“The Christmas Break In”

December 4, 2011


Isaiah 40:1-11

II Peter 3:8-15a

Mark 1:1-8


“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief…”

May I share with you one of my favorite Christmas stories? Although it wasn’t exactly heartwarming at the time, it did happen on Christmas Eve, and early on Christmas morning. It was the Christmas of burglar alarms and police, of bitterly cold weather and of great surprises.

Many years ago now, Robin and I moved from our crowded, noisy apartment building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the third floor of a large, quiet house in Belmont—tony, suburban Boston. We shared the house with its owner, an older woman of strong spirit and great energy.

On moving in we were oriented to the complex burglar and fire alarm system in the house. It included both smoke and heat detectors and invisible beams of light that would set off the alarm if anyone unknowingly walked through them. It was designed, as these systems are, to keep things from burning down, to keep those who should be outside, outside, and to keep those on the inside safe, secure, and calm.

Our landlady was out of town for Christmas, visiting family and California, where it was warm. In contrast, this was to be our seventh Christmas in a row away from our families, and the temperature in the Boston area that Christmas Eve fell to ten below.

We attended a rather grim Christmas Eve service at the Cambridge Congregational Church—probably the worst Christmas Eve service I’ve ever sat through—even worse than one that I was responsible for a few years earlier—although that is another story—and then went to a friend’s home for some companionship and conversation.

When we returned home early on Christmas morning, we made sure that the alarm was set and went to the third floor.

About 4:30 or 5:00 that morning, the alarm went off.

How does the narrator put it in “The Night Before Christmas?” “I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.”

Like a shot, I was out of bed and down to the second floor to the alarm control. No fire was indicated. So the flashing light left only two options: either someone was trying to get into the house, or (cue the scary music) . . . someone was already in the house.

The security alarm company called to see if there was a problem. Shaking, I told them I didn’t know. The alarm had gone off, and I was not about to search through the large, dark house for the person who triggered it.

So the police were called.

Robin and I waited for them in the kitchen on the first floor, which for some reason seemed like the safest place at the time. Maybe it was because I found a knife there and clutched it until the police arrived.

The police came, looked around, and found no one.

Later that morning we discovered that the extreme cold of the night had caused the doorframe in the old house to shift just slightly, letting up on a button that triggered the alarm.

As the sun came up, still unable to get back to sleep, we could see a family in the house down the hill from us gathering for breakfast, looking as if they had read all the right magazine articles and had purchased all the right gifts.

“The day of the Lord will come like a thief.” Those words reminded me that very often we wait for an alarm to go off, we wait for some outside signal to tell us what to do.

Very often, however, those signals don’t help.

Very often they are false alarms.

Think about our preparation for Christmas.

We think that when all the decorations are up, when all the cards are sent, all the cookies are baked, all the trees are trimmed, then we are well prepared. If there is any extra time, perhaps then we can relax. Perhaps then we can reflect on the meaning of all of this. Perhaps then we can take delight in the people and the world that the incarnation pronounces “good.”

In a sense, we take the date of December 25 as our warning signal.

And the closer it gets, the louder the alarm starts to sound.

Is everything ready? Busy, busy, busy.

Are we all set? Busier, busier, busier.

And after all the flurry of activity, we arrive at one day and look around and wonder if the alarm didn’t go off by mistake. All too often people feel let down, disappointed, depressed.

Something happens if we are simply awaiting the arrival of December 25.

Something happens if we are simply preparing for the getting and giving of gifts.

            If we are simply getting ready for the gathering of family.

                        If we are simply getting ready for the lighting of candles.

Something happens, and as significant as all of this is, it is soon over. Life goes on as before and we again feel cheated out of the best Christmas ever.

So it is important that we know what we are preparing for, and what preparation means.

Christmas announces the good news that we are not alone, that God breaks into our world. Advent tells us to get ready for this break in—for it will come without warning. It will come like a thief.

If you have had the experience of walking into your home after a thief has been there—another experience we once had when living in Massachusetts—you know that no warning was given. No alarm sounded.

Thieves do not come according to schedule. They do not come when they are expected. Nor do they come in publicly announced ways. They are unexpected. They come with stealth. And we are robbed: gone are the television, the cash, the camera, the jewelry.

The thief works in silence.

God’s advent, God’s coming is just such an unannounced intrusion. How does the carol put it? “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given . . . No ear may hear his coming.”

And we are robbed.

Yes, God breaks in with forgiveness and comfort.

But we are robbed of our old ways of seeing, robbed of our old ways of acting. And in this manner we are left open for the new age that God is bringing. God breaks in so that we might forgive, and give, and live with each other in peace.

We cannot prepare for this with Christmas charm. We cannot be warned of it by burglar alarms.

But we can prepare. Indeed, the words of Isaiah call us to prepare the way of God.

Those words from II Peter do give us some clues about preparing, about making ready for the advent of God.

They speak to us of “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” The suggestion is that we not just bide our time but that we actively bring about the advent, the coming of God into the world.

Here we are getting to the real reasons behind our Advent/Christmas giving and our other giving at this time of year. All these are done to enable the world to be more like God’s desire for it. We give to provide healing, clothing, food, and shelter.

If we are fortunate, as we prepare we begin to recognize the ways in which our lifestyles contribute to hunger, to poverty, to violence. And we repent—that is, we turn in the opposite direction. This is active waiting—waiting and hastening.

When we give, when we act out of love, we learn to let go of at least some of what we have so that we can let God work though us in the world. When we give, we wait and hasten, we prepare the way of God.

Preparedness, according to II Peter, also has to do with holiness and godliness—big words, almost too big for us to grab onto them. But in this context, I would suggest that holiness and godliness mean to be committed to the promises that God is about to keep, that, in the words of Isaiah, “God will feed the flock like a shepherd, gathering the lambs in God’s arms.”

We wait for God, knowing that God is not slow in fulfilling the promises of new life. We wait, giving thanks that what we might see as delay is that much more of a chance to prepare, to work toward the promise, to be ready when it is kept.

Finally, preparing the way involves being “at peace.” Maybe it’s an unfair question to ask this time of year, but, is there peace in your life? Preparing for Christmas, preparing for God breaking into our lives, is about finding peace and making peace. And there is still time.

The living God comes into our lives quietly, unexpectedly, without warning. We wait for this advent, this arrival of God, not huddled in kitchens hoping that the police will come. We wait, not surrounded by a myriad of Christmas trappings.

We wait and hasten—living lives of peace that are prepared for the God who breaks in—not just at Christmas, but always when unexpected.