As we hear the scripture readings for today, the first Sunday of Advent in Year A, the first cycle of the church lectionary, we are reminded that Advent is both a time of joyful anticipation and a time of diligent preparation.
The reading from Isaiah is a call to anticipate the glory of the coming of the kingdom of God at a time when disaster was imminent. It is a promise that God is ultimately in control and that peace and harmony are still possible even though the enemy is at the gate. It is a reminder that no matter how unfair and unjust the world might appear, God will eventually set things right.
The country of Assyria was gathering strength just north of Israel. The prophets had warned that because of the people’s unfaithfulness they would suffer a great calamity. Isaiah too, spoke warnings about the destruction of Israel. However, the role of the prophet was not just to prophecy doom, but to incite change in the behavior of the people so that the future that was predicted did not need to occur. Isaiah calls all the people, both northern Israel, and southern Judah to discipleship, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”
The people did not heed Isaiah’s call. Israel fell to Assyria and those who survived were scattered among the nations. Judah, too, eventually fell to the Babylonians and endured many years of captivity in a foreign land before they were allowed to repent, return, and rebuild.
It is not too late for us. The prophet also calls us to amend our ways and become faithful disciples walking in the light of the Lord. Isaiah calls us to hopeful anticipation of the coming of the kingdom.
Jesus uses the story of Noah to call the people to diligent preparation. The story of Noah takes on multiple meanings depending upon your perspective when you read the story. Today we find Noah to be a common character on nursery decorations, a hero of hope and joy who rescued all the animals, but for those who missed the boat it is a very different story. Jesus reminds us that before Noah entered the ark, the majority of the world was going about their daily business, blissfully unconcerned about the future. They also were completely unprepared when the rains began and the water began rising. Outside the boat was a story of death and disaster which could have been averted if the people had diligently prepared for their future.
Now I am not talking about the diligent preparation that is recommended in books like When All Hell Breaks Loose or The Self-sufficient Life and How to Live it. These are not books of joyful anticipation of the kingdom of God, but handbooks for those who intend to take matters into their own hands, rather than trust in the mercy of God. I am not criticizing learning survival skills. I think it is very important for all of us to know basic first aid, what to do if you get lost or stranded, how to prepare for and react during natural disasters or man-made calamities, but these are not the skills Jesus is calling us to hone.
Jesus calls us to prepare and practice the skills necessary to face him face to face, whether it is his second coming or at the time of our death.
There are many people today who are focused on predicting when Jesus will return more than on living daily lives of faithful discipleship. They use fear tactics to scare people into professing a belief in Christ rather than teaching people how to be disciples of Christ. I don’t think Jesus is as concerned about us learning to read the signs as he is us being prepared when the signs reveal his presence. In fact he tells us several times that it is unlikely we will recognize the signs, if we did, we would have been prepared.
So how do we prepare? Thirteen times in the Bible we find the phrase “keep my commandments.” The evangelist, John tells us that Jesus indicated our keeping his commandments was a sign of our love for him (John 14:15). Jesus also tells us that” you should love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul and all your might. This is the first and greatest commandment and the second is like it, Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 37-39). The final commandment Jesus gave was “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” What were we to teach them? Teach them to obey all that Jesus had commanded. Loving God means being obedient. Loving our neighbor includes teaching them to become disciples of Christ.
The early disciples give us some examples of what it looks like to be a disciple of Christ. On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the good news to all who came within the range of his voice. Some heard and others did not, but those who did, were baptized, they continued to learn about Jesus from the apostles, they gathered together for fellowship, they broke bread and prayed together, and they looked after one another’s needs by sharing what they had. Jesus also speaks of the importance of caring for those less fortunate: the hungry, the sick, those who lack proper clothing, and those who have lost their freedom.
This is what it means to be prepared for the coming of the kingdom. These are not things I can do for you, but things you must do for yourself. I can preach to those who enter the doors. I can baptize those who seek baptism. I can offer opportunities to gather together for worship, prayer, study, fellowship, and outreach, but only you can decide whether or not to show up and participate. Only you can decide to invite your neighbor to join us. Budgets and buildings are only tools to make discipleship easier, but they cannot replace the hard work of discipleship required of each of us.
Today is the first day of our new year as Christians. It is year A in our lectionary cycle and year 1 in our daily office cycle. Today is the perfect day to commit to become a more prepared disciple as we wait with joyful anticipation for the coming of our Lord.