At my house we are behind on our Christmas cards this year. I know this because we are already receiving cards in our mailbox. They’re coming from friends and family, each with wonderful pictures or heartfelt personal notes. Each one is beautiful, and each one strikes this little note of terror in our hearts because it reminds us of how far behind we are on our Christmas preparations.
We even received one from a friend who has a newborn baby. Like, a really tiny one. We opened that one and were like “okay, we have no excuse”.
Now we’re trying to pick out our Christmas cards for this year, and we haven’t decided yet. There are the cards with pictures on it. There are cards with lovely Christmas sentiments. And then we need to pick our Hannukah cards for our friends who celebrate, and that’s this week, so that’s even more urgent.
So I’m avoiding the stress of choosing the holiday cards by saying I’m too busy working. I have a sermon to write, you know, and can’t be bothered. That doesn’t work when your spouse is also a minister. But, my sermon has helped me to figure out what our Christmas cards will be this year. And it all comes from the text we read today:
John the Baptist, Scripture tells us, “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” And he lived out by the river and shouted at the crowds to “prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!”
A guy who lived out in the wilderness, based his fashion choices on camels, and ate bugs and honey. This has Christmas card all over it. I’m ordering them today. I just want a picture of that on the front cover so that all our friends will open it up and see it first thing.
As an added bonus, Heidi will never let me near any Christmas cards again.
So, John the Baptist doesn’t make a lot of appearances in popular Christmas culture. But he is essential to the story of Advent. In fact, some years two full weeks of the Advent readings focus on him, and in particular this story of how he would tell the people to “prepare the way of the Lord”.
The first time we hear about John, though, is when Mary, the mother of Jesus, goes to see her relative Elizabeth. She tells her that she is pregnant. Elizabeth is pregnant too, and when Mary tells her about this child she’s expecting, we’re told that the baby Elizabeth is carrying jumps in her womb.
That’s the first sign of the relationship between Jesus and John. When both grew up, John became a sort of advance man for Jesus. Last week in my sermon we talked about Advent and how the word literally means “coming”. In Advent we prepare for something that is coming. And so, John started to preach to the crowds about how something was indeed coming, and it was time to get ready.
John tells the crowd to “prepare the way of the Lord…make the paths straight”. I sometimes picture John as a sort of metaphorical snow plow driver. He’s clearing the snow to the side, putting down salt and sand, and making sure that roads are ready for Jesus.
Those roads, of course, aren’t make of asphalt and concrete. They don’t appear on any maps. Instead, they exist only in our hearts, and in our minds. But that doesn’t mean they are any less real, or any less important.
Advent is the time of year when we prepare for what is coming, and we get ready. When friends come over in the Christmas season we straighten up the house, cook something delicious, and make them feel at home. Sometimes, in fact, we spend all of December making sure everything around us is perfect. The tree, the presents, the decorations, the John the Baptist Christmas cards. We prepare the way for our friends and our family, and that is important and valuable.
But sometimes it is also overwhelming. It can leave us feeling like we don’t have any time for ourselves. And too often, it can mean that what is happening inside of us takes a backseat to what is happening outside.
I’m one of those people who loves Christmas. I love everything about it. And yet, even I can admit that this time of year can be hard sometimes. There are a lot of expectations. There are a lot of reminders of people we miss. There are a lot of places to be, and things to do. Plus, it starts getting dark at like 3:30 in the afternoon here. Even if you are feeling joyful, this can be a hard time of the year.
And that’s a good reminder of why “preparing the way of the Lord” matters. Because the reality is that Christmas can so easily be transformed from a holy celebration of God’s love and light into something so much less special. You can have Christmas without any sense of what is happening spiritually. Every storefront and Christmas catalog will help you there. But in the end, eventually even the brightest lights will leave you feeling empty.
But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if God called, and told us he was coming over for Christmas. Even better yet, what if God called and told us, “I’m coming over, but don’t do anything…don’t clean the house, don’t bake the cookies, don’t worry…just open the door when I knock.”
That’s what this season is all about. It’s about opening the door. Just being willing to do that, to make a little time and invite God in, is what it means to “prepare the way of the Lord”.
When this season starts to feel stressful to me, when I worry about all the things I need to get done, that’s what I remember. The more I stop to prepare the way, to get ready to open that door up to God’s love, the more I am able to feel the joy of the season. Because every time I let God’s love in, something changes. Every time, I change. And that kind of change, the kind that helps me to live in this world with more love, more kindness, more meaning…that’s the kind of preparation for God that John the Baptist was talking about.
In fact, maybe those John the Baptist Christmas cards aren’t such a bad idea after all. Maybe we all need a reminder this time of year that what matters at Christmas isn’t how perfect your family looks on that Christmas card, or how well-decorated the house is, or whether or not you’ve selected the right presents. Maybe we need a reminder that Christmas begins in our hearts, and it starts here in Advent, when we decide to open the door to God’s love.
I don’t think that John the Baptist will ever be much of a popular success at Christmastime, but I can think of someone who’s a little like John. He had a friend who was having a rough time because he couldn’t seem to meet the expectations of everyone around him. This friend began wondering what the point was, and in desperation he called out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
And the friend answered, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about…”
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this [shall be] a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
On the days when we are feeling like Charlie Brown, or when the bad news of the world has us feeling as broken as his little Christmas tree, what Linus says on that stage is still what Christmas is all about. In Advent, we prepare the way for the coming of something better, and we decided whether we will open the door when it knocks. This Advent, this Christmas, don’t settle for anything less than what Christmas is really all about. God’s love is standing at the door. No matter how busy you are this season, you have time to let it in.