Today we begin the season of Advent. The paraments are blue, the trees are up, and the church has the things that tell us we’re getting ready for Christmas. That’s Advent. There’s usually a fair amount of confusion in some places about Advent because it happens at the same time as the rest of the world is celebrating Christmas. So the time of Advent gets called Christmas time and Advent pretty much ceases to exist.
Advent is the time of preparation as we get ready for Christmas. Advent is the time of preparation for all the things we do to get ready to celebrate the birth of Christ. Which is pretty much what everyone who is a follower of Christ, and a whole lot of other people, are doing between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Doing ALL.THE.THINGS to get ready for Christmas. That’s Advent when you get right down to it.
And it is doing ALL.THE.CHRISTMAS.THINGS that get us in trouble. Getting the house decorated, baking, or maybe finding, the cookies and other Christmas treats, buying all the presents, deciding what presents to actually buy, all the get togethers and Christmas programs, scheduling travel plans, timing the meals, buying the groceries. We get so focused on doing all the Christmas things we forget about preparing for the actual Christmas, the birth of Christ. Or we get so focused on doing all the Christmas things that we end up exhausted by the time actual Christmas rolls around.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the Christmasy Santa-y getting ready for Christmas things as much as the next person. I like how the Christmas tree looks. I like seeing the stockings hung on the bannister going upstairs (we don’t have a fireplace). I like seeing houses decorated with lots of lights though I’m enjoying that somewhat less in recent years having to do what seems like a complete replacement of all of my lights every year. Is that just me?
But I do have to remind myself what the purpose of the tree and the stockings and the lights are. It’s easy to have the head knowledge of getting ready for Christ’s birth but aren’t many of our activities and preparations more related to Santa than they are to Jesus?
THAT is why we have Advent. To point out our preparations and to focus us on Christ, not all the other things that are going on.
How to we balance all.the.things? That’s the real kicker, isn’t it? Most of them are actually pretty good things when it gets right down to it. But then not all of them are pretty good things. I think the place to start is to get rid of the things that aren’t pretty good. What that might be will vary from person to person and family to family but it seems likely that we’ve all got some things in Advent that don’t thrill us a great deal. Which begs the question, why are we doing them? There are so many things we do during Advent that actually do little more than to add to the stress of the season, so why then are we doing them?
I know there are some political considerations at times. You can’t always skip the company Christmas party and sometimes you simply must do the inlaw thing to keep peace. For various and sundry reasons there are things that must be done but what about the other things we end up doing? The things we’ve convinced ourselves that must be done but we don’t really care for them very much. Are we willing to cut them loose?
Or are we doing the things we don’t love very much just to look good? Is there something on our list of things to do that have their basis in keeping up appearances? That was an issue that God addressed through Joel in today’s reading. “12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” It was Jewish tradition that when you got bad news you would tear your clothes a bit to give the outward appearance of distress. It was a way of expressing emotion externally so that others could see you were upset about something.
When we think about our preparation time for Christmas, our Advent, what are we preparing for? God isn’t looking for us to look good. God isn’t looking for us to change our outward appearance. God is looking for, calling us to, that inner transformation.
I think we need to give ourselves permission not to do all the things we sometimes believe are all the things we have to do. Some things do have to be done and that’s fine. Not everything we do needs to be done and some of it we just need to stop. I’m not going to list any one thing to stop doing because sure as the world I’ll name some one thing to stop doing and I’ll land on someone’s favorite thing they love to do in Advent and they’ll be mad at me for calling out their thing.
If you love doing something, that’s great. Do the things you love and do them well and with passion. I’m talking about the things that are kind of made up things we convince ourselves must be done and we don’t really love doing them. Give some thought to unloading those kinds of things.
In unloading the things that we don’t love and that do more to create stress than anything else in our lives we create space for God to do God’s transforming work in us. I’m pretty sure that most of us aren’t stiff arming God as we try to respond to lots of demands for our time and keep up with busy schedules. But most of us also know the truth of how those demands and schedules get in the way of our relationships in general and no less our relationship with God.
The God who tells us, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;” is reaching out to us and calling us to return, to Return to Me. As we prepare for the birth of God’s son Jesus, as we Advent, will we add one more thing to our task list, will we add one more time slot to an already bursting calendar or will we rend our hearts and turn our focus on God?
This coming week, as you reconsider the true necessity of this task or that appointment take a moment and think about the candle we’ve lit this morning. The candle of hope. Think about how you experience hope in Christ Jesus.