Just You Wait
December 1, 2000
Its December 1, and that means the Christmas season is upon us. In fact, its been upon us for some time. I heard yesterday that consumer spending the day after Thanksgiving is at last years level. Retail sales are expected to slow somewhat for toys, though, because theres no "gotta have" toy this year. Not only that, but Gateway announced that sales on Thanksgiving weekend were slow this year, and that little Christmas card melted down the stockmarket yesterday. I hope all this doesnt worry you too much as you study for finals.
My mother is in full "mom" mode already. She came over last weekend with a half gallon of eggnog. Is she trying to kill me? "Theres no way I could finish this," she said. "Youd better take it." It was unopened, of course. She even brought over a fresh nut of nutmeg and a special shredder I could use to scrape fresh nutmeg on the top. You gotta love my mom. Ill never stop being her baby.
When I came home recently, my kids were putting up our family Christmas tree. Its 24 inches tall, and would remind you of "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown." We bought it five years ago at an Eckerd drug store in North Carolina. My wife and I were in a tiny grad-school apartment, and there was no way we could get a real tree, let alone find the time to decorate it. It comes complete with ornaments, a star, tinsel, and a little string of lights. Not bad for $7.99!
Christmas is about extended family, old friends, fighting the shopping wars, and college football. The signs of the season are the pressure and the joy of finding, giving, or receiving that rare gift that really fits. Family eccentricities and family scars. Looming finals (you gotta take em, and we gotta grade em). Watching my kids eyes light up with surprise Christmas morning, then darken with greed only minutes later.
You know what I want this Christmas? Time. Time to get my research done, and read up for next semesters courses. Time to shop. Time to spend with the family Ive been putting off in the end-of-the-semester rush.
How can Christianity survive what we turn it into?
The answer is: Christianity can survive when God gives us the vision to read the real signs of the times. That vision comes in all kinds of ways. Today it comes through the Scripture readings and prayers of this mornings liturgy.
The liturgy says that time isnt what we need; we need Jesus to come. It refuses to cooperate with our culture and turn December into "Christmas season." Instead, it begins the season of Advent, which concentrates more on the second coming of Jesus than on the first. Christmastime doesnt end on Christmas morning when we click on football and throw away the wrapping paper; Christmastime begins on Christmas morning and lasts for twelve glorious days. But we gotta earn that celebration, by waiting patiently during a time that reminds us that were waiting for Jesus to come back. Look again at the readings that the Church puts in our faces right at the beginning of what America calls "Christmas season." According to the Church, we dont need breathing room to catch up on life as usual. Instead, we need the worldwide justice and lasting peace that will flow like living water when God comes with his holy ones. We dont need Martha Stewarts tips on decorating for winter. Instead, we need to learn that summer is near harvest season when the fruit we bear will be gathered up, and our chaff tossed into the fire. Rom. 13:12, which you will soon hear echoed in one of our prayers, tells us that "the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light." A fig tree prepares for the coming summer sun, stretching out in anticipation. Were not ready to feast with the cheap grace of premature Christmas parties. Instead, we first need to fast, to await the coming of our Master on a schedule that obviously isnt our own.
The liturgy which is the Churchs worship regime is a massive spiritual discipline that orders our days, our weeks, our years according to the purpose of the God and story of his Son, while we wait for the Sons return. Its agenda isnt my agenda, or Oswold Chambers, or your pastors, or the folks who published your study Bibles. We didnt choose these readings. Instead, Gods people chose them for us. They reflect the common agenda of the Church, an agenda developed and sharpened over many centuries of faithful, critical, practical reflection.
So when the networks are telling us that Santa Claus is coming to town, the Church is telling us that Messiah is coming to Zion. When the world is telling us to shop, the Church is telling us to love one another and all Gods people, so well be holy and blameless on Judgment Day. When were scrambling to get ready for December 25, the Church is telling us to be ready for Armageddon.
This worship regime doesnt just tell us to be ready; it shows us how to be ready, even makes us ready. It does this by kneading the rhythm of Christian faith into our lives. It takes us through the story of Jesus every year even through the unpleasant Bible passages that pastors and congregations might not want to hear, like Zech. 14 and Ps. 50. It takes us through the crucifixion and resurrection every week. (Thats why Christians fast of Fridays and feast on Sundays.) It guides us through our day, from morning prayers through noon, evening, and night-time worship, so that we might "pray earnestly" the way Paul does for his spiritual children in Thessalonica. This remarkable worship regime offers the resources that help us be faithful to todays Scriptures. It will help see Christian communities through American cultures subtle, deadly persecution.
Advent is the season that proclaims Jesus future coming, so we can remember Jesus past coming in the right way. It teaches us not to plead for more hours in a day, but to plead for a day with no night. That day is almost here. We can see it in the fig leaves. We can hear it in Jesus voice, and in Pauls, and now in our own. Lets pray for God to gather us together this season not just as family and friends around trees and tables and TVs, but as a people of God heads lifted up to receive our coming king, hearts holy and blameless, bodies swimming in the living water of his salvation. Now that should be a merry Christmas!