One of the great joys of being a parent is the enjoyment of Christmas with your children as they grow up.
Every family has their own traditions of course. For us it was decorating the house and the tree on Christmas Eve, because in the Church Christmas doesn’t begin until the eve of Christmas Day. Then I’d be off to Midnight Mass. Christmas Day morning would come, and I’d be back in church for the early said mass. Then, as we would be off to church for the Christmas Day mass, the children would open one present before church. And then afterwards it was back to the vicarage to open the rest of the presents while the grown-ups indulged in a festive glass of sherry or gin and tonic.
It’s such a joyful time – but happy as it is I wonder how many parents over the years, as they watch their children eagerly tear off the wrapping paper, have got that sinking feeling as they suddenly think: We forgot to buy the batteries! There may be trouble ahead!
Or worse still – something needs putting together. And you know what it’s like – it must be done that day. No chance of satisfying the children with “Daddy will put it together on Boxing Day” (It was always me in our house!). And can you find the one tool you need to do the assembling? The cross-headed screwdriver? Of course you can’t!
As a parent, you very quickly learn that with Christmas coming, you need to be prepared. Make sure you’ve got all the batteries and tools you could possibly need – because on Christmas Day when we’ve been singing about peace on earth, we all want to have peace during the present unwrapping!
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. They are 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!
It may well feel difficult at the moment to think ahead to the joy of Christmas, and to joyfully prepare ourselves during these weeks of Advent preparation. Advent is, for Christians, a time of reflection as we seek to prepare ourselves for the coming of our Saviour. It starts off on Advent Sunday with us looking ahead to the return of Jesus in judgement. Traditionally the church’s worship during Advent focuses on the issues of death, judgement, hell and heaven.
But today is also a turning point in the Advent season. Today is the day when we turn from thoughts of the future return, in judgement, of our Saviour, and start to prepare for the celebration of his first coming as a child in Bethlehem.
And to mark the occasion we would, in different times, have started our service by singing all seven verses of that wonderful hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel”, as we processed around the church. Next year …!
But this year is, as we all know, so much more difficult as we all try to think through how on earth we will manage to cope with the five days of relaxed rules around Christmas Day.
And then today’s first reading from Saint Paul, writing after the resurrection, comes along with its message of rejoicing and celebration: Rejoice always … give thanks in all circumstances he says. And perhaps it feels a little difficult to take his message to heart.
Now, John the Baptist has never come across as one of the more joyful characters in the Christmas story. But despite his rather sombre appearance and severe message, the people are starting to feel a sense of expectation and excitement – can the Messiah really be coming at last?
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” John has been proclaiming to all who would listen. And listen they did. They 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! They didn’t much like being called out for their sin.
And, as the other John who wrote the gospel from which today’s reading comes tells us, John the Baptist is God’s messenger who has come to testify to the light so that all might believe through him. The religious leaders weren’t joyful at all on hearing John’s message – particularly the bit where he says: Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.
But the people were joyful – the light was coming, their Messiah, their Saviour, and so they prepared themselves. Because they knew that although he hadn’t yet revealed himself, he was already among them. John had said so!
Well, 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 Saviour. And to welcome him among us.
And we have the advantage, because we know who he is. He is among us, as he was among them, and we know he is Jesus, and we know his message.
And so we are called to take up John’s challenge – and to discover and share that joy that Paul talks about in our first reading and that John the Baptist call us to. Not the kind of joy that comes from having a good time – 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. The joy that comes from knowing that the light has come.
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 Paul in our hearts and pray that this time may be a time of joy, not a time of stress: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
And as John was a sign to his hearers that the Saviour was near, that the light was coming into the world, 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 among us already.