Thursday, December 11, 2008

Preparing for Christmas

(Read Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8)

The Christmas season requires a great deal of preparation. I’m sure most of you have already begun preparing for Christmas in some ways. Have you bought your tree? Decorated your house and yard? Do you have plans on your calendar for dinners and parties and church services? Have you started buying and wrapping Christmas presents?

Americans spend an immense amount of resources- time, energy, thought and money- on getting ready for this most sacred and precious time of the year. We devote so much of ourselves to this season because it means so much to us. Even for Christians who don’t go to church, Christmas represents a time of love and giving, a time of peace and togetherness. Christmas has a magical feel to it; it is a time when love and laughter, family and friendship are the priority. Christmas is a time of hope and celebration.

While preparing our homes is a very important part of Christmas, it is sad that many people spend more time preparing their homes than their hearts. External Christmas decorations are not a substitute for interior Christmas preparations.

Because what we are actually preparing for this Advent season is not the parties and presents. What we are actually meant to be preparing for is the coming of our Savior into the world. Jesus. Emmanuel. God coming to be with us. Now that is something to get ready for!

Today’s Scriptures call out to us to “Prepare for God’s arrival!” God deserves roads that are straight and smooth so that there is a highway fit for God’s travel as he comes towards us. The valleys must be filled and the hills leveled off; the rocks need to be cleared out of the way so that when God comes among us his “bright glory will shine and everyone will see it.”

John the Baptist called us to repent of our sins to prepare the way of the Lord. Today, I just want to talk about one sin that we need to turn away from so that we can be ready, so that are hearts will be prepared for the miracle of Jesus when he is born.

The sin we most need to repent of at this time of the year is our doubt, our despair, our hopelessness. I know that life is hard. These are difficult times for you, for me, and for people around the world. Life as we know it on earth is not what God intends for his creation. People are sick and suffering, hungry and oppressed, worried and depressed.

But every Christmas, we celebrate that God is doing something about all the problems. God is taking action by sending us his son.

You may be disillusioned, and perhaps you have given up dreaming of the life that God wants for his people, but its time to turn your minds around and hope once again. Now is the time for hope.

Isaiah prophisized that God is coming. Isaiah says, “God, the Master, comes in power, ready to go into action. He is going to pay back his enemies and reward those who have loved him. Like a Shepherd, he will care for his flock, gathering [you,] his lambs in his arms” (Isaiah 40: 10-11). God is coming to help us, to heal our suffering and change the way the world is. John the Baptist says about Jesus, “The star in this drama will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life (meaning a life in committed to God and one lived in God’s eternal realm). [Jesus’] baptism – a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit – will change you from the inside out.” That means a new way of life for you is on its way.

And not just for you. The Savior is coming to restore the fortunes of all people. God is coming to forgive, transform and bring peace.

You know, I had temporarily forgotten the importance of forgiveness until I read this book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a book about the Iranian revolution, which happened in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Before the revolution, women did not have to wear veils. They could associate with men other than men in their family. They could dance and listen to music. But after the revolution, all those freedoms were taken away. Morality squads walked about the streets, making sure that no piece of hair was seen on a woman’s head, making sure that women were escorted around town, making sure that they did not laugh too loudly. Not only were many freedoms taken away from the people of Iran, but punishment was very severe. You could easily be killed just for saying something against the government. Or teaching a book that was banned. The morality squads would literally come into their houses and go through their personal belongings, making sure they did not have the wrong books or the wrong music or the wrong videos, and if they did, they would confiscate them, and maybe also imprison them. When members of the revolution were asked to defend the executions taking place, they said that people deserved to be punished for their sins.

It’s easy to take forgiveness for granted when you live amongst people who are forgiving. But when your every move is watched and judged and there is no forgiveness – you can literally be killed in Iran for actions we wouldn't think twice about doing in the US -- than you remember just how important forgiveness is.

When Emmanuel comes, he promises to forgive us. He promises to rid the world of oppression and slavery. He promises to rid the world of hate and war. As psalm 85 says, when God comes to the earth, “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (v.10)

Hope

This Christmas season, we are waiting for the change that only God can bring.

Times have been difficult lately for so many people throughout the world, but we cannot grow skeptical. Especially not now at Christmas time. The sin that we must give up so that we can be ready for Jesus when he is born is the sin of doubt.

Believe. Believe like you have never been disappointed. Believe like a child who has not lost his/her innocence. In belief there is power. In Jesus Christ, there is power - the power of God to transform your life and the life of all people. This world will be different when God is done working here.

How can you prepare this Advent?

Spend time with God. Relax in God’s presence, and know the peace he brings.

Get in touch with your spirit, which is God’s Spirit in you. And set your mind on hoping for a new reality, for the end of suffering and the continuation of dreams being fulfilled.

In addition to making a Christmas list of material possessions, make a Christmas list of what you hope Emmanuel will come into the world and do.

Remember, the Triune God is a God of action. While we enjoy our parties and presents, God will be very busy loving, healing, comforting, listening, speaking, orchestrating, providing, responding, growing, restoring, and coming to the rescue of us, God’s children. God is not static and remote; God is dynamic and moving among us, tirelessly working to transform our lives and redeem the world.

So make a list of what you hope Emmanuel will do when he comes.

Include the world in your list. Whatever issues are important to you, put them on your hope list. I have included the end of oppression for the women of Iran.

Include your family and neighbors in your list. I have included the health and vitality of this congregation and the wellbeing of my family.

Include yourself in your list. I hope to live out my calling, and I trust God to lead me to fulfillment.

What will you put on your list of hope as Jesus comes into the world to save it?

All the preparations that we do this Christmas season, while done with goodwill and love in our hearts, are small in comparison to what God is preparing to do for us this Christmas. God is sending us our Savior, the only one who can set things right; the only one who can heal us and transform us from the inside out.

We all spend a great deal of effort preparing for Christmas on a worldly level, but what we also really need to do is prepare for Christmas on a spiritual level. And we can do so by renewing our hope in what God will do.

What we are preparing ourselves for this Advent season is God’s miracles because they are coming!

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