Much like we must prepare our hearts to receive Communion we must also prepare our hearts to receive our Savior.
Many of us (if not all) prepare for Christmas by putting up wreaths, hanging lights, dragging trees into our living rooms, and shopping until we quite literally drop. We buy presents for our family, friends, bosses, and coworkers we don’t really like but whose name we drew in the secret Santa gift exchange. We search high and low for that perfect gift and won’t rest until we’ve found it.
My parents tell the story of one year when they were trying to find my sister a particular toy and it wasn’t anywhere around here. They probably called every store within 150 miles and it wasn’t in stock. (These were the days before the internet.) My cousin living in San Francisco finally found the thing and shipped it to us.
I tell that story not to illustrate how hideous my parents are (I actually love them very much and think they’re two of the best people in the world) but to show how this crazed Christmas mindset infects even the best among us.
When Christmas day finally arrives we rush to and from relatives’ houses trying to finish that dish we were supposed to bring that doesn’t really go with whatever it is we’re eating, but we always bring it, so we’ve just got to get it done. It doesn’t matter that there are 47 other items on the table or that the table itself is now sagging in the middle under the weight of all the food. It also doesn’t matter that the dinner we consume on Christmas day is worth more than the Gross Domestic Product of Ecuador. It’s Christmas and that’s what it’s all about!
In fact that’s not what it’s all about. Christmas isn’t about lights or wreaths or presents or trees. It’s not about food. It’s not about shopping or saving money. Christmas isn’t about time off from work. It’s not even about family. Christmas is about one thing: Jesus. When I say that we need to spend time preparing our hearts, I don’t mean exercising to prevent the calorie-induced coronary sure to follow our food consumption. I mean setting our minds and our focus on Jesus. Even this can be a bit misleading. We walk around with shirts that read “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” and think we’ve done our part. We stand up for Jesus by saying “Merry Christmas” and refusing to listen to “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.” What exactly do I mean then? I’m glad you asked.
Scripture gives us a perfect example to follow.
Mark 1:1-8, Luke 3:2b-6
“Prepare the way of the Lord.” This was John’s cry. “Make straight the paths.” If we are going to prepare the way then what must we do? We must make clear the purposes of God. Scripture says John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He proclaimed a new era in which death to oneself would be the example to follow. Prepare yourself for the coming Savior. Prepare to die to yourself. Prepare yourself for the coming Savior. Prepare to be made less while he is made more. Prepare yourself for the coming Savior. Prepare to make all of life about him.
That’s what baptism represents. Paul says in Romans 6 that through baptism we are buried with Christ, we experience his death, and we are raised to walk in a new life. In Galatians he makes the point that in my becoming like Jesus, I have been crucified with him and it is no longer I who lives, but Jesus is living through me. I went into the water as myself, but I came up reborn. My former self has died and a new life has begun. This new era would no longer involve a complicated sacrificial system for the forgiveness of sins, but instead a relationship with God himself.
I want to take a brief moment here to address this idea of death. Tim sent me an email earlier this week that made me think. This may not sound very “Christmas-y” but we’re trying to prepare our hearts here, so I think it’s important to talk about. At the end of John 3, John the Baptist was talking with another man about Jesus. Jesus was gaining more and more followers and John’s ministry was diminishing. When asked about this John answered “He must increase, but I must decrease.” He must increase. We understand what it is we’re asking you to do. We’re trying to change the culture of not only church, but life. Life is not about you anymore. Let me put it another way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship said “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The very thing that we’re preaching as your salvation is what will kill you. Why? He must increase and I must decrease. I fade out until there is nothing left of me. I’ve been buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk a new life. There’s a Christmas message for you. Prepare the way for the Savior who will come and set you free from everything you ever cared about and make you care more about him than anything. I can’t live without Jesus, I need him for every breath and every heart beat. But I also can’t live with Jesus. I can’t exist if I want to see his Kingdom come. I can’t desire anything. I can’t live.
