Christmas is a time for cluttering. For most of us, our calendars are already filled, and yet we find more things pushing themselves upon us. Be honest, most us know that our lives, our homes, our schedules, our world is already over stuffed and here we bring out more stuff. When we begin to decorate, boxes are pulled out from the attic, the basement, a closet or maybe from all these places. As we begin to unpack the decorations, they bring out with them so many memories. But in order to find a place to put them, we have to rearrange some of the things that are already out in our homes during the year. Most of our homes already have things filling the shelves, the tabletops, and the cabinets, and here comes more.
The world doesn't stop for Christmas. Many will still have to work or keep appointments or do those things that keep our lives running. But now we must find more time for friends and family. We add to an already hectic world more things we must do.
Then there is shopping. The economic times we live in make this even a greater challenge, as we desire to please those we are giving gifts to with the budget we have to spend. This means more time and more effort.
If our calendars and homes and budgets are not parables enough of how Christmas is a time for cluttering, how about our waistlines? Even the best-intended diet is challenged with all the sweets and goodies that are offered during the holidays. Too much time around the dessert table can give us another parable of cluttering.
As the rush and hurry of preparing for Christmas begins to crowd into already filled lives, we hear with new meaning the words of the prophet Malachi, "But who can endure the day of his coming?" Of course, Malachi's question was one of far greater magnitude, of standing before the judgment of God, but his warning speaks to us as we approach another Christmas season.
We don't know how much the wise men paid for their gifts, much less, if they found them on sale. We really don't know how much time or effort was invested by the shepherds, but we know that both the wise men and the shepherds all came for one reason: to worship and adore the one who came at Christmas. They were not distracted by clutter in their lives. Out of all the stars that filled the sky, the wise men stayed focused on one. The sheep had for a moment to be set aside to go to Bethlehem and see what the angels told of.
John the Baptist, who speaks out in our Gospel this day, was one of the most colorful characters in all of history. He wore a camel hair coat long before that became fashionable. His diet consisted of locust and wild honey. And his marketing techniques weren't the best in all of history. He went out into the wilderness, away from the city, away from the crowds, to attract a great crowd. He seemed almost determined to fail. Despite all these things we would call poor marketing, Matthew tells us that people from all over the region were flocking to hear this message.
The challenge in John's word in the wilderness came from the prophet Isaiah spoken at the time Israel was in exile in Babylon. Separating God's people from their home was a wilderness, a barrier that appeared impossible for them to deal with. The promise in Isaiah 40, where we find the words John uses, is that comfort will come to God's people, that in the wilderness a way will be prepared for the Lord, much like the way was prepared for ancient kings to visit the remote parts of their kingdoms.
Before the vision of returning home could be fulfilled for those who first heard Isaiah's words, it would take the efforts of many as well, more importantly, the Divine guidance and blessings of God. And the promise of what this new way will open is not limited to the people in exile--or in the case of the promise from John--to those who hear his call but to all flesh. There will be new power and hope that comes from God's presence in our lives and in our world. In these days leading up to Christmas may we see beyond the clutter of living to the hope that was born so many years ago in Bethlehem. We, too, can find the way home. The call is for us to find the way to God to be in our days and our hearts.
Why is the way of the Lord not already prepared in our hearts? Well, at least in one way, you could say it is. St. Augustine was right when he prayed to God that our hearts were restless until they find rest in God. So how can we approach such a holy season as Christmas and miss the holy? Where does all this clutter come from? How do our days get so filled? Could it be a failure on our part to prioritize that which should take precedent in our lives? Look at your calendar for the days between now and Christmas. Where have you set aside time for worship, for prayer, for some quiet time? A major part of uncluttering is making sure there is time for God to touch our lives and shape our days. As you look at your plans for the holidays, ask have you been so busy making sure that you do what you think everyone expects of you that you have not have left a little time to spend some quality time with those you love. Maybe a friend or loved one needs you more than the gift you will spend hours trying to find. Maybe more important than perfection in our decorations is a smile on our face as we spend time with those dear to us. Preparing a way means to be willing to ask some tough questions and make some hard decisions.
One might define clutter as a disordered state. You can many times see what clutter is by looking at my desk or my office or car or closet. Clutter can be discouraging to us. It can become a barrier to one making any progress or keeping one's focus.
One step is to make sure that everything has a home in our lives. Clutter at home or in the office or shop is many times merely a problem of storage. Clutter in our thinking is trying to focus on too many things at once.
We need to learn to focus on one thing at a time. When we multi-task, when we try to do too many things or set too many goals, the result is that we can easily face a stack of uncompleted things in our lives, which clutters our days and our thoughts.
To prepare the way of the Lord means to make choices. We must decide what we are to focus our lives and days on. We must decide what we will keep.
