December has to be the craziest month of the year. In many ways, if we could step back and look at all the somewhat wild and out of the ordinary things we do this month, we would realize just how crazy this month and how crazy we just might be. Why is it so crazy?
It is because we are preparing. You see the husband up on the precariously balanced ladder, getting directions from his wife who should be holding the ladder but is instead giving instructions on where to hang the icicle lights just right. And it is about 20 degrees outside. And the wind is blowing. They are preparing. You see stores filled with people with a high level of intensity and aggressiveness as they shop, shop, shop; people making their shopping lists and checking them twice. They are preparing. With the flip of the switch, the day after Thanksgiving, the radio stations start adding in old nostalgic songs to their playlists about chestnuts and walking in a winter wonderland. The airwaves are helping us to be prepared. Even our sanctuary is now set to help us prepare. We have all the greens this year, but also the smell of the sanctuary that is helping us to prepare. Not just the smell of the evergreen tree and swags fill the air, but also the cinnamon smell of the cookie tree ornaments hanging from our lights. People are preparing, we are preparing, because soon it will be Christmas.
But we as Christians do more than just prepare for Christmas, we prepare for Christ. Last Sunday, Ellen Jones helped us mark the first Sunday of Advent, a season that lasts right up until Christmas. Advent is that time of year when we prepare for the arrival of Christ. We prepare to celebrate his first arrival, that humble, quiet birth in Bethlehem. But we also prepare for his second coming, that day that Jesus promised at the end of the book of Luke and the beginning of Acts when we would see him coming again in his glory. The Sundays of Advent go backward in time, from the future return of our King down to his modest birth on Christmas.
And during this time of preparing, we, as individuals and as a community of believers, do all kinds of physical things to prepare for Christmas. We hang the lights, we fill out and mail cards, we shop for gifts, and menus are planned as we prepare for visits from family and friends. Here the sanctuary is decorated, we light a new candle every Sunday to mark time through the Advent season, and Joan has been in the back meticulously counting candles to make sure have enough for everyone on Christmas Eve. But there is more than just the physical parts of preparing for Christmas. There are the spiritual things we do to prepare ourselves for Christ. It’s easy to prepare for the holiday of Christmas. But how do you prepare for Christ? I bet there are some of you out here right now who could exclaim this early in December, “I am ready for Christmas!” But my question for you is, are you ready for Christ? And I think we can get so distracted by getting ready for Christmas, we forget who we are getting ready for.
Thank goodness we have someone just as crazy as we are to help us prepare for Christ as we get ready for Christmas. He shows up like clock work every second Sunday in Advent. No, it’s not Rudolph or Frosty or even Santa. They are the list of those helping us get ready for Christmas. It is John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair and eating wild honey and locust who helps us get ready and be prepared for Christ. He had no church but the desert wilderness by the Jordan River. He was a wild nobody. Luke even begins this section by letting us know who the “somebodies” of the day were. The lengthy list of the Roman political and Jewish religious leaders of the day reminds us of the power structure and systems that existed at this time. But it wasn’t the emperor, the governor, the local kings or priests that God chose to prepare the people for the coming Christ; it was this long-haired, locust eating prophet calling out in the wilderness.
This wasn’t his idea. This was his calling, God’s purpose for his life. John was talked about hundreds of years before this scene from the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord!” John had been called by God to prepare people for the arrival of the Messiah—Jesus was about to begin his pubic ministry, and John was preparing people, getting them ready for Jesus and his message. He did that by teaching people to receive a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
For John, to prepare for the coming Christ meant to turn around, to change direction in both actions and attitudes. Repenting doesn’t just mean feeling remorse or regret for an act or decision and then getting up and doing the exact same thing over and over again, it literally means going in an entirely different direction. Stop the crazy acts that you are doing and turn around, turn back towards God, because in that turn around, you will meet the coming Lord. John’s hearers were going one way, unprepared for Christ. They might have thought their religious affiliation or their political ties were going to save them. But, John told them to turn their lives around and go another way.
“What then should we do?” they ask John. How do we prepare? How do we repent? How do we change directions? It is interesting that three different groups ask John what they need to do to prepare, covering the entire gamut of those who were considered “in” and those who were considered “out” by the political and religious leaders of the time. They begin with the closed group of those who believe they are OK because they have the membership card of being Abraham’s descendants who are oppressed by the Romans. The next group is the tax collectors who move between the occupied Jewish community and the occupying Roman authority. They are agents of the political reality, making decisions of self-interested compromise every day. The third to ask are the occupiers, the soldiers. They wield the sword of the world’s power, but they too are capable of sensing they needed to turn around and change what they were doing.
Notably, John does not demand that any of these groups leave their places. Repentance is a change in direction of actions and attitudes that requires them to stay where they are. They do not run from their sin, they seek forgiveness for it from those around them. They stay where they are, but they are to be different where they are. John identifies what each group needs to repent from and turn to. From those who would claim the protection of status, affiliation, or membership, John demands that generosity replace self interest. The needs of the other should take greater priority, higher status, than one’s own protection or security. From those, who like the tax collectors, have learned survival skills in an unjust system, John demands integrity. No more stealing, no more gaming. They must demand less for themselves so that others may be treated fairly. And finally from the soldiers, whose tool is raw power, John demands respect for others. John tells these that the fruit of their repentance will be seen not in personal gain but in true modesty.
So, how do we prepare for Christ? We repent! What would John’s words be to you if you were standing on the banks of the Jordan and you asked, “What then shall I do?” First, identify what is separating you from God in your life. This will take some quiet time during this crazy time of year. Turn off the TV, the radio, the internet. Take a break from shopping and decorating. And just sit, and think, and identify those things that separate you from God in your life. And just because you are coming to church on Sunday doesn’t mean you don’t have some brokenness in your life that needs to be addressed. Are you materialistic? Do you like to be surrounded by things, more things than you could ever need or want? Are you selfish? How are your thoughts? Are you impatient with others? Do words spill out of your mouth that are hurtful and angry? Identify those things. And then the second, do the opposite, right where you are and where you live and work. Ask for forgiveness from those you have hurt. If it is time to clean out the closet, both literally and figuratively, do it. Change direction in your life.
Are you ready for Christmas this year? More importantly, are you ready for Christ? Are you ready to celebrate his first coming? Are you ready to receive him, when he comes again in all of his glory? If you listen closely, over the songs about Rudolph and Frosty and White Christmases, over the craziness that surrounds us this time of year, you will hear a voice, a voice of one calling in the desert: Prepare the way for the Lord. That is the message of this second Sunday of Advent, prepare your life, prepare your heart, prepare your whole being by turning toward Christ, seek his forgiveness and wholeness, and expect his grace. Because it is only by his grace we are able to make that turn-around and be prepared for the day we see him, not in a card or manger scene, but for the day we will see him face to face.