Prepare the Way!

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We are all making preparations for Christmas:

  • We’ve been budgeting so we can buy presents for our loved ones;
  • Hopefully already put the decorations up outside and inside;
  • Bought the Christmas tree or unpacked the ‘fake’ tree;
  • Went to a few Christmas parties with friends and an office party or two.

As my wife and I have been preparing, it made me wonder what preparations were made for the first Christmas, or how about for the launch of the ministry of Jesus? Surprisingly a lot! Even before the angel spoke to Mary and Joseph, preparations had been made, as the numerous Old Testament prophecies prove, and even before Jesus began his public ministry, preparations were made.

Now as a person who teaches Introduction to the New Testament classes, and having even written curriculum for that class, I’ve had the opportunity to study the four Gospels in depth. Honestly, Mark is probably my least favorite Gospel. Why? I’ve always liked the other three Gospels more for various reasons:

  • Matthew is the great teaching Gospel and the most Jewish of the four, therefore with a great emphasis on how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies;
  • Luke is the Gospel for everyone with the magnificent parables unique to it (the Good Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son, etc)
  • John . . . well John is undoubtedly my favorite! Admittedly it is the odd duck of the four because it’s by far the most theological, and therefore also the most distinctive in that it doesn’t have any parables, or nativity, or baptism and temptation of Jesus, or miracles but instead eight great “signs”, and it has the seven great “I Am” statements, and on and on I could go with its distinctiveness.

Where’s that leave Mark? Well, most scholars today still believe it was the first Gospel to be written, but other than that, Mark has an abrupt opening (no genealogy or nativity), rushes from event to event (the most prevalent word in the original Greek is our English word “immediately”), with scant teaching segments at best compared to the other Gospels, and the original ending most likely has been lost to history.

But, as I recently re-examined Mark 1:1-8, I discovered something. Even though Matthew and Luke are the only Gospels to have a traditional nativity narrative (Matthew emphasizing Joseph’s perspective and Luke Mary’s), Mark’s introduction does have something to add! Mark declares the preparation that was needed for the coming of the Christ, especially as he is about to launch his public ministry, and that is through the ministry of John the Baptist (or more accurately John “the baptizer”). While much of this material is also seen in Matthew 3, the fact that Mark wrote first, and decided to start his Gospel with this is significant.

Before we go any further, please read Mark 1:1-8:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way,

the voice of one shouting in the wilderness,

‘Prepare the way for the Lord,

make his paths straight.’”

In the wilderness John the baptizer began preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem were going out to him, and he was baptizing them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John wore a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “One more powerful than I am is coming after me; I am not worthy to bend down and untie the strap of his sandals.  I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (NET Bible)

Did you catch it? Just as we prepare for Christmas by doing all the things I mentioned above and much more, so too for the coming of the Messiah, and at the inauguration of his public ministry, there had to be preparations. Why?

That’s a long story, but suffice to say that with the close of the Old Testament, there was nearly 400 years of divine silence in the land – no prophets, no word from God, nothing! And then, according to Galatians 4:4 “the fullness of time had come”! Yes, the baby had been born, but few knew whom he was, and no one knew what kind of a Messiah he would be.

So what did John the Baptist do?

He prepared the way for the Lord. In ancient times, this phrase emphasized the obligation of making sure the way was prepared for an official visit of an important dignitary. The roads would be cleared, the people would receive instructions, and the way would be secured.

In relation to Jesus, the dignitary of all dignitaries, how did John make preparations? He “proclaimed” or as most current translations express it “preached” two things:

  • He called all of Israel to a “repentance of baptism for the forgiveness of sins”. This was an astonishing demand since the Jewish people didn’t practice baptism. They did participate in ritual washings, and a proselyte would be baptized into the Jewish religion, but most scholars believe John’s call doesn’t really fit either of those practices. Essentially, John’s call for baptism, ‘since you have repented’ (the meaning of “baptism of repentance”), was a command to ‘make yourself ready’ for the impending visit of the Messiah, and that began with spiritual preparation!
  • Then, John “proclaimed” the one to come is “more powerful” or mightier than I am. Notice that John’s official proclamation wasn’t about himself, but that a strong and powerful man was coming who could accomplish all he intended to do.

