Based on Malachi 3:1-4, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6
There are many in this congregation who have spent a decent amount of their adult lives as educators. I myself spent a few years in academia. One of the tools of the trade among academics is the “pop quiz”. So, to honor all those who have been educators, and to introduce our sermon topic of “Be Prepared”, I have a short quiz that I’d like you to take before we go any farther. Please get out your pencils and put away your books and cell phones. First question…at least how many times does the Bible tell us to be prepared? Second question…can you recite any of these verses?
The Boy and Girl Scout Motto is “Be Prepared”. The Boy Scout website goes further to define what that means. It states, “The Scout Motto is: BE PREPARED which means you are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your DUTY. Be Prepared in Mind by having disciplined yourself to be obedient to every order, and also by having thought out beforehand any accident or situation that might occur, so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment, and are willing to do it.” Hmmm, seems to me that being prepared could also be a motto for Christians, after all the Bible tells us all at least 100 times to do exactly that. Think about it…the Bible in many ways calls for us to be “…always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do our duty…” It also calls us to spend time thinking through our life scenarios and choices so that we “…know the right thing to do at the right moment, and are willing to do it…!”
This is what our season of Advent is all about – getting prepared to welcome Emmanuel into our lives. Paying attention to the most important event of the last 2000 years; living into what it means for each of our lives individually and for us as the “Body of Christ”. Before we go any farther, let’s go to God in prayer…
Malachi was a minor prophet and the last one to speak to Israel until the coming of John the Baptist (closely followed by Jesus). Malachi has the distinction of being the final book of the Hebrew Bible and as such is a jumping off point for the Gospel according to Matthew and the New Testament. The reading today is a foreshadowing of the coming of John and Jesus some 400 years in the future. The prophecies are tried and true, pointing out the apostasy of the priesthood and speaking of the coming redemption. The “messenger” will refine the people and Temple leadership – “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap…” For those who are wondering, “fullers” were persons engaged in laundering clothing and fuller’s soap was a mixture of alkali (i.e., bleach) that got the whitest whites. Once again the Israelites were on notice to repent and to be prepared for the coming of God.
The Gospel of Luke picks up the themes from Malachi and fast forwards us 400 years to the coming of John the Baptizer. John, son of the priest Zechariah and Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, was introduced in Chapter 1 of this Gospel. It is now the 15th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, and Herod and his sons control all of Palestine. The people are hard-pressed and the Temple leadership is hand-picked by the governor, Pilate. Into this oppressed state comes a prophetic voice in the wilderness, calling the people back to their faith in the One God, and baptizing them in the Jordan. John the Baptist hearkens the people back to the major prophet Isaiah to prepare for the in-breaking of the kingdom of God – for the salvation of God that is at hand. John tells all who will listen that it is time to repent – from the highest priest to the lowliest serf. His basic message is that time is running out and they need to be prepared for the judgment for all who do not believe.
Paul begins his letter to the believers in Philippi with a prayer of thanksgiving. In it he details that his joy is in their sharing of the gospel and in their support of him. He prays that they might be so prepared through prayer and the sharing of the gospel that they will be found “pure and blameless” at the second coming of Christ. He winds up his prayer noting that the believers have done so much good through their practice of their faith that they will be rewarded for “…having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ…”. Their preparation of themselves and all of their new believers in the faith is a reflection of their great love and commitment to the gospel. That is quite a legacy indeed!
So, it is a mixed bag of scripture today…two scriptures that are prophetic and one that celebrates the amazing power of God through Jesus to produce a magnificent harvest of righteousness. Two scriptures that remind us of the right ways to live and to be in relationship with God and with each other. One that celebrates the bounty that occurs when we as believers do those things.
It is what both the Bible and Scout Motto ar saying…calling us to be so prepared in our minds and bodies so that we might do our duty. In the case of a Boy Scout (which is what I know best), it is calling that person to live into the 12 Laws. They hold that a Boy Scout should be: “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent”. I assume that Girl Scouts have a similar set of “laws” that they are duty-bound to live. In the case of Christians, our duty is to love God with all of who we are, and our neighbors as ourselves. To get to know the stranger, to care for the widows, orphans and all those who have been marginalized by society. To speak out for those who have no voice and to advocate for changes to eliminate the social injustices that are so endemic to our world. To reach out to those who have lost their faith or who are in despair and in need of the healing power of being restored to right relationship in community. This is how we answer the messenger of the LORD…to make the world a level playing field for all. To make all that is crooked and rough, straight and smooth. To remove the barriers that people encounter on their way to Jesus by making their journey easier to walk.
This is what Charles Wesley was thinking about when he penned his poem that was turned into our next hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”. Charles wrote this poem in 1747 and in it describes how the great and transformative love of God is made manifest in us. The third verse, which I’d like to highlight, goes like this: “…Come Almighty to deliver, let us all thy life receive; suddenly return and never, never more thy temples leave. Thee we would be always blessing, serve thee as thy hosts above, pray and praise thee without ceasing, glory in thy perfect love….” The first two verses of the poem have asked for God’s great love to be made manifest in us through Jesus’s love for us and the power of the Holy Spirit. Once that preparation happens, then we are set free to live fully into our God-given gifts and lives. Charles asks for all of us to be delivered from ourselves into the life of Christ. To occupy our minds and bodies (i.e., thy temples) forever so that we might spend our time like the heavenly crowd, praying and praising without ceasing.
People of God, hear the good news…when we are prepared to live fully into the God-image within us, then God’s mercy and the full power of the Holy Spirit can work within us to bring God’s kingdom fully and completely to earth. This work began with the creation of our world; was shown again and again through God’s selection of Patriarchs, Judges, Kings and Prophets to call us to repentance and righteousness; and came to fulfillment in the incarnation of God as Emmanuel. There is still time to prepare ourselves that we might, in the words of the Scout Motto, “…know the right thing to do at the right moment…” and to be willing to actually do that right thing. For it is not enough to prepare ourselves intellectually and internally – we must be prepared to act in the name of Jesus to do our duty as members of the Body of Christ. May God so prepare us and embolden us that we will do just that. Amen!