I love getting wedding invitations in the mail.
I can tell something’s up before I even open the card: the paper is heavier than normal; the address is in a careful calligraphy; the titles are of an Emily-Post-approved formality. Everything about it says, “This is no regular piece of correspondence; this is something special.”
Then I slip my thumb under the seal and open the flap to find… another envelope! This one has our first names on it, as if we made it past security and now we can let our hair down and have some fun. And then, the details are revealed. Oh, the details! When and where for the ceremony, when and where for the reception, and juicy little tidbits like, “Black tie optional.”
The happy couple did a lot of work to get that invitation to me. Now that it’s in my hands, it’s my turn! Preparations need to be made. I need to find the right dress – if it’s not in my closet, it’s at a storefront, somewhere! We might need hotel reservations or a babysitter; we certainly need to send a gift.
An invitation to a really special event demands a response from us – not just an RSVP, but all the things we need to do to get ready.
If this is true for a wedding… it’s certainly true for the coming of Christ.
Jesus’ arrival was so special, it was someone’s full time job to make the announcement. That living invitation was John the Baptist, born for the express purpose of making the path to Jesus straight and obvious. But John’s preparations didn’t involve lining up a sitter or looking up a gift registry. They were:
Forgiveness of sins.
Buying a dress sounds a lot more fun, eh? But the Baptist’s preparations are just as necessary; we can’t fully celebrate Christ without doing this prep-work first.
Advent is a season set aside just for that. Knowing that Christmas Day is coming, we repent – we acknowledge our sins, admit that they’re wrong, and make changes that prevent us from repeating the same mistakes. If you need help figuring out what a sin is, think of the two greatest commandments that Jesus identified: loving God and loving others (see Matthew 22:34-40). Our sins are pretty much any actions that neglect or work against those two big loves.
This is heavy work, but it can be done anytime and anywhere. Why not right now? Name your sins before God, admit that they are wrong, and think of how you can act differently to avoid them in the future.
The other thing John the Baptist did was to baptize – and if you’ve not been baptized, Advent is a great season to see a pastor about that! Whether that’s me or someone else, I 100% guarantee your pastor would be delighted to bring this busy season to a haunt in order to talk with with you about baptism. That’s the kind of stuff we live for.
So: John the Baptist has delivered the invitation to Christ, with all the details. We know what we need to do to prepare. It seems only natural that we’ll keep on repenting and receiving God’s forgiveness all Advent…
…except sometimes we don’t. A lot of times we don’t, actually. And I know one reason why.
Most of my friends waited to get married until around the age of 30 or 32. Meanwhile, most of Alan’s friends got married a few years younger, more like 26 or 28. This should have nicely spread out all the celebrations… except Alan is four years younger than me. The end result was that most of our friends got married right in the same three year span.
For the first few weddings, we went all out. Get a nice hotel room, all to ourselves! Buy that new dress! But by the 10th wedding, we were sharing a room with friends in a reasonable hotel and recycling the special occasion wardrobe. As much as we loved the couples – and as much as we wanted to fully celebrate them – we couldn’t put all of ourselves into so many weddings at once.
We can only fully prepare for so many special occasions at a time. When too much is on our plates, everything starts getting diluted.
And oh, does this hap, happiest season of all like to pile things on our plates. Even more dangerous, they’re good things! Presents to buy and family gatherings to plan and parties to attend and cookies to bake and – before you know it – Christmas is come and gone and we did a lot of preparations for the secular side of this holiday, but we short-changed our preparations for the coming of Christ.
That’s not to dog on the secular side of Christmas. I think it’s cool that the whole world celebrates with us this time of year. It’s like the birth of Christ is so great, that everyone – Christian or not – can’t help but get caught up in it.
But we don’t want the cart to drive the horse, so to speak. As Christians, we have to make sure the spiritual preparations come first. Which can mean putting some boundaries on the practical stuff.
Necessity is the mother of invention, you know – so in the Christmas season of 2012 I had a necessity that caused me to cut back on some of the Christmas frenzy. His name was Reid, and I was due to deliver him on December 26th. Being a pastor, I was much displeased with this due date. I couldn’t control when I’d go into labor, but I could eliminate some of the secondary stuff of Christmas. So I let some things go; most significantly, our Christmas card list.
I never brought it back.
Now I beg you – don’t everyone stop sending Christmas cards! I love getting them, and it’s a great tradition! But for me and my house, I realized that I cannot do everything in the life of our church and the life of our home at Christmas. I cannot be a good pastor, wife, mom, and (most importantly) Christian while juggling so many other obligations. Letting go of Christmas cards has been right for us to make more time for other things. It’ll be different for you, so take your own inventory: is your Christmas schedule so over-full that there’s no time left for the spiritual work? And if so, what could or should you let go?
So we’ve gotten our invitation to Christ and we know what we need to do to prepare.
But sometimes, we turn down the invitation because we never feel ready.
If we’re supposed to get ready by repenting, it’s hard to repent enough to cover all our sins. We just keep sinning and needing to repent, and sinning and needing to repent, and sinning and needing to repent…
It can leave us feeling like we might as well RSVP “no.”
There are weddings like that too, you know. We’ve had a couple where we desperately wanted to go – but work stood in the way, or the cost of travel was too high. Our spirits were willing but our bank accounts and vacation days were weak.
Imagine getting an invitation to a big destination wedding to some luxurious island resort. Your heart does a quick roller coaster of emotions, soaring to “Wow, how fun!” and then plummeting to, “Oh, there’s no way we can go.” And then you notice that there’s more in the envelope besides the invitation and the RSVP card. There’s a pair of airline tickets… and a receipt for a pre-paid hotel reservation. The groom has already paid your way.
Let me say that last part again: the groom has already paid your way.
It’s very true that we need to prepare for Christ. If we don’t repent and receive forgiveness, we can’t fully receive all that Christ came to give us. But it’s also true that Christ has already done the heavy lifting for us. Christ has paid the price we cannot pay on our own.
In the form of a baby boy born in Bethlehem, God has sent us the invitation of a lifetime.
And there’s no reason at all to turn it down.