One by one, people are removing the pumpkins from their porches and taking down the fall decorations from their shelves, tables and front yards. Thanksgiving is gone and once again we are making the transition toward Christmas. Christmas lights, snowmen, angels, wreaths and Christmas trees are appearing. Folks are shopping, baking cookies, attending Christmas events, addressing Christmas cards and making plans for Christmas.
As a society we are preparing the way. In less than three weeks Christmas will be here. Few are ready and many will not be totally prepared until the last minute. Historically the season of Advent was a time of meditation, worship and penitence. It was a time to withdraw from worldly activities and be a time of quiet reflection. But for us the season of Advent has become busy, overwhelming and frantic. Although we are preparing for the arrival of the “Prince of Peace,” the days of Advent are anything but peaceful.
In her book, Stepping onto the Invisible Bridge, author Julie Olmsted said that Advent is to be a time of anticipation. She states: “Regardless of your income, your circumstance or your past, you can stop, breathe, look around, and sense that good things will come to a heart empty of resentments and fear and a mind full of peace.”
In the gospel of Luke, Zechariah was preparing the way for the coming of Christ. His message, known as the Benedictus, in Latin, prepared Israel and the early church with a message of promise in the saving work of Jesus. He had been blessed by the miracle birth of a son, John, who was born to his wife, Elizabeth. John would prepare the way for the arrival of Jesus.
Zechariah, who had been silenced due to his unbelief, was healed of his affliction and praised God for the Christ Child who would soon be among them. However, his preparations for the coming Lord were quite different than ours in the days prior to Christmas.
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For me, three things stand out in Zechariah’s message as he prepared the way for Jesus’ coming. First: that a savior was coming who would “give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” During the season of Advent emotions run high. It is easy to lose patience and forget who we are as people of the Christian faith. And yet it is a time when we come together as families, co-workers, friends and a church. Advent lends the opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation.
One of the classic movies that is aired during Advent is “Home Alone.” I specifically recall the scene where Kevin is sitting in church with Old Man Marley, his neighbor. He had not visited with his family in years and Kevin suggested he go to them which would create an opportunity for him to make peace and reconcile. Marley took Kevin’s advice and by forgiving his family and himself he was able to reunite with his family.
Forgiveness helps us reconnect with people we care about and opens the door to restoration and peace.
Secondly, Zechariah said that Jesus was coming “to give light to those who sit in the darkness and in the shadow of death.” Jesus was “the light to the nations” who calls us to “let our lights shine.” Advent is the season where we give to those who have need, sharing ourselves with others around us who are less fortunate than ourselves.
In the book, My Favorite Christmas, by Amy Hammond Hagberg (Integrity House, 2006), Jimmy Carter tells a story about one of his favorite Christmases. In 1991 he and his family helped to build a home for Curtiss Jackson, a man who worked for Rosalyn’s grandfather. Jackson had eight brothers and six sisters. After retiring he got a job at a saw mill to provide for his sick wife, Martha. They were living on fifteen dollars a month. Then Curtiss had an accident with a chain saw and severed his right leg above the knee. When he could finally walk again he got a job at a nursing home doing yard work. Jimmy Carter’s mother had been a nurse at the home and Carter and Jackson became friends. When Jackson’s mother became ill, Jimmy Carter visited the shack where they lived. It had no heat except for a small wood stove and you could see through the walls in several places. The roof leaked and on a clear night you could see stars through the ceiling.
Jimmy and Rosalyn rallied some friends from their church and made plans to build the Jackson’s a home. They linked up with Habitat for Humanity and went to work. The people responded enthusiastically and their goal was to complete the house by Christmas Eve. They spent the last two nights laying carpet, tiling floors, planting shrubbery and installing appliances. The Carter children and grandchildren came to the site and helped. They completed a multitude of tasks and on Christmas Eve, they picked up the Jacksons so they could sleep in their new home. The Carter family was so engrossed in the mission they forgot all about their own family Christmas. But, it was one Christmas they would never forget.
When we find a way to helps others we remove the shadow of death and darkness and the light of God can shine.
And lastly, Zechariah’s final words in his message were these: The Lord is coming “to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
One time I was driving through the town square of a small town in Ohio. There were a few folks holding up signs that read, “Peace on Earth” and “Make peace, not war.” I respect them for their commitment and they reminded me of the importance to work for peace. Nevertheless, the real way toward peace is to make some steps. We can bring peace to a situation when we step back from conflict. We can make peace when we take a step toward justice. We can also make peace when we join together and be God’s children of light and forgiveness.
In our town no one is protesting, at least at the moment. But if you drive through the city square you will see a nativity on the South side. It is there to remind us that we continue to be blessed by the peace of God.
The Advent season doesn’t have to overwhelm us. As Zechariah intended, it can be a time of promise and hope. May each of you prepare the way; for God has blessed us just as he blessed Zechariah. May you receive the gift of salvation, may you walk in the light of Jesus Christ and may you experience God’s peace.