Advent has really become the time of getting ready for Christmas in the sense of buying the gifts we want to give, going to office parties, etc, but this is quite different from the original message. Advent used to be a much more penitential season, like Lent, preparing us spiritually for the extraordinary event of Christmas. This is why we wear purple, the colour of repentance. Although I love to see all the houses around me beautifully decorated and lit up, it makes me sad to see how few of them have any reference to the birth of Christ. Without the birth of Christ and the death and resurrection, we could not go to heaven when we die. No wonder it is such an extraordinary event. But now, so many people remove any reference to Christ, in case someone is offended. We must stand up for our faith and never apologize for it. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘Whoever confesses me before others, I will confess before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father’ (Matt 10:32-33). We proudly display our flag, but what could be more important than saying we belong to God.
John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus and his message was very strong. ‘Repent, confess your sins, change your lives and turn back to God.’ This is the part of preparing for Christmas that is easy to overlook. We want the celebration of Christmas, but we don’t necessarily want to have to repent. Just leave us alone and let us celebrate. We want absolution, but without having to confess. We want the love and blessing of God without having to follow the commandments. We want faith on our terms. That is called ‘cheap grace’. It is empty and it is not the message of God.
The message of God is a wonderful one, but is also a very demanding one. We can not come and pick what we like. Instead we come and ask what is required of us? That is what the people who came to John asked: ‘What must we do?’ To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower. We are not used to thinking this way, because our world encourages us to make sure things are as we would like them to be. If you’re not happy, move on; but this is not the message of the Gospels. In the Gospel we listen to what it is that God asks of us. We follow God on God’s terms and not our terms.
Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest man ever born of woman. What an extraordinary thing to say. He was totally focused on God. He knew what was important and he passed on the message he was told to pass on and it cost him his life. He spoke out publicly against the King Herod, saying that the way he was living with his brother’s wife was immoral. ‘What you are doing is wrong!’ Out of anger Herod had him arrested, taking away his public ministry and then out of hatred, his wife found a way to kill him. People don’t like it when you point out that they are not living as God tells us to. John was beheaded by Herod for speaking the truth. We don’t always want to hear the truth, because it often tells us that we need to change.
When John saw the religious leaders of the time, this is what he said:
‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown on the fire.' (Luke 3:7)
f we are serious about celebrating Christmas as a Christian feast, then let us not forget the message of John the Baptist. ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ The term ‘repent’ can also mean ‘change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.’ That is a particularly powerful message at this time in history. So many people are looking for happiness in the world and are disappointed because they cannot find happiness there. The Lord is telling us to turn to him for happiness. It is only in God that we will find true happiness. The world will disappoint us; God will not. People will let us down, but God will not.
The sin of Adam and Eve was a very similar sin to what we see going on today. It involved three things: (1) rejecting the idea that they had to serve God or listen to his commands; (2) that they could have everything they wanted on their terms, (3) that they were like God themselves. That is very similar to what we see going on in our world right now and it is a real temptation. Why should we have to obey commandments? We don’t like being told we have to obey anyone and yet the word obey literally means ‘to listen intently’ (from the Latin, ‘ob audire’). And if you think about it, it says that Jesus was obedient to the Father. Jesus was equal to the Father, but Jesus was also obedient to him. We are being called to listen intently to what God tells us, to acknowledge that we are God’s creation and that we must obey—listen intently—what He tells us, if we are to find the path to happiness.
The most important preparation we can make for Christmas is the interior preparation, the change of heart, the confession of sins. And yes, most of us don’t like to have to confess our sins, we think we shouldn’t have to, but this is what God asks us to do and if God asks us to do it, it is for our benefit. Do you want to experience God’s blessing in your life, God’s healing? Then confess your sins. This is what God asks us to do.
The celebration of Christmas is meaningless if we skip the kind of preparation that God asks us to make and sadly for many people it has become meaningless. It doesn’t have to be meaningless, because it is the celebration of something very wonderful, the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus.
I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door to me, I will come in and sit down to eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20)
Those words are from the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible and this message is repeated all through the Bible in different ways. The Lord wants to be at the centre of what we do, but we are the only ones who can allow that to happen.
‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand.’