Matthew 3:1-3
Sunday, December 4, 2016

In 1848, the magazine Illustrated London News forever shaped our understanding of Christmas in a very specific way. That year, the publication featured a picture of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria celebrating the holiday in Windsor Castle. Queen Victoria’s mother and Prince Albert were both German and thus they had brought with them to England their own traditions of the season from their homeland. One tradition was the inclusion of a live Evergreen Tree in the home and the other was the decorating of the tree with blown glass ornaments or baubles from the German town of Lauscha.

Since 1848, people all over the western world have adopted the ideas first displayed in that London publication. Today, almost all of us will have a tree or multiple trees for that matter in our homes be they artificial or live, a traditional evergreen or something more modern and unique. And, almost all of us use ornaments – lots of ornaments to decorate. No longer are they simply blown glass or only from one area of Germany. No today, they come in all shapes, sizes and styles as well as from all over the world.

In some ways our traditions remain the same – trees and ornaments – while in other ways they have evolved – blinking lights, Dickens Villages, automated reindeer in the yard and even a nice wreath for the front grill of our Dodge Ram pick up truck.

But, the intent behind it all has never changed. These weeks of Christmas are so special and unique that we change the looks of our houses, our churches and our offices in order to mark the season. We decorate in order to remind ourselves and others that we have entered into a different time of the year.

Think about it for a second. If for some reason you lost all touch with modern civilization for years and then suddenly you returned in the middle of December, you would immediately know what time of year it is by all of the decorations. You wouldn’t need anyone to tell you what season it was – you would immediately and instinctively know that it is Christmas.

Decorating, preparing and getting ready is as much a part of our modern idea of Christmas as is Santa Claus, Rudolph or Jingle Bells.

In the gospels, John the Baptist, a figure that we rarely think of as part of the Christmas story, begs us to think similarly at Christmas about our souls.

A huge part of John’s message focused around the word “prepare”. His message was not really about preparing for Jesus’ birth but rather about the people’s need to prepare for the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry around the time that Jesus was 30. Yet, every Christmas, the church rereads John’s call to get prepared as a reminder that truly receiving Christmas and fully welcoming the Christ child requires spiritual preparation too.

Today, we have prepared our sanctuary. In truth, that was the easy part. Now, we must prepare our hearts.

But how? Let me make just a few suggestions to all of us.

First, let us prepare by prioritizing. In these days, be bold enough to ask yourself a question. How much time will I spend between now and December 25th on shopping, decorating and parties? And in light of this, how much time will I spend in these days on prayer, scripture, worship and reflection? I am not asking us to ignore and cut out the things of the season that we all love. I am simply reminding all of us not to neglect the work of our souls which is the real heart of these days.

Second, let us prepare by taking to heart the four calls of Advent – Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. What does it mean to be a person of hope? How do we love those who are hard to love? What does it mean to cultivate joy rather than being satisfied with happiness? Are we people of peace? Each week, as each new theme is offered, lets be serious about it and think about it. What does this look like if I embody it in my life? And, what role can I play in these ideas coming to life?

Finally, let us prepare by marking these days as different with our lives just as we mark them as different with our decorations. I know – people will occasionally criticize folks for only being nice in December or only caring during the holidays. That may be true. But is it really a bad thing to treat December differently and to do our best to try to live up to our decorations by sprucing up our lives? If we can only do it in December, we sure haven’t lost anything. But, it living December because a dress rehearsal or a spring board for a different outlook or different way of treating others all the time, we gain everything.

When I was a kid, my father was a purest. No fake Christmas trees in the Letson house. It had better be the real deal. And, for much of my childhood, the real deal Christmas tree meant going into the 40 acres behind our house and cutting our own tree. For him, there was a right way and a wrong way to prepare for Christmas.

Advent begs us to see that there are right, good and helpful ways to prepare spiritually for Christmas too, ways that will warm our souls…Amen.