It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . . well, I guess depending on where you look, it’s been looking a lot like Christmas since Halloween, maybe earlier. But now that we’ve turned the calendar to the twelfth and final month of the year, I, too, am ready to start decking our halls. And so earlier this week, I suggested to Tricia that maybe it was time to start dragging our Christmas stuff up from the basement . . . and she nicely (but firmly) reminded me that we really can’t decorate the house before we clean the house. Sigh. She’s right, of course. It makes no sense to get out more stuff until the stuff that’s already lying around is put away. It makes no sense to put up the tree before we’ve trapped the dust bunnies lurking in the corners. But – truth be told – I hate cleaning the house. It’s just so tedious. So time-consuming. So pointless . . . because you know it’s just going to get dirty again. But as I said, Tricia was right – and the realization that yes, we really did need to clean before decorating, put a bit of a damper on my holiday spirit.
I wonder if John the Baptist as he shows up in our scripture readings every year on the second and third Sundays in Advent – I wonder if John the Baptist is a wet blanket on your anticipation of Christmas. Because his message, too, is a message that we need to clean up our houses – our spiritual houses – in preparation for Jesus. When he takes the Pharisees and the Sadducees to task, he’s critiquing the religious leaders, and by extension, the whole spiritual house of Israel. “You bunch of snakes!” he roars. “Don’t think that you can just rely on your rituals and your religious affiliation. Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
Repentance. That’s a hard word to hear in the jolly month of December. It feels much more suited to February and March and the days of Lent. But there is one aspect of repentance that I think is especially helpful in this season, and that is the understanding that repentance is a thorough, insistent cleaning of our house in preparation for Jesus – not the house in which we live, made of brick and mortar, shingles and siding, but our inner residence, our heart. Because John has a point. I suspect that within all of us, the room of our heart may have become cluttered. I would wager to guess that there are some corners of our spiritual house where dust has accumulated. It’s even possible that the windows to our souls may be so smudged and smeary that the sun’s light is dimmed. And admitting to that truth, it makes sense that John the Baptist should come along with his rude self, kicking aside the clutter, running his finger through the dust, swiping at our windows with his sleeve, and telling us to clean up.
What is cluttering your heart, taking up valuable space? Is it a schedule so filled with appointments and to-do lists that you have little time to devote to your relationships with God and the people you love? Is it a consuming sense of self-sufficiency that makes you look down on – and neglect – the needs of those who may have no choice but to rely on others? Is it memories of the good old days and a longing for what used to be that crowd out the available real estate in your heart so that there is no room for you to imagine that God may be doing a new thing? Even now, in Advent of 2022? How might your heart need de-cluttering?
Where have dust and dirt accumulated in your heart? Is there anger or resentment that you can’t let go of that is soiling your soul? Does frustration diminish the shininess of your spirit? If you swept or swiffered the corners of your heart, would you find dust bunnies of discontent? How would your heart benefit from a dust mop and some polish?
And where are your windows grimy, obscuring your view of the light streaming toward us from the manger? Does pain keep you from experiencing the light? Or grief? Or a belief deep down in those places that you don’t talk about at holiday parties or family gatherings – deep down the belief that you are not good enough, not worthy of basking in the glow of Jesus’ love?
John the Baptist’s manner is brusque, there’s no doubt about it. His mother, Elizabeth, apparently never taught him the saying that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. But acerbic as he is, he has a point. And so rather than seeing John like a hypercritical mother-in-law, passing judgment on you for the way you keep your spiritual house and nagging you to do better, may I suggest that you remember the one for whom he is preparing the way: the one of hope, the one of peace, the one of joy, the one of love. And strive to make room in your heart for him, not because you feel you should, but because you yearn for his light in your dimness, you yearn for his light in this dark world.
In our house, we haven’t finished decking the halls, though now that the house is in order, we have begun. And though I hate to admit it, this I know: the decorations will have better effect in a tidy, dust-free, and polished home. Just as the coming of the Son of Man will have better effect in an uncluttered, clean, and clear heart. In a few minutes, you will hear the choir making reference to this Advent house-cleaning, when they sing these words: “Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table. People look east and sing today. Love, the Guest, is on the way.” Let every heart prepare room for this Guest. Come, Lord Jesus, and make our heart your home.