Have you ever felt that there is more to life than meets the eye? That there is more in your past than history can tell? That there is more going on in the present moment than you really know? And that there is more to your relationships with others than you are aware?
It seems that the more we explore the mystery of our lives, the more we learn about ourselves, and the more mysterious we become. We are seldom content with what appears to be on the surface. We are not at ease because we sense that no matter how full our lives, there is more.
Preparing to Receive Jesus
Advent is about preparing to receive what is missing. It is about preparing to receive Jesus as the Son of God who delivers us from all the threats that rob people of authentic life. It is about preparing to receive the One who stands with us against the enemies of meaninglessness; of the storms and evils of nature; of loneliness, alienation from ourselves, others, and God; of sin and guilt; hunger; sickness; and the ultimate enemy, death. It is about preparing to receive Jesus who can do only what God can do.
Advent is about preparing to receive Jesus, who in his weakness and vulnerability, stands with us in the midst of our misunderstandings, misconceptions, and broken relationships.
Leading through Advent
The question is, how do you lead through Advent? How do you rethink preparing in such a way that people find themselves face to face with the God who has come to be with them in the places they are hurting, suffering, broken, and need healing and hope?
Maybe it will be helpful to start with an Advent prayer, written and put to music by Charles Wesley.
Come, thou long expected Jesus.
Born to set thy people free.
From our fears and sins release us.
Let us find our rest in thee.
How will you rethink preparing this Advent season?
Read Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight,’”
4 so John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And the whole Judean region and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Mark’s story does not begin with Jesus, and not even with John. This story is part of a larger story of God’s unfolding plan that began at creation, continued through the Old Testament prophets, comes to its climax in Jesus, and continues after the resurrection in the followers of Jesus, including you and me.
The good news according to Mark is “God sent Jesus to oppose the evil, pain, and suffering in the world.” To announce the good news, Mark starts with John the Baptist, who is seen as connecting the message of the prophets with Jesus and the preaching of the church.
John ushers in the new age, a new order. For Mark, what is important is not John’s bizarre appearance, nor his ethics, nor his message, but the fact that the story of Jesus begins with him. John is a figure of hope. His appearance marks “the beginning of the gospel” as a continuation of the message of the prophets. He continues the story of the in-breaking of God’s new order.
The Good News in Mark
The people who received Mark’s good news were in the midst of persecution. The followers of Jesus were tortured, crucified, and killed as insurrectionists. They were seen as people in opposition to the Roman government. So, for Mark John came announcing the coming of Jesus, God’s way of opposing the evil, pain, and suffering in the world.
In verses 2 and 3, Mark sets the context for the new order by calling upon the memory of his readers. He has them remember the exile and homecoming of the Hebrew people. Then, he focuses upon the work, the person, and the words of John.
Baptism is an Act of Grace
The work of John is to baptize (verses 4-5). Baptism is an act of grace giving access to the new order, God’s new day. It is an invitation to and an act of transformation. It leads into public ministry, which is seen in the work of the followers of Jesus opposing evil, pain, and suffering in our communities and neighborhoods. Baptized followers of Jesus are related to their communities and working the good of all the people living there.
For John, baptism is identified in two ways. The first is through repentance, the turning away from the old age and all its loyalties and values and turning toward God’s new order. The second is through forgiveness, which brings with it the release of indebtedness that keeps people from freely participating in God’s new order.
With this in mind, Advent is a time of rethinking preparation. One example of rethinking preparation might be John’s message of repentance which brings with it the challenge to give up our participation in the cultural consumerism that enslaves us. Another example of rethinking preparation might be John’s message of forgiveness of sins which brings with it the release from systems that dehumanize people and effect the way we relate to one another, especially the people we identify as different from us.
The person of John is characterized as an outsider, as one who comes from the wilderness. Not only is he geographically an outsider but he has kept his distance from the seductive good things of his culture. He comes speaking of a new order which calls for an end to conventional loyalties and attitudes. He comes speaking of a new freedom that brings a different perspective regarding relationships.
With this in mind, Advent is a time of rethinking preparation. It is an occasion for embracing uncertainty, understanding ourselves and others differently, and making decisions that facilitate hope and the future. Keep in mind, as you rethink preparation, that the culture will resist any changes you make. It will want you to be well-fed, well-dressed, and well-housed so that you do not depart from old loyalties. John is reminding us that there is a greater way of living in this world.
The words of John point beyond himself and beyond the dangerous moment in which people are living. He is like Moses pointing across to the new land. He anticipates the One who is to come, but he does not name him. Christmas is the time for naming Jesus. Advent is a time for waiting and hoping. John might not know the name of the One to come, but he knows that the work of the Spirit will bring a newness that transforms.
Make a Difference
With this in mind, Advent is a time of rethinking preparation. It is not only a time of spiritual reconstruction but a time to make a difference in the community and the neighborhood in which you live. It is a time to stand with people as they face adversity, pain, and suffering.
