We have entered the Lenten season, and many of us have made plans to “give up” something for the 40 days leading up to Easter–chocolate, or certain meats, or a certain habit. It is traditional to use this time leading up to Holy Week to focus on preparing our hearts to receive the Gift of salvation that comes from Christ’s resurrection on Easter.
But, in a larger sense, there is nothing we can do to prepare for Grace– it is completely unmerited favor. My willingness to deny my sweet tooth for six weeks cannot make me ready for God to allow His wrath to fall on His Holy Son, so that I can be declared righteous for all eternity. It is no more than a gesture.
God is not impressed by our Lenten traditions. This doesn’t mean that we should not make the gesture; it doesn’t mean that we cannot grow closer to God by such observances. But we must not place too much reliance on them. Jesus Christ is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He gave up far more than we can imagine in order to rescue us from all that we deserve. Jesus not only gave up His human life on the Cross, He gave up His throne, His status, His omnipresence, and His omnipotence. He allowed Himself to be subject to human authorities, and He served those He had created.
Jesus didn’t just “give up” something on His way to the Cross. He offered everything He was! May we seek to do the same. May we pray, along with Jesus in the Garden, “..not my will, but Yours be done..” (Luke 22:42)
I’ve been following the story of Lot– a Biblical character in the book of Genesis, and the nephew of Abram/Abraham. I left off in Genesis 13, where Abram and Lot had to separate their flocks and herds. Abram offered Lot the opportunity to choose the best of the land– and Lot jumped at his opportunity. He chose the well-watered valley along the Jordan river, near the thriving cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and moved his tents just outside of Sodom.
But the author of Genesis (likely Moses, writing generations later) adds a single sentence that foreshadows events to come: “But the people of this area were extremely wicked and constantly sinned against the Lord.” (Genesis 13:13 NLT via http://www.biblegateway.com). It doesn’t take very long for this small detail to add up to a “lot” of trouble. The fertile Jordan valley may look like a paradise, but there are perils and pitfalls all around. In Genesis 14, we hear of a great war– five regional kings against four– with Sodom and Gomorrah caught in the middle. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+14%3A1-16&version=NLT) The armies and kings of Sodom and Gomorrah flee the battlefield, and straight into a series of tar pits. The opposing armies loot the cities, taking all the food and supplies. They also kidnap Lot and take all his possessions, because he was “living in Sodom.”
Notice two important details here– Lot is no longer pitching his tents outside the city; he has moved into Sodom. When we make the choice to live “on the outskirts” of evil, thinking we will remain separate and untouched, we are asking for trouble. Lot cannot live in paradise and avoid the evil and war all around him. And he isn’t prepared for the consequences. The war is happening all around him, yet he has made no plan to escape or to fortify his home or property.
Secondly, Lot wasn’t among the army or fighting with the kings– on either side! Lot stood for nothing; fought for nothing; defended nothing. Lot placed all of his hope and faith in blind chance– thinking somehow he would be spared the violence and war happening all around. He seems to have had no concern about his neighbors or their fate. He seems indifferent to their losses, and uncaring of their needs. One might argue that if the neighbors were so wicked, Lot had no obligation to help them, but his level of apathy and inactivity suggest that Lot was both self-centered and inept.
One of Lot’s men manages to escape and bring word of this disaster to Abram, who mobilizes his men, makes a daring night raid on the army of the five kings, rescues Lot and restores all of the stolen property and other kidnapped people. The king/priest of the city of Salem (meaning peace) blesses Abram. The rescued King of Sodom offers Abram all the captured loot in exchange for the people, but Abram refuses. Unlike his nephew, who is enticed by lands and goods and wealth, Abram seeks only peace and goodwill.
This might have been the end of Lot’s troubles; he might have learned a valuable lesson. But he didn’t.
Someone asked me yesterday if I was “ready for Christmas.” They wanted to know if I had prepared for the holiday– had I bought and wrapped presents for the family, sent out Christmas cards, decorated the house, baked cookies, etc.? I had to admit that I was not ready in that sense. I don’t generally do much in the way of decorating, and I’ve cut back on the cookie baking, too. I’m not sending greeting cards this year, and I don’t have all the presents purchased or wrapped.
But I AM ready for Christmas– I’m ready to celebrate the coming of Jesus to Earth; His life, death, and resurrection; the new life and hope that resulted from God’s boundless love. I’m ready to sing carols and light candles and rejoice! I’m ready to be awestruck again by the ancient story of shepherds and angels and wise men from the East; of the little town of Bethlehem and the manger stall and a bright star; of a newborn child; the Lord of all Creation wrapped in rags; the Word of God willingly limited to unintelligible cooing and soft cries, to nakedness and infant human weakness.
Being “ready for Christmas” means different things to different people. To many, it means surviving the stress of shopping, going to rounds of holiday parties, and trying to remember that it is supposed to be a season of “peace on Earth.” For others, it means watching the celebration from the outside looking in; facing loneliness, grief, regret, and envying or resenting those who have found joy when all they see is darkness. For some of us, it means reflecting on the amazing transformation we experience because of the coming of this single baby. We remember that there was a time when there was no Christmas– only a dim hope that God would someday send a Savior. Once the prophets could only speak of what had been promised, but not yet seen– could only remind people to “get ready” for something they had never known.
