The countdown to Christmas is on. Boxes and windows are opened on the advent calendars hung on refrigerators and set on shelves. Only twenty-six more days, we’re reminded by retail sellers and small children alike. Less than a month. The excitement is tossed around as more lights are strung and more wreaths are hung. The flurries of snowflakes and the bustle of people seem to be echoing the same message. Christmas is coming! Christmas is coming!
The anticipation for Christmas has always been one of my favorite times of the year. Everything seems brighter at this time. Everyone merrier. There’s more smiles, more generous gestures, more lights. We’re all ready to celebrate, to spread cheer and sing loud for all to hear. It is a beautiful season, the most wonderful time of the year – as the song goes.
This anticipation began thousands of years ago. Before Christmas trees decked with bright ornaments and shiny tinsel existed. Before stockings were hung in hopes to be filled. Before lights were strung out to make the streets brighter. It began in darkness. In brokenness. In fear. In exile. In a shattered nation who had wandered far from their God. And in these dark valleys and lonesome wilderness voices began to call out.
Prepare the way for the Lord. Behold your King is coming. Look! He is doing a new thing! You will go out in joy, you will be led forth in peace. Your God is coming and His salvation will not be delayed.
It was a glorious hope. The darkness wouldn’t last forever. The pain and the hurt and the shame could be redeemed. There was a bright future ahead. Restoration, renewal, rejoicing – the very things we are longing for today – it was all ahead for them in their future. Christ was coming! Christ was coming!
But along with the tidings of great joy there also came the call to repent. Your Savior is coming, prepare your hearts. Repent for the Kingdom of God is here. Turn from your sin and ready yourself for the coming Messiah.
There are some aching hearts longing for renewal this Christmas. There are some broken spirits hoping for restoration. There are people of great sorrow desperate to rejoice. And the coming of Christ promises these things. But the thing is, renewal, restoration, rejoicing — they are born out of repentance. The coming of Christ always brings with it the need to repent. For we have wandered far from the holiness of our God. Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near. Prepare the way for the Lord.
“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” This is not the Christmas season I’ve been waiting for. “Rend your heart,” the prophet Joel urges his people. “Return to the Lord.” Really? Rend my heart? You mean, tear it? Rip it up?
Yes. Let it be torn in half, shredded into pieces. Broken over your sin and the sin of this world. Mourn the loss of lives, of innocence, of morality. Weep over the wounds that have penetrated every human walking on this planet. Fast and pray for the forgiveness of our deep depravity.
Break my heart for what breaks yours. It’s a line from a contemporary hymn that haunts me regularly. May I weep over the things that make you weep. May the sins and the wanderings and the disorder that hurts you hurt me also. Rend my heart this Advent. Break me down that I might return to you with all my heart.
It may not be the glad tidings we were hoping for today. It may not put you in the Christmas spirit. I’m sure the prophets who delivered the message wished they could leave this part out. But it’s what we need. We must repent that we might be prepared for Christ’s coming.
There is good news though. Extravagantly beautiful, outrageously glad. The God we return to, the God we repent to, He is slow to anger, abounding in love. He doesn’t ask us to repent that he might shame us for our poor decisions and wrong actions. He beckons us to him that he might pour out his compassion on us. He calls us to come near that he might lavish us with grace.
So put up the holly and turn up all the lights. This is a season of repentance but it is leading us to unspeakable joy.