Think with me for a moment of some of the clutter that has filled, for some, their hearts and minds, and drains, for some, the hopes and diminishes our energy. There are the regrets of things we did not do in the past or things we wished we had done. You might call this the clutter of the way not chosen. Remember the words of Robert Frost, "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both." But the truth is now only one road can be traveled at a time. How we choose can make all the difference in our lives.
There is envy in what we perceive to be the reality of the lives of others. Let us remember that the grass may seem greener on the other side of the fence, but it also needs cutting. With every blessing, there comes responsibility. We must make critical choices as we unclutter.
During the era of apartheid, one noted South African clergyman wrote a very similar thought when he said at the final judgment, as we will stand before God, he will ask us, "Where are your scars?" And we will look at ourselves and then back at God and tell him, "We have no scars." God will ask us, "Was there nothing worth fighting for?" Clutter comes when we cannot find that which is worth fighting for, those times we are not willing to make the critical choices.
To unclutter means not just moving from one crisis to another but moving with a sense of purpose. The Christmas carol says it well when we sing, "O come, let us adore him" and not "O come, let us ignore him." It means we prepare the way of the Lord, that the Lord reigns in our lives.
Almost a century ago, Dr. Roland Walker, a faculty member at Ohio Wesleyan University at that time, wrote these words:
To the Governing General of the Universe, Dear Sir: "I hereby resign my self-appointed position as directing superintendent of my own life and the world. I cannot level all the mountains of injustice, nor fill the valleys of selfishness. There is too much of it in me. I hereby turn over to you for your disposition and use, my life, my money, my time, and my talent to be at your disposal."
Your obedient servant,
The challenge is for us to surrender to God's control, to prepare the way of the Lord. That doesn't just happen with Christmas. This needs to be intentional on our part. Not only does it not just happen, but also in many ways the rush and the push of the holidays make it even more difficult. The need to prepare the way of the Lord--to unclutter our lives, to focus our thinking, to be intentional--is a challenge.
Not that road building is easy. One can marvel at some of the engineering of our interstate system, at roads that cut through mountain ranges or the hearts of cities. Roads that handle thousands of cars a day. But even more difficult is the human cost as neighborhoods are divided, people who are dislocated by construction.
The most expensive highway project in our national history was known as the Big Dig. It is in Boston. It involved building a buried highway through the heart of the city. It is about 3.5 miles in length and, by the time it was finished, cost a staggering twenty-two billion dollars Barney Frank, a congressman from the area, said it would have been cheaper to raise the city instead of lowering the road.
The challenge is to get our lives in such order, that our hearts will be open to the way of the Lord. Once we have settled the issue of who is first in our lives, we do not have to deal with the clutter of divided loyalties. The one who was born at Bethlehem will be the Lord of our lives if we are willing to let God prepare the way. All else that could crowd into our lives is measured by the standard of His love and His grace. By failing that standard we do not allow it to deter us from following Him.
To do this, John in using the words of Isaiah, challenges us that every valley shall be filled and every mountain brought low. Those valleys or low places in our lives, such as worry or grief or doubt, can be filled with an awareness of the very presence of the living Christ. The mountains we must deal with in our hearts include pride, prejudice, fear, and selfishness. When these are brought low, we can see a greater horizon; we can see the way of the Lord.
The Gospel also calls for us to make the crooked places straight. We are challenged to confront those temptations in our lives that will lure us away, to push back the trivial that may fill our minds and hearts and seek God's ways. We are being challenged to take the steps in our lives to deal with the major issues that we must deal with.
And we are told to make the rough ways smooth. In our lives, this may mean for us to forgive those who have hurt you, to refuse to allow what has happened to you to control your life. We need to make sure there is enough time for those that we care about.
One can make this way open for God to come into our lives when one can trust God enough to lay our burdens down. When the unexamined, unchallenged, have cluttered our hearts, then the way is not open. Our faith is not merely to avoid evil. That would reduce it to merely rules and commandments. The challenge is to be able to set aside some of the good that keeps us from the best.
As we approach Christmas, let each of us see beyond the clutter of living to the hope that was born so many years ago in Bethlehem. We, too, can find the way home. The call for us is to find a way for God to be in our days and our hearts. Those who went to the wilderness were challenged to turn and go in a new direction in their lives, leaving behind much of what they had believed and looking for a new way.
Few people are kept from Christ by some great, overpowering evil. Most fail to see or hear because they are preoccupied with good things, busy at work, acquiring wealth, enjoying entertainment, being comfortable, but not seeking the best. We are challenged to unclutter our lives to find the Christ who is there with us, in us, and calling for us to come and follow.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, as our days are filled with so many demands, help us to focus our lives upon your will and your way. Amen.