Last week we heard longing was a theme in Advent. This week we hear preparation is. Last week we noted you couldn't fail to have longings but only fail to answer them rightly. This week we note that you can just plain fail to prepare. How's that? Just how can a person fail to prepare at this time of year? Isn't Advent the season of preparation for the coming of Christ? Who doesn't prepare for Christmas?
That's a good point. I'm quite sure some of you began your preparations for Christmas months ago. You were already finding out what kind of things people would like for Christmas. You looked in catalogs, you shopped in malls, you went to flea markets looking for that certain gift for that certain someone. Now of course your gift buying is in earnest. Nobody - or very few - fail to prepare for Christmas by not making or buying gifts.
But being prepared for Christmas means more than gift buying. There are menus to plan, parties to schedule, food to prepare. And what would Christmas be without decorations? And we're not just talking trees anymore. There are candles to put out, lights to string, fake snow to spray on windows, and pine boughs to place. In some form or fashion, most everybody is preparing for Christmas. Even the Scrooges among us are doing something. You can't live in America and feel the crush of Christmas closing in on you and not prepare for it.
The Church too prepares for Christ during Advent. But there is a big difference, at least there was historically. The world prepares for Christmas by dressing everything up. The Church historically prepared for Christmas by "dressing down." Advent was considered a time of repentance; that's why we hear so much from John the Baptist calling us to repent. The service in the old Lutheran Hymnal was muted during Advent by refraining from singing Alleluias and by not singing the song of the Christmas angels, the Gloria in Excelsis. There was a starkness to the Church's Advent preparations. Weddings or church celebrations weren't allowed. Christmas carols weren't sung. Baby Jesus wasn't allowed in the nativity scene and the Christmas trees were not put up till Christmas Eve.
What does all this mean? Is it sinful to have your Christmas trees up and your home decorated like our home is? Is it sinful to play Christmas music from Thanksgiving on like Cheryl does? Is it un-Christian to have parties and dinners this time of year? No, no, no. That's not what I want you to conclude. What I want you to consider is why would the Church historically do something so opposite from what the world did? Why in the month before Christmas which was party hearty time for the world did the church "mourn in lonely exile here?" Because the Church was confessing that while anyone can prepare for Christmas, no one can prepare for Christ. "O Lord how shall we meet Thee?" the Church asks during Advent.
Preparing for Christ to return is impossible. We're not talking about some Y2K computer glitch. We're talking about the end of the world. We're not talking about your power going out for a few hours or even days; we're talking about the sun going out. We're not talking about not being able to buy food at the store for awhile; we're talking about the earth ceasing to bear fruit and even ceasing to be.
Do you honestly think you are or can prepare for that? How can you? How can you prepare for an event that destroys every frame of reference you have? When Christ returns time and space are no more. There is no saying, "When this gets over," or, "After this," or, "Wait till next year." It's over people. There is no more days, no more nights, no more weeks, no more months, no more time at all. But that's not all. There is also no more space. Isaiah speaks of Christ returning and rolling up the sky like a scroll from both ends. Can you imagine an earth without sky, mountains, water, earth or elements? Can you be prepared for no cities, no nations, no governments, no planets, no sun, no moon, no stars? If you can't picture such things, how in the world can you prepare for them?
Peter tells us that on the day Christ returns, "The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed with fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare." For such an all exposing event, multicolored lights, glittering tinsel, and lots of greenery are useless. Your God is coming and He will expose every dark corner, light up every shadowy thought, look into every corner of your heart. Friend, you are not preparing for a big guy in a red suit to come. You are preparing to meet your God. Do you think the pious masks we wear will fool Him?
I remember a picture in a pastor's magazine which showed a family of four getting ready for church. Their faces had looks of sorrow, hatred, wickedness, and evil. But they were reaching into a closet for clothes which had masks attached to them. The faces on the masks were happy, loving, pious, and good. This is how they prepared to meet the church each Sunday. What do you think? Do you think such outward preparation is enough to prepare to meet their God on the Last Day?
Actually St. Peter tells us frankly what it takes to be prepared for the return of Christ. "So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with Him." You see, you don't need nice clean clothes. You don't need bright, smiling faces. All you need is to be spotless, blameless, and at peace with God. So, how you doing? Got any spots that Jesus might find when He returns? Are you blameless? There's nothing about you that might cause a conflict between you and God is there? There's not some spot in your past or present that God might find that would cause Him to blame you? Well, then all you have to do, according to Peter himself, is get rid of that spot. Then you'll be all prepared for Jesus.
