Dec. 13th, 2020 — Homily on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28 by Pastor Galen Zook
Christmas in the midst of a Pandemic
Somehow it seems that even though we’re living in the midst of a pandemic, there’s still a fair amount of hustle and bustle happening this Christmas season! The other day I walked down The Avenue here in Hampden, and it didn’t look all that different from previous Christmases. Just replace last year’s scarves with this year’s masks, and add in a proliferation of hand sanitizer, and in some ways it felt like a normal busy holiday season.
Of course we’re missing the Mayor’s Christmas Parade, which would normally have taken place last weekend. (Tom and Sharen, who have been coordinating the parade for almost 50 years, are getting a well-deserved break!)
But why is it that we put so much time and effort getting ready for Christmas? Why do we decorate, and buy presents, and send out Christmas cards?
In some ways, if we stepped back from it, it could seem almost silly, right? Aren’t there more urgent things to attend to? There’s so much pain and sickness in the world, so much suffering and injustice. Why spend our time and energy preparing for Christmas, hanging up lights and tinsel that we’re just going to have to take down in a few weeks anyway?
But of course, shopping for presents and giving gifts is a way that we show love to our friends and family members. By sending cards and decorating our houses with Christmas trees and lights, we’re brightening up the atmosphere, creating memories, and spreading Christmas cheer. Getting everything ready and decorating our houses for Christmas is one way that we show our friends and families that we love them.
Prepare the Way
John the Baptist was also concerned with getting ready and preparing for the coming of Christ. And he wanted everyone else to get ready as well. John said that he was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:23).
Now, John’s preparations for Christ’s coming looked a bit different than our preparations for Christmas today. Instead of ugly Christmas sweaters, we saw in our Gospel lesson last week that John wore camel’s hair and a leather belt. And instead of eggnog and Christmas cookies, he ate locusts and wild honey! And rather than shopping for presents and putting up lights, he was out in the wilderness, preaching and baptizing people.
We talked last week about how John’s role was sort of like the cleanup crew, getting the house ready for the arrival of a special guest. John urged people to repent and turn away from their sins — to clean up their lives so they could be prepared to hear and receive Christ’s message.
Deck the Halls
It’s tempting for us to think of John the Baptist as a prophet of doom and gloom. His message about repentance and turning away from our sins reminds us of preachers who walk around with signs declaring “The End of the World is Near.”
But John the Baptist was anything but a prophet of doom and gloom. Rather he was a prophet of joy — true and lasting joy — pointing the way to Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate source of our joy. Jesus is the one the prophet Isaiah was speaking about– the one who would “bring good news to the oppressed…bind up the brokenhearted…proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” The one who would give us a “garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (Isaiah 61:1-3).
This is who John was preparing the way for! So his message of repentance was not a prediction of doom and gloom, but instead — “get ready, because Joy is coming!!!”
When special guests are arriving, we set out the best place settings. We light candles, we turn on the music. We want to set a festive, celebratory atmosphere to highlight just how special the guest is. We want our guest to feel honored and loved. We want them to be the center of attention.
In the same way, John wanted everyone to know just how special Jesus was, and to prepare themselves accordingly. He wanted them to know just how great Jesus was, and how much cause there was to celebrate His arrival.
And so John wasn’t just the clean-up crew. He was also the decorator, hanging up the lights, putting up the decorations, preparing the way, and showcasing just how wonderful Jesus was and is!
When the Pharisees (the religious elite) sent people to him to ask him if he was the one they had been waiting for, he said, “oh no I’m not the Messiah. The one you are waiting for is so much more powerful than me! I baptize with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. The Messiah is so much greater than me that I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals!” (my paraphrase of John’s words in Mark 1 and John 1)
In other words, “roll out the red carpet. light the candles, turn on the music, set out the best place settings that you have. The honored guest is soon to arrive! And he’s even more special, and more amazing, and more wonderful than you could possibly imagine.”
Ultimately, this is why we decorate our houses and our church sanctuary for Christmas — to point to the beauty and grandeur of the Christ who came down to this earth, to live among us. To showcase just how special Jesus was and is. We hang up lights to remind ourselves of Jesus, who is the Light of the World. We buy gifts and give presents to one another to remind us of the One who was and is the greatest gift of all, who gave his life for us. Like John the Baptist, we want to remind ourselves and let everyone know just how special Jesus is.
