Based on Mark 1.1-8
A few years ago, I remember a particular Christmas season.
It was before I began the process of becoming a pastor, and I was a worship leader at a church in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
That particular Christmas, though, was pretty lean.
The boys were still pretty small, and we were living outside Harrisburg in a modest duplex, and I was working through my Master’s Degree in Communications from Clarion University.
School was an added expense. As was electric heat in an abnormally cold and early winter.
My car needed repairs, the washing machine needed to be replaced, and money was really tight.
Add to that the fact that as the worship leader at my church, I had to lead music for three Christmas Eve services a half-hour away from my house.
I was going to be in church most of the evening until the midnight service was over.
I was afraid that between my responsibilities at church and the financial hole that I seemed to be in, I wouldn’t be able to give the boys a good Christmas that year.
And I prayed hard about that.
And of course, it ended up being one of the best Christmases ever.
A friend gave me a tuba — something my eldest boy wanted really badly for Christmas that year.
The car repair ended up not costing as much as I originally had thought.
The landlord ended up purchasing the washing machine.
And the boys came to the services on Christmas Eve, and in between, we were able to spend a lot of time together — even having Christmas Eve dinner.
God is good, amen?
God is good.
Here I was, worried about not being able to give my family a good Christmas, and it turned out to be one of the most amazing Christmases I’ve ever had.
But did you hear my words?
What was I afraid of?
As I said a couple of times, I was afraid of not being able to give my family a good Christmas.
And aren’t those the very words we use this time of year?
Aren’t these the very words we hear from the needy?
They say: “I’m afraid I won’t be able to give my children a good Christmas this year.”
And we, who are so giving and charitable; do we also say those words when we’re helping?
We say: “Well, we just wanted to give them a good Christmas this year.”
The meaning of Christmas
Our heart is in the right place, isn’t it?
Or is it?
Because how sad it is for us — and me included — if the definition of a “good Christmas” is about being able to have presents wrapped and under the Christmas tree;
Or a bountiful feast upon the table.
Or even time gathering with those whom we love.
Are these things bad? No. Certainly not.
But when we define a good Christmas by these measurements, then we’re missing everything — EVERYTHING — about what Christmas really is.
When we make Christmas about presents, lights, traditions, pageants and gatherings, we’ve supplanted something permanent with something very temporary.
We ask, “Did you have a good Christmas?”
or “Did you get what you wanted?”
What was it that you did want?
What, made Christmas good?
In other words, was Christmas temporary or permanent?
Of temporary things…
This is the world we live in — the temporary one.
I want the permanent life, do you?
We can do this exercise. Ask yourself:
What made the Christmases you remember best good?
I can recall many Christmases from my childhood.
And even the year I got my first guitar — 1974. It was called a Red Rider. Had sort of a western theme to it.
And I LOVED that guitar.
Of course, it’s been gone a long time, and replaced by several — dozens more — guitars.
I don’t remember what it felt like in my hands; I do remember some basic things about it and, of course, being really happy.
But what I remember most about those Christmases?
My dad holding me tightly against his scratchy wool sweater as he lifted me out of the Chevy Impala and into my warm bed after what seemed like a magical Midnight Mass.
I remember our huge family gathered at my grandmother’s house in the country, singing Christmas hymns — like “Silent Night.”
I remember packing food items and gifts for kids at a church, blessing 200 shoebox packages, reading to my own children before bedtime on Christmas Eve.
And how God came through for me — not just with gifts and the money to buy them; but for giving me transformative faith.
Faith that didn’t break, get lost or be used up like a Christmas present —- even an amazing Red Rider guitar;
No, faith, that continues to grow in me.
That is there, solid and unwavering in the face of any challenge.
Faith that is the proof of the promise of the real Christmas.
In other words, faith that isn’t temporary; but permanent.
Of permanent things…
You see, what we’ve done here is we’ve become unbelieving in permanent things.
Oh, we want to believe in them. We want to believe that everything lasts forever, but the evidence surrounding us contradicts that.
Gifts, relationships, even our very lives are often so temporary.
And so instead of believing in the permanent or even striving for it, we fill the hole from it in our lives with temporary things.
