Message of the Week: Advent preparation ... yet again
In a recent experiment, a number of married couples were asked to juggle several things. Each participating couple was given a crystal vase, a china cup and saucer, wedding rings, a crucifix, a china doll, a soccer ball, a hand-held computer. Of course, before long, one could hear the crashing of broken glass, china and rings and all sorts of things falling all over the stage; it was just too much to juggle.
All the families failed but one. This family kept a few things going: the crucifix (which symbolized their spiritual life), the wedding ring (which symbolized their marriage) and the china doll (which symbolized their children). They realized that they couldn't do it all, so they set aside the less important things. So while the other couples had symbolically ruined their spiritual lives, marriages and family relationships, one couple was able to endure. The simple fact is, if we try to juggle it all, the best of what we have may fall and get broken, along with those things of less importance.
This is an appropriate image for Advent. It is a time for preparing, for stepping back and assessing our lives in order that we may properly prepare for Christmas. At this time of year, we see people running about, their priorities all askew, because they are juggling too much — as if every single entity in their lives is just as important as the next. The church gives us the holy season Advent and the person of John the Baptist to remind us, especially in this busy time, that not everything in our lives is equally important.
The Scriptures of Advent this week and next give significant attention to John the Baptist. We know he is the one who "prepares the way for the Lord" with his preaching and with his baptizing. We know from the description of his food and dress that he calls to mind the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who called the people to repentance.
But what does all of that have to do with us? John is not, admittedly, a very "Christmasy" figure; he is not, at holiday time, especially attractive. You don't find John the Baptist on many Christmas cards.
"Christmasy" he is not, but "Adventish" he very much is. John calls people to prepare, to ask forgiveness of their sins, to reassess their values, to change their hearts and lives and to turn to the things of God. For us, that means taking a hard look at just what it is we are juggling and perhaps set aside those things that are really of little value in the eyes of the Lord.
The importance of preparation
Preparation is a way to indicate that something or some person is very important. John is suggesting to his contemporaries that if they do not prepare in a proper and adequate way, they will miss the importance, the true significance, of the event about to happen.
If they do not prepare as they ought, they will miss what the one who is to come after him, the one who is stronger, the one whose sandal straps he is unfit to untie, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, is all about. They will miss the advent of the Messiah.
The same holds true for us; if we do not prepare properly for the event that is about to happen — the coming of Jesus as a child, and his coming every day into our lives, and his advent at the end of time — we will miss what the event is really about.
We know in our heads what Christmas is about, of course, but in these days before it comes, our preparations may have more to do with paper, presents, lights and gifts than with our spiritual lives. We may act as though Christmas is about cards and parties and tinsel, decorating trees and luscious desserts. We may even act as though it is about getting our shopping done.
But it is still Advent. The church asks us to properly prepare — not with consumerism and commercialism but with a spiritual openness. We are summoned by the Scriptures to allow the person of John and the person of Jesus to arouse in us a desire to change, to be better, to be different, to set our priorities straight, to be God's people.
John is not on Christmas cards because he is countercultural. The church, too, is countercultural. The church asks of us a special — a spiritual — preparation.
That often means changing the way we live, re-evaluating our priorities and even asking ourselves if we should not, as Christians, be preparing for Christmas in a way that is different from the rest of our culture. Again, without proper preparation, we can miss the real meaning of the event. We can't juggle it all, nor should we even try.
In the wilderness
John being in the wilderness is significant. In Advent, we embrace the wilderness in our lives and invite God to dwell therein. We may be recently divorced or a single parent struggling with the challenges of life.
We may be the one who presently mourns the loss of a loved one, or the person who has wounds from a hurtful or recently ended relationship. Our wilderness may be unemployment, fears about our job, anxiety about the future or debilitating concerns about schoolwork or our health.
Our wilderness, the place where we are called to prepare, may be a serious illness or unimaginable family problems. These are broken spots into which God can enter.
God loves us as much in our brokenness as in our wholeness. We bring our brokenness to God in Advent — we don't need to wrap, hide or cover it up! We are called now, in this holy time, to prepare inside. We are challenged to invite God into our wilderness, not to put on a happy holiday face.
A time to prepare
We prepare by giving God our deepest longings, needs and desires. We prepare like the juggling couple, by setting aside less important things. We need to stop juggling the demands of a society who will miss what Christmas is about because they have not properly prepared. The story of Jesus is the story of salvation; the story of salvation is God's love for all the world and God's love in particular for you and me. Advent reminds us that not everything in our life is just as important as the next. And even if we are not filled with warm, fuzzy feelings, what we do have is a reminder in our lives of why God came to save us.
The problem with Advent, however, is that it comes up every year. Yes, it's a time of preparation, but we may find ourselves thinking, "Well, I prepared last year. I've already opened my heart to God. So do I need to do it again?" And the answer to that is, "Are you all that God calls you to be?" The annual observance of Advent can feel like the day that keeps repeating in that classic movie "Groundhog Day." In that film, Bill Murray plays a rude and self-centered weatherman who suddenly finds that a single day in Punxsutawney, Pa., occurs over and over, and time does not move on. He tries all sorts of things — unsuccessfully — to make it move on, but eventually realizes it's an opportunity for him to become a different kind of person, a better person, one who can win the heart of his producer, Rita.
Commenting on this movie, an editorial in The Christian Century observed, "... this lighthearted romance suggests one way to think about the mysterious intersection of God's time and our time. What can seem like the meaningless extension of time, or the ceaseless round of same-old same-old, is in God's time part of the work of redemption. The prolongation of history can be seen as a gift, a gift that allows us to become aware of God's purposes."
Thus Advent, coming year after year, gives us opportunity to get ready, to change, to become the person God calls us to be. And if we haven't quite made it there yet, Advent gives us another nudge to keep working at it.
May we heed the Baptist's call and properly prepare this Advent so we won't miss the meaning of Jesus' advent — when he comes at Christmas, and when he comes to us now, even in the midst of our own brokenness, and when he comes again at the end of time.
Lane Noyes is pastor of Sutter United Methodist Church. Message of the Week appears on Saturdays.