This is the sign of “welcome” at the farm where I grew up. There is something more traditional at the back entrance—a front door is rarely used up at the farm—where family and guests come and go. Small signs saying “Welcome!” and “Come again!” hospitably are posted there. But what one sees first out at the driveway entrance, or if just driving by, is a sign more ominous: “Prepare to meet thy God.”
It is intentionally so. My 96 year old father is quite proud of the huge 8 by 3 foot sign he made for public display many years ago. The sign hangs prominently from an antique threshing machine, of which Dad is proud also. He is a farmer and an antique collector. But more so, he is a lifetime Christian of evangelistic leanings. Dad intends for guests and passers by alike to read his sign and take it to heart. “Prepare to meet thy God”—or go to hell. It’s one or the other, as the Bible clearly says. Doesn’t it?
In the little book from the Hebrew Bible from which this warning comes, that is close to the meaning, although with more specificity. In Amos 4:12, the prophet speaks on behalf of the Lord God to people who are living in ways that warrant judgment and punishment. Ultimately, there are terrible consequences in store for those “which oppress the poor, which crush the needy.” This too is a direct quote from Amos chapter 4, in the King James Version of the Bible, which my father prefers.
I don’t know whether either the sign maker or most readers of it up there in Minnesota know the biblical context from which it derives. It wasn’t until I looked this up just recently that I realized “Prepare to meet thy God” is a quote from Amos. I also was unaware that this was a warning to the relatively rich and powerful of society, to those whose lifestyles impact negatively others living on the margins of society, the “poor” and “needy”. I didn’t know that with these oft quoted words on Dad’s sign that Amos was issuing an ominous warning of judgment in the here and now rather than merely some day in the by and by. God is angered by lifestyles that “crush the needy,” and judgment is imminent, according to Amos. I didn’t know. Did you? Maybe so.
Now that we all know, does Dad’s sign have the effect intended by its original author? Are we prepared to meet our God? Or should the thought of that meeting bring a shudder of dread? Have we done and are we doing what is necessary so as to avoid the judgment that awaits those who, as a matter of lifestyle, cruelly oppress the poor and crush the needy?
My evangelical father hopes and prays that those who read his ominous sign will repent of their sins and start going to church. He has good intentions even if not quite aware perhaps that the specific sins referenced in Amos are those of many of us who attend church regularly already. Neither he nor I were thinking of that sign as a warning of judgment to us and in the here and now rather than as a matter of “some day” for eternity. But now that we know, what will we do to prepare?
We Christians think of the season of Advent as one of preparations. During Advent we prepare for the coming of Jesus our Lord. My father’s sign, and the prophet Amos who preached it first, remind us that the Lenten season also is a time to prepare. This time it is preparations not for the Lord’s coming but for the Lord’s judgment.
The coming of Jesus in Advent and Christmas is Good News for all people. The Lord’s judgment is also good news, but only for some. It is bad news for those unprepared, for those of us who have failed to adjust our lifestyles sufficiently to avoid crushing those who lack and need the basics for life—food, water, shelter, safety. Such people who need our assistance are found everywhere. They are our neighbors. God’s judgment on their behalf will be good news to them, but not to those who, without repentance or remorse, had oppressed and crushed a neighbor in need.
“Prepare to meet thy God.” Now we know what this means, and for whom. So what ought we do to prepare? What have we to share with those who have less? Who is the neighbor who needs us, and whom we need also this Lenten season in order to be prepared to meet our God.
May this season of Lent, like that of Advent now past, be a time of preparations. “Prepare to meet thy God,” says Amos—and my father also. Yes, prepare. Will I? Will you? Will we?
Hear our prayers, O God,
our prayers in preparation.
We prepare with prayers of repentance,
and then more importantly,
by adjustments to lifestyle.
We prepare to meet you, God,
by meeting the needs of our neighbors.
To those we have crushed,
we offer sincere apology.
To neighbors in need, we offer
generosity beyond charity,
compassion beyond contrition,
empathy beyond mere sympathy.
Hear our prayers and see our actions,
our preparations for meeting you, our God.
So be it.
The above reflection and prayer are written by:
Rev. Tarris (Terry) Rosell, PhD, DMin
Professor of Pastoral Theology--Ethics