What does this mean for us today?

First, while it’s important to be ready for Christmas, have you used this special time of the year to prepare yourself for a visit from the King? If I may, let me ask two questions:

  • When was the last time you had a meaningful worship experience in his Presence?
  • What act of obedience is God putting on your heart?

To summarize this point, don’t get caught up with the presents of Christmas and miss spending time in his Presence!

Second, you are now John, tasked with the privilege of “preparing the way” for the Lord for others! As in ancient times, we are to spread the news the King is coming, making smooth and securing his arrival by removing any hindrances one may have to seeing and receiving the King.

We can do that in a multitude of ways, but it helps to remember John at this point. He was a faithful witness the people flocked to because he shared an official proclamation concerning the King, but also because everyone knew he lived the life! Doing these two things, and trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit, will allow us to “prepare the way” for many in a glorious manner.

So let these two reminders from John encourage you as you’re preparing for Christmas, and as you have the opportunity to “prepare the way” for others this season. It’s not about presents, but the Presence of one stronger and mightier than we are.

RA

Advent Season: Now the Wait!

 

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It seems recently everyone I speak to is waiting on God for something.

One person is waiting for a desperate prayer request to be answered.

One person is waiting for career guidance as they discern God’s will for his life.

Another person is waiting for that right man to come into her life so they can get married and start a family.

Tis the season!

What I mean by that glib comment is it’s Advent season. The word Advent literally means “coming” or “arrival” and it refers to the coming or the arrival of the Messiah Jesus Christ. The surprising thing to remember is that by the arrival of the first Advent, waiting had been a major part of the experience because it had been over 400 years since a word, or a “coming” and “arrival” of God had appeared to the Jewish people! Consequently, one could say the Advent season embodies waiting.

As for me and I’m sure my friends mentioned above, there’s one problem – I despise waiting!

I despise waiting in line at the store.

I despise waiting at traffic lights.

I even despise waiting for my popcorn to pop in the microwave (How spoiled are we?).

I could go on, but you get the point. We are a culture that expects things instantaneously. Technology has spoiled us and we take that expectation into relationships, even our relationship with God.

In all honestly, there are times I don’t even like waiting on God! That is a significant problem for two reasons: Waiting as I just described it is foreign to the Scriptures; and waiting is not just part of Advent season, but it’s an essential part of the life of faith!

First, a cursory look at what the Scriptures say about waiting reveals it’s not like the waiting we commonly think of. If I wait for something today, I think of it as a passive experience, just killing time, and usually accompanied with bellyaching and whining at some point too.

But according to the Scriptures this type of “waiting” is not waiting; that’s impatience and immaturity!

Ouch!

On the other hand, the Scriptures teach that while waiting, we should wait:

Expectantly

“In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.” Psalms 5:3 (NIV)

Patiently

But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:25 (HCSB)

Blessed

“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!” Isaiah 30:18 (NIV)

Faithfully

“Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.” Isaiah 26:8 (NIV)

Renewing our Strength

“Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31 (NASB)

Scripture teaches that waiting is not a passive activity we endure, or a waste of time. Waiting is, in the words of theologian Walter Grundmann, a “burning expectation” in which we exhibit all the characteristics above, and more! In his new Advent book Waiting Here For You: An Advent Journey of Hope, Louie Giglio says while we are waiting, God is with us, and working; and I would add so are we as we become more expectant, more patient, acknowledge how blessed we are, stay faithful, and gain needed strength through the waiting.

That doesn’t sound like a passive “just-killing-time experience” to me.

