elements of the Old Testament story and covenant, and that is not a coincidence. Luke gives us the most detailed version of John’s birth, which takes place in a miraculous way and in a priestly household. Zechariah, an old priest, and his wife Elizabeth are elderly and have no children—if you read your Bible and know your Old Testament, you know that’s a sign that something is about to happen; an echo back to Abraham and Sarah—a new covenant about to be fulfilled (indeed, that’s what “New Testament” means—“new covenant”).

 

An angel comes to Zechariah the priest while he is serving in the temple, burning the incense near the altar. Keep in mind that there were a lot of priests who worked in the temple—perhaps as many as 18,000 according to some scholars. They were chosen by lot to preside over this task of incense burning, but because there were so many this might have been the only time in his entire life that Zechariah got to do this. Talk about waiting and anticipating! It was a huge moment for him, but that’s when the angel shows up and tells him that an even greater thing was about to happen—he and his wife were going to have a long-awaited child in their old age; one who would fulfill the promise of God made through the prophets and be the forerunner of the Messiah to come.

 

Notice what the angel tells Zechariah beginning at verse 13: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, your prayer has been heard.” We learn earlier that Zechariah and Elizabeth are righteous people; they observed all the Lord’s commandments. They no doubt prayed every day—prayed for a son, prayed for God’s deliverance for their people, prayed for the Messiah. And now their prayer was about to be answered, but not in the timing and in the way they had thought.

 

The angel continued: “Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. He will be a joy and a delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor [a Nazirite vow]. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God.” As we said in our last series, the Holy Spirit enables ordinary people to be extraordinary!

 

But now note the connection between Malachi’s prophecy and John’s birth. The angel references the prophet Micah, “He will go before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah . He will turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

 

Elijah had been one of Israel’s greatest prophets, and many believed that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah. The original Elijah had been a pain in the neck to the powerful kings of Israel, speaking God’s truth and warnings of disaster when they didn’t want to hear it.  He appears in 1 Kings 17 and the first words out of his mouth are those of warning of a drought—a sign of God’s judgment on the royal family and the nation. He was a “hairy man with a leather belt” according to 2 Kings 1:8. He presides over one of the greatest miracles in Israel’s history, defeating the prophets of the god Ba’al on Mount Carmel (and engages in some of the best trash talk in history), but then one chapter later is depressed and running for his life.

 

Today it’s in vogue for people to say that they are “prophetic” by speaking new and popular truths to people who are always interested in the latest thing. Real prophets, however, speak God’s truth—truth that is usually not popular and out of step with the times. “It is the work of a prophet to come alongside others and invite them to wake up to the truth that God has come alongside them,” says David Rohrer. Elijah had spoken that awakening truth and, for some, it was a rude awakening!

 

In the end, Elijah had not died, but had been taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. When he came back, it was believed, it was to be a sign that the end of the world was at hand. After all, prophets usually show up when something is wrong that needs to be corrected. They arrive to call for repentance and turning back to God.

 

The child promised to Zechariah and Elizabeth would be the one to take up Elijah’s mission—he dress like him, act like him, and proclaim truth like him. Here would be the new Elijah, standing in the darkness of the present world and proclaiming the coming dawn.

 

The essence of John’s work is found in the angel’s words: “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” He would stand in the wilderness and warn people to be ready for his coming, to prepare their hearts and minds, to prepare with penitence and fasting, to heed the warnings, to point out the darkness in the lives of people so that they might turn and be ready for the breaking of a new dawn. John would be a throwback to those Old Testament prophets, speaking truth to power and speaking boldly about the reality of death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

 

As a throwback, John is out of step with our time. He makes us feel uncomfortable in  a time when we want to focus on the comfort of family, decorations, traditions, and even comfort food. And yet we need him to speak to us before we get to Christmas. It’s no coincidence that every one of the Gospel writers begin their narrative with John the Baptist. All of them agree that without him, there is no good news, no gospel of Jesus Christ. Without John, we will become so much like the rest of the world who celebrates Christmas without having any idea what it all actually means. We’ll put up our decorations and pretend for a few weeks that everything is great and that all we need is a little retail therapy to make ourselves feel better.

 

With John, however, we will deal with reality—that there is darkness in the world and in us, and that the only way out of that darkness is through the light of Christ that is about to dawn. John pokes at us like a good prophet—he calls us to repentance, to turn back to God, to examine our hearts, to prepare for Christ’s coming.

 

The truth is that people are usually more ready to hear the good news when they have spent some time facing up to the bad news. The voice of God is often easiest for us to hear in the wilderness parts of our lives. We are “ready for God when we’ve had enough of ourselves,” as David Rohrer puts it. John’s ministry focused on this reality, which made people more ready for an encounter with God.

 

Indeed, John’s whole life was about making people ready for God. His own father Zechariah, in his song of praise at John’s birth, described John’s mission:

 

76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;

 

for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,

 

77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation

 

through the forgiveness of their sins,

 

78 because of the tender mercy of our God,

 

by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven

 

79 to shine on those living in darkness

 

and in the shadow of death,

 

to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

 

John’s mission was to both “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” and also to “prepare the way for him.” He drew people’s attention to the presence of God and trusted that doing so was the most important work he could do. His message was a shock and a threat to the comfortable and a consolation to those who were waiting for God to change things. His ministry would force people to consider two vitally important questions:

 

1. What time is it? John’s ministry created a sense of urgency—the time was short; the Messiah was coming. God’s wrath was coming on a broken and sinful world. Do we have a similar sense of urgency? Do we believe we have all the time in the world, or are we working diligently to use the time we have wisely in light of Christ’s coming? People are rushing around trying to do their Christmas shopping, but how many are rushing to repentance in anticipation of the return of the world’s true King? They’re more worried about Santa comin’ to town than Jesus coming back to take over. Advent causes us to pause and ask ourselves, “What time is it?” To order our lives in light of Christ’s coming.

 

And that leads to the second question:

 

2. Am I ready? Jesus told many parables about being ready for his return. John said that the righteous judge was coming into the world. Are we ready for the one who is coming to judge the living and the dead? Am I right with God? Am I living as though he is already here?

 

What time is it? Am I ready? These are great Advent questions. Ultimate questions. An Advent wreath signifying death, judgment, heaven, and hell may not feel comfortable, but it is necessary if we’re going to really understand the season and what John is talking about.

 

Oh yes, we need a little Advent, right this very minute! As we move through this important season, let us join together and listen to John, who will show us how to have an Advent that really prepares us for the Lord. Amen.

 

Source:

Rutledge, Fleming. Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Eerdman’s: 2018.



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