Going Deeper 12-16-19

From our second reading, James 5, this verse: Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.  Thus far our text.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
So… are you ready for Christmas?
If you were asked that question anywhere other than church, you would likely assume whoever was asking it was inquiring as to whether or not you have your Christmas shopping done, the decorations up, the cookies baked, and all your party plans in order.  But we are in church, and I’m really not all that interested in your shopping, decorating, or baking (well, except for Jenny Van Horn who usually fattens me up at Christmas with some awesome oatmeal raisin cookies).  And I’m not asking about your party plans either-- except the post-Christmas party at our house. 
As we are in church, I am asking if you are spiritually ready for the coming of the Christ… both in terms of ready to truly celebrate His coming as the babe of Bethlehem, and His coming again as the King and Judge of all the nations.
It seems that fewer and fewer denominations or individual Christians pay much attention to the season of Advent anymore.  Not all that long ago, church attendance would go up during this season, and many people would even attend a midweek Advent service.  Families would focus on Advent wreathes and candles and calendars as a way of preparing for Christmas.  If you go back a little farther, people wouldn’t even put up their Christmas trees or display their nativity scenes until Christmas eve, and then Christmas would be celebrated for the 12 days afterward, leading up to Epiphany.  Nobody does that anymore.
Now we barely get past Halloween and stores are loaded with Christmas décor and deals… and in some cases, Christmas music fills the air.  And have you noticed lately that “Black Friday” has expanded through the whole weekend and beyond?  And the modern-day addition of “Cyber Monday” seems to be about a week long.  Advent seems to be a thing of the past.
I wonder… will it be missed?  Was it simply one of those old traditions which lost its meaning and value, and we simply don’t need it any longer?  Most churches gave up on Advent a long time ago… and some never bothered with the tradition at all.
It’s probably pretty obvious that I tend to believe Advent is still important, and that there’s value in preparing not just our homes and calendars, but also our hearts for the coming of the Christ.  Maybe we don’t need all of those old traditions… but we do well to take time to ponder why the first Christmas was and is necessary.
I must admit I was rather surprised to see a reading from the letter of James among the texts for this third Sunday of Advent.  I suppose those who added it to our 3-year cycle of readings did so because of its reference to “the coming of the Lord.”  After all, as you’ve heard in the readings the first two Sundays, Advent isn’t simply about the first coming of Christ, but also about His final coming at the end of time, and our need to be ready.
If you’re familiar with James, you know that it is a very challenging letter, one which has been controversial because of its emphasis on doing good works.  The verse that is most well-known is this: “Faith without works is dead.”  
James provides a hard-hitting challenge to those who think that believing in God and receiving His grace is all that is necessary.  And in terms of salvation, that can be seen as truth.  But being a Christian is much, much more than receiving some kind of eternal life insurance, about being able to go to heaven rather than hell when you die.
As a matter of fact, the Scriptures teach that we have already died.  Please listen carefully to these words of Paul from the sixth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome: What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?  By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?  Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.  Our new life in the Kingdom of God is already a reality.
One of the main themes of Advent is repentance.  We must recognize why it was necessary for Jesus to come as the babe of Bethlehem: He came to save us from sin and death, and He would pay the ultimate price to do so.  In the spirit of repentance, we do well to recognize that our sin is much more than the evil we struggle with in our thoughts, words, and deeds.  That’s just the start.  Our sin also includes all of the good we have failed to do.  “Faith without works is dead.”
And this process of repentance also pertains to our anticipation of the final coming of Christ.  We are told over and over again that we must be ready, for the coming of the Lord may be quite near indeed.  And to be ready means what?
Yes, first and foremost it means that we trust in grace, not in works.  We confess—not deny—our sin… both in what we have done and what we have left undone.  And then we trust that it has been taken away, that we have been made new… and that we continue to be renewed.  That is the rest of the story.  We are now called and freed to live the “new life” Paul refers to, a life of gratitude-based and joy-and-purpose-filled serving of God and others, a life marked by the same qualities we see in Jesus, radical compassion, love, and generosity.  That is what it means to be prepared, to be ready for the coming of Christ.
Brothers and sisters, in this family of Christ let’s not jump too quickly to Christmas.  In these final ten days, let’s ponder what this season’s truly all about.  Let’s do the hard work of preparing our hearts through repentance for Christ to enter in once again, and over and over again.  Let every gift we receive and extend remind us of the gift of grace wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.  The gift that truly keeps on giving.  Amen.