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Preparing Our Hearts

John Shea tells a story about seeing a woman in a Jewel Food Store parking lot three days before Christmas putting bags of groceries in her trunk and muttering over and over to herself, “I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to make it.” As he passed her, he smiled and piped up, “You’re going to make it. You’re going to make it.”  He was pretty proud of his double assurance of success countering her double prediction of defeat. But then her head popped out of her trunk, she stared at him with a “What the hell do you know, fella” look, stomped her foot and said adamantly, “I’m NOT going to make it!”

(For the full video version, click here.)

I’ve been there. Too much to do. Too much you want to get done. Too many expectations you hope to meet – others and your own. It’s enough to increase your heartrate and blood pressure, and send you into a near panic attack. Sometimes preparing for Christmas can be fun and fulfilling, and sometimes it can take you right over the edge.

John the Baptist is all about preparing in our scripture reading for today (Luke 3:7-18). He had all the people riled up: "The Messiah is coming! He so amazing that I’m not even fit to untie his sandals! And, boy oh boy is he gonna get people to shape up! So, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why… Jesus Christ is coming to town!" Obviously, that is my paraphrase, but it seems fairly accurate to me.

Well, the people start to panic… I better clean my house, polish the silver, get out the good linen, buy some gifts… oh my gosh, what does the Messiah expect of me? Three different sets of people cry out to John, “What should we do?” 

John tells the crowd, the ordinary folks, that if anyone has two coats they should share with someone who doesn’t, and if they have food, to do the same. This is more than an act of generosity, it is the beginning of justice, that all should be cared for in God’s kingdom.

The tax collectors were next. Remember that these men were members of the Jewish community who were charged by Rome to collect a certain amount of taxes. Whatever they collected over and above that, they could keep. So, they abused their position to gain wealth and power. When the tax collectors ask what they should do, John tells them to stop taking more than they need to from people. The general message is to live with honesty and integrity.

Finally, the soldiers ask, “What should we do?” and John replies, “Don’t bully anyone. Don’t accuse anyone falsely. Be content with your pay.”

Then John goes on to proclaim that this One who was coming will not baptize with water, like he was doing. The One to come would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, and would separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff in unquenchable fire.

I think Christianity has typically been too simplistic in its understanding of this passage, as it sounds like Jesus was coming with judgment and punishment to separate out two groups of people – the good and the bad. Remember, chaff is simply the husk of the wheat that must be removed before it can be eaten. Truly we all have wheat and chaff in us, and the Holy Spirit and fire symbolized a spiritual transformation, a process of purification, releasing that which is not necessary or useful to reveal our authentic selves.

In any case, John responds to the people's question with concrete actions because any outer action will inevitably require us to look within to see the blocks and obstacles we have to opening our hearts and growing spiritually.

What John was encouraging was starting the process of transformation that Jesus continue. John basically said, start preparing your hearts by changing the way you think and act. Look around you at those in need and see them as a sacred part of your very self. Be true and just, be kind and caring, lift others up and be content with only what you need instead of being greedy. All of these injunctions that he gave to the crowd, the tax collectors and the soldiers could easily apply to any of us yet today. If we prepare our hearts this way, begin to make ourselves over, we will find a place of sacred peace in our souls.

Sadly, our preparations for Christmas often take us on a different path than one that is transformational and opens our eyes and ears. We get caught up in much that is superfluous and don’t tend the fire in our hearts and so miss the true transformational presence of the Child.

I always preach to myself as much as to anyone else. The message of John and the purpose of Advent is to open our hearts. It is time to put off our busyness and let love in. Go see the child. Share what we have. Be kind. Be generous. Let love and light bubble up in us that our eyes might see the hope and love that is come, and that our ears might hear the message of peace and joy that is for all people, everywhere.

Love & Light!