I have a question for you this morning: Can you ignore a baby who wants your attention? Especially if that baby is crying? I don’t know many who can. Most of us are either too maternal or too paternal. Those who are not “baby friendly” may get annoyed, but even they cannot block out a child’s cry. So here is my Advent observation: We prepare every year for the birth of a baby, and yet the day after Christmas we’re on to the next big thing crying for our attention. We’ve got to stop and pick up this baby, lay him on our chests and comfort him. We’ve got to be still long enough to bond with him. The Lord of the universe wants us to come and adore him, to nurture him.
In the Gospel of Luke it is John the Baptist who is crying for our attention. He is telling anyone who will listen—as well as those who won’t–that they must repent of their sins before Jesus can get their full attention. They have got to come clean before Jesus can save their lives. Think about where you are in your life right now. Think about your capacity to hear his message. Is John merely a voice crying out in the wilderness? Is he out there alone, wasting his breath? Are we assuming at some level that if we don’t see him or hear him, we need not bother with his warnings?
The season of Advent is about making straight the way of the Lord. You see, it is impossible to pull apart forgiveness of sins from the promise of restoration that the Christ child brings. You cannot have one without the other. John is telling us that we cannot keep God at a safe distance. Distance from God is never safe. We have to come down from our mountaintops of vanity, and we have to climb out of our valleys of despair. We must seek out the level place where the baby Jesus waits to receive us. Now, why do I speak of Jesus awaiting us in a level place, a plain, rather than on a lofty mountain top? In part, I say this because the Christ child, like the manger in which he is born, and like the Prince of Peace he will become, is a humble creature. But I also want you to think of it this way: if something traumatic were to happen to you or to someone you love, you would need to be on level ground. You would need sure footing and balance so that the weight of your trouble wouldn’t cause you to stumble and fall.
I also think of a plain as the place where Jesus awaits us because a plain is without shadows, a place where nothing is cast into darkness—a place where nothing can obstruct us from the light of Christ. Nothing, that is, except the darkness we each carry within our own souls. This notion is inherent in John’s call to repent. We must accept that we carry a God-given light within our souls—but also a darkness, a human stain.
The darkness inside of you, the complicated stuff that gets in the way of your best intentions, is simply part of you. If you don’t know that about yourself, you need to discover it if you’re ever to grow healthy or even grow up. The world and your fellow human beings need you to do that. A lot of the trouble we get into, and the trouble we cause others, comes when we imagine we are the light, and the light only.
If you try to hide from your own stuff, the shadow—from selfishness, or hostility, or self-righteousness, or grandiosity, or certitude, or even your own pain—you only end up seeing those things in others, or putting them on others. Just watch when someone reacts really strongly against another person or another opinion. More important, watch yourself as you react–or overreact. Isn’t there the possibility that you see something of yourself, or something of your own beliefs, something of your own anxieties or suspicions, in the other?
And watch what most annoys you about others. Notice what others say that you think is simply wrong. Again, just see if you can find a trace of that in you. Blessed are those who can love others despite their faults, for the circle of generosity will be theirs. You will be thankful for the time you spend nurturing the Christ Child that is in you and in others.
Keep this little “watching” test going between now and Christmas. Here is an assignment: You will be blessed if you can find something in creation to admire each and every day. Your days will overflow with beauty and your darkest valleys will be lit by the light of Christ.
Let me tell you how I know this to be true. This past weekend Andrew and I and the boys drove to Indiana for the memorial service for Andrew’s grandmother who died in November. You know, I was not looking forward to being in the car for 24 hours with two toddlers. We did a smart thing, though. We rented a car with a built-in DVD player, that granddaddy of all pacifiers. It was marvelous! Even though we beheld many wonders on our drive—one being an eerily authentic Santa Claus passing and waving at us from his Ford Taurus on Interstate 70 just outside of Dayton—we did not know we were somehow watching for signs of Jesus, searching for an inner light, a compass we might steer by as we set out across the lengthening darkness.
But that is just what happened. As the day turned to night, I was reminded of a sight that had given me comfort five years ago when Andrew and I drove back from Texas after my mother died. Back then we rented a U-Haul to bring back my mother’s furniture, and the boxes of my childhood memorabilia that she kept. All I can say is that one of the loveliest things a human being can experience on this earth—regardless of his or her belief or disbelief—is driving with family, in December, at night, across America. Picture it: A chill wind has swept the clouds from the winter sky. The stars are brilliant. The moon is full. In that moonlight, the hills along the Ohio River seem to glow from within with a pale blue energy. The inside of the car is quiet and warm. The children are asleep in the back. We listen to their breathing. My husband has one hand on the wheel, and the other resting on my shoulder. We come over a rise into a great valley. From the far side of that valley, reaching out to say hello, are the gently twinkling lights on the front porch of a home belonging to a stranger.
Whether it is the back roads of Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia, or Ohio you see the same scene. In the middle of nowhere, in the boondocks of rural America, the light of Christ glows brightly. It did not matter if the farm house was grand or if it was a humble trailer, we were treated to some fabulous and some fabulously tacky displays of holiday cheer. What struck me is that these Christmas lights were on homes that were so desolately located and remote that I wondered if anyone but us would see them. These Christmas lights were meant both for no one and for everyone. If aliens from one of those faraway galaxies glimmering in that cloudless night sky were to descend into one of these valleys on Planet Earth right now, they would surely say to one another: “What a wonderful species dwells here! Look at the lights they shine for those they have never even met! Loveliness simply for the sake of loveliness! These must be peaceful creatures.”
And as Christian humans, Andrew and I, we also saw those lights as beacons calling out to say “We’re waiting for Jesus too!”
This Advent season, I pray that we will hear the cries of the Christ Child; that we will be still long enough to comfort him and bond with him in love. That we will shine our lights for him as he shines his light on us. As I see it, we have a choice. We can be one of those trendy inflatable lawn ornaments–a giant snowman, or Santa, or Snoopy–that deflates by morning into a Christmas carcass flattened on the lawn. Or we can be the beacon in the dark night as a simple string of lights dependent upon one another and Christ to glow bright.