Home for Christmas: Prepare Him Room
If you go into my eight-year old nephew Sam’s bedroom, much of the time you might find a path from the door to the bed, but not much else. I imagine he’s in good company. We all love Sam, and we love giving him things, but when he was about 2 or 3, if someone would come for a visit, Sam would say, “What did you bring me?” He was so used to getting gifts from people that it had become an expectation. If you didn’t have a present for him, Sam wondered what was wrong with you! My brother and sister-in-law work hard to make sure Sam is kind and generous and not hung up on stuff, things – and yet Sam has so many toys – and that’s not counting ones that are stored away – so many toys that there isn’t much floor left in sight in his room. Our focus this second Sunday in Advent is Prepare Him Room. The phrase you might recognize from the hymn Joy to the World – we sing: “Let every heart prepare him room.” We’re meant to make room for the Christ Child, room for the Prince of Peace, room for Jesus. And as I mull over this phrase, I just keep imagining that all of us are engaged in trying to prepare our hearts for Jesus like an 8 year old trying to clean his room when “clean” means “a path from the door to the bed is visible.” Let every heart prepare him room!
Last week I talked to you about people having to move into smaller apartments – folks adjusting at the retirement community where I work to having less space than they were used to. I lived in parsonages during my first two appointments as pastor, and then started at a church with no parsonage. For a while, I rented an apartment, and it was smaller by half at least than any house I’d ever lived in. I felt like I had no room for anything. The biggest challenge was my Christmas tree. I have an artificial tree that I store in about 5 plastic bins. And at the apartment I lived in, I felt like no matter what closet you opened, you’d find at least one bin with part of the Christmas tree shoved in side. There was just not enough room. I had to find creative ways to squeeze everything in. Let every heart prepare him room!
When I was in high school, I went to Austria a group from my school orchestra. It was my first international trip, and I packed ridiculously. I couldn’t manage my own luggage. I needed to get help with it, on and off buses, in and out of hotels, on and off planes. And I vowed to myself never again to pack for a trip in a way that I couldn’t easily manage my own stuff. When I was in seminary, I had the chance to go to Ghana in West Africa, and I packed like a pro, and while I was there, I only bought souvenirs that I knew would fit in my bags easily. Some of my friends were not so wise, and I wondered about all the extra fees they would have to pay at the airport. But then I witnessed something strange – at the airport, where you could only have a certain number of bags – the airline staff would help you shrink wrap several of your bags into one, so that your four items of luggage were turned into one item – one gigantic item – but just one. This seemed to me to be missing the point of the luggage restrictions – making room by squishing everything in, sucking all the air out of it. Let every heart prepare him room!
My Uncle Bill has shared with me that when he and my aunt were expecting their second child, he went to my grandfather in distress, and said, “I don’t know how I can do it. I love my daughter so much, and I don’t know if I have room to love a second child as much as I love her.” He was so worried that he wouldn’t be able to show child #2 the same kind of total love he had for child #1. My grandfather, father of five children, all of whom he he loved with all his heart, assured him that he would find his heart expanded quite nicely to love with all his heart a new life. Your heart expands and expands and expands and you find you have quite enough room for your heart to be completely filled again with this new life, this new child. There’s no competition, no struggle to divide love. Love multiplies. Let every heart prepare him room!
Today we find ourselves in the gospel of Luke, encountering one who the scriptures tells us was sent to help the people – help us – prepare some room for the one who would come after him. We meet John the Baptist, cousin to Jesus. Luke tells us that the word of God came to John, and that he began preaching a baptism for repentance and forgiveness of sins. To repent means literally to change the direction of your mind, to change the direction of your life back to God’s direction. Baptism – cleansing with a water ritual – was not a new practice to Judaism – and something about John’s message was drawing people in. Luke tells us that John embodied the words of the prophet Isaiah who spoke of one who would prepare the way of the Lord, that all might see the salvation of God.
