Advent preparation, week 3
This week’s story, based on the Bible study for December 12, is set in the general context of the Advent theme of preparation.
The four themes for Advent fall conveniently under the sequence ABCD and they describe four attitudes. So preparing for Christ’s return is about reviewing four fundamental attitudes required of any disciple of Jesus:
- Anticipation of Jesus’ return;
- Being prepared for His return as a lifestyle;
- Change, in terms of our willingness to embrace change as part of true preparation. Watch this week’s introductory video All Change for the King of Kings!
The final part is less predictable, but possibly the most significant. ‘D’ stands for the attitude which Defers to the lordship of Christ.
This week, the message that comes out of the readings is about our willingness to change, which is an important part of true preparation. If we’re not prepared to change and also be changed, we are hardly ready to meet the Lord!
In the OT we read in Zephaniah 3:14-20 about God’s delight in gathering His alienated ones, together with a song of praise in Isaiah 12:2-6 about a day when God’s people will proclaim the joy of knowing the Lord of salvation.
In the NT, the gospel passage in Luke 3:7-18 is John the Baptist’s appeal to people to change and be ready to meet the righteous Lord who baptises in the Holy Spirit and in fire. And in the NT letter in Philippians 4:4-7 is encouragement that the Lord is near so let anxiety turn to rejoicing in the Lord’s goodness.
A changed people hear a changed message
Change. None of us like it, but all of us need it. How willing are we to embrace the change that the Lord wishes to bring in our lives? That question will stay with us but its roots are deep in the Old Testament story, so that is where we start — In the book of Zephaniah
The tone we hear in Zephaniah 3 begins in one way, and it ends in a completely different way.
His prophetic words were written before the exile and they reflect a big change in the hearts of the people — and also in God’s heart towards them.
We need to hear both before, and the after, to get the picture that Zephaniah is painting. He reflects first on the reason for the failure of the covenant:
Woe to the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled! She obeys no one, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the Lord, she does not draw near to her God.Zephaniah 3:1-2
And as we know, this led to the downfall of Jerusalem and Judah and the exile of most of the people. Following this devastating experience, where the righteous minority suffered along with the rest, God addresses these faithful people.
Their trust in God has really been tested. And now they are returning to their own land and remembering these prophetic words:
The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp.Zephaniah 3:15-17
The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in His love He will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”
The Lord loves them. The Lord has always loved them, even in the rebellious episodes, but now he wants them to know that he is the God of grace and restoration.
His plan was always to bring them home again.
At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honour and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the Lord.Zephaniah 3:20
And together with Zephaniah we have Isaiah’s song, where true faith in God’s goodness, proclaimed as praise, is described as like drawing water from the well of salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. In that day you will say: “Give praise to the Lord, proclaim His Name; make known among the nations what He has done, and proclaim that His name is exalted.Isaiah 12:3-4
This is a clear allusion to the Messiah who is to come. It is foretelling a time when this salvation would be proclaimed, not just among God’s chosen people, the Jews, but also made known among the nations — the non-Jewish and pagan nations.
This is a familiar idea to us. The good news of Jesus Christ, who He is and what He has done and why we can trust Him to be our Lord — that has come to us.
Jesus’ coming — a change of era
But at this time in salvation history it marks a change — a huge change.
The theme of change comes more out of the Old Testament, Old Covenant era than from the new, and that is because the greatest change in all history has been at this exact turning point. This change happened with the coming of Jesus, the Son of God, to a young Galilean couple in poor circumstances. It is the event we celebrate at this time of year, while looking ahead to the next coming..
In the part of the story we are telling this week, it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. John the Baptist is announcing the Saviour who has come.
Jesus did not come to those people at a good time, but as a bad time. This was a low point in Israel’s spirituality and history — under Roman occupation — and it was a low point in people’s general behaviour and honesty.
Extortion was what everyone expected. The rich exploited the poor. Tax collectors routinely overcharged the people and grew rich on the proceeds. Those in the militia could arrest someone on a false charge and extract a payment for the release.
John had stern words of warning of the consequences of this behaviour. He urged people to make a new pledge to follow God’s ways, and to demonstrate this in baptism.
John said to the crowds… “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”Luke 3:8-9
People of a religious mindset throughout the ages have fallen into the trap of assuming that their religious observance is an insurance against God’s judgement. But religious observance is not the good fruit Father is looking for. The good fruit is changed lives which display God’s love and God’s generosity towards others, without condition, particularly towards those who are disadvantaged or in need.
Hearing John’s message, some people were wondering if he might be the Messiah, but he made his subservient position clear:
“I baptise you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”Luke 3:16-17
Where the Bible can be confusing is in our understanding of time and chronology. We see a timeline with different events at different points on it. But the Bible often speaks of a move of God which originated outside time and which is experienced by us at more than one time.
John is speaking of a Saviour who will confer holiness and salvation by the Holy Spirit on those who receive Him, but who will also execute a terrible judgment of those who have rejected Him. This will not be at the time of John the Baptist and Jesus of Galilee, but at the End Time, the coming of Jesus which we are now anticipating and preparing for.
A change of confidence
And there is an anxiety about that event to come. It has a lot of unknowns. The stakes are unimaginably high. The effects are eternal.
In a way, every anxiety we experience is a little piece of that greater anxiety, but if instead we know we have a greater assurance, because we have received Jesus as Saviour and as Lord, because we have received His new life and peace and we are new creations in Him — then our momentary conflicts and anxieties are put in a different perspective.
This is what Paul teaches, with a sense of both the imminent return of the Lord and also the urgency of resolving in a good way a conflict that had arisen in the church in Philippi.
That is why he says:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.From Philippians 4:4-7
Those of us who know and love Jesus, with hearts that truly belong to Him, have that eternal assurance. And whatever me be happening around us, that is our ultimate security. We belong to the King of kings!
So it is right that we come to God with our requests — it is right that we rely on Him. But we come in an attitude of thankfulness and praise because we come through Jesus who is the Way. He has redeemed us from the terrible penalty, which He took on Himself. Whatever we ask of the Father, it is framed by our deep gratitude for what the Son has done for us and our new identity and standing in Him.
The anxiety and insecurity that the devil constantly tries to put on us cannot stand against our knowing the reality of who we are in Christ, and our praise and thanksgiving for Him.
That is why we can embrace the changes God brings gladly, because our security is in Him, not in a familiar routine or some man-made way of belonging. Our security is having names written in the Book of Life and a destiny in the worshipping throng in heaven. So if God is testing us by doing a new thing, or shaping us by preparing us for the full experience of His kingdom, we can say a firm ‘no’ to anxiety and ‘bring it on’ to whatever God is working in us, because we know He is good. All good.