How do we get ready for God’s coming?
This question pulsed at the heart of Jewish hope. After Israel had been defeated and exiled from her homeland (first by Assyria in 722 BC, then by Babylonia in 586 BC), it seemed like God had disappeared. Ezekiel wrote the dark words, “Then the glory of the Lord departed” (Ezekiel 10:18).
But the prophets promised that God would finally “return” and make everything right. Isaiah foresaw valleys being filled in and mountains being leveled to “prepare the way for the Lord.” At last, “the glory of the Lord” would be “revealed” and the good news would be shouted, “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:1-9).
So if God is coming, how do we get ready? This question was burning in many Jews’ hearts in the first century. They were groaning under Roman occupation, and many people believed that “the Day of the Lord” was finally dawning.
Of course, this is also the question of Christian “Advent.”
Advent is a Latin word that simply means “coming.” And the Advent season celebrates the central mystery of the Christian faith: the “coming” of Jesus was really the coming of God. Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). In him, the prophets’ promises have finally been fulfilled and God has returned.
So how do we get ready for the coming of Jesus?
Thankfully, the New Testament gives us a clear answer.
The Prophet Isaiah promised that a “messenger” would come and prepare the people for God’s coming. And the Gospels claim that this messenger was John the Baptist, Jesus’s radical cousin and prophet.
Now, the famous 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote,
“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity… And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.” Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
For many of us, John is so “familiar” and his message so “simple” that we fail to be “struck” by what is most “striking and powerful” in his ministry. Let’s take a second look.
John is sent with the epic task of preparing the way for the ultimate event in history. So how does “the messenger” tell us to get ready for God’s coming?
John’s answer focuses exclusively on what we would call “social justice.”
First, John doesn’t call the people to gather with other believers and pray. He doesn’t tell them to go to church, sing worship songs, and give sacrificial offerings. Perhaps most striking, John doesn’t even tell them to stop what they’re doing and focus their thoughts on the Messiah.
It seems that John was following the prophetic justice tradition of Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, and Amos, which I explored in my last two essays. And thus John doesn’t mention any typical “religious” activities as preparations for God’s coming. In fact, John fiercely rejects the people’s cultural assumption that their religious nationhood and ethnic identity could score them points with God. He points to the ground and sneers, “Out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8).
Instead, John tells the people that they need to embrace metanoia, a revolution in their minds that leads to a totally new way of thinking and living (Matthew 3:2). In fact, he tells them to get baptized, to symbolically drown their old life and start over with this revolutionized perspective.
So what does metanoia look like in practice? How do you live it and get ready for God? An episode in Luke’s Gospel makes the answer clear:
“‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect more than you are required to,’ he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’” Luke 3:10-13
In short, metanoia is practiced through generosity and justice for the poor and powerless. If people don’t have basic social security, give sacrificially. If you have power, don’t abuse it. Tell the truth, reject corruption, and treat the vulnerable with respect. The rest is fluff, which God will burn up when he comes (Luke 3:17).
So, how do we get ready for God’s coming, for Immanuel, for Advent?
John’s prophetic answer was a lot like the flashing sign at U2’s concerts:
EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG
God isn’t asking for prayers, songs, offerings, and the other rituals of religious devotion. That, by itself, is not how we prepare for God’s coming.
God is asking for social justice. Give to the poor and protect the powerless, especially those most vulnerable to government oppression. That’s how we prepare for God’s coming.
As Christians around the world enter the Advent season and prepare to celebrate Immanuel, I pray that we would “stop to think” before autopilot takes over with our calendars, trees, and parties. How do we get ready for God’s coming? What does God really want?
The Bible’s answer is surprising and challenging. When we bury our greed and injustice, and when we rise up with generosity for the poor and justice for the powerless, we are ready for God to show up. Only then is God “with us” as our promised Savior rather than a consuming fire.
God cares about social justice so much that he declared it to be the only acceptable way to prepare for his coming.
How are you preparing for Advent this year?