Preached by Michael Cheuk,  December 6, 2015
Taken from Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 3:1-6

So it’s December! And we’re checking things off our to-do lists…. Perhaps we are going shopping or we are writing year-end checks to charities, and contributing to good causes like our global mission offering. Perhaps you’ve filled out a Christmas dinner in a bag to bring to church for families in our community in need. Perhaps the UVA students among us are already studying for finals . . . well, maybe not yet! Maybe you’ve received your first Christmas cards at home or in our Christmas missions mailbox here at church. Or perhaps you’ve started writing cards yourself.  (If so, good for you.  You’re ahead of Beth and me.)  From cards to cookies, from putting up the tree to wrapping the presents that go under it, we’re busy with holiday preparations.  After all, this is Advent, the season of preparing for Christ’s arrival.

Some of you will be hosting Christmas gatherings at your own home, and the preparations will step up to an even greater degree.  So let’s imagine a holiday gathering.  The decorations look perfect. There’s a wreath on the door and a Christmas village on the bookshelves. The cookies have been baked, and there’s a special plate set aside for Santa. The house looks amazing because you’ve vacuumed the carpets and dusted the shelves and scrubbed the counters.  The Christmas lights add a festive flair outside, and inside, there’s a toasty fire in the fireplace, just where the stockings hang on the mantel.  The ham and rolls and potatoes and pies are done, just waiting for the last of your relatives to arrive so you can all sit and relax and enjoy the rewards of your hard work and preparations.

The doorbell rings and in comes your daughter.  How wonderful!  Next comes your brother and his wife – lovely.  Now there’s just one more place at the table to fill – and in comes John the Baptist.  What’s he doing here? Well, he always shows up during Advent. But like that one crazy, opinionated uncle – are you sure you want him here?  After all, everyone else around the table has tacitly agreed to stick to safe topics, delicately skipping past politics and skirting around sticky family situations.  But here comes Uncle John, just laying it out there and getting straight to the heart of the matter.  Frankly, he makes everyone uncomfortable, but after all, he’s family. Somehow or other, John’s a part of this season.

And what’s John saying today? The same as always: he’s telling everyone to repent and to prepare a way for Jesus.  This year, it sounds like he’s even channeling a bit of the prophet Malachi, who foretold that a messenger would come to prepare a way for God.  And what words of Malachi does he latch onto?  He says, “I see you’ve built a toasty fire in the fireplace.  Very nice. Very nice.  But what you really need to be concentrating on is the refining fire of God’s judgment!”  (Now THAT makes for some nice holiday conversation, doesn’t it?)  So your cousin steps in to change the subject, maybe talking about the weather.  But John’s not buying it.  He says, “The weather!  I’m talking about the truth! But nobody likes the truth. You can’t handle the truth!”  And then he gets started back up again, dipping back into the words of Malachi.  He says, “This table looks lovely, with the china and the crystal.  I see you even got out the nice linens – they’re all starched and cleaned, not a stain remaining. Must have taken you a while in the laundry, getting that ready. But what you really need to take the laundry soap to . . . is your own soul!”

And your cousin jumps in again, “Anybody seen a good movie lately?”

Yes, yes… in the glow and joy and peace of Christmas, we do not really want to hear John speaking hard or challenging words into our lives.  And yet John the Baptist is part of this season. Sometimes he’s even called the patron saint of Advent.  So let us give John his due.  Let us take some time this month as we make our preparations.  Let us not only deck the halls, but let us peer inside our hearts.  Let us ask not only, “What do the kids want for Christmas from us?” but also “What does God want for Christmas from us?”  If John asks us to make straight crooked paths, let us consider the crooked places in our community, places that we have the power to make a little straighter.  If John asks us to fill in the valleys, let us take a minute to ponder the low places in our souls or the low places in a friend’s soul.  Let us join together to ask God’s help in filling in those low places.  If John asks us to make rough places smooth, let’s give some time to considering and repenting of our own rough edges.  Maybe, as crazy as John looks and sounds, his questions point to the most important preparations of Advent – and maybe these Advent preparations can make all of our other Christmas preparations that much more rewarding.

There was once a military family that moved a lot – actually there have been millions of families that have moved a lot, from houses on the base to Quonset huts to temporary apartments.  One of the many things that military families learn is how to prepare – how to pack up a home, how to say their good-byes, how to move into a new community and set down roots.  For this one military family, one move came at Christmastime in 1952, from Montgomery, Alabama, to Northern Virginia. It had been a challenging six months for this family even before another move was announced. In fact, this was their third major move in 1952 alone! And on top of that, who wants to move during the holidays?  Still, their daughter knew the drill, and she, too, dutifully did the hard work of preparing.  She, too, packed her belongings and made her good-byes.  That year, she also did the emotional work of setting aside the Christmas memories and traditions that would not be possible in the new, empty home in Virginia. She reminded herself that though their decorations were packed away on a truck with their furniture, her family would still find some sort of joy and meaning, just by being together.

The family drove up to their new home on the 23rd of December, and they slept that first night on the floor, exhausted.  The daughter reminded herself to be thankful for a new home and a roof over her head, Christmas or no.  So imagine her surprise when she woke up and found a Christmas tree with presents in the otherwise empty home.  You see, her mother had been doing some preparations of her own. She had carefully hidden the Christmas boxes in the trunk of the car so that she could sneak them out to prepare for the holiday. Who knows how she was able to find the tree that night, but there is no limit to what a resourceful woman can accomplish! That Christmas, celebrating Christmas amidst the chaos of a move, was one that Martha Wood has never forgotten.

I love that story because Christmas does unfold in the midst of chaos.  We live in chaotic times, and this story is a good reminder that God chose to enter our broken, unsettled world in human form.  But I also love that story because it shows that every Advent, there are two sorts of preparations going on.  We, like Martha Wood, are preparing for a world of managed expectations.  But even while we do our preparations, God, like Martha’s mother, is also at work, preparing to enter into our lives in ways that are unexpected and bigger than we could imagine.

This Advent, let us make room for John the Baptist and his challenging questions.  Let us do the hard work of preparing.  Let us look at the low valleys and the crooked roads and the rough places in our lives.  But even as we do our work, let us also prepare to be surprised by the God who broke into our world and continues to break in, in ways as quiet as Christmas Eve or as noisy as Christmas morning.