“In the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way,’ — ‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him”‘. And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 1:1-4
Back in Jesus’ day, roads weren’t always great or even existent between two places. When a king was planning to make a journey somewhere, a messenger would run ahead of him and tell them to prepare a good road so that the king could get there.
Advent is the season of preparing for our King. “Advent” means coming. During the season of Advent we are preparing for the coming of Christ. Of course, he already came, so in a sense we are simply participating in an act of remembrance of his coming. And as important as that in itself may be, it can feel silly to prepare for something that already happened. But as people who live following Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we are preparing for something just as significant: His return. It’s so easy to get caught up in all the worries of this life and even in its joys that we are completely distracted from the fact that Jesus promised to return.
The Jews expected that when the promised Savior came, he would come in power as a victorious warrior and all would be made right, all would be complete. They didn’t realize that, for one, what he would be victorious over would not be the political enemies of the Jews but Sin and Death. They also didn’t realize that his work would be accomplished in two Advents, not one. They were like someone looking at a mountain range. From their vantage point, they could not see that between the mountains that were apparent to them and the distant horizon actually lay a second mountain range, with a deep valley in between. We are in that valley, living in the In-Between, living in an interesting phase of the Kingdom of God: the Already-But-Not-Yet Kingdom. Christ has already come, already completed the work of saving us from our sins, already given us the Holy Spirit and the ability to walk in his power. Yet, look around you and you can clearly see that it is not complete. We are waiting for his return, when all will be made right. As my pastor recently described it, it’s like we’ve heard the “tick” and we’re waiting for the “tock”.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Romans 8:22-25
Christmas to us is, in a sense, incomplete. History is moving somewhere, and so we, perhaps more than anyone, need a reminder to prepare for Jesus. Are we waiting in anticipation for that “tock,” or are we going about our business imagining it’s never going to come?
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and he door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Keep watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Matthew 25:1-13
For us, the celebration of Christmas and the season of Advent come at somewhat of an arbitrary time on the calendar, since it’s not really December 25th that we are waiting for. Yet Advent is such a good opportunity for us to stop and focus our hearts on Christ, to prepare the way for him. How do we do that exactly? You can probably think of a few things you might do during this season, and all year, that would bring you closer to Jesus. But the most important thing we can do to prepare, as John the Baptist and then Jesus himself proclaimed, is to “Repent and believe the Good News.”
Repentance means to be done with sin. It is more than just being sorry (although it must begin with that, with conviction in our minds and contrition in our hearts). The word “repent” actually means to turn around. John declared that to be ready for Jesus, we have to choose to be done with sin and then go in the opposite direction, toward holiness, toward Jesus Himself.
This always confused me a little. If it was Jesus who would take away our sins, why was John telling people to do it themselves before he came? But I recently got some insight into this question as I read the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 (maybe one good place to go if you’re interested in picking up your Bible this Advent season). This is the first parable told by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, probably because it lays the groundwork for us to receive everything else he was going to say. It talks about how Jesus is like a farmer, scattering the “seed” of his message to us. Jesus says that there are different types of ground where that seed can fall. The message can fall on the path where people don’t understand it and birds come and snatch it away. It can fall on rocky ground where people receive it with joy but do not grow deep roots, so when they are persecuted or tested they fall away. It can fall on thorny ground, where the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the message and it cannot grow. And it can fall on good soil, where a person hears the message, understands it, receives it with joy, and produces a crop up to a hundred times what was sown.
What does this parable have to do with repentance or preparing for Jesus during Advent? Well, what I noticed this time when I read this parable was that when the disciples asked Jesus what it meant and why he was speaking in parables, he said something strange: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; Though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah… for this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn, and I would heal them.”
This was a little startling to me, because it was my understanding that Jesus spoke in parables because they were in terms people could understand and relate to (and I still think that is the case). Yet Jesus seems to be saying that he is speaking to people who don’t understand and won’t understand, and rather than these people being helped to understand, it is the ones who already understand who are going to be helped and given more, but the ones who don’t understand are going to lose what little they do have. As I tried to make sense of this, the idea of the types of soil kept coming back to me, along with the word “calloused” that Jesus used. The Bible explains elsewhere that sin and the refusal to acknowledge it and repent is what causes a calloused heart. Perhaps this is what it means to have the type of ground in our hearts that does not provide good growing conditions for the seed of the Word of God? If so, then repentance is what will tenderize and till the ground to allow it to be receptive to the Word and produce fruit. So then John wasn’t saying “fix yourselves up for Jesus.” He was saying, “Turn your back on sin and make your heart soft and receptive for what Jesus is about to give you, for then it will take root and grow.” Grow like a mighty oak tree, like a tree planted by streams of water. Oh, might I be like that tree…
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for, that she has received
from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
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.”
A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field…
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”