“Partners in a Ministry of Preparation”

Advent 2

December 6, 2015


Text: Philippians 1:3-11; Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6


          Advent is the season in which we prepare for the coming of the Christ. Now when thinking of preparation in this season, it is easy to think of the preparation needed to celebrate Christmas—the decorating, shopping, meal planning, making travel plans, taking part in holiday events, and all the other stuff that comes with the way Christmas is celebrated in our culture. Many people find these activities quite pleasurable—although I readily admit that I don’t. And when I read our Scriptures today, the description of what it means to prepare for God’s coming does not strike me as pleasurable, either.

          The prophet Malachi delivered God’s word about a coming messenger who would prepare a path for God to come to his people. He wrote of this messenger of the covenant: “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can withstand his appearance?” implying that the answer is “no one”. The messenger is then described as being like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap. Fire has long been used to refine gold and silver, purifying these precious metals by burning up the impurities. And fuller’s soap is not the kind people use for bathing. Fuller’s soap is a strong lye soap used to wash the oil and dirt out of wool before it is spun into thread and then woven into cloth. God spoke through Malachi to let the people and the religious leaders know that they needed to be purified so that they would present pleasing offerings to God instead of the unpleasing ones they had been presenting. That purification process would not be experienced as pleasant. I often experience change as painful and difficult, even when I know the change is a good thing. It is so easy to become tied to long-standing habits that they become comfortable, and change takes me out of that comfort zone, leaving me uncomfortable.

          Likewise in Luke we read about John the Baptist, who is often understood by Christians as fulfilling the prophecy of Malachi. He is understood as the one God sent to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus into the world. He also is described using the words of the prophet Isaiah: “A voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. All humanity will see God’s salvation.’” Preparing the way of the Lord is not described as a small undertaking. Indeed, it is more like a major earthmoving operation, just as road building is in our day. And just as landowners sometimes object to the use of eminent domain to take some of their land for road building projects, I sometimes forget that God has eminent domain over my life and all our lives, and resist.

          The Apostle Paul’s ministry can be understood as an effort to prepare people for Christ’s return in glory, which he believed would happen very soon. He taught people that they needed to turn from their sinful ways and live so they might be found pure and blameless and filled with the good fruits of God’s righteousness when Christ comes again.

          Now Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians while in prison for proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. That is certainly not a pleasurable experience—and in those times conditions in prisons were even worse than they are today. And those who became Christ followers under his ministry also placed themselves at risk for persecution, imprisonment, and execution for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord rather than Caesar. But we also know that even in prison Paul made the most of his opportunities to share the good news of Christ with those he encountered. An example of someone who does this today is Vano Kiboko, whose name you may have noticed has been on our prayer list for the past several months. Mr. Kiboko, a United Methodist layperson whose brother is now a district superintendent here in Iowa, has been in prison in the Democratic Republic of Congo for just over a year, having been detained for objecting to unjust actions of the Congolese government. While in prison, he has led hundreds of fellow inmates to faith in Christ, and is also working to improve the lives of the prisoners in other ways, including teaching them skills to prepare them to become productive citizens once they are released.

          Paul told the Philippian Christians in his letter to them that they were partners in his ministry. Paul was thankful for their partnership and prayed for them regularly. And Paul also was confident that God, who had started this good work in them, would stay with them to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. He prayed that their love would continue to grow, ever richer in knowledge and insight. He prayed this so they would be able to decide what really matters and be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. He prayed they would be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes from Christ, so they would give glory and praise to God.

          Friends, we are partners in preparing the way for people to know the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ in their lives. If we look at it this way, it can be freeing. If our job is to prepare people, we are not responsible for the results. People remain free to choose how they respond to what we are doing, and not all will respond in the way we hoped they would. And if we are partners, we are not working alone. We are working with each other, and above all, with God. Since God is calling the shots, it’s not even about what I want, or what you want, but what God wants, which might be something that never even occurred to me or you.

          We are called to this work even when it is difficult or dangerous, even when there seems to be little outward evidence that we are accomplishing anything, even when we recognize that we have many shortcomings (and we all have them) when it comes to doing the work God wants us to do. But we also have this promise: that “the one who started a good work in us will stay with (us) to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” God will stay with us to grow us in love, knowledge, insight, wisdom, faithfulness, and fruitfulness. We are partners with God. Although I often think this means I’m helping God (and I am trying to do that), the more important truth here is that God is helping me to work with him, to complete what is lacking in me, to help me to grow into what God intends for me. This is also true for you. I pray that you will claim this promise for yourself.

          All glory and praise be to God!


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