Just a few weeks ago I was driving to work. As usual, I was absorbed in my own thoughts about what the morning would entail, but as I peeked in my rear view mirror I saw these flashing lights on top of that car going round and round. As you can imagine, my heart started pounding, and though I hadn’t been speeding, my foot backed off the accelerator. My mind immediately began to race with the different possibilities of what I had done wrong. I started thinking of ways I could artfully let him know that I was a pastor on my way to some kind of emergency. It turns out I had rolled through a stop sign and the officer was kind enough to just give me a warning. I drove away with a sigh of relief, and was extra careful to make a full stop at every stop sign. Seeing those flashing lights always changes the way you drive. It’s a sobering experience. It snaps us back to attention and causes us to make the changes that need to be made.
This kind of experience describes how we ought to prepare for Christmas. Most of us get excited about Christmas; some of us dread it, but either way, there needs to be a sobering up. There needs to be a snapping to attention. There needs to be a willingness to straighten up and make whatever changes are needed in our lives. Most of us wait until January 1 for that kind of thing, but the time is now.
For centuries, the Christian church has called this season leading up to Christmas, Advent. Advent has always been viewed as both a time of anticipation and preparation for the coming of Christ. During Advent, we anticipate both the first and second comings of Christ. Certainly this brings hope and expectation because the coming of Christ means salvation for those who trust in Him. But the coming of Christ also requires preparation; it requires a kind of sobering up; it’s like looking in the rear view mirror and seeing the flashing lights. It ought to cause us to look at our lives and make the changes that need to be made in order to be ready. Imagine what you might do for the next three weeks if you knew Christ would actually come back on December 25. How would you prepare for that day? How would your shopping list change? Would you eat too much and run too fast or would you take the foot off the accelerator and sober up? Advent is a time to snap back to attention.
Of all the Gospel writers, Luke is tuned in the most to this idea of preparation. Luke believed that when God made a flesh and blood appearance in the world preparation was required. You can see it by the way he wrote his book. His book, like the other Gospels, is about Jesus Christ. But Luke takes longer than any other Gospel writer to get to the life of Christ. It takes him 80 verses just to get to Christ’s birth. And then it takes him 70 verses just to get to Christ’s ministry. Luke believes that anything worthwhile is worth preparing for.
How does he prepare us? He prepares us by giving us a snapshot of one very important person. John the Baptist’s singular mission was to prepare the way for Jesus. How did he do that? Luke says “he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” What is repentance? We think of this word exclusively in religious terms, but back then repentance wasn’t a religious word. It was part of a culture where people lived with no street signs or maps. It’s easy to get lost walking through the wilderness. You walk and walk and then you realize that the countryside is unfamiliar. You finally say to yourself, “I’m going in the wrong direction. I need to turn around.” That’s repentance. Not only do you see you’re going in the wrong direction, but you turn around.
A number of years ago I was working at a church in Pleasanton. I was going through a time of deep burnout. I was spiritually dry and not sure I could keep going. In the midst of that time we went down to San Diego to visit family. While we were there we attended church with them. When pastors go to other churches we like to check things out. We like to sit back and critique the music and grade the preaching. But on this particular Sunday I was caught completely off guard. The preacher started to preach and I started to melt. He was speaking about how we can give and give and yet neglect the necessity of allowing the Lord to fill our lives. He was speaking to me. At the end of his sermon he held up a half empty glass of water. He wanted to know if anyone there felt a need to just be filled up again with the Lord. He wanted us to come forward. I sat there and thought of a hundred reasons NOT to go forward. Among those reasons was the simple fact that I was a pastor. Pastors don’t go forward! We don’t walk the aisle! We know the Lord. We know His Word. We teach others this stuff; why should we go forward? I was fighting the Lord at that moment, and I lost. I finally got up and went forward. I cried and I got prayed for and the Lord restored me. It was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever done. That’s repentance!
John prepared the way for the coming of Christ by calling us to humble ourselves and repent. John’s message was like seeing the police car lights flashing as you’re driving along thinking that everything is going fine. His message ought to cause our hearts to pound and our feet to back off the accelerator. But John’s ultimate purpose was not to condemn us or judge us, but to prepare us for the one who could save us. But we can’t be saved unless we come to this place where we realize we have been going in the wrong direction and we need to be washed.
How do we get ready for Christmas? How do we prepare for the coming of God’s Son into the world? By recognizing that perhaps we’ve been going in the wrong direction. By humbling ourselves and admitting to God and to others that we need to be washed. By beginning to turn outward in a spirit of generosity. Don’t wait until January 1 to do this. New Year’s is not the time to change your direction. New Year’s is too late. The time to turn around is now. Advent is the time.