Whenever an important event is on the calendar, you spend a lot of time preparing for it. Whether you're getting ready for your wedding, the birth of a child, a big move—whatever it is, you invest a lot of time and energy into things that deserve it. In one of this year's Lectionary readings in Matthew 3, we find an account of someone investing their time and energy into preparing for a significant event:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”
The Messiah was coming—an occasion of much significance, to say the least—and, according to Isaiah, John was sent to prepare people for it. What did that preparation look like? What is involved in preparing for a savior that has been promised for thousands of years? John says one thing: "Repent." John is telling his listeners that this Messiah is coming to establish a new Kingdom—"the kingdom of heaven," or "kingdom of God"—and the only requirement for entering that kingdom is to give one's life to its King. By nature, though, we have a rooted desire to be our own king—to be in charge of our own lives.
Here are a few important things to remember when reflecting on what it means to repent and "prepare for" Jesus' return:
1. Repentance Is Ongoing
In his 95 Theses, Martin Luther wrote, "All of Christian life is repentance." By this, he meant that turning from our sinful flesh and toward the perfect design of God's commandments is not a decision that we make merely one time; it's a daily commitment. The struggle to put to death certain rhythms of life and the charge to take up others is not a process that occurs overnight. In fact, as many of us know, it's not even a process that occurs only once a day!
As those preparing ourselves for the return of our King, we will be faced with repeated opportunities to lay down our control over aspects of our lives—our marriages, our finances, our careers—at the feet of Jesus and say, "Here you are, Lord. You lead, not me."
2. Progress, Not Perfection
There are two ways to look at the ongoing nature of repentance. The first is through the lens of self-righteousness, which will lead to crushing guilt. "If I have to continually do this," we might say, "doesn't that mean I'm failing?" This was the view of the Pharisees and scribes. They believed that their favor with God was earned by their moral perfection, and so their whole lives were marked by the facade of trying to fool themselves, fool others, and even fool God that they could be "perfect." Their obedience, then, was a means of self-promotion and self-service; it was inward rather than Godward. Paul says this mindset, when confronted with one's sin, produces "worldly sorrow"—feeling sorry about the consequence—instead of "godly grief"—seeking to put to death sin out of love and reverence for God himself (2 Corinthians 7:10).
The second way to approach the ongoing nature of repentance is to take comfort it in. If we accept that we are not justified—made right before God—by our own moral perfection, but instead by the moral perfection of Jesus as our mediator, then we can freely strive to follow the commands of our Lord without being crushed by a sense of inadequacy when we fail. If we believe that, in Christ, we are already righteous in God's sight, then we can step out from under the weight of not being holy and begin seeking holiness with joy and humility.
3. We Call Others To Join Us
Both Matthew, in his gospel account, and Luke, in the book of Acts, record Jesus' final instruction to his followers. In both instances, the message is the same: essentially, "live on mission for me, making disciples." As those that have committed to follow Jesus and to live lives marked by repentance, we now have the opportunity—the responsibility—to invite others to follow him, as well. This is such an integral part of what it means to "prepare" for Jesus' return. He told his followers, "I'm going to come back, and I'm charging you with spreading the news of my life and work."
As we await the coming of our savior, we ought to find every opportunity we can to show others what a beautiful savior he is! As those who have experienced the joy and freedom of surrendering to his rule, we can't help but desire others to experience that same joy and freedom.
We know that Jesus will one day return to finish what he began—to fulfill the establishment of his Kingdom on Earth. As we wait, we heed the words of Joy To The World :
"Let Earth receive her king,
Let every heart prepare him room."
In our sinful nature, our hearts are prone to wander—eager to seek pleasure in things other than our God. They are filled with desires and possessions and every sort of thing that keeps us from the life abundant that Jesus offers. But, even in our rebellious state, we have been shown kindness and patience by God, which Paul says is meant to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
And so, let us receive his kindness and prepare him room. Let us give our hearts to him, follow him as King, and say "I want to live in your presence forever, under your gracious reign, and so I give you my life, Lord."