Isaiah 61.1-8, 8-end; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28
It’s almost here. Christmas is just a week away. And as we all know Christmas is a time of parties and celebration, of eating and drinking, and generally having a good time. It’s a time that everyone enjoys, isn’t it? Go on – admit it – you can’t wait. The excitement is unbearable.
Well. if everyone started their Christmas preparations by reading the very helpful advice on the website of First Aid for Life entitled Common Christmas Accidents I suspect that most of us would simply give up on Christmas altogether.
Christmas is recognised as being one of the most stressful times of the year. Applications for divorce will rise by 40 per cent in the new year. And First Aid for Life report that 80,000 people will visit Casualty departments at Christmas, 6,000 of them on Christmas Day. One of the most common accidents is parents stabbing themselves with scissors while trying to open or assemble their children’s toys.
The kitchen is inevitably one of the most dangerous places at Christmas with accidents caused by hot fat, boiling water and sharp knives. And as for the Christmas tree – every year 1,000 people are injured by their tree, usually while fixing lights and stars to the upper branches – more seriously and sometimes fatal, watering the tree with the tree lights switch on. The list of potential accidents the website warns about goes on. Let’s be honest – Christmas in the home is an accident hotspot.
The First Aid for Life website includes the following useful advice: Christmas is one of the most stressful times of the year. The combination of drink, relatives, lack of sleep and the stress of Christmas shopping can be too much for some people – try and have somewhere where people can take some time out and have a bit of peace.
And it helpfully concludes: It is strongly advised that parents attend a practical First Aid course to understand what to do in a medical emergency. Parents, you have been warned!
So much for people having a “Happy Christmas”. Be prepared is the message!
Today is about preparation. Today’s gospel is about preparation. John comes to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah. And the response of the Jewish leaders is a typical one. Their deeply suspicious. So they send people to ask him. Who are you? What do you say about yourself? And John goes on to explain that the Messiah is coming!
Today is also a turning point in the Advent season. Today is the day when we turn from thoughts of the second coming in judgement of the Messiah, and start to prepare for the celebration of the first coming of the Messiah as a child in Bethlehem.
And it has a special name. Today, the 17th of December, is traditionally called “O Sapientia” – Latin for “O Wisdom”, the first of the seven special antiphons or refrains used with the Magnificat, the song of Mary, at evening prayer in the run up to Christmas – and it’s traditional on the 3rd Sunday of Advent to sing that wonderful setting of them, “O come, O come, Emmanuel”, as we have done this morning.
Now I don’t know about “O Sapientia” meaning “Wisdom” – I’ve always felt that “O Sapientia” was that point in Advent when my ability to enjoy this special time of year begins to sap. Is all the preparation really worth it? The list of things to do in order to be ready for Christmas just seems to keep getting longer and longer.
It can seem so difficult to enjoy Christmas and to joyfully prepare ourselves during these weeks of Advent preparation. And when today’s readings come along with their message of rejoicing and celebration it is, perhaps, a little difficult to take their message to heart.
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God” says the prophet in our reading from Isaiah. “Rejoice always … give thanks without ceasing” Saint Paul writes. Even in our gospel reading the people, having listened to John the Baptist’s stern message are filled with expectation – they are beginning to think that the Messiah might have come at last. John is preparing people for the coming of their Saviour. The message of today’s Scriptures is clear – our Saviour is coming – rejoice, celebrate, get ready. And so, in contrast to the stress that the commercial and worldly side of Christmas produces, Christians celebrate as we prepare to welcome our Saviour.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” John proclaimed to all who would listen. And listen they did. The flocked to hear this most unlikely person who went out into the wilderness to do his preaching. And he challenged them to turn from their sinful ways and prepare the way for the coming Messiah. No wonder the religious leaders challenged him!
We too are called to respond to the message of John. We too are called to prepare the way of the Lord. We too are called to get ready for the coming Messiah. And today we are called to take up John’s challenge – and to discover and share that joy that Isaiah and Paul and John the Baptist call us to. Not the kind of joy that comes from having a good time – lots of people will have that kind of joy. We are talking about the God-given joy that you know deep down in your heart – the joy that comes from knowing that God has fulfilled his promise to come and be with us. The joy that comes from knowing that a baby was born in Bethlehem who would die and rise again for us.
As we draw nearer to our great celebration of the incarnation of the Son of God, as we complete this time of Advent preparation, let us hold the words of St Paul in our hearts and pray that this time may be a time of joy, not a time of stress: “Rejoice …pray without ceasing … give thanks in all circumstances”. And as John was a sign to his hearers that the Saviour was near, so may we be a sign to those around us that we are preparing to celebrate the coming of God-with-us, indeed he is here with us already.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” urged John. Let us prepare the way of the Lord but not just for ourselves. Let us prepare a way for all, that all may find the way to their Saviour.
No doubt many people have been dropping subtle – or not so subtle – hints about what presents they want at Christmas. We need to keep at the heart of our Christmas preparations the reality that the baby born in Bethlehem, God’s Son, God-with-us, is the greatest Christmas present that any of us will ever receive.
I said earlier that today is called O Sapientia or O Wisdom, the day when we start to prepare for the celebration of the coming of the Messiah, born for us in Bethlehem. Perhaps the day’s name O Wisdom can serve as a reminder that those who are wise prepare – not for the coming of the presents, but for the coming of the Prince of Peace.