One of my favorite Christmas movies, if not one of my favorite movies of all time, is “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” It is my “must watch at least five times” movie during the Christmas season.
The movie follows Clark W. Griswold on his mission to have the perfect Christmas family gathering. He invites his entire family to his Chicago home, from in-laws to distant cousins, for a festive celebration. Of course, along the way Clark runs into a lot of hilarious obstacles.
I think that is why I love the movie so much. I can relate to Clark. For one, I’m a little bit of a klutz and can be a bit accident-prone. When Clark staples his shirt to the roof, I empathize with him, knowing that it is something I would likely do. I can also relate to Clark because I love to plan things and want every holiday gathering to be perfect. I spend all my time in the weeks leading up to a holiday thinking about what we will eat, what we will do, or what route we will take to get to our families. I plan for everything so that we will have the perfect celebration and have a hard time when something goes wrong, such as an unexpected traffic delay on the way home from a family gathering.
This is something we can all relate to. We all do a lot of planning in this season of Advent, getting ready for Christmas. This is a busy time for many of us. As the days get closer to Christmas, we are all like Clark W. Griswold, doing everything we can to have the perfect Christmas celebration. We make our gift lists to make sure everyone gets what they want. We wrap the gifts perfectly. We bake the best cookies. We decorate our homes to get that Facebook-worthy photo for all to see.
We put a lot of time and energy into preparing for Christmas, but to be honest, we spend very little time preparing for Christmas. This seems a little odd, so what do I mean by this? Sure, we spend a lot of time decorating our homes, purchasing gifts, and baking treats, but we spend considerably less time doing the things that truly prepare us for Christmas. That is because the things we often focus on in the weeks before Christmas do not prepare us for Christmas and ready us to receive the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ. Preparing for Christmas is about something more than decorations and treats. It is about getting our hearts ready to celebrate the Lord’s birth and the Lord’s return.
We see this in our passage from Luke 3:1-6. There, we find John the Baptist speaking like one of the prophets of old. The “word of God” has come upon John, which places him within the lineage of the prophets of the Old Testament. John’s message was spoken throughout the Jordan River valley and to people under the rule of the Roman Empire and the priestly leadership of Annas and Caiaphas. John called the people to get ready for the Messiah’s long-expected arrival. He tells them do so, not through outer expressions, but by repenting and seeking forgiveness for their sins.
Luke adds the words from Isaiah 40:3-5 to help us to understand what this looks like for us and what it means as we prepare for Christmas. In its original context, these words of “a voice of one calling in the dessert” and “prepare the way for the Lord” were words of promise for a people in exile. As the people of Israel were in Babylonian exile, these words from Isaiah served as a word of hope and promise that they would one day return home. Here, though, these words take on a different meaning and invite us to see how Christ enters our places of wilderness and offers us the gift of a new love and life.
John’s word about getting ready for Jesus’ coming is spoken to us into that wilderness of our heart. The wilderness that is experienced in the depths or soul. It is the feeling we have when we experience a break in our relationship with the Lord. This break comes when our lives are not lived for the Lord, and we allow the demands of life to define how we live or how we will respond to the birth of Christ and the promise of the Lord’s return. Truly, the things of this world and our own desires take us away from our relationship with the Lord and make us focus more upon ourselves. This is a perspective that leaves us experiencing broken lives and a distant relationship with God.
Advent, this season of preparation and anticipation, calls us to take a hard look at ourselves to find those places of distance and separation in our heart. It calls us to invite the Holy Spirit to show us the places of brokenness and distance in our relationship with God. This is part of preparing for Christmas, getting our hearts ready to receive the gift of the Lord’s love and presence. We have this time available, not just to get our outer selves ready, but to get our hearts ready by asking some important questions of ourselves. Where are we falling short of God’s desires? What have we allowed to define us in a way that separates us from our devotion to God? What sin is present in our lives?
As we ask these questions and invite the Holy Spirit to show us the answers, we’ll come to realize the places of brokenness and separation that exist in our lives. It is when we realize that brokenness and separation exist in our lives that we have the opportunity to further prepare by repenting and seeking God’s forgiveness. Repenting is the act of turning away from ourselves and turning towards God. It is about recognizing where we have fallen short and how the life we live does not lead us to experience true hope, love, joy, or peace. It is an act that recognizes where we have fallen short of God’s desires for us. Repenting is an act of surrendering our lives. It takes us away from thinking only about ourselves and what we want out of life and, instead, directs us to seek a different path.
This path is one of forgiveness that began to be forged at the manger in Bethlehem. Jesus’ birth launched a new hope into the world. Jesus came to offer grace and redemption to all who would believe in him. The day of Jesus’ birth, which we celebrate at Christmas, is the climactic moment of God’s work to redeem all creation and bring everyone back into a relationship with the Lord through faith. God’s greatest desire is for all people to experience the true grace and love that came to earth through Jesus.
This time of preparation is not just about getting our hearts ready for Christmas, but more importantly, getting our hearts ready for the day when Jesus returns. We want our lives to reflect God’s hopes and desires for us, so that we will be ready when the promise of Christ’s return is fulfilled. This time of Advent preparation is not just a four-week season until Christmas morning, but it is about a way of life that continually looks forward to and prepares us for the day when Christ comes again. Every day until that day comes is a day for us to prepare our hearts and get ready, by seeing where we have fallen short and seeking God’s grace.
There is a temptation to think that we do not have to do this work, that as long as we have Jesus, we do not have to do the work of daily renewal of our hearts to align them with the Lord’s desires. When we have this perspective, we are like the people John spoke to who believed their heritage was enough to give them entrance into God’s kingdom. The words Luke quotes from Isaiah 40:5 show us that this call is for all people. Just as the grace of God through Jesus is available to all, so is the demand to get our hearts ready through this act of repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness.
No one is exempt from this call to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ coming and return. We cannot simply say that we do good things or that we have faith. Our hearts must be aligned and attuned to what God desires for us. We need to see where we are living for ourselves and find where we have fallen short of God’s desires. We need to move away from seeking things only as we would desire them and seek God’s love that is present in the wilderness spots of our heart, redeeming us and offering us a new way.
We can begin to experience this new way today through the celebration of communion. In a moment, we will share in this holy meal together. We believe that as we take this meal, the living presence of Christ is with us. Communion allows us the possibility to experience true preparation for Christmas through the renewal and transformation of our soul. As we take of the bread and juice, we recognize our need of Christ and can experience God’s love touching us in the places of our deepest longing and giving us a new way to live through Christ’s love. This meal allows us an opportunity to align our lives with the One who came to offer hope, love, joy, and peace for all people.
Communion is an opportunity for us to prepare our hearts for Christmas and Jesus’ return. That is my prayer for each of us today, throughout this Advent season, and every day going forward. My prayer is that we will spend this waiting time getting our hearts ready for the Christmas celebration and Jesus’ return. We will not just spend time decorating our homes, but examining our hearts and seeking the path made available by the One who was laid in a manger in Bethlehem. May we all get ready by repenting of our sin, giving ourselves completely to God, and seeking the Lord’s grace.