December 7, 2014

Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8


Someone suggested recently that if I could come up with titles for my Sunday sermons, she would appreciate that. And so, on Friday morning, just before leaving for North Battleford for our Presbytery meeting, I added one more word to the bulletin which Karen would print later that morning.

I titled the sermon for today, “Unprepared,” and I chuckled to myself because as I wrote “Unprepared” in the bulletin I was very aware of the fact that my sermon was completely unprepared as yet. I had reflected on the scriptures, made some notes, and the idea of the sermon was beginning to form in my mind, but I was still woefully unprepared.

Although ministers get used to speaking in public, I imagine that if we share a common nightmare it’s the thought of getting a total writer’s block, or of being so overwhelmed with other aspects of ministry all week, that Sunday arrives and we have nothing to say. If we take our ministry seriously, we want to do the best we can with whatever gifts we have received, and being unprepared is a terrible possibility.

I know that many of you have experienced something similar in your work or in your family life. Teachers have to get ready for presentations each and every day – whether they are teaching little children, teens, or adults. Others have to prepare reports, give speeches, chair meetings, train employees, or simply be ready to perform the sometimes complicated tasks involved in your occupations.

Volunteer positions often demand a great deal of preparation as well, including the ministries that so many of you perform in the church. Convening meetings, preparing agendas, doing research, following up with people, keeping track of expenses, picking up supplies, coordinating with others… None of us want to be caught unprepared.

And, of course, Christmas is coming too. And for many of us that means cleaning your homes, putting up decorations, sending cards and buying presents, baking, and planning meals, and making invitations to family and friends for special celebrations.

We likely want to avoid still being out in the mall on Christmas Eve, and we probably don’t want to be up late cleaning the night before the in-laws arrive. Most of all, we want everyone to have a lovely Christmas… and being unprepared with a still-frozen turkey or someone on our list without any present at all is not what we are aiming for.

This morning’s Bible readings from the New Testament are about getting ready – a classic Advent theme. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness calling people to repentance and baptizing them as they confess their sins. John tells the people that they need to prepare themselves. He tells them that someone is coming after him – a powerful one, a holy one – and this one coming soon will baptize them with the Holy Spirit.

Like us, the first century Jewish people who heard John’s proclamation wanted to be prepared. Their faith included many prophecies and promises of a Messiah who would one day come to set everything right, and they wanted to welcome him. The prophet Isaiah wrote about a messenger coming before the Anointed One, a voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

And some of the people, at least, began to prepare themselves. They confessed their sins, and came to John to be baptized. They recommitted themselves to following God and doing what was right. They got ready to meet God face to face in Jesus the Christ.

Unfortunately, just as we so often miss the presence of God in the midst of our complicated world of politics, religion, media, and culture, most of the people back then missed the fact that God had come in Jesus to bring hope, peace, joy, and love to our broken and weary world.

Although some caught glimpses of God’s glory in Jesus’ life and ministry and witnessed to it later on, by and large humanity was not ready to welcome him. We were unprepared. We rejected and killed him for causing trouble.

But a few decades later, after Jesus had died, there were still people talking about who he was, and what he had done. And there were growing communities of people who wanted to make their lives about following his way because they believed that though he had died, that he had been raised by the power of God. They believed that in Jesus they had met God-self, and that he would come again before the end of time.

The passage we heard this morning from the 2nd letter of Peter to the churches encourages the early Christians to wait for Christ’s coming again and to earnestly prepare for the day of the Lord. Just as John the Baptist promised that God was sending the Messiah, Peter promises that God will send him again.

He doesn’t know when. They will have to be patient. But in the meantime, they are called to prepare themselves once again – to repent, to recommit themselves to Jesus’ way, to live lives that are filled with holiness and godliness and peace.

During the season of Advent each year, we spend time preparing for Christmas. We bake, we clean, we write cards, we visit, we prepare Christmas music, we write Christmas sermons… But we are also reminded that our waiting is not just for December 25th and a special holiday, but our waiting is for the day of the Lord – for Christ’s coming again to make all things new.

Over the next few weeks, I’m sure you will get asked the same question that I’m often asked in this season: “Are you ready for Christmas?” And when you hear that question, I want to invite you to ask yourself another one: “Are you ready for Jesus’ return?”

You may or may not have your presents wrapped or your house ready to entertain Christmas guests, but maybe that’s not as important as whether or not you are prepared to come face to face with God at the end of your life or the end of the world as we know it. Peter’s epistle reminds us that we have no idea when that day will come, but that we need to live each and every day as if it could be our last. We need to be prepared.

Those of us who are students (and those who can remember being students) know that one strategy to get ready for a big exam, or a presentation, or an oral defence is to cram. You take a short period of time before the deadline, and you study like crazy! You go over and over the material, and attempt to keep it all in your head until the exam is finished.

But the better students (the wiser students) avoid cramming sessions by studying faithfully all through the course. They don’t drop out of life altogether to cram every night of the week, but they do their reading on time, they take notes and sort through questions they have as they arise, they discuss the material with other students and with the teacher if they have the chance.

They’re the ones who can handle it when the teacher walks into the classroom and announces a pop quiz. They’re the ones who can sleep the night before the big test because they have learned and integrated the material over a long period of time, and they’re not going to forget it during the exam or even when the course is over.

Well, I think that’s the way that we are called to live our Christian lives. We’re not supposed to spend a lot of time wondering or worrying about when Christ will return or when the end of the world will be. But we are called to immerse ourselves in learning and living the way Jesus taught and showed us how to live. We’re not asked to be perfect, but we are called to keep turning again and again towards Jesus’ way of love, and justice, and peace.

And if we’re feeling unprepared… like if Jesus came back tomorrow we wouldn’t be anywhere near ready, our response doesn’t need to be a major cram session, but our response could be to make a new commitment today to immerse ourselves in learning and living the way of Jesus each and every day.

Today’s scripture passages are not just calls to repentance. They’re not just harsh messages of judgment intended for people who have turned away from God or forgotten about God’s laws and requirements. They are also filled with grace:

John told the people, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Peter told the people, “The Lord is patient with you, not wanting any to perish.”

Centuries before, the prophet Isaiah announced to the people who had suffered in exile and paid the penalty for their sins, that God was coming to save them: “The Lord God will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

And the psalmist encouraged the people, telling them that “God will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.”

May God give us the courage and the will to prepare our hearts and our lives for the coming of the Lord. And may God be gracious to us in as much as today we are woefully unprepared. Amen.