Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen
The preparations have begun in our house and throughout the communities in which we live.
You walk into the stores and Christmas is all around. No surprise as the decorating and selling begins as soon as Halloween is over. Black Friday has become the most significant day of the year for retail sales. Billions of dollars are spent.
In our own home we have a tradition regarding our Christmas preparations and our observation of Advent.
Beginning with the first Sunday in Advent, Karla takes a portion of our Christmas decorations out each week. She often begins with Christmas quilts for our beds. The nativity scene, a beautiful carved one that I bought for her when we were in Russia, takes its place on the mantle.
Christmas quilts and pillow cases adorn our beds. And yes, Karla has made so many quilts over the years that we have seasonal ones that she switches out through the course of the year.
Usually, about a week before Christmas, the tree goes up. It was a tradition in her family to wait until her sister Alicia’s birthday to decorate the Christmas tree. It’s kind of funny now because we observe that tradition, but Alicia’s tree is already up and decorated. Our tree then remains up through the Christmas season and comes down following Epiphany, on January 6th.
Finally, the Christmas baking begins.
Sandbakkels, Pfefferneise, Krumkakka, Homemade Oreos, peanut brittle, Chex mix, fudge, spritz, and a variety of other treats fill the house and our stomachs. Actually there are so many cookies and treats that they cover a counter in our laundry room throughout the season.
But the most important thing is the making of the lefse.
Our recipe comes from Grace Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Rice the boiled potatoes and add enough butter and cream so that you can taste each (it’s a lot of butter and cream), then they are chilled over night. In the morning they are rolled out with flour and fried on the lefse grills. After they come off the grill they are placed on a towel in a “clean” garbage bag to keep them moist and tender.
And then, they are buttered and rolled up with brown sugar for a delectable treat. When the lefse is done, we are ready for Christmas.
Over the years we have tended to make a lot of the present that we have given at Christmas, though we still purchased plenty.
A few years ago our kids let us know they thought it was time to celebrate a grown up Christmas, meaning that it was no longer necessary to fill the area under the tree with gifts.
One of the programs we’ve begun using on occasion is the ELCA’s Good Gifts program, where essential items are purchased for people living in third world countries, from water purification kits to pigs, and ducks, and cows.
All the while these preparations are underway in our culture, you will also hear admonitions.
“Keep the Christ in Christmas.”
And “It’s a ‘Christmas’ tree, not a holiday tree.”
And “We say ‘Merry Christmas’, not ‘Happy Holidays”.
I have to admit that I get amused at all of this.
First of all, because our Christmas celebration originated with the desire to transform the various cultural traditions and celebrations that took place around the Winter Solstice. Basically, primitive peoples around the world tended to celebrate the Winter and Summer Solstice, and the Spring and Fall equinox. Christmas and Easter have their roots in these celebrations. Christmas was chosen as the date to celebrate Christ’s birth, because it was already a holiday in many cultures. It didn’t originate as a “Christian” holiday until quite late. By the way, Epiphany, the 6th of January was the original celebration of Christ’s birth. Christmas came later in our history.
And related to that, people in Northern Europe celebrated the Winter Solstice by decorating with evergreen branches and trees long before Christianity became part of their culture. Basically, the evergreen was a sign and symbol of life in the midst of the dead of winter. Christians ‘appropriated’ this cultural practice, even though there is nothing Biblical about it.
Well, enough of that.
One of the questions I’d like for you to consider this day is how the Bible tells us to prepare for Christ’s coming.
There’s a liturgical tradition that irritates many people.
We observe the Advent season, and put off the celebration of Christmas till Christmas.
And as we read the lessons assigned for this season, it is John the Baptist that takes center stage.
Zechariah prophesied concerning his son, John:
“And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
John, in preparation for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. . .”
The bottom line is that if we were to take the Bible as our guide in our Christmas decorations, repentance would be front and center.
John did not call for decking the halls with boughs of holly, and trimming the Christmas tree.
He bid the people to repent.
Unless we recognize our need for a savior, celebrating the birth of the Savior makes no sense.
That’s what is lost in all of our culture’s preparation for Christmas.
We trim the trees.
We deck the halls.
We sing the carols.
And bake the cookies.
Many of us still send out Christmas Cards.
And we look forward to connecting with family and friends.
But rarely do we focus on our own need for forgiveness.
And the Church is part of this as well.
Last week I shared with you that even in the Church, the penitential nature of the Advent Season has been changed. Now the focus of the season is on hopeful anticipation.
But if you don’t recognize the need for a Savior, why the hope and anticipation?
For me, this never was clearer than six years ago.
It was on October 14th that I hit my ‘rock bottom’.
On the 15th I entered chemical dependency treatment at Kootenai Medical Center where I remained for the next four weeks.
And then, in the middle of December, I returned to the pulpit and faced my congregation.
The lessons for the day were about John the Baptist.
And I was keenly aware of my own brokenness and sinfulness.
And then, that Christmas Eve, I shared with my congregation that though I had preached about the birth of the Savior for over 25 years, that year was the first year I recognized deep down my desperate need for a Savior.
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace."
As Advent progresses, I’ve chosen some Christmas carols to sing, which we will begin next week.
We’ve decorated the Church.
Yet for all the joy that comes with this season, and our commitment to keep ‘Christ’ in Christmas—we also need to remember to keep John in our preparations, for it is he who prepares the way for the Lord.
And it’s not just our sins that we are concerned about.
It’s also the state of the world in which we live.
The signs of the times are not good.
And we truly do not know what to expect in the coming months and years.
Last week I mentioned the fears that abound regarding global warming.
There are also rumblings in Washington about the state of our democracy. The Mueller investigation is nearing its conclusion. Will the outcome of that be to exonerate those involved? Or will it be a day of reckoning, not only for the President and his administration but for our country as well. Only history will tell.
Fires destroy communities such as Paradise, CA.
Mass shootings too frequently make the news.
Drugs remain a huge problem in our culture, in spite of our waging a War against drugs for decades now.
The Israelites wandered out to the Jordan seeking John and heeding his call to repentance.
For them the most critical issue of the day was the rule of the Roman Empire in their land.
They longed for a Savior. And they heard John’s call to repentance.
One of the reasons we can repent, is that we do in fact have hope that Jesus will save us.
It would be difficult at best to name our sins and the issues in our world that threaten us, if we had no hope.
But we do hope. We have heard the promise.
We can repent because we already know the outcome and that forgiveness waits for us.
I had an idea as I wrote this sermon. It probably won’t ever happen even in my own home.
What if we prepared for Christmas by hanging symbols of our sinfulness and the sinfulness of the world on the Christmas tree? That would give us a visual reminder of why we need a Savior.
One of my favorite things to do is to turn down the lights, and bask in the glow of the Christmas tree.
As we have the opportunity to do that this year, in our homes, and certainly at Church on Christmas Eve, we should do so remembering that Jesus is not just the reason for the season, Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness of our troubled lives and world. And most importantly, that he came to save us from our sins.
It’s this Jesus we await.
And for him we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly King of Kings. Amen.”