It’s almost as if we gave up on the true meaning of Christmas and supplanted it with lights and parties and glitz and gifts.
Otherwise, why would we — and even I — define a good Christmas as such?
When we give up on the permanent, when the temporary is gone, we are left with emptiness and even pain.
To fill the emptiness, we continue the cycle of temporary.
And that’s what Christmas is for so many of us.
What do you want for Christmas?
What do you really want for Christmas this year?
Well, so far you’ve heard me talk much about what we shouldn’t want.
Or maybe rephrase that to say what we shouldn’t put first on our Christmas lists…
I — like so many other pastors and faithful friends — could say “Well, Christmas is all about the Jesus Christ.”
So how does that make you feel?
How does it make you feel:
When it’s your first Christmas without your loved one?
When the family cannot get together this year?;
When we feel so alone and isolated — in a nursing home, a hospital or a prison cell?;
When we’ve been forced to move from our homes or counties?;
When we suffer persecution and beatings and death?;
When the world is at war?
Because, I have to be honest with you, when I hear that, I feel maybe a bit guilty that I’m being so self-centered.
That I should focus on the birth and coming of Christ and be completely happy with that in the face of all of these horrific realities that I just named?
I mean, can I end the sermon right here and have the takeaway for you be “Hey, don’t focus on gifts and glitz; focus on Jesus, and you’ll have the best Christmas ever?!”
“Go in peace!”
It’s not enough.
And it’s hard, isn’t it?
Why is that, you think?
Reframing Advent in the world
Let’s reframe that a little bit.
What is Advent? These four weeks before Christmas, now starting the second week?
Because here’s the secret: If you don’t understand the Advent, you can’t possibly understand the significance, the purpose, the promise and the permanence of Christmas.
You see, Advent means “to come.”
And so we light these candles and talk about the great excitement of the transformation that is to come.
The birth of Jesus.
But that was 2,000 years ago…
So we go through Christmas sort of as a remembrance, and subsequently, Advent became the preparation for the day we remember as this amazing thing having had happened.
And in our minds, that feels … temporary. Not permanent.
It’s just another temporary holiday — here and gone.
What are we missing, then?
This: God’s gift of Jesus Christ to each one of you is a permanent gift.
It’s the gift that never stops giving.
It’s the gift that has the power to transform your life each and every day.
Do you hear me?
* Not just once, 2,000 years ago.
* And not just when we remember the sacrifice, death and resurrection at Easter.
* And not even if we throw in the gift of the Holy Spirit indwelling within each of us that we remember during Pentecost.
It is those things, yes, but it is because God chose to enter the world as a fully human being — just like you and me — and, more, as a poor baby in a welfare home in the worst part of the city with no chance of any kind of positive future…
…That the gift of transformation —-each and every day — was born too.
And that gift — that gift of transformation — was given to each one of us.
Even though we can’t pay for it and did nothing to deserve it.
* It is the gift that can change our hearts.
* It is the gift that through changed hearts can change the world.
* It is the gift that through a changed world, we can bring heaven here to earth.
Not just 2000 years ago, but today, in this moment right here in this place.
And tomorrow, and the next day, and all the days of your life.
It is because of the birth of Christ that we don’t just have to wonder what a perfect world looks like; the gift is that we can EXPECT it.
So close your eyes, and dream of that world for a moment.
What does that world look like to you?
* Because the washing machine replacement and car repair? It’s done.
* Because of the flu, or the heart disease or the cancer? It’s gone.
* Because the fear of being without, being alone, or even being hurt? It just disappeared.
Because the abusive powers, injustices and inhumanity? The suffering, the starvation, the terror and the wars? It’s all ended.
“The wolf shall live with the lamb;
the leopard hall lie dow with the kid;
the calf and the lion and the falling together;
and a little child shall lead them.”
— Isaiah 11.6
What are we waiting for?
Isn’t this what we want for Christmas?
Or do we want to cover all that up in gift wrap and temporary things?
Because if it’s the latter, I can’t help you, but I will pray for you.
But if it’s the former? Know this:
It’s here. And it’s because of the Messiah, and ONLY because of the Messiah.
You might work for peace and justice in this world.
You might go without that new car or bigger home. .
You might even visit those suffering in the world and give your last penny to them.
