Malachi 3: 1-4; Mark 1: 1-8
Being prepared can often be a lesson taught through hindsight. For example on December 6, 1941—seventy-six years ago this past Wednesday—there were no preparations being made to protect the US Fleet in Hawaii from a pummeling air attack. By December 7th, the attacks commenced. Days and weeks later there was talk of being better prepared next time. If you watch archival footage from New York television broadcasts that aired on September 10, 2001, you’ll see that there were no top stories that changed the face of our nation. But the next day was September 11th, 2001. I was in a presbytery meeting being elected to be the 2002 Moderator of Central Florida Presbytery. My phone started to vibrate; it was Mary Ann. I did not answer in the middle of a meeting. But she called again; and again. And other people—an inordinate number—started getting calls. I, and some others, went outside to answer our phones. I had no texting capability in 2001. She said a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. As she was relating that incident, she said a second plane hit the other tower. And the rest, as you know, is history. No one was prepared for that day. But since then the way we board planes; the way we enter theme parks, and the way we scrutinize those coming into our country has changed forever. After September 11th, there was talk about getting prepared. On June 16th, 2015, churches were largely places for worship, prayer, and Bible Study. But on June 17th, 2015, a gunman entered a Bible Study … a Bible Study!… to join a group of kind members in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church who had welcomed that Caucasian man on an earlier date. This time, however, he brought a gun. He took it out and he fired on them all, killing nine, including the Senior Pastor. Now churches have started to prepare. Our insurance company just ran a webinar on Wednesday. At our Session Retreat in October we talked for the first time about being prepared for such things. And I am charged by the Session to have a meeting with Shores Police Chief Dembinsky on the subject.
Being prepared is very topical. How many people were prepared for months of no power in Puerto Rico? And how many of those people in line in front of me the week of the storm actually used their 15 gallons of water, leaving almost none for the next people? Preparation is a tricky thing; it can be overdone or underdone. Now our nation has a division of Homeland Security, the budget of which is been more than 42 billion dollars in 2017. The cost of preparation can be high. For those who have children, some begin saving for their college at their birth; others “wait and see what happens.” For those who face their own inevitable death, some of them plan for it by teaching others what they know about the car, or the home, or the kitchen, or the finances. Some share important family stories with their children. Some write out what they would like to include in their funeral, and some lay aside money or an insurance policy to cover expenses. Some people do none of that.
In the third chapter of Malachi, he reports that God said this: “Behold I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight; he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” God does not visit his people until the way has been prepared! Preparation is the prerequisite to the visit! Last Sunday I described to the boys and girls how hard it is to wait; to wait for a baby; to wait for Christmas; to wait for Jesus! But wait we must. And during those hours, we can spend time foolishly or wisely. We can, for example, do some spiritual assessments, to get ready. Can you create a truthful checklist about what you should do or say before you meet your Lord Jesus? Careful preparation can mean the difference between order and chaos. Did you see the great film “Hidden Figures,” about the under appreciated but absolutely needed women behind the men who were the faces of the space program? It showed enormous preparation before sending a man into space. I have twice ridden with church members who had their own private plane. Each time we flew to a neighboring area for lunch. But before we took off, both pilots prepared. They did a walk around their airplane. And they followed a detailed checklist before take off, not missing or dismissing any item as unimportant. Preparation is vital to safe air travel.
Educators know that repetition of vital information is one effective tool. In Mark’s gospel, the writer repeats something that all faithful Jews had heard for ages: words from the prophet Isaiah. Did you know, by the way, that in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem—that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls—the only complete, original scroll they have is of the book of Isaiah! It is big, and it includes these words that Mark quoted: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” The implication is that John was such a messenger as was Isaiah! And I submit that there are such messengers even today, even though it generally takes some time for people to look back and say: “that was a prophet.” But do we have ears to hear? And in our preparation, have we looked over our checklists to make sure that all is ready for Jesus?
The story is told of preparations going very well for a great feast. A large number of people who were invited had said “yes” to attending. The anticipation and excitement built. Part of the reason for the banquet was to honor a special person, but it was a surprise! When the night of the banquet arrived, the guests gathered. The tables were beautifully set for the holiday season. The aroma of delicious foods was in the air. The candles were lighted. The musical ensemble was playing. The sound of conversation and of laughter filled the room. Later there would be singing, dancing, and festivities. But the time to start came and went. Soon people in the crowd started to ask what was the delay. The host said; “The dinner has not started because our guest of honor has not arrived.” But in making some phone calls, the truth was learned: in keeping the guest of honor from knowing the plans, it turns out that no one had actually asked him to attend!
At Christmastime with all the gatherings to which you might be invited, or that you might host: have you remembered to invite the guest of honor-Jesus? May love—the guest—be included in your Christmas gatherings.
Let me close with a prayer offered by the late Henri Nouwen:
O Lord, all you ask of me is a simple “yes,” a simple act of trust so that your choices for me can bear fruit in my life. I do not want you to pass me by. I do not want to be so busy with my way of living, my plans and projects, my relatives, friends and acquaintances, that I do not even notice that you are with me, closer to me than anyone else. I do not want to be blind to the loving gestures that come from your hands, nor deaf to the caring words that come from your mouth. I want to see you as you walk with me and hear you as you speak to me …. I know you walk with me. Help me walk with you today, tomorrow and always. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 10, 2017