I gave this talk at the Women's holiday tea at my church Tuesday evening. It's long, but I wanted to share it anyway.
Happy new year! It sounds like I’m jumping the gun – but the church year begins with the season of Advent, so this is the start of the new year. But it’s easy to overlook Advent in all the excitement of Christmas coming. With Christmas carols, Christmas trees, Christmas lights, Christmas parties and shopping for Christmas presents, how can Advent compare? It’s ironic because we do all of these things to prepare for Christmas, but the point of Advent too is to prepare for Christmas – for Christ’s coming. Instead of immediately jumping to Christmas, let’s do as the church year and the gospels begin, with the call to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” All four gospels, before showing Jesus in his ministry, show John the Baptist in his ministry. Luke even tells us about the birth of John the Baptist before Jesus’ birth. From these things, I take it that observing Advent prepares us for the true meaning of Christmas – celebrating the coming of our Savior.
If we want to use Advent as a time to prepare for Jesus’ coming the way the Bible shows us, we will have to turn our attention away, at least for a time, from the Christmas-y things that surround us during this season and listen to John the Baptist. You won’t see him on billboards or commercials, like Santa Claus or snowmen, but his message is the one we need to hear. He says: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Repent: turn – change your ways. This is a hard message any time of year, but crucial for preparing for Jesus’ coming.
Lately a couple of images are helping me repent, helping me take the time and effort I need to take (in prayer, self-examination and Bible reading) to be aware of what I need to repent of, to prepare for Jesus’ coming to me. Think of how Jesus came to us in his birth – in the womb of a virgin, and in a stable crib. To me, both of these images show that Jesus needs room, or space, for him. Jesus could have come to be born to a princess, someone important, wealthy, dignified. Instead, he chose a woman who had never known a man – whose womb literally was empty, someone who had room for him to come. This picture of Mary speaks to me not, primarily, about our marital status – but our openness, our willingness to give Jesus space in our lives.
Similarly, Jesus could have been born anywhere – in Herod’s palace, if he wanted palatial surroundings. Instead, he picked a manger in a stable – because it was the one place in Bethlehem where there was room for him. From these two images, I see that Jesus isn’t looking for the finest home to take up residence – he wants our availability, openness, room for him to be there.
I have been cleaning out clutter lately because I’m trying to make room in our home for our daughter, who will be born in March. Our current level of clutter, the way the closets are packed full, is fine for the three of us – but we need to make room for a fourth member of the family. So we need to get rid of lots of stuff, to have room for our daughter to live with us.
I want Jesus to be able to live in my “house,” that is, my life, too – not just the living room where guests come, but all of me, to live fully and forever. But the spiritual clutter in my heart makes it hard for me to make room for Jesus. He is not interested in my trying to make my spiritual home “better,” as if he needed a fancy home – again, he came from his heavenly throne to a manger! Palace or manger, it’s all humble from his perspective. But he can only come to those who actually are humble, who know their need:
14 And it shall be said,
“Build up, build up, prepare the way,
remove every obstruction from my people's way.”
15 For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.
16 For I will not contend forever,
nor will I always be angry;
for the spirit would grow faint before me,
and the breath of life that I made.
The person who is “of a contrite and lowly spirit,” who is humble, has room in their heart for Jesus to dwell. It can be hard to believe that the God who lives in “the high and holy place” also dwells “with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit.” We think that we need to be holy, too, at least, holier than we are. For some reason it’s easy for us to start by the Spirit – to rely on Jesus for our righteousness for salvation – but then try to perfect ourselves by the flesh, as Paul scolded the Galatians for doing. It’s hard to continue to live by grace – we think we should get beyond our neediness, our messiness. But when we try to live in our own strength, to make our “spiritual homes” look good with cut flowers and shoving things in closets instead of tackling the spiritual or emotional clutter, then we end up closing off parts of our lives to the presence of Jesus and the healing power we need.
There are a lot of ways we can neglect the spiritual clutter of our lives. Busyness, food, relationships, focusing on what other people are or aren’t doing, being critical – these are just a few things that take up spiritual energy we could better use to look within, to see what thoughts, attitudes, behaviors are unholy and impeding the presence of Jesus in our lives. Let me suggest that this Advent, we repent by changing our ways – stopping the activities that fill up our minds and time and distract us from what is going on in our hearts – and this will prepare the way of the Lord to come to us in a deeper way.
For me, anger is an area of clutter taking up too much space in my heart, keeping Jesus out of my relationships when my triggers are set off. If I easily get angry at my husband, son, myself, and others, then I’m not showing them Jesus and His grace – it’s that simple. In the past I’ve learned that if I’m easily angered, what helps me most isn’t just to keep repenting for getting angry – I need to also look at what’s behind the anger, and that usually is either a fear or a sorrow that I’m not grieving.
I mention anger specifically because I’ve heard from several other women at church lately that they are struggling with anger these days. It’s no surprise – in addition to our usual trials, disappointments and sorrows, we are in the middle of a church situation that practically demands grieving. But grieving is painful, so it’s easier to just get angry, get critical, or eat or whatever our particular escapes may be.
The fact is, though, that it is sad to see our church family getting divided, for people we love to not be here worshipping with us on Sundays or with us this evening. A book I’m reading by a church pastor mentioned that when people move away or leave their church, they’ve realized they need to take time to mourn that loss. How much more have we lost! We’ve lost beloved pastors; we’ve lost members; we’ve lost the stability and security our church used to give us.
Yes, we know that God is sovereign and he works all things together for good and we can trust him – but the Bible teaches us also, in addition to these truths, that “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” And our primary comfort is from God. He knows we are weak and he doesn’t expect us to be as strong as we think we should be. The Isaiah passage recognizes our faint spirit and his compassion. David, the man after God’s own heart, was also an emotional man, and the Psalms showed him grieving too.
Jesus himself is “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” Isaiah tells us, and there is a kind of fellowship with Jesus that happens only through grief. We may be afraid to get sad, wary of wallowing in sadness, fearful of depression, but not only does Jesus come to us in our sorrows, making room for Jesus through mourning also makes our hearts have more room for the sorrows of other people – making us more compassionate people – making us, in turn, more like Jesus himself. And Scripture tells us “sorrow lasts for a night but joy comes in the morning”: If we will grieve our sorrows, we will have more joy, on Christmas morning, because of Christ’s birth.
A friend sent me a poem by John Newton the other day that I’ll end with because it seems to me to go with what I’m talking about tonight. Let’s pray that God will give us greater faith, love and grace this Christmas.
"I Asked The Lord"
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace,
Might more of His salvation know
And seek more earnestly His face.
Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He I trust has answered prayer,
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He'd answer my request,
And by His love's constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest.
Instead of this He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart,
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe,
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low.
Lord why is this, I trembling cried
Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?
"Tis in this way," the Lord replied
"I answer prayer for grace and faith."
"These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me,
That thou mayest seek thy all in me."
Words: John Newton