But this ability within you to do all these things?
Make no mistake: Jesus’s birth makes all of that possible.
Because without God coming into the world as a baby, we don’t have God’s Holy Spirit to live within us and make this all possible.
So the question comes down to this: What are we waiting for?
We know Advent is about the coming.
In Mark’s Gospel, which we read today, we see John the Baptizer preparing the way.
We see throngs of people coming to receive this gift.
And we hear the words of the Great Prophet: Verse 7:
“The one who is more powerful than I is going after me … I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
What were they waiting for? And what are we waiting for?
If we don’t know, then how can we prepare?
Because what we prepare for is what we are expecting.
If we know we have four guests coming to dinner this evening, how do we prepare?
Like most people, we would buy extra food, be sure there are enough place settings at the table, and maybe even desert.
We might tidy up the place so that we make them feel welcome — after all, we’re expecting someone!
We wouldn’t prepare for this company by car-shopping that day, or starting a new craft.
We wouldn’t prepare for this dinner company by going to visit someone far away or by going shopping for the day.
That would be silly.
But isn’t this what we do at Christmastime?
Instead of preparing for the coming of the Messiah, we wrap up the holidays in glitz and gift wrap.
We have to know what we’re waiting for. What we’re expecting.
Then we can prepare for the right thing.
Here is the hard truth, though:
When we are transformed by the power of Jesus’s birth, we know we will have to go into the darkest places, the hardest places, and roll up our sleeves and maybe even break our backs because of that transformation.
And we know this — we see it in the others who do God’s work, and we say,
“Well, that’s great, but I could never visit those prisoners. I could never minister to those drug addicts. I could never hold the hand of a dying person. I can’t go to a land where terrorists kill indiscriminately…”
“I can’t talk to that neighbor.”
It’s easier, then, to go with the presents and tree option; the temporary things…
Friends, Advent breaks these fears.
Advent breaks these patterns.
Advent disrupts, yes. But the disruption changes us, brings the true power of the Holy Spirit to us, and we can then — and only then — watch the results of the transformation in awe and wonder!
* This is the baptism of the Holy Spirit that John is talking about.
* Those people sitting in the jail cells just a couple miles up the road? They need to hear and see the power of transformation.
* The children who are growing up in houses that don’t know Christ need to hear and see the power of transformation.
* The drug addicts breaking into our cars and houses for their next fix need to hear and see the power of transformation.
* The starving, the dislocated, the persecuted all need to hear and see the power of transformation.
* The lonely, sitting and waiting to die in nursing homes and hospitals need to hear and see the power of transformation.
They ALL need to hear and see the power of transformation that the coming — the ADVENT — brings.
One person witnesses to the Light, and other becomes the Light.
We are how many Lights here in this church today?
If each of us witnessed to the Light of Advent this Christmas season, we would double the amount of Light in the world.
The Light in you has nothing to do with who you are; it has everything to do with who the Messiah is.
Don’t be hard on yourselves, and don’t be afraid.
Because the Messiah will act in you.
* That is the true power of transformation.
* That is the true power of the coming.
* That is what we prepare for.
* That is what we become.
* That is what the Messiah is.
* That is what the name Immanuel means.
It means “God With Us!”
Listen, Jesus doesn’t give us this gift for our own happiness.
God came into the world as a human to transform the world.
You are that vessel.
You carry the power of the Advent within you.
You must choose to witness to it.
To believe it can be done.
To believe that God’s Spirit can and will accomplish anything we ask.
Especially if it brings Light to the world.
Because that’s the whole point.
Today, I want you all to consider — prayerfully — whether you are ready for that kind of change and transformation that Jesus demands of us.
Will you follow this Messiah?!
If so, prepare in the ways for what you’re truly expecting:
Nothing short of the boldness, the energy, the courage and the joy that Jesus promises and God fulfills in our lives.
So often this time of the year, we see banners, advertisements and Christmas cards that say one word:
Know who we’re believing in.
Know who we’re preparing for.
Know who we’re waiting for.
Because that is nothing short of the miracle of Christmas.
Permanent, ever-lasting, and always and everywhere.
That’s the permanent transformation.
That’s the power of Advent.
That is what is to come!