TEXT: Luke 3:1-14

At one time or another, we all know what it feels like not to be prepared for something. And it's not a good feeling. In fact, social scientists tell us that one of the most common nightmares is the one where you dream about a big event that you're not prepared for. You dream you are getting married and never get the license. You're taking that big final exam and forget to study. Once after I had produced a big play I dreamed that we were asked to do it all again the next week but we had already dismantled all the props and gotten rid of the costumes.

One of my favorite stories is the preacher who got into the pulpit week after week relying on the Holy Spirit to tell him everything he was to say. Sunday after Sunday he would pray, "Lord, give me your message for this morning. What do you have to say to your servant?" Finally one Sunday he got up and said again, "Lord, give me your message for this morning. What do you have to say to your servant?" and the Lord finally answered him, "You're not prepared!"

I don't think there's a time of the year when we are more focused on preparations than the Christmas season. We groan under the weight of baking, shopping, writing cards, wrapping, decorating, and all the things that go along with the season. And in the midst of all of that hustle and bustle, there is this strange and annoying man in the Gospel...John the Baptist...telling us that there is yet one more preparation to be made. We need to prepare the way of the Lord.

Every year at about this time there is an undercurrent of longing in the church that maybe this year, like the Grinch, the true meaning of Christmas will come through to our hearts and we will feel the true joy of the season instead of the crunch of the credit card bill. We seem to hope that every year, and yet the thing that we constantly prepare for often have little to do with making our hearts ready to receive the Prince of Peace. The adage is true that you get what you expect. And what we expect is evident in what we plan for. We plan for great food, and we get it. We plan for presents under the tree. We plan to have people in our homes that will enjoy our decorations and our food.

Now there's nothing wrong with preparing for all of that, if you want to. What I'm saying is...don't spend every waking minute preparing for the secular side of the Christmas holiday and think that it will ensure a peak spiritual experience on Christmas. Thinking cozy thoughts about fresh baked cookies and hot wassail around the brightly lit tree with carols playing the background does not get the tree up or the cookies baked. In the same way, thinking kindly thoughts about babies in mangers or imagining the Hallelujah Chorus on a starlit hillside is not adequate spiritual preparation for Christmas. Not even if you go do it outside next to a sheep. Not even if it is Christmas Eve.

How do we prepare for the coming of Jesus? Well, where better to look than to John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus. An angel at his birth prophesied that he would be the one to prepare the way for the Messiah, and that he did. And it was no picnic. John grew up in the the desert. There has even been some speculation that he was raised by the community at Qumran that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls. He lived a spartan lifestyle, dressed in skins, eating locust and wild honey, railing against the abuses of the religious elders, and demanding the repentance of the people. It wasn't long before he was imprisoned and then beheaded. Even Jesus lived longer than John, and Jesus died at 33.

Now as a brief educational moment, John was called "the Baptist" because he baptized people as they repented of their sins, not because he belonged to a Baptist church. There was no such thing as the Baptist church in John's day...didn't come until some 1600 years later. He is also sometimes called John the Baptizer, because that is the part of his ministry that is most evident in the Bible. He called people to repent, which means to turn go another change the way they were living and to give evidence of that change by being baptized.

And we find in John's message that this is the key to preparing for the work of Jesus. Repent. Stop living the way the world typically lives and go a better way. "What does that look like?" the people ask John, and his answers sound very much like Jesus' own teaching. Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who doesn't have a shirt at all. The one who has food should give some of it to the person who has none. To tax collectors he says, be fair. Don't take more than you should from people. Be content with your wages and don't be greedy. Don't make false accusations...which, if you remember, is one of the Ten Commandments. Don't bear false witness against your neighbor.

Repentance is not about what we think or's about what we do with our lives. It means turning around...stopping from heading one way, turning around, and heading off in another direction. It was the job of John the Baptizer to wake people say, "You are going the wrong way! The way looks good, but there is death at the end of that road! Turn back! Don't go that way!" His job was to get people thinking and to help them decide to turn around. Then Jesus could take over to show people what the new road entails.