Secondly, Scripture teaches that ultimately this biblical waiting, described as a “burning expectation” is not only a part of Advent, but also the entire Christian experience. Read this passage in Hebrews 9:28:

“. . . so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him.” (NLT)

That phrase “eagerly waiting” is a rich compound word that literally means “to welcome or receive from out of” with the emphasis being, based on Paul’s usage too, that we welcome Jesus’ coming and all that it brings – the glorious transformation of our lives – as we also come “from out of “ the world. In other words, we longingly look for and welcome Christ while turning from all else.

Finally, this is not just a part of the Christian experience, but creation itself is waiting! Notice the same word is used in Romans 8:19:

 “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” (NIV)

So during this Advent season, will you commit to the following:

  • Celebrating the “coming” and “arrival” of the Messiah;
  • Recognize that waiting is a natural part of Advent;
  • Exhibit the biblical definition of waiting as an active experience, a “burning expectation” inherent with all the above characteristics and more;
  • And sincerely grasp that waiting is not to be despised but embraced as a time of growth and intimacy with God.

So if you’re waiting on God for something, wait with an active “burning expectation”. It shows your dependence upon him, and your expectant eagerness to see his “coming” and “arrival”.

Just like at the first Advent!

RA

 

 

 

 

Book Reviews: Christmas 2014

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Yes, I can’t believe it but I’m already in Christmas mode, and it’s not even Thanksgiving week yet! The good news is there’s plenty to read if you’re interested in some new Christmas books. Here are three new Christmas books that I’ve read and also recommend (to some degree!).

Robert Tate Miller. Forever Christmas. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014. (Click here)

Miller, a former screenwriter for the Hallmark Channel, has written a good novel for the Christmas fiction genre. I do recommend this book, but with these comments:

  • It is an enjoyable book and quick read! I finished its 182 pages in one afternoon.
  • While I enjoyed the journey our protagonist Andrew and his wife Beth took, it was predictable. The story is almost like a Christmas Groundhog Day, but you only get one chance to learn your lesson. And yes, as I alluded to earlier, I knew the ending before Miller took me there.
  • The story is not explicitly Christian in any way, but it is implicit. While it’s true I haven’t read much from this genre in recent years, I did expect it to have more of a direct Christian message, since it’s published by Thomas Nelson, a large Christian publisher, and especially since the story centers around Christmas day! But no. Without ruining the story, at the end, it does lend itself to allegorical interpretations with the Christian message, and Miller obviously seems to even prompt this interpretation with a number of questions in a “Reading Group Guide” at the end of the book.
  • So ultimately, I do recommend this book because it will put you in the holiday mood, and it could lead to some good discussions with family and friends if you initiate it.
  • Lastly, I could easily see this being one of those Hallmark Christmas movies they play endlessly during the holiday season (I love those sappy movies, but I can already hear my wife mocking me!).

I’ve also read two new Advent books for this season that were both inspirational:

Louie Giglio. Waiting Here For You: An Advent Journey of Hope. Atlanta: Passion Publishing, 2014 (Click here)

John Piper. The Dawning of Indestructible Joy: Daily Readings for Advent. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014. (Click here)

Louie Giglio, the founder and speaker of the widely successful Passion Conferences, and now the pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, centers his diminutive advent book on these four themes:

  • God works while we wait,
  • If we are truly waiting on God we won’t miss anything,
  • While we are waiting on God, we are waiting with God. God is there the whole time (I love that truth!)
  • Who you become while you are waiting is just as important as what you are waiting for.

Interspersed with his comments, he has plenty of poems, lyrics from hymns, and even pictures (unexpected in such a small book).

John Piper, popular author who also pastored the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis for over thirty years before he retired, has a message for each day during December. His messages don’t have much in the way of poetry or hymns, but are filled with short, direct explanations and applications of the Scripture for the day. The highlight of this book is the last chapter, which is a Christmas sermon from Piper. Everyone should get this book for that alone – it’s that good!

In closing, here’s a beautiful example from Piper of what Christmas is: “Christmas means: The infinitely self-sufficient God has come not to be assisted but to be enjoyed.” (62)

May we all recover the true meaning of Christmas this holiday season!

RA