“And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I had a conversation recently with a friend who had some family coming home for Thanksgiving. They were arriving that evening and she had spent the whole day preparing for it – cleaning, decorating, cooking, and the like. You’ve probably experienced something similar. When we know someone is arriving soon, we get ready. We are in the season of Advent, which is when followers of Jesus prepare for His arrival. Before His first coming, God helped His people get ready. He did this primarily through Jesus’ cousin, John. Let’s start our Advent journey this morning by talking about how and what it means for us.
I didn’t used to give Advent much in the way of attention. I grew up at a church that didn’t give celebrating the traditional church calendar any meaningful focus. Well, we celebrated Christmas and Easter. And the four Sundays leading up to Christmas were marked by Advent candle readings and lightings. We even had a special service each year to decorate the chrismon (yes, I spelled that right; you can read more about it here) trees that flanked our stage. Each ornament’s addition to the tree was accompanied by a brief reading describing its significance. I never understood this and mostly just thought it was boring. But I don’t honestly remember ever hearing the word “Advent” other than in reference to the candles.
As a result, when I became a pastor of my own church, things like that were never really on my radar. I preached a “Christmas” series, of course, but that was about it. Over the years, though, and as the culture has continued down its path of treating Christmas mostly as a season of excess and nostalgia, the idea of preparing for it in a new, old way began to have more and more of an appeal for me. Getting ready for Jesus really is worthwhile. It always has been. In fact, when God sent Him for the first time, He made sure to first get the people ready.
Luke tells us how this unfolded in the first chapter of his Gospel. An angel of the Lord – Gabriel in this instance – was sent to a priest named Zechariah. The angel appeared to him while he was in the Holy Place in the temple burning incense on what was probably the Day of Atonement. Gabriel announced that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, would be having a son they were to name John. This child was to have the Nazirite Vow made over him before his birth, and then was to be raised to keep it throughout his life. When he grew, he would help to get the people prepared for the coming of the Messiah.
In describing what John’s ministry of preparation would be, the angel specifically mentions two different groups of people and what they would be led to do. The second group is the “disobedient.” These were folks who were not living according to the Law and were thus hopelessly separated from God. Their lives were not marked by righteousness. Part of John’s ministry was to call these people who had heard the truth but departed from it to return to it once again. They were to turn to the understanding of the righteous. In other words, they were to go and receive instruction in righteousness from those who were living it well. To put this in language we understand a bit better on this side of the cross, John was to call sinners to repentance. Indeed, folks who have departed from the right path need to be called to return to it.
Do you know what is even better than having to call wayward sinners back to the path of life, though? Their not leaving that path in the first place. Thus, the first group John will address is fathers, which we can broaden out a bit to include parents generally (although fathers do have a special leading role to play in their families). What is John’s call to fathers to be? They are to turn their hearts to their children. So, does this just mean they are to be better parents? I don’t think so.
Today, one of the most basic moral laws that everyone is expected to know is the Golden Rule. Do to others what you would have them do to you. In John’s day, one of the most basic commands that everyone was supposed to know was the Shema. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” They were to be first and foremost dedicated to the Lord as a people. The next thing Moses told the people in the context of this most important of all commands, though, matters. They were to teach the Law to their children. Yes, they were to obey the Law themselves, but their first and more important job after that was to train up the next generation to do the same thing.
When there is a deficit of faith in a nation that previously had a character of faithfulness as part of its identity as ours does, while there are undoubtedly many different factors at play in that state of affairs, there is one factor that rises to the top as the most significant of the bunch: parents have not adequately taught their children about their faith. In John’s day, children were not being raised to be fully devoted to God because their parents weren’t teaching them to do that. Their hearts had turned from their children to themselves and their own interests. John was to help correct that.
Here’s where all this lands as we begin to prepare ourselves for the season that lies ahead of us: While preparing ourselves is important, our more significant call may be to help prepare someone else. If you are a parent or grandparent, one of your chief duties is to help prepare your kids or grandkids for the coming of Christ. What does this mean? Well, remind them of His coming as a starting point. Assure them that Jesus really is coming. Invite them to consider with you whether you are ready for His arrival. Is there sin for which they can repent? Perhaps share some of your own struggles with them (in ways that are age appropriate, of course). Are there spiritual practices they can take up that will help to make them more ready like engaging with the Scriptures and prayer? Join them intentionally in these disciplines. Do they know the story of Christmas? Let them share it with you and learn together what they might be missing. Where does the real story of Christmas diverge from how the culture around them approaches it? Help them highlight the differences between the church and the world, not for the purposes of judgment, but for understanding why the Gospel is so good. Teach them to highlight where the Gospel does appear in our culture so they can share that with others. Help prepare their hearts. Turn your heart to theirs. Then, you will both be part of a prepared people, ready to receive the King when He comes.