Advice on How Not to Prepare: Reflections on Advent 2, Matthew 3:1-12
Second Sunday of Advent
December 8, 2013
John the Baptist is what you'd call the front man. He comes out ahead of Jesus and gives instructions in how to prepare for Jesus' arrival. If only people, both then and now, would listen to his instructions! We often miss the important preparation instructions.
In our defense, there are, of course, things we can't prepare for in life. Like sudden bad health news. Or death. Or an accident. We can't control and prepare for the unpredictable actions of others.
But we would do well to listen to people who specialize in helping us prepare for the future as much as is humanly possible. Meteorologists can warn of hurricanes and yet some people stubbornly stay put, refusing even to board up their windows, only realizing their error when the winds begin to whip. Doctors can warn of the health risks of a high fat diet and smoking, but that doesn't change the behavior of many. (In case I'm sounding self-righteous here, I'll confess to a sweet tooth I have trouble controlling despite my having read several articles about the ill effects of sugar on the body and brain.) Financial advisors warn us to plan for retirement and not live beyond our means, but still some people end up at age 65 with little savings to show for all those working years. It is quite easy to fly in the face of good advice and end up unprepared for a future event we were warned about.
John the Baptist is the expert in how to prepare for a dramatic future event: the coming of the "kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 3:2). He says, "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Mt. 3:10). John's teachings epitomize the theme of preparation that is central to the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew's gospel there are numerous instructions regarding how we are to prepare for our exit interview from this earthly life or for judgment day, whichever comes first. We are not only to hear Jesus' words, but we are to do them. We prepare for the coming kingdom by active obedience to the teachings of Jesus. ("Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven," Mt. 7:21-23.) Many of the parables Matthew includes in his gospel have the theme of preparation: The Ten Bridesmaids (25:1-12), The Talents (25:14-29), The Last Judgment (25:31-46), and The Great Feast (22:1-14).
The way not to prepare is to rely on our spiritual credentials. "We have Abraham as our ancestor" (Mt. 3:9). Presumably, relying on any other assurance or past accomplishment than God is not the way to prepare. Inaction is not the way to prepare. Making excuses is not the way to prepare. Being distracted from Jesus' coming kingdom by possessions, prestige, and power is not the way to prepare. Not then and not now.
John the Baptist sums up the way to prepare in one little six-letter word: repent. And then follow that up by "bearing fruit worthy of repentance" (Mt. 3:8).
Rabbi Eliezer taught his disciples "Repent one day before your death." One of them then asked, "How will we know when that day is?" to which he replied, "All the more reason to repent today, lest you die tomorrow" (Blomberg, 194).
Advent is an odd time of multiple preparations—for a baby to be born; for the baby, grown into a man, to begin his ministry; and for the Messianic Son of Man, crucified and resurrected, to return. In the lead-up to all three events, we have some spiritual preparations to do so that when he arrives, we will be ready. Our hearts will be cleansed by repentance so that we might fill them with love for him and obedience to his teachings.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.