Leading through Advent means you will offer hope amid people being dehumanized and misplaced, amid cynicism about trusting God’s way in Jesus, and amid people sensing there is more but not knowing what it is. The time is right for rethinking preparation. It is right for you to announce, “God with us. There is hope for all who are changing the way they have been thinking and living and are ready to receive and to follow. Prepare the way of the Lord.”
John’s message is clear regarding preparation. There can be no pretense or deception. You come as you are, vulnerable and unencumbered
The novel, The High and the Mighty, was made into a movie several years ago. It was about the passengers on an airplane that are flying over the Pacific Ocean into California. The plane began to have engine trouble which caused it to run low on fuel. As the flight continued, the news got worse and worse for all the passengers.
One passenger, a woman, was well-dressed. Her makeup was impeccable. Her jewelry included a diamond necklace, bracelet, ring, and earrings. She sat and listened to the captain as he gave updates regarding the plane’s location and situation. Then she heard the captain say, “It looks less and less likely that we will arrive at our destination. It looks like we are going to be meeting our Maker before this is over.”
As she listened, she began to remove her jewelry. She took off her rings, her necklace, and her earrings. She removed her eyelashes and mascara. When she removed most of the cosmetics that covered her skin, she revealed a scar on her cheek. She had decided to be who she was. She was coming clean. She was going to meet her end real and true, without deception, without pretense.
Well, eventually, the plane landed safely. And through the ordeal, she had learned something about herself.
The plot of the movie reflects the story of John and the response of the people who heard his message. John offered people the opportunity to come clean. He used some wonderful images that caused people to see clearly what he was talking about. He said, “This moment in history is like an ax being laid at the root of a tree. If the tree has not borne good fruit, it comes down.”
He said, “This moment in history and in your life is like the moment when a person has harvested the grain, but it is still full of chaff. And he takes a large fan and while the grain is being poured from one container to another, the fan is used to blow away the chaff. This is repeated several times until all the chaff is blown away. The grain is saved but the chaff is burned.”
“In other words, there is one coming after me, I’m not even worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandal. He is so much stranger than I; he is so much greater than I. He is coming. And one thing that he will do is cause the truth to come clean and clear. No more deception, no more pretending.”
Preparing for the One Coming
After hearing John, people began to prepare for the One coming. They confessed to their life deceptions, distorted values, loss of priorities, and irresponsibility. They came clean and were baptized for the forgiveness of their pretentiousness and they began a new way of living.
John the Baptist is presenting the message of the scripture. It comes in several figures of speech. Sometimes it is called a New Creation where everything is new. Sometimes it is spoken of as a New Birth. John the gospel writer refers to it as being born from above or born again.
Sometimes it is presented as a New Life or a New Page of a notebook. And at other times the Bible uses the image of a new beginning. That is what John preached.
New Life as a Christ-Centered Leader
What does this new life, this new beginning, look like for you as a Christ-centered leader? What does rethinking preparation mean as you lead through Advent?
First, it means to come clean. It means to scrape off all the pretense and fear of what others might think and come as you are, a beloved child of God. It means that you lead with courage anchored in God’s love and grace.
Hold the Past and Future Together
Second, look at John. He understood his present role as keeping continuity with the prophets, with Jesus, and with the church. Even though he has all the qualifications for being first, he did not give into the temptation of assuming that his contribution was better than anyone before him or greater than anyone who came behind him.
So, as a leader, take your place as one who holds the past and future together. As you prepare for the future, do so within the context of who and what has brought you to this moment. Then ask the question, “Who will help lead us in taking the next step on our journey?” Walk with them. Be who God has created you to be for them.
Submit to Jesus
Third, John submits himself to the greatness of Jesus. Imagine being born and prepared for a singular moment when you stand on the banks of the River Jordan and shout, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” One sentence summed up his life and ministry.
John found his joy in Jesus and by giving up his self-serving right to happiness. Sooner or later, you learn that happiness is neither a right nor an end in itself. For the followers of Jesus, the word is not happiness but is joy. It is used in the context of submitting to the greatness and the glory of God.
God’s Love and Joy
So, as a leader, give yourself to God’s love and receive the joy given to those who serve in love. Receive God’s love for yourself and then share God’s love with others. It means putting others first as you work for their best and well-being. It means being generous with others, allowing them to be who they are, and space to grow into who God created them to be.
It means that you lead with grace, modeling the new order. John baptized people showing the new order was not based on ancestry, religious affiliation, or national citizenship. It was a conscious choice to turn away from the old and turn toward the new. It is coming clean so you can enter into the new life, the new order.
So, Advent is preparing to receive what is missing in your life. So, rethinking preparation will help you become more who God created you to be by receiving the One who can and will make your life complete. Remember, who you are is how you lead.
Give God thanks for the people you encountered today. Where did you come clean today? What brought you to the moment of coming clean? How did you respond? How did you express God’s love today? With whom do you need to celebrate the hope or the love or the new life you have experienced in and through them?
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.