Christmas is Closer Than You
by Gary Roth
based on Matthew 24:36-44
Well, the turkey is done - except for leftovers; it's time to prepare for Christmas!
Already people are hitting the malls for the "pre-Christmas sales," the stores
are playing Christmas music, and are getting their trees and lights put up!
There is something about this time of year - although Christmas is still a month away -
still, the lights, the music and all the rest - puts you in a different frame of mind.
There's something about Christmas that changes our whole disposition. I was listening to
NPR a couple of days ago - they were talking to people who had come in for Christmas
shopping. New Yorkers are generally notorious for being a cynical bunch, but on the first
shopping day of Christmas, all they could find was holiday cheer. People were even
greeting strangers with, "Merry Christmas!"
After the leaves have fallen and the world has become more desolate and cold; after
life has taken on a dreary cast and we, too, feel somewhat dreary after struggling through
another year - suddenly there is this season that is full of promise for a new beginning,
new life. A promise that life can be different, that there are new possibilities for
living. Not like the renewal of spring, when that which is dead springs back to life, but
a whole new world that seems to come into being - an almost magical world, full of flying
reindeer, elves, snowmen and Santa Claus. It's reflected in the carols, in the poems and
traditions and stories that surround the season - even in the way that the Christmas story
I think that's what makes the season so exciting to us: we're thinking about the magic
of glittering snow - although we're also it won't happen here - covering the drab deadness
of the world. It's symbolic of a greater need that we have - a need for a new world,
something to cover over and change the drab and not so pleasant realities of this life. We
look back to the magic time of childhood, when everything seemed possible, when a new
wagon could excite us so much, because it wasn't just a wagon, but also a race car, a fire
truck, a space ship exploring new galaxies!
And we see the babe of Bethlehem in that same light too - as the One who is the symbol
of hope and new life for us.
Isn't that the stuff of which Christmas is made? And advent is a sign-post, pointing
the way to Christmas, and to hope, and to a new kingdom - a new world - a peaceable
kingdom. It's a time of preparation and anticipation. Shopping, candy ribbons and Advent
calendars, the services and the lighting of the Advent wreath - all help us to prepare,
all point us the way toward Christmas.
We're like parents who are expecting a new baby - we keep a light touch on this
season's belly, feeling every movement of the promise which is about to be born. All the
preparations are just ways of keeping our hands on it, so that we can feel the infant when
it kicks and squirms, getting ready to be born among us.
Yet Jesus give us a word of warning in the Gospel today, about the need to be FULLY
prepared. Because, you see, there is a point in the pregnancy that any mom can tell you
about, when you begin to feel like it's never going to end - the birth is never going to
happen - the baby is just going to stay right where it is. At about eight-and-a-half
months into the pregnancy, you begin to wonder if you're going to still be carrying this
baby twenty years from now. That the promise will never come to life.
We can get that way about Christmas too - about Jesus' arrival. We begin to wonder if
it's really only a fairy tale. Like it's never going to happen. And, after all, isn't that
how the story is often told? As if it belonged to the realm of fantasy? A sweet and
beautiful tale that seems to begin with, "Once upon a time
?" As time
drags on and the troubles of the world multiply, our anticipation, our sense of
expectancy, begin to wane. The world goes on as it always has, and we lose our hope,
settling for fairy tales.
Jesus warns us: "Watch! Be ready! Christmas is closer than you realize! You'd
better have your bags packed and gas in the car, and the map to the hospital at your
'cause it's just about time!" And he isn't talking about having the
cookies made and presents bought - he's talking about having the door to our heart opoen
and prepared to receive him.
Again, it's somewhat like what happens when a new baby is born. One thing I became very
aware of during the delivery of our first-born was that, although I was present for the
whole thing, it would have been easy for me to miss the magic of it all. The incidentals -
the preparation, getting her to the hospital, timing contractions, getting ice chips,
making sure everything was going just right - can be so overwhelming - that the moment of
birth can almost slip by unnoticed - as if it is just another detail in a long list of
things-to-be-done. In fact, the import of what happened didn't really strike me until
afterward, when Eleanore was in the recovery room and I was standing outside of the
nursery, watching the nurse bathe, weigh and dress him. And the doctor, who'd already
delivered a few other babies that day, came and stood beside me, and looked at my son, and
said, "Was it a girl or a boy?" That's when it struck me - when it was all but
over. What a miraculous even we'd been a part of! And he - and almost me also - didn't
really understand what had happened!
This season, God promises to come to us, to be Emmanuel, "God with us." If we
will let him. If we don't let the incidentals of the season crowd him out. If we don't let
shopping, and decorating, and baking, and all the hassles and everything else become the
focus of our season. If our focus isn't so much on the celebration that we lose sight of
the promise and its birth.
Jesus is coming soon. The signs of his coming are already all around us. Not in the
tinsel and glitter and merymaking. Not in the lovely carols or beautifully-decorated
houses. In fact, the signs of his coming aren't in any of our earthly preparations. But
they are things in which we didn't expect tofind him at all - in those very things at
which the world looks as evidence that he isn't coming at all!
Just like the days of Noah, he says. When things are "business as usual,"
it's time for him to come. When we see people who are poor, hungry, or oppressed, then we
know that his kingdom is near. When we see disruption, discord, hatred, and strife - then
we know that Christmas is right around the corner. When people are hurting, lonely,
desperate, when life is out of control - then we can be sure that he is near. When and
where it is that it seems that his promise is being totally denied - then, he says, look
up, because you can be sure that it is certainly time for Christmas to appear. It's time
for his kingdom to come, and his will to be done! It's time for the promise to be given
Because it is at times like these that he is most needed. It is in places and times
like that where his peace, his healing touch is longed for. It's then that hearts are open
to receive him. These things are the signs of Christmas in possibility! He is ready to be
born into these kinds of situations - just as when he came to a mean little town called
Bethlehem two thousand years ago at a time when the world seemed so dark and hopeless.
Paul once said, "When we were enemies of God
," when we had our backs
to him, when we were fighting to get away, when we were at our furthest from him, when we
were lost and alone and desolate and desperate and didn't know where to turn - "when
we were enemies of God, he sent His son to die for us." Every moment of life - even
when we feel farthest from him - is a moment filled with possibility, because it is a
moment in which he may come to us, if we are open to receiving him.
That's why Jesus warns us this morning. The kingdom is waiting to break into you life
and into this world. So be prepared. Be ready. Not just when the carols are playing, and
you feel Christmasy. But also - especially - when the world seems dark and you feel far
from your Father's house.
Jesus is coming soon. He will come, the scriptures say, on clouds of angels, to take us
to his kingdom. But he is also present now, and his kingdom is near. He wants to be born
into this tired old world through the entry-way of your heart. The signs of Christmas are
all around us. Be waiting, be watchful, be ready for his coming. May your heart be open
and prepared to receive him this season of his Advent!