Prepare your hearts for the coming King. It’s different than you’ve been led to believe. Prepare your hearts to receive the one whose goal it is to make much of himself. Why? Because a perfect and righteous God who is also loving and good would want nothing more than to give you himself.
During the Christmas season there is an anticipation building toward the actual day of celebration. As we’ve already talked about, presents are purchased and wrapped, decorations are hung and displayed, plans are made, food is cooked, and trips are taken to see family. With the same sense of anticipation, that sense that gets children up at 3:00 in the morning, we should look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus. With excitement and longing we should look forward to his coming.
This is a parable Jesus told about 10 virgins who are waiting for the bridegroom. They don’t know when he will arrive; they just know he’s coming. They take their lamps out to welcome him when he arrives. Five of them take extra oil with them just in case he is delayed. The other 5 foolishly leave any extra oil and just take their lamps.
As it turns out the bridegroom is delayed and the 5 foolish virgins run out of oil. In their grief they beg the 5 who are wise to share some of their oil, but to no avail. The wise virgins know that they must be prepared no matter how long the bridegroom is delayed.
This is an interesting parable. It seems to be about the return of Jesus, but it draws an interesting parallel with his first coming. Last week we talked about the promised Messiah. Jesus had been God’s plan from the beginning. He didn’t keep it a secret. The prophets told of the one who was coming to restore God’s people to him. They weren’t silent about it. The Jews knew what was going to happen, they just didn’t know when. When John the Baptist came onto the scene they were either so tired of hearing prophecy about the coming Messiah that they didn’t care, or he didn’t look the way they expected so they didn’t listen. They missed the coming of Jesus. They didn’t notice him when he came proclaiming repentance. The religious leaders, the ones who should have paid attention to the prophecies and made sure they were prepared missed out completely.
This begs the question: why did God wait so long? If people were going to lose faith and not be prepared, why wait at all? In Galatians 4:4-5 Paul says “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” “When the fullness of time had come…” God sent Jesus. It was the right time. It was the best time. It wasn’t the bridegroom’s fault the foolish virgins ran out of oil. It wasn’t God’s fault the Jews weren’t ready to receive Jesus. They simply weren’t prepared.
Of course, we’re talking about Christmas 2010. The way we’re preparing our hearts is different, right? I love the dual meaning of Advent for us 21st-century Christians. We get to celebrate our Savior’s birth and look forward to his imminent return! We know the whole story so our preparation is two-fold. We prepare our hearts to celebrate Christmas, and we also remain in a constant state of preparedness for his return someday, not letting the oil run out in our lamps lest we miss him when he comes. We eagerly anticipate this season because it reminds us always to be mindful of Jesus. That’s the beauty of Christmas and we waste it on a limited view of the holiday. Advent reminds us that there is more going on than just the 25th of December. Anticipation of Jesus’ coming and his return is a year-long thing. Being prepared isn’t about one day, it’s about a lifetime.
So we begin to change the way we think. We begin to do things differently. It may take us some time to get there, but every day is a new opportunity to be faithful. Every day is a new chance to prepare the way. Let your minds be filled with Jesus. He must increase, we must decrease. Let your countenance be one of gladness. Let people see the joy with which you embrace life, the chance to let Jesus live through you a little more every day. May your actions be filled with love and grace and may people see your faith in the way you go through life.
I want to share with you a couple of stories from the past few weeks that maybe can give us an idea of how we can better celebrate the season. We’ve talked about this, but on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, several of our girls showed up at Helping Hands to help David Hampton put together bags and boxes of food that you helped donate to give out to people who might not have been able to eat a good meal if we didn’t help provide it. Then on Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week they showed up again to help distribute it. They gave of their time so that others might have something. What if that was our default? What if we didn’t have to train ourselves to do it, we just did it. I remarked to Tatum that next Sunday that I was proud of them for what they did. Her reply was “Why? It was fun.” What if that was our attitude all the time. It’s fun to serve.
