It’s the second Sunday of Advent, and our attention here at the church has turned completely toward the upcoming celebration of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I’ve often said that this is like the Super Bowl for us who lead churches—it’s the time of year when we have the biggest crowds and the most expectation. It’s something you actually have to train for—the extra stamina required for multiple services (four this year) plus Christmas Day is a Sunday. That means extra leg work at the gym and lots of preparation and practice for sermons, setting up extra chairs, etc.
Of course it’s also the time of year when many people wonder just why the crowds are bigger. Where are all these people the rest of the year? We go out of our way to prepare for them, but wouldn’t it be great if they all came back the next Sunday? Some ridicule them as “Chreasters” or H2O Christians (Holidays, 2 Only) and some churches make these folks feel guilty when they show up, not realizing that there sarcasm will ultimately insure that they never show up again. We’ve banned that sort of sarcasm here. For us it’s about rolling out the red carpet, no matter what it takes.
But the question remains: why do people come in large crowds at Christmas? Well, as I observe the crowd each year a few things stand out—one is that some are here because the family wanted them to come. The pained expressions on their faces give it away. Some come out of nostalgia, believing that coming to church is something you do at Christmas like putting up the tree or hanging stockings by the fire place.
But I suspect that the majority are here for another reason, even if they could not express it—that there is a restlessness in people with the way the world is and they wonder if God has something to offer. The very fact that they are here means that they haven’t given up completely on God, even if they may have given up on the church at some point. And so they come here, perhaps tentatively, to see if there is something new they might discern—a word from the Lord. Some hesitate because they feel unworthy to be in God’s presence because of their past or what they have done. As I heard a visitor once say, “I shudder to think of the kind of church that would have me as a member!” And so they approach with caution, wondering if they will be accepted in their brokenness. For many people, the question they are asking as they look at the Christmas Eve ads we post in the paper, in the coffee shop, and online is this: “How can I stand before a holy God?”
How shall we receive them? How does God receive them; indeed, how does God receive any of us who come with a similar sense trepidation?
The answer, I think, is found in the text for today from the prophet Joel; a perfect one for the second Sunday in Advent. Now, if you’re familiar with these texts you know that we generally read them at different times during the church year other than Advent. We read Joel 2:12-13 on Ash Wednesday—a call to repentance at the beginning of the season of Lent, and verses 28-29 which Peter quotes in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples.
But while these are familiar texts that we’ll use later in the year, they are also Advent texts as the Narrative Lectionary uses them. Joel’s prophecy is about God’s coming judgment which, in his historical context, was seen in a plague of locusts. In the face of God’s judgment and return to Zion (which was the hope of Israel), Joel stands in the prophetic tradition in urging the people to “return to the Lord.” We see that call echoed in John the Baptizer in Luke’s Gospel, which we’ll begin moving through in a couple of weeks. The question at stake is the very question many people are asking as they consider Christmas, “How shall we stand before a holy God?”
Rather than the condemnation they might expect, however, Joel extends God’s open invitation to his people: “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts, with fasting and weeping and with sorrow; tear your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God for he is merciful an compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love and ready to forgive.”
The imagery here is powerful. In the ancient world, tearing one’s clothes was seen as an act of repentance, but a deeper one than even we can imagine. Today if we tear a shirt, we simply go across town and buy another one. In those days, clothes were extremely valuable—the process of making them was painstaking. Tearing one’s clothes in repentance was a costly sign of the depth of one’s sin.
But God, through the prophet, invites the people to keep their clothes on and, instead, tear open their hearts. This is a deeply intimate image. For ancient Hebrews, the “heart” was the location of a person’s thoughts, volition, emotion, and conscience. Whereas we tend to separate thoughts from emotions, the brain from the heart, for them the heart was the center of being. God’s invitation is thus to complete vulnerability, opening oneself completely to God for examination.
When we open our hearts, then we open whatever is in there as well. We open up the things in our lives that are cause for weeping and sorrow—our sins, our hurts, our fears, and our failures. We recognize our emptiness in fasting, our complete and utter dependence upon God for our daily bread and for life itself. God invites us to open up our hearts and lay all that before him.
