The Army’s operational process consists of four actions: plan, prepare, execute and assess (FM 3-0, Operations). Listening to this Sunday’s readings and sermon, I realized how closely the Army’s operational process mirrors the themes of Advent.
“Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets,” the prophet Amos wrote (Amos 3:7). Beginning with the text of New Testament, the Church has proclaimed that in Christ God was in Christ fulfilling a plan laid down “from the foundation of the world” and revealed in the words of the prophets. Advent frequently reminds us that Jesus’ coming fulfills God’s ancient promises:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet : “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:22-23).
If the plan was previously hidden, it is now made known. That’s why we read so many Old Testament promises during Advent. God fulfilled his plan in Jesus.
God’s plan is, in fact, to bring the story of the world’s salvation to completion in Christ Jesus. In Hebrews 11, the author recounts the story of the heroes of the faith, from Abel to Noah to Abraham to Moses to Joshua to the prophets. The entire story of salvation, the author of Hebrews believes, comes to its completion in the story of Jesus and his church.
God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Hebrews 11:40
God’s plans bring both judgment and deliverance. Countless prophetic utterances announced God’s plan to bring judgment on evildoers. Yet God also planned to bring salvation to those who belong to him. To the people in exile, the prophet Jeremiah announced,
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
The New Testament sees God’s plans as coming to completion in Jesus. In Ephesians 1:4-12, for example, Paul uses a number of different “plan” words in reference to God’s considered intentionality.
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:4-12
As we listen to the words of the prophets during Advent, we find that our deliverance in Christ is part of God’s long, loving plan for the salvation of the world.
John the Baptist figures prominently in the Advent lectionary as the one who prepares the way of the Lord. The lesson we take away from these readings goes something like this: John the Baptist prepared for the coming of the Lord, so we should too. I think this reading of the text is misguided, or at least incomplete. If the planning phase of the operation is in God’s work, so is the preparation phase.
It is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” Mark 1:2
John’s ministry is part of God’s preparation of the operational environment. In fact, God’s actions throughout the history of Israel have prepared the way for his decisive operation in Christ Jesus. Preparation is God’s work before it is ours.
The Year C Advent readings from the New Testament tell us to do things like repent, rejoice, pray, watch and look to God for strength. They offer prayers to God that love and holiness might grow within us. They offer the hope that a gentleness born from trust in the Lord’s nearness might be evident to all. These are not things we do to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming. We can’t prepare for his coming nativity; he already came. Neither are these things we do to prepare for his coming at the end of the age. He will come with us or without us; his appearing does not depend on us. Rather, these “preparations” simply represent how we respond to God’s initiative toward us. God’s prepares his own way. Whatever repentance, holiness, love, joy, gentleness or strength we exhibit is due to God’s grace. We simply repent of ourselves and watch for God, who has planned, prepared and executed our salvation.
If the first readings of Advent reveal God’s plan – and subsequent readings reveal God’s preparatory work – the final readings of Advent see God beginning to execute his decisive operation for the salvation of the world. In Luke’s annunciation narrative, Mary proclaims that God has acted, not just on her behalf, but on behalf of the whole world in fulfillment of his promise to Abraham.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers. Luke 1:51-55
The nativity of Jesus is D-Day. It’s the beginning of the end for the powers of evil.
In military operations, assessment is continuous, from the beginning of the plan through every phase of execution. We even assess operations after they are complete!
God’s plan of salvation is built on his assessment of us. He assesses that we are sick, sinful, stubborn, self-absorbed . . . and precious. He knows us individually and collectively better than we can ever know ourselves.
And he assesses that his plan is working as intended, despite the continuing existence of death, disease, famine, violence, alienation and oppression. He’s built the right plan, he’s prepared it properly and he is executing it perfectly. Even though we try to frustrate him at every point (“the enemy gets a vote”), his plan can handle everything we human beings throw at him. The day of final victory is coming. That’s one message of Advent.
Advent has also historically been a time of self-assessment. The first place to begin our self-assessment is with God’s assessment of us. In the pages of scripture, we can learn to see ourselves through God’s eyes. There we will find that we are not only sinners, but human beings “on whom his favor rests.” That knowledge is far more important than subjective feelings or introspective insights.
God knows us and loves us. Therefore God made a plan to save us. He has been executing his plan throughouth the ages. In the course of time, he has prepared the way for the coming of Christ Jesus, in whom his plan comes to its culminating point. That’s the message of Advent. That’s what Advent is all about, Charlie Brown.