Well, here we are – and it’s early December. Already. When you’re young – when you’re a child – it seems like Christmas will never get here. But now that I am – well – a bit older – each Christmas seems to get here faster and faster. Quite frankly, it seems to me that we did this just a couple of months ago. Am I the only one who feels this way?
Well – it’s early December, and we’ve still got lots of time – it’s only 3 weeks – before Christmas Eve rolls around, yes? Well – that all depends. That all depends on what it is that you do to get ready for the celebration of Christmas.
Things like – oh, I don’t know – writing an annual Christmas letter. Now I know, not everybody writes an annual Christmas letter, but some of us do. And we either love them or hate them. You know which letters I’m talking about, right? They’re sometimes called brag letters. The ones where people high light all of the wonderful things that have happened to them in the past year – and the wonderful places they have visited. Have you noticed that they never ever contain any of the drama – or dysfunction of the past 12 months. No – the writers of those letters just wouldn’t want to let anyone know that life is less than perfect.
So we either love them or hate them. So let me ask – how many of you write an annual Christmas letter? Anybody? Come on, let’s be honest. I gotta tell ya that I actually love ‘em. And it’s true confession time here. I love ‘em because I write one myself. My very own personal – brag letter! Every year. And I have been for the past – I don’t know – almost 35, 36 years or more. I’ve been writing them longer than I’ve been married. So yes – I’m guilty! Guilty as charged! For Nancy and me it’s a way to brag – I mean – it’s a way to let our friends and family know what we’ve been up to over the past twelve months. And the other thing it does – it serves for us as a family history. We save them, and we can go back to them – kind of like a diary. Helps us remember where we were and what we were doing in any given year. So yeah – love ‘em or hate ‘em. Christmas letters do serve their purposes, whether you like those purposes or not.
Now, if you get those kinds of letters from family and friends – and you tend to hate them – I know – you’ve probably got good reason to. But let me let you in a little secret. The people who are writing about all of the wonderful things that happened to them in the past year – and all of the wonderful places they visited – are telling you just half the story. Their “perfect” life is not any more perfect than yours.
So don’t let those Christmas letters fool you. Because I know that they can create a certain envy. “Oh, I wish my life were more like so-and-so’s.” Just remember that there is stuff and junk in every person’s life – there is dysfunction in every family – stuff and junk and dysfunction that – quite frankly – we don’t write about because it’s stuff we don’t want people to know about. Except maybe our therapist!
Well – I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the Christmas letters some of us write. They are just one of the things among many that we do at this time of year to help us get ready – to help us get ready – to celebrate Christmas. The other stuff might include shopping. Baking. Putting lights on the house. Setting up the tree. Going to office Christmas parties. Sending Christmas cards. You know, some or all of these things are the things that we do to get ready.
And along with all of these things – quite often – comes stress. And although some stress in our lives is both helpful and necessary – I’m talking about the bad stress that leads to anxiety and worry. Now I don’t know what your stress triggers are – but I do know that there is some stress that comes along with getting ready. It can be any or all of these things that I’ve mentioned that we do at this time to get ready for the Christmas celebration.
But let me tell you something. The Advent season – is not designed – it’s not meant to bring these bad stressors into our lives. This four week season of the year – these four weeks before Christmas – are designed to help us to focus on Jesus. Advent is designed to remind us that Christ is near– that Christ is with us.
So most of the focus during this season of advent and Christmas will be on the Incarnation. Now, I know, that’s one of those big church words. Incarnation. I try to define it every time I use it. Incarnation simply means that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem – you know, the Christmas story – when Jesus was born it was God coming to us – in the flesh. That’s pretty much what the word Incarnation means. It’s God taking on human flesh – and becoming like one of us. The Latin word Carne literally means flesh or meat. So Incarnation is the big church word we use to describe God coming to us in the flesh – in the person of Jesus Christ.
One of the things we focus on during Advent is the first coming of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. A second focus is the second coming of Christ. That was the message we heard last week. We just don’t know when that will be. So what we know – and what we focus on during Advent – is that Christ has already come to us a first time. Christmas celebrates that first coming. The second thing we know is that he will come a second time, we just don’t know when. But squeezed in between his first coming and his second coming we talk about a third way that Christ comes to us. And he comes to us in the here and now. He is present with us in the here and now. SO Christ’s coming is not just a past event. It’s not just a future event. It’s a here and now event. And when you look at it that way – you can see that Christ’s promise to be with us always really is a very big deal. And it is a wonderful thing.
Now let’s go back to that stress stuff. Advent was never designed to bring bad stress into our lives, but to relieve it. Listen carefully! Each weekend in Advent – as we light the candles on the Advent wreath – we focus on four gifts that Jesus brings us. There are certainly others to be sure – but these are the four we focus on – in this order: hope, peace, joy and love. Hope, peace, joy and love. And isn’t that what you really want? Anybody? Come on, you can talk to me.
Having said that the Advent message is hope, peace, joy and love – and that these are what we really want for Christmas – I find it kind of challenging to bring our gospel reading into focus at this point. John the Baptist. I mean, who here doesn’t love hearing about John the Baptist – and his wonderful message that goes something like this: “You brood of vipers!” Now doesn’t that just warm the cockles of your heart? You know, I have never heard in my life one person making that their confirmation verse on the day of their confirmation. I have yet to see a Christmas greeting card with John’s message printed across the front. “You brood of vipers! Merry Christmas from our house to yours.”
So why in the world do we have John’s fiery preaching as one of our Advent readings? Glad you asked. Let me tell you why.
This is why we hear about John every year in Advent. You can set aside the brood of vipers thing – that’s not our message – and pay attention to the opening line, where John invites us to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The Kingdom of heaven – Jesus – God in the flesh – comes near. In fact –as I already told you – he is here. I can’t think of a better way to rise up to meet him – then to get into the practice of repentance. That’s why we listen to John. That’s why we begin our worship services with a time of repentance – and more importantly – to hear that we are forgiven. I need to hear – you need to hear – that you and I are forgiven. What a wonderful way to meet Jesus the Christ – than to know – that you – are forgiven.
Hey! You know all those things that people don’t write about in their Christmas letters? All that stuff and junk and dysfunction and disharmony that you don’t write about – and that I don’t write about either? Here is where we can bring all of our stuff and junk – the things that we are not proud of. Things that we would never want anyone to know about. We can leave them here at the foot of the cross. And take great joy – and have peace in your heart – in hearing these words, “Your sins are forgiven.”
And although those Christmas letters make it sound like the writer is living an enviable life – maybe even the perfect life – let me remind you that their life is no more perfect than yours. They are in need of forgiveness just as much as you are. Just remember that.
So let me tell you once again. Advent s a great time for me to remind you – Christ has come, Christ is with us now, and Christ promises to come again. Our willingness to repent is a great way to get ready to meet him. Having said that, I want you to know – that I know – that none of us will ever live a perfect life. But still what we can do is focus on living a life of right relationship with God and with the people around us – yes? This, I think, is the key to living the joy filled life that I am convinced is what you really want.
So instead of letting the stress and anxiety of this season get to you – heck – the stress and anxiety that life itself can bring – and maybe even a little guilt at not being perfect – why not let go of those – why not let Christ give you the things you really want for Christmas. What you really want are what these four candles represent. Hope. Peace. Joy. And love. And, oh yes, the fifth candle – the one in the middle – I didn’t tell you about that one – that represents Jesus – the best gift – the gift of Christ Jesus himself.