Can you see why historically there was such a starkness, a bleakness almost to the Church's Advent preparations? She knew that no amount of decorating could cover her sins, no amount of partying could make her forget the crises that the end of the world brings. So the Church didn't prepare for the Second Coming of Christ as the world prepared for Christmas, but she prepared as the people prepared for the First Coming did. Looking then at how they prepared for the First Coming of Christ what can we say about preparing for the Second?
The first thing we can say is that they listened to the angel the Lord sent to them. Our Gospel reading doesn't say God will send His "messenger" before Christ, but literally, His "angel." John the Baptist was the angel who went ahead of Jesus. The Lord prepared His people for His First Coming by sending them John the Baptist; He prepares you for His Second Coming by sending you and angel too. That would be me. You prepare for the end the world by coming to hear me even as they prepared for the First Coming of Jesus by going to hear John.
That's kind of funny, isn't it? You would think the Lord of heaven and earth would let you know He is on the way by sending heavenly beings not by sending a guy dressed in a camel hair suit who liked grasshoppers and wild honey. You would think God would send you a powerful, holy angel, not a weak sinful man. But this is the way of God to speak to sinful humans, to prepare sinful humans through the mouth of a sinful human.
Admit it. That bothers some of you. You're afraid of a pastor as dictator. What you can't see is that by sending a pastor with the words to prepare you God is making your preparation certain. He is putting His Word outside of you, safe and secure in another. It's not up to you to apply God's Law or God's Gospel to yourself. God has entrusted that task to your pastor, and thanks be to God for that. If they say a doctor who treats himself for only physical ailments has a fool for a patient, how much more is this true for someone who attempts to treat himself spiritually? Friends, you can't do it; pastors can't do for themselves either. God's Word is meant to come from outside of us, to be proclaimed to us, to be applied to us.
Listening to your pastor, putting his words in your ears makes you worthy and well prepared for the end of the world. Don't believe me? Well isn't that what we say about who is worthy to go to Communion? "He is worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, "Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." Whose lips do you always hear those words from? The pastor's as he proclaims to you each Sunday the Words of Institution.
Likewise, you are worthy and well prepared when you listen to your pastor send your sins away from you in the Absolution. Regardless of how you feel about yours sins, regardless of whether you feel forgiven or not, you are prepared to meet your Lord when you see your sins flying away because the word's of God's angel has sent them away. When you take your pastor's words to you in Baptism, Absolution, Holy Communion and sermon as coming from the lips of Christ, you are ready to meet Him.
That is how people were prepared for the first coming of Jesus. They heard John preach repentance and they trembled over their sins. They didn't try to excuse them; they didn't promise to do better next time. No, they went out to him confessing their sins our Gospel reading says. They admitted before John that they were nothing but poor, miserable sinners worthy of only death and damnation. They didn't pretend to be righteous. They didn't say they had been in church so many years that they didn't need to confess their sins. They heard John's damming words concerning their sins and they were crumbled by them.
But that's not the only word they heard from John. They also heard John speak of Baptism. John preached that Baptism was for the forgiveness of their sins. They came to John and confessed that they were hopelessly, damned sinners who could in no way prepare for Jesus. John said that Baptism was the answer to their sinfulness. And guess what? The text says literally, "They were baptized UNDER him in the Jordan River." The proud scribes and Pharisees, the clergymen of that day, wouldn't do that. They wouldn't humble themselves to be baptized by a funny looking guy standing in the muddy Jordan River. Lowly, serious, real sinners did.
Folks, only God can prepare us to meet Him, and He does it today even as He did it at His First Coming. He sends us pastors to expose our sins and then to forgive them by means of Baptism. I admit that this seems like a weak even foolish way to prepare for the end of the world. It would make more sense to our sinful flesh if we were called on to make sacrifices, try hard, do good works. This is exactly what the Church of John day taught. It told people they had to be righteous to be ready for the Christ even as churches today are teaching that you are to be ready for Jesus to return by holy living, intense praying, or serious believing. Nope, the only way to be prepared for the First or the Second Coming is by the Lord's angel preaching to you a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of your sins. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent II (12-5-99), Mark 1:1-8