Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
50 years ago when I was a Boy Scout, I learned the Scout motto, “Be Prepared.” In school, I embraced the importance of preparation. “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.” And as a young pastor, I learned that powerful preaching demands plenty of preparation. Frankly, I thought I was a pretty good preacher, but one Sunday, as the congregation filed out of the church no one said a word except for “Good morning.” Towards the end of the line there was a thoughtful woman who always commented on my preaching. I knew I could count on her for a good word. She stopped and said, “Pastor, today your sermon reminded me of the peace and love of God.” Needless to say, I was thrilled – especially after all the silence. I responded, “No-one has ever said that. Tell me why.” She looked around and whispered, “Well – it reminded me of the Peace of God because it passed all understanding and the Love of God because it endured forever.”
Granted, I have fallen down a few times in my pastoral preparation. Yes, there was the time in Latvia when I waited to the last minute to buy the communion wine. I bought the only bottle of wine I could find only to discover that it was champagne. And there was the time in Lithuania, when I hadn’t quite mastered the language for the baptismal service. The adoring parents smiled politely as I baptized their child “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Toast.” But my friends, proper preparation is not simply rote memory. Proper preparation may also mean a change in practice and attitude.
Today, we begin the new church year on this First Sunday of Advent. It is a time of preparation to celebrate Christ’s coming. For most of us, our preparations for this season are limited to buying presents, planning menus, and writing Christmas cards. And of course, maintaining a proper physical strength to endure the hectic Christmas eating and entertaining. And so we should. It is the most wonderful time of the year that has the potential to bring out the best in our human character- a sense of charity, a nobleness in giving, a dimension of wonder and reverence for the Word of God entering our human story. And yet it is that preparation for the Word of God entering into our lives in Jesus Christ that seems to get lost in this season, and receives the least amount of energy and attention.
Apparently this resistance to change and preparation is not new, and is as old as scripture itself. The choir anthem today by Telemann, as well as our opening hymn, “Lift Up, You Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” are songs of preparation. They are both based on an Old Testament psalm attributed to King David, Psalm 24. According to the Talmud, as King Solomon was preparing the newly built temple in Jerusalem to be the resting place for Ark of the Covenant, he pleaded with the gates to open up. It should have been a triumphant moment. The heart and soul of Jewish worship would be centered in Jerusalem. The final step was simply to bring the Ark which the Jewish people had carried in the wilderness containing the relics of Moses, the Ten Commandments, his staff, a storage pot of manna, and the Scrolls of the Torah, into newly built Holy of Holies. But the Temple gates refused. “Lift up, your heads, ye gates, that the King all glory may enter.” So why did the Temple gates refuse to obey King Solomon? It’s an interesting question.
In the Jewish rabbinical tradition, it is said, that the people were not spiritually ready for the completion of the Temple and its positive influence on the entire world. They were not prepared to have God’s word and wisdom rule in the hearts. Intellectually they recognized the correct path, but their hearts and desires were not prepared to be guided by God’s will. Rabbi Rav Kook taught that the refusal of the Temple gates to accept the Ark is a metaphor for this lack of readiness and preparation. Some of us, like the people of old, still prefer doing things the same year after year. Change, however, may need be a part of your preparation.
I remember a wise, old pastor once saying to me when I was complaining about a stubborn, inflexible parishioners in one congregation, “Well, Arden, if nothing changes, nothing changes!” And he stared at me. Of course, he was telling me that I needed change if I wanted things to be different. My friends, the change you need this Advent, the change in direction and hope, may need to begin with you. After all, you are the only person that you can change. So when is it time? Simply said, “When your needs and desires are no longer being met.”
Unfortunately, we can be like the resistant gates of the Jerusalem, refusing to let the King of all glory enter. Often, the issue is pride. It’s a favorite prayer of mine that speaks to our stubbornness and change, “Dear Lord, When I am wrong make me willing to change, and when I am right make me easy to live with.” It is said that when you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. But pride and the fear of change often prevents us from taking that step. In life, as in business, we find other strategies. We try buying a stronger whip. Changing riders. Saying things like “This is the way we always have ridden this horse.” Appointing a committee to study the horse, or harnessing several dead horses together for increased speed. We simply can’t face the need for change- especially when it is in our own lives. We don’t want to open the mighty gates to let the King enter. We prefer to do everything on our own.
My friends, it’s never too late to change. I wish that we could all enjoy simple and innocent memories this year. But I know for many of you, the month of December will not always be a joyous time. Secretly, you will be walking in the shadows. A family is fractured, a marriage is on the rocks, the doctor’s diagnosis is not overly optimistic, your employment future is unclear. You continue to mourn the loss of a loved. Yes, for you the future looks bleak. And so you wonder, where will you find your joy in this Advent? Be prepared. “Lift up, your heads, ye gates, that the King of all glory may enter.”
The Good News that we celebrate at this time of year is the story of men and women who having lived broken, shattered and misdirected lives, open their own resistant gates to meet Jesus. Then having met him, they depart from him so changed that they can hardly recognize themselves. Be prepared. Proper preparation prevents poor performance. God already knows what you may become. And he is offering you the power in Jesus even now, so that you may enjoy life to its fullest. It is risky business, but it is always rewarding.
As I was paging through my books of Christmas poetry, I came across a little book called Kneeling at Bethlehem by American poet Ann Weems. I would like to share with you a few lines from her poem, “This year will be different.”
“Who among us does not have dreams that this year will be different? Who among us does not intend to go peacefully, leisurely, carefully toward Bethlehem?
This year we intend to follow the Star instead of the crowd. But, of course, we always do intend the best. (And sometimes, best intentions tend to get the best of us!)
This year, when we find ourselves off the path again (and we invariably will!), Let’s not add yet another stress to our Advent days, that of “trying to do Christmas correctly”!
Instead, let’s approach the birth of our Lord with joyful abandon! Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.