Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian for the First Sunday of Advent.
The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:
Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”
John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In the Christian calendar, today is the first day of Advent.
But in America, and I expect for many of us here, Christmas started weeks ago.
Growing up, my family always began our Christmas preparations the same way, with the outside lights, stringing strands across the bushes in front of the porch.
Actually, though, that’s not quite right. Decorating for Christmas didn’t start with putting the lights up. Decorating for Christmas started with untangling those lights.
Maybe some of you have magical systems for keeping lights detangled, but we did not. No matter how carefully we put the lights away each year, the next year they were all snarled and knotted again. And my brother and I were usually over-excited and eager to get on with Christmas things and the last thing we wanted to do was sit on the cold grass in the front yard and painstakingly detangle each of our six strands.
It was not fun. It was not festive. It was frustrating.
It was Christmas without the magic, just the work.
Inside was no better. Before we could put up the nativities and the candles and the wreaths, we had to clean. And sort. And vacuum. And dust. And no amount of Christmas music blaring over the record player made it any less of what it very plainly was—a chore.
There are always preparations before the preparations, stuff we have to get done before we can get to the stuff we want to do. There is Christmas, and then there is preparing for Christmas, and then there is preparing to prepare for Christmas.
It’s no wonder we get exhausted. Frustrated, even, especially when we feel like we are the ones doing all that pre-prep work so others can have their holly jolly holiday. Frustrated, more, when we put in the work—when we detangle the lights and clean the house and trim the tree and bake the cookies and practice the pageant and send the cards and play the music and it still doesn’t… come out right. When we put in all the ingredients for the kind of Christmas we remember, the kind of Christmas we long for, and the finished product still turns out kind of lumpy and flat.
It can feel like an exercise in futility right from the start. Especially when there are other frustrations in our lives, worries and fears and vexations that pull at us, that chafe, that tear away at our holiday cheer no matter how we try to bolster it. When there are family relationships that just won’t be mended by Christmas dinner. When there are financial realities that just aren’t going to change because it happens to be a holiday. When we walk daily through a firestorm of political discord and uncertainty. When something has changed since last Christmas, and we can’t put our finger on it, but we know Christmas just won’t be the same this year. We push boldly into the headwinds, but the world’s realities push just as harshly back, even in December.
There’s a reason most of us hold to our traditions at Christmas. Rituals have a way of conjuring emotions, of taking us back to how we felt the last time we enacted them. Many of us have our Christmas rituals stretching back to childhood, because that’s the feeling we’re trying to recapture. The childhood wonder of Christmas.
And some rituals, some traditions are so strong that those feelings never fade. We still feel the peace when we turn off the lights for the first time and see the tree all lit up. We still feel joy at the scent of our grandmothers’ Christmas cookies.
But other traditions, it has to be said, have diminishing returns. We keep doing them, because we always have, maybe even because we hope this time will be different, but each time we’re left a little colder. The magic is gone, and what most of us feel, I think is guilt.
We feel guilty when Christmas doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. Because we think we must have done something wrong.
The people who first heard Mark’s gospel knew a little something about holding to tradition. They were faithful Jews. Even under Roman oppression, even in the face of violence and schism, even laboring under obscene tax practices, even after years and years and years of God never seeming to show, they kept their traditions. They went to temple. They said their prayers. They studied Torah.
And if it ever felt like a process of diminishing returns—if it ever felt like the faith was starting to fade, and the rituals were all that remained—I imagine it brought them plenty of guilt too. Fastidiousness was the buzzword of their faith. Change nothing. If we do what our ancestors always did, maybe God will do for us what God did for them. Maybe. Maybe next year. Maybe soon.
And into this world strides John the Baptist, who I don’t think could ever be accused of fastidiousness, and what does he say? Change. Change, he says. Change yourselves—repent, which in Greek means exactly that: change your mind, your heart, your lives. Change yourself. Wash off the grime of years past and begin again. Heck, change the very landscape of the earth. Grind down the mountains and re-lay the roads. Change everything, because change is coming.
Change is coming, and we’ll learn to call him Jesus.
John’s invitation—this first Advent sermon—is an invitation to change. To wash away what is not working. To slough off what leaves us cold and frustrated. To take hold of the idea that what we need most might not be something that has already happened, but something that is yet to come.
