The Most Important Preparation
Text: Mark 1:1-8
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m hosting my family for Christmas this year and I can safely say that if they were to show up early I would not be in the least bit prepared. Even though preparations have already begun, I’m not even close to ready to have them show up at my home. I’ve heard that from several people this year. The speed of the last couple months, combined with a very short Advent season has many not feeling prepared for the holidays at all.
So we’ve prayed this morning: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son.” We’ve asked that we would be prepared for Jesus’ arrival. This is not only to be ready for the celebration of His first arrival with His birth at Christmas, but to be ready for every time He comes to us. And while we can get ready for the arrival of other guests with things like cleaning and planning, we can all recognize that the arrival of the Son of God requires something else altogether to be prepared. So we do well to ask ourselves during this season of preparation, how are our hearts made ready?
For this, we turn to one whose entire life was one of preparing people for the coming of the Lord. We look to John the Baptizer. His task was appointed to him centuries before his birth: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” How was it that John prepared people Jesus’ arrival? By baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is how John prepared people for the arrival of the Son of God. This is still how God’s people today are prepared for the Savior’s arrival, whether it’s the celebration of Christmas, preparing for His coming to this sanctuary in the Sacrament, or getting ready for His return at the end of time. It’s always repentance and forgiveness.
Repentance is not a popular word. Mostly this is because it’s not something that our society or fallen nature likes to do. Repentance isn’t fun or entertaining, which seems to be the foundation of most decisions people make now. Most people bristle at the idea that there’s something they need to repent of, something that they’re doing that they shouldn’t, that’s harmful to themselves or their neighbors, something that’s getting in the way of their connection with God even if they like it. Repentance requires that we say we were wrong about something—not just that we made a mistake or accidently did something that could have been avoided—but that we were wrong, morally—and it seems that nobody does this now, from the highest levels of our society to the plainest, everyday interactions of people.
But our own—and I’m talking about Christians now—our own aversion to repentance may also be because we’ve forgotten our Catechism. We’ve forgotten what repentance actually is. We’ve allowed our understanding of the word “repent” to be informed more by self-proclaimed streetcorner prophets demanding perfection than our own fathers in the faith. Because repentance, properly understood, has two parts: First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
That’s the kind of repentance we see proclaimed by John the Baptist at the Jordan River. “John appeared,” we read, “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It wasn’t simply to make God’s people wallow in some sort of self-loathing misery that John told them to repent. It certainly wasn’t to lead them to self-deception that they could perfect, or even good enough to convince God to send them the Messiah. It was repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So they all came out to where he was—out in the middle of nowhere, across blazing white dunes and desert wastes, to a slow moving, muddy river. They left the luxuries of Jerusalem and the high, green pasturelands of Judea, to be baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins right out of their bodies and souls. Think of it as a removal of poison—the toxin of sin was being drawn out of them by confession so that the healing medicine of forgiveness, the cool soul-soothing waters of Baptism could rush in and make them whole, make them ready for their holy God to come to them.
What is it then to confess sin? We might think that it’s an easy answer, but there’s nothing easy about it. Confessing our sin, as we already noted, is admitting that we were wrong. It’s admitting that there’s something broken in us, something that resists God, something in us that insists on its own way. Confessing our sin is listing the ways in which we’ve done that, ways listed in the Ten Commandments. But it’s also recognizing that those are just the symptoms. The disease of sin goes much deeper. That’s why we said this morning, “I, a poor, miserable sinner confess all my sins and iniquities,” and not “I, a pretty good person who just made a few mistakes this week, confess my sins and iniquities.” Confessing your sins means telling God that there is no corner of your life, no sliver of your being, that doesn’t need His help, His grace, His mercy and forgiveness. Confessing our sins, in its fullest, is throwing yourself on the mercy of God and asking God to “be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”
And if the whole point of confessing sin was just to make you feel bad, to manufacture some sort of emotional response, then that would be it. But John the Baptizer did not preach repentance simply for repentance’s sake. He preached it for the forgiveness of sins. And that’s why right after we tell God how much we need His grace, His forgiveness, how much we don’t deserve it, right then our sins are forgiven. That’s what we call absolution. It’s forgiveness, given by God. Now it comes from God, for only God has the authority to forgive things that have been done against Him. But so that we would be sure that we’re forgiven, God has authorized men—pastors—to speak this forgiveness to you in His name. That’s why I, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, forgive you all your sins; at the beginning of the service and now. You’re given these words, spoken right after your confession, so that you would have no doubt at all that your sins are forgiven, that your God has nothing He’s holding against you. You have this certainty so that you would believe firmly that the Lord who has come to die for your sins, to set you free, is coming to you now to bless you and keep you with Him forever. This happens in the service. It happens in conversation among Christians. It happens between believers when one sins against another and they’re forgiven. It happens when you pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It happens when Jesus comes to you in body and blood, bread and wine, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. It happens when there’s something weighing on your conscience and you want it relieved, so you go to the man God has sent so speak forgiveness to you in private confession and absolution. God loves giving you His grace, mercy, and love, so He establishes all these ways to get forgiveness to you.
And that’s how our hearts become prepared to receive Christ. God’s people then were prepared for Jesus walking in their midst by the repentance and forgiveness preached by John. God’s people now are prepared by the same repentance and forgiveness. All the other holiday preparations—the planning, the cooking, the wrapping, the cleaning—all of that is for your neighbor, if not yourself. But the most important preparation for Christmas happens here, happens at midweek services, happens in devotions and prayer at home, happens in Bible study. When we prepare in that way—with His Word, with His forgiveness and promises—then we’re ready for His arrival, in every time and every way that He comes to us. In the name of Jesus, who is coming to you. Amen.