This is the sermon from December 9th, 2012. The text for that Sunday was Luke 3:1-6, which introduces John the Baptist as an adult. You can find it here: Luke 3:1-6. The sermon is about preparing our hearts and minds and selves for the coming of Christ into our world.
Make a Little Birdhouse in Your Soul
Recently I was videochatting with a good friend of mine who had good news to share. She is pregnant, and so soon she will be a part of the miracle of bringing life into the world. A couple of weeks later, another friend of mine chatted me to let me know that his wife, too, was with child. Now both of these families are getting ready for the new additions to their families. They are reading books on pregnancy and birth and childrearing. They are preparing space in their homes for the baby to sleep, to eat, to play and to learn. They are looking at mobiles and high chairs, car seats and cradles, because they know that new life is coming to them, and they are excited and they want to be prepared.
Being prepared is important. If you tried to run a marathon without training you probably wouldn’t ever see the finish line. If you don’t pack well for a trip, you might arrive and find that you don’t have the right clothes for the occasion. If you don’t do your research before you buy a car, you might find yourself paying a lot more than you needed to, or even driving home in the wrong car altogether.
And being prepared isn’t all that easy. It’s not physically demanding and it’s not rocket science either, but planning ahead for something big in your life requires that you think and plan and do what needs to be done, often in a long time advance. It requires a dozen small decisions about what to do or not to do and the willpower to decide to plan for tomorrow when you could spend your time enjoying today. Planning ahead involves making space for something to happen, opening up possibilities for your future life. It involves making the right path clearer and straighter, so that you don’t get lost along the way.
This is what John is talking about when he goes out to preach on the banks of the river Jordan. John tells the people who have gathered to hear him:
“In the wilderness prepare a way for the Lord. Make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled and
every mountain and hill shall be made low.
and the crooked shall be made straight
and the rough ways made smooth
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God”
John is trying to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He doesn’t tell them to pack clothes, or go on test drives or decorate. These are good for preparing for other things, but not so great for preparing for the coming of the Lord. Instead he invites them into the baptism of repentance, of turning their lives away from sin, and of removing from their lives the obstacles and temptations that obscure the right path from their feet. He preaches forgiveness, because right relationship with God is directly connected to right relationships with other people. And he tells the people to get to doing the work of God, so that we aren’t found wanting when God arrives.
At this time of year we do a lot of preparing for the celebration of Christ’s coming. We put out lights and decorations, we clean counters and guest bathrooms and we put out clean towels for our family when they arrive. But we don’t often think about how we should prepare spiritually for Christ’s actual coming, which we have been promised. We do not often think about John’s words, about the baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The call to prepare reminds us of Jesus’ parable about the 10 bridesmaids, 5 wise ones who prepared, with extra oil for their lamps, and five foolish ones who did not. Out buying oil, the procession passed the foolish ones by, and when they knocked on the door the response was, “I do not know you.” If we don’t prepare ourselves and stay tuned in for Christ’s coming in our lives, we might discover that Christ has come and gone, and we’ve missed it, because we were looking at something else.
So what do we do to prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming? How do we make it easy for our Lord to come to us? John calls the people to the baptism of repentance, and to the forgiveness of sins. To repent means to turn away from our sins and point ourselves to God. The Hebrew word often translated as repentance means literally, to turn away. So in preparing for Christ’s coming, we’ve got to turn ourselves away from our temptations, and the forest of worries and concerns in our lives, and turn ourselves towards God. Because how can we see Christ coming if we are not turned towards him? When you come to pick someone up at the airport, you don’t wander around the gift shop looking at anything that catches your eye, you stand at the gates where the people come out and look for them to arrive. You turn towards them, so that you can see them as they come, and run and welcome them when they arrive.
In the same way we prepare for Christ to come into our lives by turning our eyes towards him, letting Him be our focus and our destination, instead of wandering around looking to satisfy ourselves somewhere else. This doesn’t mean that we should keep our eyes only on heavenly things, spending all our time reading theology and pondering deep thoughts to the detriment of those around us. Christ isn’t coming to heaven, Christ is coming here, to earth, into the messiness of our lives. The whole point of the story is the fact that Jesus did not remain in heaven but came down to earth, and was born in dirty, smelly barn, with dirty, smelly animals, and even dirtier, smellier shepherds. Turning your eyes to Christ doesn’t mean closing your eyes to the world in order to see Christ, but opening your eyes to see Christ in the world.
As John spoke to the crowds, he also spoke of the forgiveness of sins. Seeking forgiveness is about clearing away the obstacles between us and God, so that we can see God clearly. We can look out for God all we want, but if there are big obstacles between us, we might never see. Pastor Bill Hybels gives this example: Imagine if you have a neighbor, who has a nice riding lawn mower, and he’s offered to let you borrow it if you ever need to use it. One day your lawn mower breaks, and so you walk over to your neighbors house to ask if you can borrow the mower. On your way, your neighbor’s dog comes out, and you just hate this dog. It’s one of those yippie breeds that barks at everything that moves and bites anything that moves slow enough for it to get there. And this dog runs out and its barking and nipping at your heels grabbing at your pant leg. You just give it a swift, sly kick in the side. And then you look up and see that your neighbor is standing there on the front porch, watching you approach. He’s seen the whole thing. Is now a good time to be asking for a favor? Or do you have something between you that you need to clear away first?
When we treat other people poorly, we make it more difficult to have relationships with those people, but we also make it harder for ourselves to have a relationship with God. If you’ve put up an obstacle between yourself and God, you won’t be able to see when God comes to you. How can God come to us when we have shown disregard for God’s children?
When the people ask John what they have to do in order to prepare themselves, John tells them that they must get themselves involved in God’s work. “Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it,” he says. John tells us to care for each other, that those who have plenty ought to make sure that everyone has something. Doing the work of Christ: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, these are the works that Christ came down to call us to, these are the things of which he taught, “whenever you do these to the least of these, you do them to me.” In doing God’s work, in seeking to please God, we make a place for God in our hearts as much as we make a place for ourselves in God’s heart. When we allow ourselves to be compassionate, loving, and generous followers of Christ we make room for Christ to dwell within us and to love through us.
As Jesus told his disciples, blessed is the slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” So in preparation for Christ to work in us we put ourselves to work, that Christ might come to us and through us, that we might clear away some of the darkness for Christ’s light to shine in our world.
Preparing for Christ to come into our lives means opening our eyes to see Christ here with us. It involves looking for Christ incarnate in our every day lives. In order to see Him we have to clear the obstacles that keep us from being in right relationship with God and each other. And we have to make space for God to dwell within us and work through us, by getting ourselves involved in kingdom work.
This is not a simple task. It involves dozens of little decisions, finding spiritual disciplines, and listening and learning to hear and understand how Christ comes to us. And don’t be discouraged if you have done little to get yourself ready. Remember that the innkeeper had prepared no room for Mary and Joseph, and it was in his stable there that Christ first entered our world. But like my friends, who will soon witness the miracle of new life coming into the world, we should prepare and make space in our hearts and in our homes for Christ to come to us, so that in that cold dark night when we once again remember the wail of the newborn king, we might hear the heavens rejoice.