We might be afraid to do so before a holy God. God is holy and we are certainly not by comparison. We fear what God might do when we are that vulnerable before him, but God promises a very different response than those who keep him at a distance might expect. “Return to the Lord your God,” says the prophet, “for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” When we open our hearts to him, he is ready to heal them.
This is the message that unchurched and dechurched people rarely expect to hear at Christmas. We who are part of the church need to be reminded of it as well. The whole story is of God coming in person among his people to demonstrate the depth of his mercy, his compassion, his faithful love and forgiveness. This is the God before whom we stand in worship. The depth of our sin is overwhelming, but the wideness of God’s mercy is what heals us and brings us to new life. We can stand before a holy God because he is the one who sets us back on our feet and makes us new.
This is the answer to that deep restlessness that people feel at Christmas. I once heard a quote from atheist writer Julian Barnes who said, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” Even among those who are skeptics and unbelievers there is a deep desire for something more, something beyond themselves. Many people have pushed God away because they have gotten the message that God is out to get them, waiting behind every corner to destroy them. Better not to believe in him if that is the case. Joel reminds us that this is not the character of God. We believe in a God who extends an invitation to open our hearts so that they may be healed by his holy love.
And what happens when we open our hearts to him? That’s the second part of our text today. When we are emptied of all that separates us from God, we are then open to receive God’s Spirit working in and through us. Everyone—men and women, young and old, those with status according to the world and those with none—can receive the Spirit. And when we receive the Spirit, we begin to dream bigger dreams and see more significant visions of what God is up to in the world and how we might become part of it. We have already seen throughout our journey through the Old Testament that God often communicates through dreams and visions; Jesus will invite us to embrace the waking dream that he called the Kingdom of God—a vision of a world where God reigns and all things are made new.
The Spirit grants us these visions and dreams and then empowers us to begin making them a reality. We are so often distracted by the brokenness of our world, the constant bombardment of bad news, that we cannot imagine a different sort of world. Indeed, we can never imagine it if our own hearts have not been opened and healed. When God transforms us, it is for the sake of us working with him to transform the world. That is what we are saved for. We are enabled to begin working the plan that God has set in motion ever since Genesis 3—his great rescue plan for his creation. The Spirit enables us to join God in that work, empowering, guiding, and directing us through prayer and action.
We will begin to see this at work as we study Luke’s Gospel. In fact, the promise of Joel is becoming realized all through the Christmas story. The young and the old prophecy—the old priest Zechariah and the young virgin Mary sing songs of prophecy and gratitude to God that the dream of God’s people for a Messiah is becoming a reality. Simeon and Anna prophesy over the baby Jesus in the temple; John the Baptizer prophesies in the desert. The Spirit will work in and through Jesus and then, at Pentecost, in and through his disciples.
All of this is possible because people opened their hearts to receive what God had to offer—the fullness of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit come among them in person.
Advent invites us to open ourselves to God and receive the gift he wants to give us. When we open our hearts to God and lay bare whatever is in there, we experience God’s healing, steadfast, forgiving love; and when we do so, we are far more likely to have compassion on those who will come here seeking God in their restlessness this Christmas Eve. And the more open and vulnerable we become, emptying ourselves before the Lord, the more the Spirit can fill us and grant us the ability to dream God-sized dreams for our church, our culture, and our world.
My invitation to you today is the same as Joel’s—keep that ugly Christmas sweater on, but open your heart. What have you kept hidden from God that you need to lay bare? You can trust his promise. He is ready to heal and forgive.
And then, be filled with the Spirit. Dare to allow the Spirit to give you God-sized dreams for your family, your neighborhood, your workplace, your school. The Spirit took a bunch of people who were nobodies in the Roman world and changed the world because they were open to him. That can happen again if we are willing to receive the Spirit ourselves. We wait for the coming of Christ, but we also know that he is already here with us in the Spirit if we will only receive him.
The big day is coming. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Let us prepare with open hearts! Amen.