That is still what it takes to prepare for the coming of Jesus. If you truly want to have Jesus come into your heart; if you want to have a Christmas that means something beyond exhaustion, it will mean traveling a different road, making some changes. It might mean a complete change of road...a first time repentance that is saying "Yes" to the ways of God for the first time ever. But you might have already made that decision. For some it may mean moving from an aimless stroll down God's road to a more intentional walk. It might mean adding some discipline to your life, adding some Sabbath rest to your life, breathing the fresh air of prayer or feeding on the Word of Scripture more regularly.

Yes, it will mean giving some things up. In this busiest of seasons, we might all do well to let the Grinch come through and pack up all our trimmings and trappings...the food for the feast, the packages, boxes, and bags...and leave us with nothing to do but to take the hand of someone near us and sing of the real reason we have the holiday. If you want the Spirit of Jesus in your Christmas, you will have to prepare for it, just as for anything else, and you might have to put aside some of the other preparations to make room. If you don't make room, Jesus will come anyway...he'll take a stable if that's all there is. But you'll be so busy and comfortable that you might not even see that the stars are brighter and that something remarkable is happening right under your nose. If you want Jesus to be born in your heart this Christmas, listen to John. Repent...turn it differently. Don't keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. Change.

We need to do that repenting and turning around before Jesus arrives, because Jesus needs Disciples. When Jesus shows up, he hits the ground running and has things for us to do. Once you sign up to play soccer, you have made certain decisions about how you will spend your time and commitments. The coach does not have time to convince people to play soccer. The coach has to get about the business of teaching and making a real soccer player out of you. There is someone before the coach doing recruiting...convincing people that they should give up some things they are currently doing for the joys of playing soccer. John the Baptizer is the recruiter. Jesus is the coach.

In our world today, it is the job of the institutional church to listen to Jesus closely enough to serve as the make Disciples of Jesus Christ. It is the role of individual Christians to be the prepare the way for others to turn their lives live out the life of Discipleship in the world so that people will look at us and say, "I want what she has...I want what he's got." Just as Michael Jordan makes kids want to play basketball or Tiger Woods makes people want to golf, so we are called to live our Christian lives so that others will want to make the changes and commitments necessary to sign up for this Discipleship thing.

That is why we don't end every worship service with an altar call as some churches do. We gather together here to offer worship and praise to God and to work on being better disciples. The altar call for repentance is the recruiter's's the job of Christians as individuals to go out and prepare the way for Jesus. It's the job of the Church as an institution to make sure that our worship is true and that everyone with a heart so inclined can meet Jesus here.

It is time for those who name themselves as Christians to go as Jesus has sent us. It is time to prepare the way. Where people have a rough time accepting Jesus because of the hypocrisy in the church, we should make that rough way smooth by living as we say we believe. Where there are mountains of difficulty that people cannot surmount...poverty, illness, oppression, prejudice...we are to lay those mountains low as we give and share what we have. Where there are valleys of depression and loneliness and fear with people stuck at the bottom, we are to lift them up with our love. Prepare the way. Whatever it takes to call people to show people by the way we live our lives that life is better with the Prince of Peace than without Him.

Christmas time is a time when we all need the message of John the Baptist. Repent...change your ways...don't succumb to the it differently this time. For my part, my repentance is taking the form of not having an open house this Christmas. I'm going to do it in February instead...maybe in honor of Groundhog Day. I invite you to take the meditation time after the sermon and think about what specific thing you could do to signal your repentance this year? What can you do to make room for the coming of Jesus in your heart? What can you do to smooth out the rough places for someone else? What will you give up so that Jesus can have a room at the inn? How will you adjust your life so that it becomes an appealing advertisement for life with God? Repent. Prepare the way. Jesus is coming soon.


(c) 2000, Anne Robertson

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