Teaching Minds and Turning Hearts
The Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent cites John the Baptist as a model for ministry. It is not that proclaimers of the gospel have to resemble the character of the Baptist or imitate his style, for the personalities of preachers differ and circumstances and manner of ministry vary just as do the gifts and degrees of grace of the servants of Christ. Deliberate mimicry of another person in ministry would be artificial and cancel out the unique God-given qualities in an individual that are meant to be the marks of authentic faith and growth in Christ. The differences in personal insight and expression may contribute to a comprehension of the multifaceted truth of Christ who simply cannot be summed up by the confession of any single believer or any organized body of believers. The knowledge of Christ is too vast for anyone to boast of a monopoly on the truth. Eminent ministers have shown their limitations in the mistakes they have made and great Christian denominations and movements have erred through various emphases and omissions. John is a model for ministry in the sense that he was the preparer of the way: "O Lord Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee". The ministry of the word is the presentation of Christ to the people and the preparation of hearts to receive him. Both aspects of the sacred task are humanly impossible. The Holy Spirit must bring the word to those who listen so that they might truly hear and only he can turn their hearts to God. The minister is the instrument of preparation, not the instigator. The preparation and turning of hearts is solely the work of God: "The Lord opened her (Lydia's) heart to respond to Paul's message" (Acts 16:14). However, he chooses to use the word and so it must be spoken. Like John, the messenger must identify disobedience and point to the Saviour. Truth, passion, and persuasion must be employed to change the direction of the unconverted human heart: "Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just".
Preparation serves the point of the "mysteries" to be proclaimed.
In the Biblical sense the mysteries are not vague and incomprehensible statements that baffle the mind but rather the clearly revealed truths of the gospel that man could not discover for himself. Without the preparation God’s secrets would mean little or nothing. Sinners must know their condition before they are able to crave a Saviour. At that point of awareness the message of repentance as an obligation on our part, and as a gift from God, becomes the way of return to him, for repentance is a change of direction through divinely enabled volition, whether it is accompanied by strong emotion or not. To put it in basic terms, we need to be lost in order to be saved, and John pinpointed the sinfulness of his people and then pointed them to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Ruin and remedy were equally declared so that the penitent, through the message of free justification, could learn the wisdom of the just(ified) i.e. how to be put right with God, and live right before God.
Justification, pardon from God and acceptance with God, is preparation for the next great event on the divine calendar. The first coming of the Lord Jesus has occurred. The second advent is imminent, for a thousand years is as a day from God's perspective (2 Peter 3:8), and the apostle declares that "the end of all things is near" (1Peter 4:7). Moving on from the necessity to turn to God and gain the wisdom of the just, the Collect then delineates the reason as to why we must become just, both by divine declaration and interior preparation through supernatural renewal: "That at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight".
In status and character we need to be prepared for Christ's second coming. It has been announced as a certainty and an event that will occur suddenly. Therefore the state of preparedness should be constant and as conscious as possible, and primarily, for the believer, as a basis of hope and joy. When the Saviour comes it will be the great moment of full and final deliverance and the beginning of pure delight in the kingdom of heaven.
Preparation is the burden of the Christian message and the priority of every human life. The teaching of the gospel is manifold in its emphases – preparation of the heart for the receiving of Christ, preparation of the person for the day of judgment, preparation of the just for their entrance of the kingdom. Christian teaching urges the turning of hearts to God and it is designed to maintain that turning by attuning and attaching the heart of the believer ever more firmly to God in strong faith and constant obedience through spiritual development.
Minds and hearts are the "targets" of the gospel and the desire is for the accompanying touch of the Holy Spirit. The message is sure and dependable. The messengers themselves are frail and fallible and fluctuate in strength and confidence. Moses, Elijah, Jonah, and Peter are sufficient examples of the weakness of men even under divine commission because they are under other pressures as well, either of infirmity or opposition. Paul reminds us that prophets and apostles are only ordinary and fragile vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). John the Baptist displayed a God-given greatness in his call and in the conduct of his ministry. In it we see boldness, courage, and strength, but the vulnerabilities are always lurking in the heart of every servant of God – to keep them humble and dependent and to show that any useful work they do is performed by God within them and through them.
John did not enjoy a happy retirement at the conclusion of his faithful and forceful ministry. He did not have the luxuries of rest and rumination in order to review his life and calmly write his memoirs. He wound up in prison for his candour and condemnation of evil and before his execution, through dejection brought on by the isolation and rigours of confinement, he passed through a period of personal doubt, not the radical and blameworthy doubt of the skeptic, but the afflicted mind of one wearied and worn by the trials of his ministry and the assaults of the enemy. To the One he had proclaimed with such certainty and loyalty, supported by the evidences supplied by God in prophecy, personal preparation, and the divine approval of Jesus at his baptism, John posed the question; "Are you the One that should come, or do we look for another?". The question is voiced in the tone of tired man facing a cruel end, and at the depletion of his physical and mental resources (cf Cranmer). It is not impertinent or irreverent. It is not unbelief but the search for reassurance.
Inaction produces distraction. The messengers of preparation need the support of grace, the answers of Christ addressed to the perplexed heart, and the prayers of the faithful. The strongest and stoutest are weak, none are impregnable however they appear. John the Baptist is a model in this sense also.