What happens in your household to get ready for Christmas? (get input)
Shopping done, gifts made, wrapped, mailed
Parties, caroling, ho ho ho
Give to all sorts of charity efforts for the holidays
Decorate the house, yard
Write cards to everyone you know
Travel for family gatherings
Bake cookies, pumpkin bread, make your own gingerbread house/village
Take the kids downtown to see Santa, ride the carousel, see the teddy bears at the Four Seasons Olympic
Go to a Christmas concert or ten—or perform in them: SMC, Handel’s Messiah, Seattle Pro Musica, Northwest Chamber Chorus, kids’ holiday concerts
It’s exhausting, plus you gain five pounds and none of your clothes fit. The pressure is intense to be extra kind, extra jolly, extra generous, extra perfect, extra joyful. So anyone who is grieving or depressed or anxious has that extra pressure to stuff all those emotions and put on the happy face. Fake it.
That’s not what I hear this passage in Mark talking about. Being frantically busy. Faking it. The gospel writer is talking about being ready not for Christmas but for Christ. Being ready not for the baby in the manger—which this Gospel of Mark never mentions—but for the Messiah, the God-with-us Emanuel, the Divine taking human form to work for justice and peace in the world.
What would it look like to prepare for that Christ? How do we do it? And why do we need that Christ?
Jesus is coming—look busy. The teacher steps out of the room, all mayhem breaks loose until the one kid on lookout says, “Quick! Here she comes!” and suddenly all the students are angelically studious. Who, us? Why, we’ve been reading, just as you told us to.
There’s a sense of Christ’s coming involving a day of reckoning. Because, let’s face it, the Messiah is going to know if you’re lying.
So how do we prepare authentically, in the core of our being, for the coming of Christ? That’s the key phrase: in the core of our being. That’s where you prepare.
Why do we need Christ? Why do we need Emanuel, God-with-us?
I hardly need to tell you that we live in challenging times. Our conference minister, Mike Denton, wrote this in the latest conference newsletter:
Much of what I’ve written or preached has had a message something like this: “Things are going to get worse before they get better.” I’ve been thinking about this message a lot recently and I’m not sure I believe it any more. What I’m starting to believe is something that makes me considerably more uncomfortable to say out loud but here it is: “Things are going to get worse. No shinier, more optimistic other side. Things are going to get worse.”
And then he lists some of the challenges that we face.
And we could certainly add to that list.
His point in this article is that the Church, at its very best, is needed now more than ever. Just at the time when fewer people than ever are attending regular services at any organized form of religion, we need that spiritual grounding, that God-with-us, that Messiah, and we need it desperately.
We [the Church] confuse mission with maintenance in a time when we sometimes seem to have forgotten what we have to offer. Our buildings, governance structures, our worship or our membership mean little if we aren’t thinking about how these things save lives and help make life worth living.
He says, “I have placed the false idol of the institutional church in the place where Christ should reside while forgetting who serves whom.”
That’s why we need Christ. That’s what God-with-us is all about: saving lives, transformation, remembering why we’re here in the first place.
Here’s how Mike says we must be Church more than ever before:
If we thought preparing for Christmas was intense, try preparing for Christ!
People are hungry for what the Church has to offer at its best. We are hungry for those things, too—that’s what draws us here. Centering our lives in God, prioritizing love, working for a sustainable future, connecting to community. This is what we have to offer. This is our vision of the world.
So at this time of year as we look forward to celebrating the coming of Christ Emanuel into the world, one way we can prepare is by practicing the spiritual discipline of hope. Hope is not out there someplace—“I hope Congress will pass a fair tax plan.” If that’s where we put our hope, it is bound to be dashed, and there is nothing we can do about it. If hope is to be sustainable, it has to come from in here.
One way to practice hope is to find times for silence, prayer, and meditation. We keep alert and awake to God by checking in on a regular basis, and not just with our wish list but also taking time to listen for the divine presence in and around us. In our busybusy culture, such a practice is countercultural. It grounds us in all that is holy.
Another way to practice hope is to practice gratitude and love. Stop and think about what you are grateful for. A body that gets out of bed every day. Family and friends. Work worth doing. Housing. Food. In five minutes the list can become pretty long. When we stop focusing just on what is wrong and remember to spend time on what is right, the day can brighten considerably. So we practice gratitude.
Hope accepts reality, even if we don’t like it, and says, “Okay, what can I do to make it better?” And then works toward that end. Small steps, large steps—hope shows up to do the work. Hope lets go of specific deadlines and outcomes. We do the work because it is the right work to do, not because it will succeed or fail. This is the model of Jesus: doing the right thing regardless of the cost.
In the passage from Mark today, it sounds more like Revelations, the Son of Humanity coming in clouds with great power and glory and gathering the elect. This is called Mark’s “little apocalypse.” It’s about the return of Christ, not as a baby, but as one who will bring justice. And we are to keep awake, keep alert, be ready.
But this Christ comes in all of us, now,
if we dare to say yes,
if we dare to be the church we are called to be,
if we dare to live in hope in the midst of challenging times,
if we dare to open ourselves to God-with-us—in each of us, in this congregation, in the community, in the world.
Advent marks the start of a new year on the church calendar. Let us prepare for the coming of Christ boldly, lovingly, hopefully. Keep awake. God-with-us is coming. Christ is alive, and we get to share that good news with all the world. Amen.