Summary: At Christmas, our most significant preparations occur in our hearts and souls
Friends, may grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and Christ Jesus our Lord.
Today is December 16th. There are nine days before Christmas. As a child, that countdown to Christmas fanned such anticipation and excitement! With each passing day, my eagerness grew exponentially. But as an adult, that countdown to Christmas elicits a very different set of emotions! As the calendar ticks off successive days in December, now it’s stress and panic that build. The list of what still needs to be accomplished casts a long shadow across the shrinking amount of time to accomplish it all.
Christmas preparations. The first evident signs typically start on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Many put up their Christmas lights while the weather is still relatively temperate.
There are also those people – very, very organized people – who conduct their Christmas shopping throughout the year. When they see something that looks like the perfect gift for someone they know, they purchase it immediately. All of their gifts are safely wrapped and squirreled away before the first of December. But others do all their gift shopping on the day before Christmas.
Food preparation is another significant aspect of this season. Some of my Facebook friends have posted pictures of family gatherings for their annual Christmas cookie bake. By the end of the day, they’ve rolled, stamped, and iced thousands of holiday morsels.
But then there’s John the Baptist. John calls us to an altogether different type of preparation. John’s tone is decidedly harsh. He calls the gathered crowd a “brood of vipers.” If they don’t shape up, he says, they’ll be brought down like a tree.
Wow! We want to tell him, “Hey, Buddy, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!” But John doesn’t mince his words. John is on a mission!
There’s a time to practice tactful messaging. But there’s also a time for urgent warning.
• Your doctor speaks urgently and sharply when your health is at risk. “Your blood work is critical! You need to change your diet now!” They speak sharply because they want you to live. If you don’t change now, there will be dire consequences.
• Science is warning us ever more urgently about the threat of global warming. As the volume of greenhouse gasses continue to increase, we grow ever closer to a tipping point for our old world. Rising sea levels, decreasing amounts of oxygen in the water for sea creatures, increasingly violent hurricanes, devastating forest fires. It’s not a pretty picture, and we don’t want to change our ways. But the warning cry is increasing.
John’s warning cry has the urgency of one who is raising an alarm. He speaks sharply out of tough love. “Change or die!” he warns.
Pondering John this Advent season, my mind has gravitated to a beloved Christmas tale from Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. It’s the story of an unlikely hero, Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge is a despicable, heartless man. He’s a sour, miserly old coot. But strangely, with the unfolding of Dickens’ story, we find ourselves identifying with him, even feeling sympathy.
On the eve of Christmas, Scrooge is visited by his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley comes to him much like a John the Baptist. He comes in warning, “Change or die!”
Marley is enveloped by and drags a heavy chain. Scrooge comments on it. “Yours is longer than mine, Ebenezer!” Marley speaks to his friend in very harsh terms. But he comes in love. He appears to Scrooge so that his friend might repent of his selfish and greedy ways.
Marley tells Scrooge that he’ll be visited by three ghosts. The ghosts will impress upon him the need to change. At first, Scrooge is brought back to a happier time from his past. He sees the happy Christmas he spent with his kind and generous old boss, Fezziwig. He’s filled with warmth at the memory.
The second ghost reveals the current Christmas. He sees the household of his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit and Bob’s fragile and crippled son, Tiny Tim. Despite his ailments, Tim is joyous nonetheless. Scrooge feels a flicker of compassion and human caring for the boy.
The third ghost, from the future, is the most sobering. Without uttering a word, this ghost forces Scrooge to face the reality of his own eventual death. The echo of John the Baptist is heard, “The axe is laid at the root of the tree.” Scrooge makes a full and complete repentance. He vows, “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all year.” And he does.
This is the plea of John the Baptist. The time is now! With urgency, John appeals that we set our hearts right. And is there any more vital place to prepare for Christmas than in our hearts?