Making Preparation for the Coming Reign of God
In times past Advent has taken on a penitential hue. The use of violet or purple as a liturgical color linked Advent with Lent, and there’s somberness to most of Advent hymns, but there’s also this sense of expectation and anticipation that runs counter to this penitential mood. The commercial and the cultural dynamics would rather embrace the mood of expectation over that of penance, but maybe there is room for both. Perhaps the current trend to use color blue as the proper liturgical color can signify this change in perspective to bring together penance and expectation. We look forward to the coming of the Lord with joy and excitement, but we also want to be found at our best when the day arrives.
The lectionary readings throughout the season of Advent bring both the call to repentance and the proclamation that the arrival of God’s Messiah is on the horizon. As the voice of John the Baptist rings out, we hear the call to prepare our hearts and lives for this day when the realm of God will break into our midst bringing with it a new vision of reality. As we await that day, there’s work to be done, preparations to be made, paths to clear.
The first word comes from the Prophet Malachi, whose book brings to a close the Hebrew Testament. We don’t know when and where he spoke. There is no historical data to work from, no specific context given. Many learned, as I learned, that he was the last of the prophets prior to John. After his ministry closed God’s voice ceased to speak with any clarity for the next four hundred years. There may be historical critical reasons to question this traditional reading, but there is a connection between our reading from Malachi and the Advent message. We hear the word of God – a messenger is coming, a prophet, who will speak for the Lord, a prophet who will clear the way for the Lord, so that the Lord might come to God’s Temple. There is an apocalyptic feel to this message. Malachi raises the question: “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can withstand his appearance? He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap” (Mal. 3:2 CEB). We might await this messenger with hope, but also with a bit of trepidation. We will not be left unchanged by this encounter. The impurities of our lives will be removed in this encounter. But then when we are refined and cleansed, we’ll be ready. Like the Levites who are cleansed and purified by this encounter, we can offer the righteous offering, which will be pleasing to God. Yes, Malachi reminds us that if we wish to greet God’s Messiah, we must make proper preparation. For Christians, we hear this message and think of the ministry of preparation that John undertook, that through his ministry of baptism he provided the means by which God might refine and cleanse the people to receive the one who brings the realm of God into existence in our midst.
Paul writes to the Philippian Church – presumably from a prison cell –giving thanks and praise for this church that he had founded. He gives thanks that they are partners with him in ministry, and had been so from the point they first believed. It is a common theme for Paul – to give thanks for those who had heard and followed the gospel. But he also recognizes that the work of God is not yet complete. In verse 6 of this first chapter, Paul notes his confidence that “the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” I would take this to be a reference to the presence of the Holy Spirit. The work of God isn’t complete; refining and cleansing needs to continue, but Paul is confident that this will happen. And so he prays. He prays that their love will grow richer in knowledge and insight. Out of this enriched love that comes with spiritual maturity, they can “decide what really matters.” Then, they will be “sincere and blameless on the day of Christ.” There it is -- another reference to the time of preparation. The good news is that this fruit of righteousness comes from Christ. It is a gift and provision of God. It is an act of grace that transforms and prepares us for that day when God’s reign is revealed in its fullness so that we might “give glory and praise to God.”
If Malachi speaks of a coming messenger who will prepare the way, our reading from the Gospel of Luke introduces us to that person. The appearance of this messenger may seem different from Malachi’s description – it’s less apocalyptic – the ministry of preparation is nonetheless present.
When the Gospel of Luke begins, with two birth announcements – of John and Jesus – and their subsequent births, the ruler of this world – Caesar – still goes by the name of Augustus. Now, years later – in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius (son of god?), while Pontius Pilate was serving as governor and Herod Antipas was holding court in Galilee, during the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, “God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” We can speculate why he was living out in the wilderness or desert – was he an Essene? Whatever the reason for his being in the desert, it appears that like Moses before him, the call of God comes to John in a place of remoteness where the distractions of daily life give way to the calm desolation of this region. How will he respond? Did he know that this day would come? After all, according to Luke, his father had revealed his vocation at the time of his birth (Luke 1:67-79).
In this reading, John hears the call of God and heads to the Jordan, where he calls on the people to be baptized as a sign of repentance, or as the Common English Bible renders it – as a sign that they “were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” John takes up this ministry of preparation in fulfillment not of Malachi 3, but of Isaiah 40:3-5. In this passage from the exile, we hear of “a voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight . . .’” As a result of this ministry of baptism and repentance, way will be made straight, mountains and hills leveled, the crooked straightened, rough places made smooth. Every obstruction and obstacle to the coming of the Lord will be removed, so that on the Day of the Lord, “all humanity will see God’s salvation.”
It is only the second week of Advent. There’s still time to get ready. But will we wait until the last moment, or will we prepare now for the coming of the reign of God, which John announces and the coming one will embody? The choice is ours. It needn't be foreboding -- it can be a moment of great joy. But we have to prepare ourselves.