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Christmas is Closer Than You Realize

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 is told.

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 bedside … '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 birth!

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!