by Mike Phay
A common refrain drifting through conversations during the holiday season is the casual, “Are you ready for Christmas?” By which we generally mean, “Do you have all of the presents bought and wrapped, all of the decorations hung, all of the food bought, and all of the other to-dos crossed off your list?”
The question betrays our understanding of needing to be prepared for something. But what?
Most often we assume that we are to be ready for that magical moment of Christmas morning when we gather around our evergreen altar and distribute gifts to our loved ones.
But perhaps you are one who regularly asks the question, “Is this what it’s really all about? Is this what we’ve been preparing for?” Your gut is telling you this misses the mark.
CHRISTMAS BEGINS AT AN ALTAR
Thankfully, the Scriptures give us a clue as to how God wants us to prepare for Christmas. We need to look no further than the beginning of the Christmas story, which doesn’t begin where we would think. We presume the opening act to be a Jewish man carefully accompanying his donkey-riding, full-term fiancee through a snowstorm to the Little Town of Bethlehem.
But the Christmas story actually begins about fifteen months earlier with an elderly, childless couple—not a couple waiting for the arrival of a baby, but a couple defined by waiting for a child and welcoming none (see Luke 1:5-25).
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are descendants of Aaron, the first Jewish High Priest, and are described as “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). As a priest, Zechariah served regularly at the temple, a responsibility he’s fulfilling when an angel suddenly appears to him.
The location of this angelic appearance does not happen by chance. Gabriel could have appeared to him at home, while he was working in the field, or during a long journey. However, God intentionally chose to reveal his plan to Zechariah while he was in the temple, at the altar. God intentionally brought his first Christmas announcement in the place of worship, alerting us that this is ultimately a story about worship.
WE HAVE WORSHIP PROBLEMS
Israel had a long history of cluttered altars. The people had often abandoned the God who had redeemed them and made them his own special people. Such a great beginning makes it all the more tragic when their story consistently turns toward rebellion, rejection, and idolatry. They regularly turned their back on God and literally cluttered their altars with idols and false gods (e.g. 2 Chron. 33:4-5). They habitually adulterated their worship and kept God at bay by filling their lives and altars with other things.
When Zechariah the priest entered the temple to burn incense, he was, essentially, leading the nation in worship (Luke 1:10) and representing them before God. And even though he is described as righteous and blameless, he is part of a people who have constantly been mired in their own idolatry, confusion, and waywardness. They are turned away from God, in conflict with each other, ignorant of God’s ways, and walking in disobedience.
Israel’s worship problem is the context of the angel Gabriel’s announcement.
Like the Israelites of old, we too have a worship problem. And Jesus has come to solve it. Thus the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah, declaring the work that his future son, John (the Baptist) will accomplish:
“And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:16-17).
John’s job description was to go before Jesus and bring about a threefold turning. The first turning was repentance, turning “many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God,” away from the idols that clutter their altars. The second turning was reconciliation, turning “the hearts of fathers to their children.” When God makes people right with himself, he also does the work of making them right with one another. The third turning was transformation, turning “the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” The Bible regularly juxtaposes the wise and the foolish. The wise are just, righteous, and obedient, while the foolish are unjust, wicked, and disobedient. God is in the business of making foolish men wise, and disobedient men just (See Jer. 31:33-4; 32:36-41; Ezek. 36:26-27).
WHAT ARE WE PREPARING FOR?
Ultimately, John’s job would be “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:17). But prepared for what?
Two connected passages help to give clarity to the purpose of this preparation as well as insight into the purposes of our own Advent preparations.
Prepared to see God’s glory. Isaiah 40:3-5 lined out a job description for John the Baptist hundreds of years before his birth:
“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’”
The metaphor is that of a cluttered path: valleys, mountains, and all of the uneven, rough ground that marks the difficult paths of the world and of our lives. These are the ways we create on our own, attempting to walk them without God. John’s job was to be an earth-mover, to run a spiritual bulldozer over these self-made roads and to level out a path upon which God himself would come to his people. It is a path for God, yet we are the ones who’ve cluttered it!
The path that John was to prepare—and that Advent mimics—was a path of welcome. It was the path of the King, upon which we are to roll out the red carpet in welcome. Advent is a time of preparation for welcoming the King!
The ultimate purpose of this leveling work is “for the glory of the LORD [to] be revealed and all flesh [to] see it together” (Is. 40:5). God is making it possible for us once again to clearly see His glory. In order for that to happen, the pathway has to be cleared up. It has to be decluttered.
Prepared to respond in worship. When John is born, Zechariah’s mouth is opened for the first time in nine months and he sings a song of praise to God. In it, he prophesies to his son, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76-77). All this, Zechariah says, so that the people might “serve him [i.e., worship God] without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75).
As a descendant of Aaron, John too was a priest: one leading a people in worship, back to God. His would be a preparatory work: cleaning house, decluttering, and removing obstacles so that nothing else would distract from what Israel was made for: to worship God.
So what are we preparing for during the Advent season? We are preparing to worship.
USING ADVENT TO DECLUTTER
Advent is a season meant to prepare a people for the coming of the King. It’s a time of decluttering from all the things we’ve thrown into the path and onto the altar which have bogged down our worship, replaced Jesus in our affections, and distracted us from him.
Advent is a yearly rhythm of intentionally entering into practices that help us to declutter our spaces, calendars, wallets, minds, and hearts. It is a time to intentionally get our house ready for the one who came as a baby. Decluttering is an act of hospitality, of rolling out the red carpet, of making preparations, and of going all out in order to make room for and welcome the King.
The practices of our culture—like Black Friday or Cyber Monday—do not prepare us to worship Jesus. They do not help us to declutter our hearts. They tend to put wrong things on the altar. Resistance is difficult and sometimes feels futile.
But Advent is a time for us to resist the culture’s message, and return to what this season—and our lives—are to be about: worship. Not just for Advent, but for always. But Advent is a good place to start.