Maybe it’s because so much preparation is required for one thing or another this time of year that the words of John the Baptist (“Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”) seem to add yet another duty to a seasonal "to do" list. Time out to listen to John seems like one more thing to schedule, along with the shopping, the making of vacation reservations, doing the photo shoot for the family greeting card, you name it. What does the proclamation of John really mean…and how does it impact our waiting—and receiving—Jesus?
"Preparing the way" has to do with repentance...and repentance is often misunderstood. One thing we forget about it is that it's lifelong. Japanese Luther scholar Yoshikazu Tokuzen once explained it like this: There are two kinds of repentance. One is the once-and-for-all brand of repentance, the kind where the Holy Spirit calls people to faith in the Lord of the cross, and there is a 180-degree turning from unfaith to faith, from death to life. But there is also another kind of repentance, a “present-tense” repentance. This present-tense repentance occurs whenever the Holy Spirit leads people of faith to encounter anew God’s holy Law, own up to their own brokenness, and seek the grace of God to do better. The work of present-tense repentance is never over! As Luther once wrote, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said [‘Repent!’], willed that the life of believers should be repentance.” Present-tense repentance is a matter of being led by the Spirit from a recognition of your own brokenness to gratitude to the One who forgives you and loves you in Christ, in spite of it.
Still, the most important point to make about repentance is that, in the end, it isn’t something that brings you closer to God. “Preparing the way” only happens in the first place because of the unexpected victory accomplished by the One who is coming. Or to use the example in Isaiah: The war is over. There is no penalty left to pay (40:1-2). We have peace with God. "Preparing the way" means welcoming the Lord of the battle to once again occupy the hearts that He has fought over--and won--forever!
This Advent we hear again the call to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Let’s focus first on the power and the mercy of the One who is coming: our Savior, Jesus Christ. Resting in the mercy of our loving Lord we can be sure that the "necessary" preparations of the season will get done.