You don’t often get to see Kristine because she takes our school-age children into the back room to teach them during the message, but she told me about her Thanksgiving Day. She spent most of Thanksgiving week at her mom’s house in Granbury. On Thanksgiving Day they went to the church where her step-dad is on staff and helped prepare Thanksgiving dinner for those who couldn’t afford it or who had nowhere to go. They served food on Thanksgiving instead of celebrating with family. Her two nieces were there as well. They are both young (2 and 3 I think) and this was one of the first Thanksgivings they will probably remember, so they have no tradition with which to compare. She remarked to me “what if that’s the way they celebrate Thanksgiving?” What if that became their tradition? What if they had no other reference point?
What if we started writing a new story? What if our celebrations became more about giving than receiving? On my mom’s birthday, she gives presents to her parents. Why? They raised her. She feels she owes them something. What if our paradigm was always giving? Maybe we could encourage a new kind of life, a new kind of faith. What if we created a new tradition in our families? What if we made an effort to give ourselves away during Christmas? What if, instead of doing the things we’ve always done, we make a change? Would that be so hard? Would it hurt us that badly?
What I’m not trying to do is get you to stop giving presents. That’s not at all the point. Absolutely give presents. Celebrate with your families. Love people. That’s a wonderful thing. I am, however, trying to get you to see through the commercialism and materialism to understand what it means to celebrate Christmas. I hope you understand.
There’s a group that exists called Advent Conspiracy. I hope you’ll go home and YouTube this. Advent Conspiracy is “an international movement restoring the scandal of Christmas by substituting compassion for consumption.” This year the theme is “Give Presence.” Not “presents,” but “presence.” Give your time. Be available for people. Let those you love know you love them. In a short video clip about who they are, Advent Conspiracy makes the statement that every year Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas. $450 billon, EVERY YEAR! In contrast, one estimate says that approximately half of the world’s population (close to 3.5 billion people) live without clean drinking water with close to 1 billion having absolutely no access to clean water even if they were strong enough to go get it. Estimates say that $10 billion dollars would solve the world’s drinking water problem. That’s only 2% of what Americans spend on Christmas in one year.
I’m not using this statistic in order to make you feel guilty. I’m not trying to solve all of the world’s problems today. I’m simply suggesting that in a world that is already broken, that is already depraved, wouldn’t our time and money be better spent by living simply, by not giving in to the frenzy that has become Christmas? Prepare the way for the coming of the Savior. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to proclaim liberty to the captives. Couldn’t we celebrate his birth by doing some of the things he came to do?
Going back briefly to the parable in Matthew 25, we referenced the fact that this story has a two-fold meaning. One of the meanings deals with the failure of the Jews to notice the Messiah when he came the first time. The other meaning is for us to be patient and alert, watching for his return. It seems that there’s a lot of waiting going on. What’s the deal with that? Surely God notices the injustice going on and he could absolutely do something about it right now. Why wait? Peter gives us the reason.
2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is patient and doesn’t want anyone to perish. As much as God is just and righteous and can’t stand the sight of sin, he is patient and loving, desiring that all would come to know him. The Father is waiting to send the son because there are those in rebellion for whom he eagerly awaits their return. Like the father of the prodigal son, God is waiting to greet those who return to him, those who come seeking his mercy. While we await his return with anticipation and preparedness, we share his love with those around us because the Father wants everyone to know him.
I know this is perhaps an odd Christmas message, but I think it behooves us to be prepared, to know why we celebrate. We actually can change the world. We actually can make a difference!
I encourage you this Christmas, like the Advent Conspiracy people, to give your presence this year.
We think that all people want are cool new things to play with or wear, but what people remember most is the time spent with those they love. I know that sounds cliché and like it came from a bad Hallmark card, but there’s truth in it.
Instead of rushing around trying to find the perfect thing, spend time together doing something for someone else. Spend time making the world a better place.
Prepare the way for the return of the Savior. He will come like a thief in the night. The world must be ready. There is no time to waste.
Prepare the way!