Don’t Toss aside the Gift
Off course, as we know, in the midst of our shopping, and gift-giving, and decorating, it’s possible for us to neglect the very One who is supposed to be the honored guest! We become so focused on the outward trappings, the things that are supposed to point us towards Jesus, that we forget what the season is all about!
This would be sort of like opening a present, and being so enthralled by the wrapping paper that you toss the present aside! Or inviting someone over for a meal, but spending all of your time in the kitchen preparing the meal, that you never actually talk to your guest.
And so we need to be international about finding ways to keep the focus of our holiday celebrations on Jesus. We need to be intentional about carving out a few moments to just be still, and to meditate on the wonder of this season. International about reminding ourselves and others about the real meaning for this season.
Perhaps you or your family already have ways of doing this. Perhaps you have a special nativity scene or creche that occupies a special place in your home, to help remind you of the true meaning of Christmas. Perhaps you have a tradition of reading the Christmas story before opening up presents. Growing up, my family always attended the Christmas Eve service together and then came home and lit candles and turned on Christmas music, while opening our presents.
This year during Advent, I’ve been starting my day by listening to sacred Christmas music and spending a few minutes reading an Advent devotional before starting my day. Whatever that is for you, in the push and pull of the holiday season, we need to find those ways to stay focused and grounded on the true reason for our celebrations.
Now as we approach this Christmas season, I want to say a pastoral word to us. Because I think that after a year such as 2020, there are 3 traps that we can find ourselves falling into as Christmas approaches:
- We might be tempted to avoid Christmas all together. Maybe we feel like it’s just not appropriate to celebrate because of everything that is happening in the world, or maybe we’re so focused on the pain and suffering that it just doesn’t even occur to us to celebrate Christmas.
- On the other hand, some of us might be tempted to throw ourselves into genetically celebrating Christmas as a way to distract ourselves from the pain and suffering that we or others have experienced this year.
- And lastly, some of us might feel pressure to make this the best holiday season ever for ourselves or our loved ones — to try to make up for the incredibly difficult year that we’ve all had.
To those that don’t feel like celebrating, I would challenge us that celebration is not a denial of pain or suffering. Celebration is a discipline. It takes work to put on a party, for example. But we do it because the honored guest is worth it, because we want to celebrate just how special they are. Jesus is worth celebrating, whether we feel like it or not! And so I would challenge us to celebrate Christmas as a way to remind ourselves and others just how wonderful Jesus is.
To those who might be tempted to use Christmas as a distraction from the pain and suffering around us, let’s remember that Jesus actually came to bring healing to those who were broken, and freedom to those who were in bondage. He came to comfort those who mourn. And so as we celebrate Jesus’s birth, let’s remember the reason why he came. Rather than ignoring the pain and suffering around us, let’s find ways to acknowledge the reality of pain and suffering in our world, and let’s remind ourselves and others that true hope and joy is found in Christ.
And lastly, to those who might feel the pressure to make this the best holiday season ever, to make up for the difficult year that we’ve had, I would say, in the words of that wise song from the Disney Movie Frozen, “Let it go.” Let go of the pressure and anxiety that you might feel to make this the best Christmas ever. Let go of the feeling that you need to be the one to make everything better, that you need to be the one to save Christmas.
Ultimately, this year there were so many things outside of our control, and there are things that God is teaching each and everyone one of us. So if you didn’t get to decorate as much as you wanted to decorate, or if you didn’t order all of the presents you wanted to buy in time for them to arrive in time for Christmas, or if you didn’t get all the cards mailed out that you wanted to mail, or if you simply don’t have the time or money or energy to buy all the gifts you wanted to buy, it will be OK. Your friends and loved ones will survive without that gift or card or that holiday decoration being set out. Jesus is still King, He is still the Light of the World, He is still the reason for the Season. And our weaknesses and limitations can actually serve to highlight just how great Jesus.
So let’s make way for the honored guest — whether it’s hanging up the lights, or lighting a simple candle. Let’s showcase just how great Jesus is — whether it’s by decorating our houses, or preparing ours heart. Let’s share the hope and the joy that we have in Christ — the one who takes our despair and turns it into hope. The One who gives us a garland of joy instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning (Isaiah 61:3). Let’s celebrate the true light, the best gift, the honored guest, the ultimate source of our joy!