Getting ready for Christmas is exhausting. I knew this was the case before, but having a baby takes the exhaustion and the rush of the season to a whole new level. I almost feel that we will need a nap before Christmas morning.
First, there the decorating that is needed to get the house ready for the season. Of course, this activity focuses around the Christmas tree. A normal decorating process is fun and enjoyable. We have learned, however, that when you add a child and a cat to the mix it can be an exercise in patience and strategic planning, especially regarding certain ornaments. I have learned, this week, you cannot place some ornaments where they can be pulled, dangled with, or chewed on.
There is also the gift buying. This is the part of Christmas I find the most exhausting. I’m thankful for Internet sites that allow me to purchase gifts from the comfort of my couch. This year there is the additional gift buying element of what to get Noah. I never realized that Christmas comes with a lot of negotiating and coordination to make sure multiple gifts are not purchased of the same item. To me that is exhausting.
In general, this season and all the preparations for it is exhausting. We rush from Halloween to December 24 making sure that everything is perfect. I’m sure for many of you that this time of preparing for Christmas has already been both enjoyable and full of exhausting moments.
Can I ask you a question? Have you ever prepared so much for Christmas morning that by the time Christmas arrives you have nothing left? What I mean is that do we ever work so hard to get everything “perfect” for Christmas that it seems like we’ve missed the season? Sometimes we can get so busy with preparing for the season that we can miss the season along the way.
What if the way we prepare for Christmas isn’t necessarily the way God intends for us? What if our emphasis upon the decorations, cookies, and, yes, even the presents can can cause us to be distracted from what God desires for us to prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s birth and return? What if preparing for Christmas was like none of the preparation that we’ve already taken on? What if preparing for Christmas and Christ’s return truly touched us in the depths of our heart and soul, and, then, enables us to be more like Christ in how we care for the world?
The preparation God calls us to, in this Advent season, is nothing like the preparation for Christmas that our culture so often desires. The preparation God desires is for each of us to seek a renewed heart and a deeper commitment to the Lord. It is this kind of preparation that enables us to experience and receive the gift of Jesus Christ that came into the world that first Christmas.
This deeper kind of preparation is found in our passage from Matthew 3:1-12. It is the story of John the Baptist and his ministry of alerting people that the day of the Messiah was near. On this Second Sunday of Advent, it is traditional to examine the importance of John the Baptist to Jesus’ ministry. All the Gospel writers speak of his importance. While only Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ birth all four Gospels have John the Baptist serving in the long-awaited role of the messenger who would announce that the Messiah was coming.
John does this through a specific message. It is a message that Matthew connects with the words of Jesus Christ throughout his earthly ministry. That message was this: “Repent of your sins and turn to God for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Jesus would echo these words with his first words in Matthew 4:17. If we truly want to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming and return then, as John the Baptist says, we must be willing to repent of our sins and turn towards God.
Repentance is what straightens the pathways and highways, to use the imagery from Isaiah 40, that allows us to receive the gift of Christ and experience a renewed relationship with the Lord. It is what brings us closer to the Lord. At first glance, it would seem that repentance has nothing to do with Advent. We are more accustomed to discussions of repentance around the time of Lent. However, unless we are willing to experience true repentance in our lives we will never be able to experience the incarnation of God being with us through Jesus Christ. Repentance is central to what it means to prepare for Christ, because it is truly about getting our lives ready for the celebration of Christmas and Christ’s eventual return.
To do so, we must be willing to engage the wilderness of our soul. The wilderness was a very significant place for the people of Israel, because it symbolically recognized their places of weakness and where they needed God. The same is true for us. Our wilderness places are the places of our deepest hurts, struggles, pains, and temptations. It is the places where we are distant from God and the Lord’s desires. It can be difficult to engage our wilderness, however doing so allows us to experience God’s presence and our need of God’s grace.
It is through the encounter of God’s presence where we can see our need for true repentance. This is not just about saying we are sorry for something we’ve done wrong. True repentance, which both John and Jesus described, occurs when we engage God’s truth in our wilderness. God’s truth challenges us, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, to examine our lives and to see how we may not be living according to God’s desires. This type of engagement calls us to admit where we’ve fallen short of God’s glory, to abandon our old ways of living, and to move towards living in obedience with God. That is repentance. It is the act of turning away from ourselves and moving towards God. It is the act of seeking God’s forgiveness and grace in a way that redefines our lives forever.
A pure and repentant heart helps us to receive Christ, because repentance is also about recognizing our need of Christ in our lives. This is what John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees. Members of these two groups approached John to be baptized, and John calls their bluff. He knew their act was not about a true repentance, because they still claimed that it was their heritage that saved them. John tells them that our spiritual heritage does not prepare us to receive Christ. It doesn’t matter if one is a child of Abraham if they have not truly repented of their sins and sought a deeper relationship with the Lord through the grace of Christ.
What does this say to us? We cannot claim our own spiritual heritage as believers of Christ and claim we do not need to repent. We cannot say we have Christ, but then live our lives as if the message and hope of Christ never impacted us. Our heritage and traditions will not save us. Only a heart that seeks after God’s love by a daily renewal act of turning away from ourselves and turning towards God will. Repentance is not a one-time act, but a part of our daily walk with the Lord. Repentance transforms us from the person we are today to the person God created us to be. It is truly how we prepare to receive the gift of Christ.
Being willing to truly repent allows us to experience the incarnation of Christ in a new way. God becomes real in our lives and present with us. By this, we are able to receive the greatest gift that came at Christmas of the living and holy presence of Christ. This allows us to do something with our new creation that comes out of our repentance. It allows us to take on Christ’s words and allow them to influence how we care for others. A repentant heart is prepared to share Christ’s love, hope, joy, and peace with those who need to hear those words.
Repentance is truly the way to experiencing a renewed relationship with the Lord this season and everyday. All of us need this type of Christmas preparation where life becomes less about us and more about Christ. A type of preparation where we turn away from ourselves, seek the forgiveness of God, and move towards what Christ desires for us.
Think about your life for a moment. How do you need to truly repent and turn to God this Advent season? What are the things in your life that you have not given over to God? What are the struggles that you have not sought out God’s grace or the temptations that you’ve not given to God? How do you need to repent, today, so you can be prepared for both the celebration of Christ and the Lord’s eventual return?
At the same time, what about our community? Repentance is not just an individual act. It is also a communal act. What are the things that we need to repent of? What are the things that we need to let go off and turn towards God in order for us to move forward as a church? How do we need to repent so that, as a community, we are ready for Christmas and Christ’s return?
The way to preparing for the Lord’s return is through repentance and a changed heart. As we experience this changed heart and renewed walk with the Lord, both as individuals and a community, we are better able to reflect the hope of Christ to our neighborhoods and world. There are many wilderness places in the neighborhoods that surrounds us. We can speak hope into these places by sharing the fruit of our repentance through our acts of love, hope, joy, and peace.
John the Baptist came and called the people to repent as a way to prepare for the coming Kingdom of Heaven. That message is true for us today. Christmas is coming. Christ is coming again. Prepare for this time by taking a deep look into your wilderness places, turn towards the Lord, and go forward in hope awaiting the day of Christ’s return.