The early church lived with a sense of expectation for the second coming of Jesus Christ and James exhorts his people, in today’s scripture passage, to wait with patience for the few years that remain.
During this waiting, he told them, they had to reconfirm their faith. They must not blame one another for the troubles of the situation they find themselves in for if they do they will break the commandment which forbids Christians from judging one another. However, and we have talked about this before, there is a difference between judgment and discernment. We are called to discern the activities and actions of others up against what is and what is not Christian and by doing so know who, and who not, to follow.
But I would like to turn our attention to the person of John the Baptist. John is an interesting character, and this is the only time in the Church year we hear about. The four Gospels all have his story, and there he is, every Advent, standing by the River Jordan and telling us to Repent for the Kingdom of God has come near.
But John is interesting for more than what he wears or what he eats; his message is one that is more often than not, overlooked in the grand scheme of salvation history. John is the last of the prophets, and as such he comes at the end of a very long and distinguished prophetic line. From Isaiah to Ezekiel to Joel they all had the same message, “Shape up or else.” But John stands that on its head and changes direction just when we think we have it all figured out.
John’s message was not to repent, “or the kingdom of heaven will come near.” This message is a threat and something to be feared by those listening, and it was designed to keep them on the straight and narrow. He also does not say, “repent and the kingdom of heaven will come near.” This message is a reward system and a merit-based approach to our spirituality much like the prosperity gospel that is all the rage at the moment. The prosperity gospel looks at the Bible as a contract between God and humanity. If we have faith in God, God will reward us with success and prosperity. But John’s message changes all of this thinking.
John has removed us, humanity, totally from the equation and is telling us that what is happening has nothing to do with us but is all the doing of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ the kingdom of heaven HAS come near and what John is announcing is this new reality, and he is telling us that we have a choice to be part of it or not.
John uses this word repent, but we have placed a different meaning on this word then John intended. To understand the reality of the message we need to know a little Greek. The word that is used here literally means to change one’s mind. Scripture commentators have defined on an even broader scale to mean a re-centering or a reordering of our lives. The essence of what John is saying here is that we need to reorder our priorities and return to God, and what God wants for us in our lives. He is calling us to be part of the kingdom of God for it is heard and he does not want us to miss it.
But how do we get in synch with what God wants for our lives? James was telling his followers that the Second Coming was imminent that it was going to happen soon and they needed to be ready. Well, apparently it did not occur in their lifetime nor many lifetimes. There are many people who have claimed to know when this will happen but Matthew and Mark tell us that only God knows when this will happen. In fact, Jesus says that he does not even know. So we should stop trying to figure it out and listen to those who think they know. What they are saying is that they know God’s mind, and well that is a scary prospect.
So what do we do? Well, we turn to scripture to find the answer. 1 Peter 4:7 tells us to “be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.” We are to be like servants whose master has gone away and, not knowing when he will return, must have everything ready no matter when he returns.
We must take the time to prepare; again we turn to 1 Peter 4:7 and Peter tell us to be serious about our preparation. This not something that we can just do at the last minute. How many of us would invite say 100 people over for dinner and wait until the last minute to do the shopping and cooking? I am sure none of us would, but sometimes we treat our spiritual life like it is a last minute thing.
We must get ourselves to holiness. 1 Thessalonians 3:13 says, “strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” We must become blameless before God in body and spirit. 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound[a] and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We must put off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Romans 13:12-14, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
And when the time comes we must be found in fellowship. 1 Peter 4:8-9, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” Paul commands that everything we do must be done from and in love. Paul says that our forbearance with each other must be known to all. The word he uses here is translated from the Greek word which means a spirit that is more willing to offer forgiveness than it is to seek justice.
In his letter to the Hebrews Paul demands of us mutual help, mutual Christian fellowship, and mutual encouragement. ” Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
In the end, we must have our personal relationships with each other in the right position, we must love God, and we must love our neighbor, not matter who that neighbor is, no matter what god that neighbor worships, and no matter what color our neighbor’s skin is. James tells us that we to show no partiality in our faith at all.
The best preparation we can ever have is to abide in Christ, and we can do that by living close to him every day. 1 John 2:28, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed, we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.”
What John is telling us, what the season of Advent is telling us is to be ready, be watchful, be prepared, and be waiting. But while we do all of this we turn to the prophet Mica for the answer, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”