“Once upon a time,” novelist and sociologist Father Andrew Greeley writes, “it was announced that the Pope was coming to town...[in fact, coming] to a certain parish in the town. This [surprised] everyone, not least of all...the pastor and the bishop...[!]
"[C]learly the parish had to be spiffed up for his holiness...” There would have to be repairs to the building and the sanctuary. New computers would have to be installed in the classrooms. The parking lot needed resurfacing. The public address system needed to be replaced. There would have to be “new china and silverware for the papal lunch.” (I guess you can't have papal plates for a papal visit.)
The people of the parish decided that they would have to prepare and repair “all the things that most [churches] need but don't quite get around to as quickly as they might.” The preparations were thorough, expensive, and exhausting. Writes Greeley, “Everyone was a nervous wreck for a week [before] the pope's visit and virtually no one except the babies and the dogs slept the night before. Then the Pope came and everything went perfectly and the [Pope] praised the parish and its people for all their wonderful work.”
After the Pope left, and the last TV news truck had departed, and the final bit of cleaning up had been completed, a seventh grade girl said to the rest of the clean-up crew as they headed for their homes, "Let's do it again. It was fun!" Father Greeley writes, ”No one agreed with her. But she was right.”
We all know what it’s like to prepare for special occasions. We’ve all prepared for something: a wedding, a college entrance exam, a solo in church, a major presentation, a big game. But here’s what I’ve learned about most special occasions: The real learning, the growth, the sense of fulfillment, the challenge, and the heart-pounding, soul-uplifting success special occasions bring seldom result from the occasions themselves. All of those things--learning, growth, fulfillment, challenge, success--happen in our preparation for things.
When you’re prepared, special occasions themselves seem as natural as the sun coming up in the East.
A number of us have participated as members of a giving team or a receiving team or both for one of our Renewal Weekends. Having been on both kinds of teams several times, I can tell you that as wonderful as it is to be a receiver of such a weekend, with its opportunity to grow close to God in a relaxing atmosphere, the people who grow the most and enjoy it the most are the members of the giving teams. They’re the ones who have spent nine to twelve months growing in their reliance on Jesus Christ and learning to love their fellow team members, warts and imperfections and all. And once the weekend comes, their minds and hearts are so prepared, they can truly savor the blessings God brings.
Like that seventh grade girl, I’ve heard more than a few giving team members say, in spite of the hard work, "Let's do it again. It was fun!" (But not right away!)
Our Bible lesson for this second weekend in Advent comes to us from one of the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel. Here, the ministry of Jesus’ relative, John the Baptizer, is described. Luke does this with words from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, words that portray John as a highway builder who prepares the way for Jesus Christ to enter the world.
Like the builders who blasted and dug and filled their ways through the hills and valleys of northern Kentucky to give us the I-275 loop around Cincinnati, John laid the boastful sinner low and raised up the humbly repentant, that person willing to turn away from sin and turn toward God, so that everyone would recognize their Messiah Savior when He showed up.
John told the people that if they would truly turn to God, they would be prepared for the Savior. They would see their salvation because the Messiah could only be seen by those who saw their sin and knew their need of a Savior. No one else would be prepared, John warned.
That's still true for us today. We too, need to turn from our failures to love God and love neighbor--from our sin. We need to renounce sin and turn to God in order to be prepared to have Jesus at the center of our lives. We don’t need to be perfect, thank God. We do need to keep our attention focused on the God Who comes to us in Jesus Christ.
“Max Lucado tells the story of a man who had been a closet slob most of his life. He just couldn't comprehend the logic of neatness...Why [for example] put the lid on the toothpaste tube if you're going to take it off again in the morning? The man admitted to being compulsive about being messy. Then he got married. His wife was patient. She said she didn't mind his habits... if he didn't mind sleeping on the couch. Since he did mind, he began to change. He said he enrolled in a 12-step program for slobs. A physical therapist helped him rediscover the muscles used for hanging up shirts and placing toilet paper on the holder. His nose was reintroduced to the smell of Pine Sol. By the time his in-laws arrived for a visit, he was a new man.
“But then came the moment of truth. His wife went out of town for a week. At first he reverted to the old man. He figured he could be a slob for six days and clean on the seventh. But something strange happened. He could no longer relax with dirty dishes in the sink or towels flung around the bathroom or clothes on the floor or sheets piled up like a mountain on the bed. What happened? Simple. He had been exposed to a higher standard of living.”You can bet that man was prepared for the return of his wife. But not because he dreaded being nagged. It was because he had changed the way he thought and lived.
Advent is a season of preparation. We prepare to celebrate Christmas, the festival of Jesus’ birth, to be sure. Christmas songs and lights, decorations and cookies, special movies and gatherings with friends, Advent wreaths, Christmas caroling, and Christmas Parades all help us with that.
But in Advent, we're reminded to prepare to meet Jesus today, everyday, and at the end of days.
And the ones who are truly prepared to meet Jesus each day are the people who bulldoze away the obstructions in their relationship with Christ, things like sin and selfishness and rudderless living.
They’re the people whose lives and ways are cleaned up by exposure to a higher standard of living, the highest standard of living, life in the gracious Kingdom of Jesus, where forgiveness and salvation aren't earned, they're only received by those who trust in Christ.
They know the wisdom of the Phillips Brooks’ words we sing each year at this time: “No ear may hear His coming; But in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive Him, still, The dear Christ enters in!”
The people prepared to welcome Jesus are those who attune themselves to Him through all the days of their living. They learn that being focused on the grand goal of welcoming Jesus when He comes to us is the only way to turn our profusion of mundane days into one wonderful life.
“What,” a boy asked his grandfather, “was the very best day of your life?” (It's funny how often young people will talk to the elderly as though their lives have already ended.)
With a twinkle in his eye, the grandfather answered: “This is the very best day of my life. Every day is the best day of my life because when I wake up each morning, the first thing I do is ask Jesus to take away my love of sinning and to replace it with a love of Him and His will and a love for others. And when I invite Jesus into my life like that, I know that He’s with me all day long.”
That man lived a life style that, as you well know from hearing me preach often enough, Martin Luther called, “daily repentance and renewal.”
John the Baptizer would call it a life prepared for the coming of the Savior.
Jesus calls that life “blessed.”
Are you prepared for Christmas? Prepared to have Jesus with you 24/7? Prepared to meet Him at the end of your days or the end of this world? You can be.
This Advent season, we need to remember that whatever the occasion--special or otherwise, the only person who is truly prepared for life is the person who daily renounces sin and daily welcomes the forgiveness God grants to all who surrender to Jesus Christ, the God, King, and Savior not just of the world, but of you and me.
I pray that by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we all will be prepared for Christmas, for the ends of our lives, for the return of Jesus to this world, and for meeting and walking with Him each morning when we wake up and every night before we fall asleep!
[Max Lucado's story of the reformed slob comes from Homileticsonline.com, which is a subscription service.]