The world was waiting for the Messiah’s coming, yet it was unprepared for His actual arrival.
But the story of Jesus Christ didn’t end with Christmas. It didn’t even end at Easter, with the glorious resurrection. We await the triumphant return of the risen Christ. He is Coming! He will return in an instant…no long period of Advent; no countdown calendars or lists of things to get ready; no angels or stars to announce His arrival; no Christmas pageant or Easter sunrise service–just a trumpet blast and an explosion of Glory. He will not arrive as a helpless babe, or a suffering servant, but as a conquering King. There will be no carols about little towns and sleeping cattle; no time to “let every heart prepare Him room.”
Today, we prepare to celebrate Messiah’s coming. We spend time and money and energy getting “ready” to recreate the Advent of Jesus Christ. How much time have we spent getting ready for His return? I pray that this Christmas season will mean more than just a happy celebration of one event– even one as joyful as the Birth of Christ. Let us prepare our hearts to live out the joy of His Salvation, and prepare to receive our King in triumph.
My husband and I recently celebrated our anniversary. We married late– I became a bride at nearly 47 years of age. I spent most of my childhood and adulthood “preparing” to be a bride–I learned how to cook and sew and keep house with the goal of becoming a wife and mother. I saved items in a “hope” chest– collecting dishes and linens, candles, books–items I thought would help fill our home. After several years, I had quite a collection! Even so, when the time came, I found there were several things I still needed to learn, prepare, collect, and even change as David and I began our life together. And it wasn’t just me– David also made a lot of preparations and sacrifices to ensure that we could begin our lives in safety and relative comfort.
And marriage requires learning, and adjusting, and growing after the wedding, too. So even though we are still happily married after seven years, and even though I spent years before preparing to be a wife, I am still learning and we are still growing in our love for each other and for God.
Jesus compares our eternal life to a marriage. He has paid the “bride price”– redeeming us to belong to Him. He has gone ahead to “prepare a place” for us (John 14: 1-4). Our response should be to prepare for our eternal future with Him! In fact, our marriages should be a reflection and a model of Christ’s relationship with His Bride, the Church.
As we live out our lives, learning and preparing to spend eternity with God, there are (at least) two things to remember:
Don’t “go it alone”– God uses the imagery of weddings and marriages for good reason– He wants us to live in communion, unity, and togetherness for eternity. To try to live independently, grow, learn, and act independently, is to work outside of God’s plan. Insisting on the “perfect” mate– one that will never challenge you to grow–or bailing out at the first sign of conflict may be signs of trouble in our relationship with God. That doesn’t mean that we can’t grow or learn outside of earthly marriage– nor does it mean that marriage alone can teach us all God wants us to learn about relationships. But it does mean that relationships should be more than just superficial interactions, and working through relationship struggles can often teach us about God’s steady and enduring love, and help us develop our own capacity to love wisely and well. Heaven has many “rooms” or “mansions”, but it doesn’t have hideaways and solitary confinement!
Preparation must be a priority–imagine getting engaged and doing nothing to prepare for a wedding! No date or time, no venue, no dress, no invitations or guests, no menu, no vows?! And worse– no plan for the marriage–no idea where to live, no furniture, no discussions on how to rear children, pay bills, manage the household expenses, plan for the future?! Yet many of us become Christians and do little or nothing to prepare for our future eternal life with Christ! We spend no time reading His word, seeking His face, or learning about His character. And we spend no time investing in relationships with people who will be our neighbors for eternity– or inviting others to join us for the most important wedding in history!
I have wonderful pictures and memories of a wedding day seven years ago–how much more wonderful to prepare for the ultimate wedding day!
Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare Him room, And heav’n and nature sing, And heav’n and nature sing, And heav’n, and heav’n, and nature sing. Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ; While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains Repeat the sounding joy, Repeat the sounding joy, Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy. No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found, Far as the curse is found, Far as, far as, the curse is found. He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove The glories of His righteousness, And wonders of His love, And wonders of His love, And wonders, wonders, of His love.
Joy to the World– words by Isaac Watts
Advent is a time of preparation– joyful preparation. It is an oxymoron to say it, but it is a time when we remember with anticipation. It is a time to once again prepare our hearts for the arrival of an event that happened over two thousand years ago. Each year, we look backward to look forward! And we prepare as though it were all happening anew– the announcement of the angels, the travels of Mary and Joseph and their arrival in Bethlehem, the wise men following a star..
And we prepare for this year’s festivities– the gifts, the food, the decorations, the invitations and greeting cards, programs and parties, caroling and shopping…But in the midst of it all, hopefully, we prepare our hearts to be rekindled, reawakened to the wonder– beyond the star and angels and virgin birth–the wonder that God would ransom the lost, break the chains of sin and death, redeem the fallen and weary world, and pour all of his Glory into the frail cries of a newborn baby. All the rest of the preparation is meaningless if we don’t prepare to be overwhelmed again by the “glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love.”
“Lord, may our hearts be prepared to accept the wonder and joy of this season. May we have new hearts for the wonders of your great Love for us– that you would humble yourself to live among fallen men and women, and die to set them free. That you would rise triumphant, so that we need not fear death. Thank you for this indescribable gift. Once again, let Earth receive her King with joy as all of heaven and nature sing!”