So crowds show up to hear John and get baptized, but he doesn’t exactly thank them for coming. He calls them a brood of vipers, and warns them against claiming their faith heritage, thinking they’ll be safe from needing to bear good fruit because of their good religious pedigree. Everyone, John says, needs to bear good fruit. Hopefully that language should sound a bit familiar to you. Someone bravely asks John, “Well, what should we do then?” And John says that if you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. If you have enough food, share what you have with someone who doesn’t. If you are a tax collector – and remember in John’s day, these were Jewish folks who worked for the hated Roman governments, so they were considered greedy and corrupt – John urges them to collect no more than is due. For soldiers – and again, here he is probably addressing Jewish soldiers working for the Romans – John tells them not to extort money, not to make threats, not to make false accusations, and finally, to be satisfied with their wages. Preaching scholar David Lose writes of John’s message, “Hey, wait a second: share, don’t bully, be fair. These sound like the rules of kindergarten. That’s right. “Fruits worth of repentance,” it turns out, aren’t located at the top of some spiritual mountain; rather, they are right next door, in our homes and schools and workplaces and community.” What John says isn’t complicated. We just have to actually do what he says. Our repentance – our changing direction – has to look a lot more like we turned back toward God and a lot less like we’re still going in the same direction. After hearing all of this, which Luke notes to us is the good news – we read that the people are filled with expectation. Let every heart prepare him room.
A couple of weeks ago, I shared a children’s sermon where I showed the children, using a jar and some stones that if you put God in your life first, instead of trying to cram God in last, make room for God after everything else, you’ll find that you have room for everything. Seek God and God’s kingdom first, and everything else after. That’s the promise of abundant life Jesus shares with us – he wants us to have life, abundant life, full life. And yet, I have to confess that my children’s sermon is also a little bit of a myth. God wants us to fill our lives with every good thing, starting with our relationship with God. We’ll find that our hearts keep expanding and expanding to receive God’s blessings as we fill our hearts with more and more love, more hope, more peace, more joy. There’s always room in our jar for more of that. But when we try to give a part of our hearts to things that really need to be thrown out, we make a part of our hearts inaccessible to anything God wants to give us. And we just can’t prepare room for Jesus if we won’t budge on some of the other stuff we’re keeping there. There are some things that don’t belong in our jar, that don’t belong in our lives, that don’t belong in our hearts. That stuff needs to be cleared out to prepare the way. John suggests we clear out from our lives some of our excess – if you have more food and clothing, more stuff than you need, there’s plenty who could use it. Wouldn’t he be surprised to know that most of us have not two tunics but fifty, or a hundred! If you’ve filled up your heart with greed and envy, clear it out, John says. If you’ve filled it up with the need for power over others, with anger, with pride, clear it out. Let every heart prepare him room.
In ninth grade English class, we had to read the lyric ballad The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I can’t say I loved it, but my English teacher would be happy to know that some of the most famous phrases have stayed in my mind all these years. In the poem, sailors are stranded in still water in the ocean for some time, and they are dying of thirst, having run out of water. The narrator remarks, “Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” The high salt content of seawater makes it impossible for your body to process, so if you drank nothing but saltwater, you'd die from dehydration. Water everywhere, and yet so very thirsty. I believe that this is the tension, the crux of our faith journey. We live in the tension of this paradox: some things fill us up to overflowing, and seem to expand our hearts and our capacity to love and serve and give, while other things leave us filled up to the point that we’re empty and starving, thirsty in the middle of an ocean full of water. Our task, our discipleship is the process of learning how to know the difference between these things, and choosing again and again to fill ourselves with things that satisfy, things that expand our hearts, instead of closing them off.
This is a season of waiting and longing and hoping for the Christ Child, the Prince of Peace. We are filled with expectation. We have been called to repentance, to clear out some of the junk that is closing off corners of our hearts. We have been called to make a path, a highway, a wide-open road to our souls, ready for Christ to enter in. Let every heart prepare him room! Amen.
(Hymn: Joy to the world! The Lord will Come)