To learn to put our trust in one stronger than John, one stronger than us, one stronger than any sense of guilt or shame. To put our trust, not in our own ability to make ourselves feel, or create faith out of thin air, or call God to our service, but in Jesus, alive and active. To have hope that this year could be different, and that that could be a very good thing.
Advent invites us to change. Change our hearts. Change our lives.
I think back to those Christmas lights, all tangled up and knotted. When I was young, I hated untangling them. It felt like a cruel joke, when all I wanted was starry, sparkling Christmas joy. But as I got older, I came to really appreciate—well, mostly appreciate—that process. That enforced pause. I realized that the work of untangling what is all knotted up is not the pre-show for Christmas. It is part of Christmas itself.
Most of us are knotted up people. Our priorities and emotions and values are all tangled up with others’ expectations, and our own. And it can feel like a deep untangling is the last thing we have time for when our December schedules are packed to bursting.
I’m going to ask you to do it anyway. I’m going to ask you to think about everything on your to-do list, everything that keeps you up at night, everything you’ve got swirling around in your head and your heart, and figure out whether there’s anything that might be needing a change.
Before you freak out, I am not telling you not to celebrate Christmas. If your traditions bring you hope, bring you joy, bring you peace, help you to love and feel loved, have at them. Go for it with all the gusto you got. What I am saying, is that if there are things you do that have started to leave you cold, if there are traditions you are breaking under the weight of upholding, if you find yourself tense and frustrated as December creeps forward, you have permission—and not just mine, but John the Baptist’s permission—to change.
The very first words of our earliest gospel, Mark chapter one verse one, affirm that Christ’s coming is good news. So if preparing for Christmas, when we celebrate Christ’s coming, does not sound like good news to you, then yeah—change the way you celebrate! This is the kind of thing I feel like I could get in trouble for saying, but I gotta tell you: there are absolutely zero rules from the Bible about gifts, decorations, menus, outfits, or parties. None. All that can be fun and good but it isn’t what God cares about, so don’t worry about impressing or disappointing God on that score. What the Bible does ask us to do is untangle what gets in the way of Christ entering our hearts. Scripture invites us to change (yes, change!) our hearts and lives so that we focus on Christ, and how Christ wants us to treat each other and ourselves. So here’s my question: what would making a straight path for Jesus mean for your to-do list this year? Really?
One caveat to the change-enthusiasts in the room (I know we’re Presbyterian, but I’m sure we have a few): don’t feel you need to change everything all at once. There is value in ritual and tradition. But see if there’s something you can put aside, something you can lift from your own shoulders.
It’s easy to feel like we have to do everything the same as we always have. It can feel noble, especially if we have children who are counting on us to bring on the magic. But I promise you that in ten years what your children will remember is not how many gifts they got, or how many cookies you baked, but whether or not Christmas made you happy. Because one day your kids will be grown up, and you don’t want them thinking that Christmas is a time to make yourself miserable.
Here’s maybe the most important thing I can say to this morning: grace operates at Christmas too.
Grace—God’s forgiveness of our sins, and, I like to think, God’s gentle good humor at our messes—it still operates at Christmas. If we try to do it all and we cave under the weight, God’s grace is still for us. If the changes we make don’t feel like the right ones, God’s grace is still for us.
Because at the end of the day, Christmas isn’t about what we do. It’s not about what we buy, or make, or wear, or eat, or sing, or anything. Christmas is about what God did for us.
And what God did is come into this mess of a world to hang out with us for a while.
What God did was come to show us that our hope was not in vain. That we are not left clinging to old rituals and memories. That there is a future for us, a different future, and it is solely in God’s hands.
You might still find yourself frustrated this Christmas. There’s a lot to be frustrated with. But if you can, let go what is not yours to do, and put your trust in God, who is strong enough to carry every burden.
If you can make the paths straight this year, if you can untangle, even a little bit, what knots you up inside, Jesus will rejoice with you. But if you can’t, if the path is still twisty and you still feel like a mess—well, Jesus is coming anyway.
That’s why I still hope, even when the world is overwhelming: Christmas isn’t up to us. It’s up to God. And God always finds a way.