“Preparing the Way” Colchester Federated Church, December 4, 2022, (Matthew 3:1-12) Second Sunday of Advent

One of my favorite Christmas movies is A Charlie Brown Christmas.  The story begins with Charlie Brown and his friends ice skating on a frozen pond.  Charlie Brown ends up confiding in his friend Linus that he finds the Christmas season to be depressing.  It seems like all anybody is focused on is buying presents and getting more stuff.  Commercialism all around!  Charlie visits Lucy’s psychiatric booth and she suggests that Charlie direct the annual Christmas play to do something positive and simultaneously get into the Christmas spirit.  He accepts Lucy’s invitation and it looks like this will help make the season bright.

Except Charlie Brown encounters issue after issue with the Christmas play.  The cast just wants to dance to lively music and not rehearse.  Lucy wants to be declared the Christmas Queen and Snoopy isn’t taking his role of playing the different animals very seriously at all.  To help get things back on track for the Christmas play, Charlie Brown decides to get a Christmas tree to set the scene.  He goes to the Christmas tree lot with Linus in tow, and sees a small sapling (that isn’t much to look at upon first glance).  But the sapling has potential—especially when it could be lovingly cared for and decorated.  Maybe you’ve experienced this too!  Sometimes our Christmas trees don’t look all that great until we put lights, garlands, ribbons, ornaments, or stars and angels atop them.  The transformation of ordinary trees into Christmas trees is really something to behold.

Back to our story, Charlie and Linus return with the little sapling and the cast immediately make fun of the pathetic tree and Charlie Brown for thinking that this would be a decent tree for the Christmas play in the first place.  Completely defeated, Charlie Brown says, “I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.  Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”[1]

And that’s when probably the most famous scene in the movie begins as Linus says, “Lights, please” and takes his blanket to center stage to recite lines taken right out of the Gospel according to Luke Chapter 2 (the King James Version).  Linus shares, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not.’”  Linus drops his security blanket (because he doesn’t need it in that moment) and keeps going, “‘For behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”[2]

You know how the rest of the story goes in this beloved Christmas special.  The little sapling looks like it will not survive after an ornament weighs it down, but the kids rally together to give that little tree a second chance.  Linus uses his beloved blanket to wrap the tree’s base to give it some support.  Decorations from Snoopy’s doghouse come in handy to finish the project as Charlie Brown returns to find the little sapling transformed into a gorgeous Christmas tree.  The celebration ends with a hearty “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!” and a lovely rendition of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

On our fireplace mantle at the parsonage, we have a little replica of the sapling from A Charlie Brown Christmas.  It looks all scraggly and awful.  It came with a single red ball ornament and a scrap of light blue felt to symbolize Linus’ blanket that is wrapped around the base of the tree.  And every year when I unwrap the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree and put it out for my family to see throughout this holy season, I am reminded that sometimes our calling as Christians is to see potential in one another that we might not be able to see in ourselves.  It’s to know that just like when that tree seemed dead and came back to life with loving care, our God is a God of hope everlasting and grace-filled second chances.  Not because we are perfect—sometimes we feel rather scraggly and sparse.  Though God doesn’t see us that way.  After all, Jesus came to show us God’s compassion.

Today we heard about John the Baptist preparing the way for Christ to come.  We remember that when John the Baptist was out there in the wilderness he preached, “Change your hearts and lives!  Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”[3]  John the Baptist was preaching about repentance.  In fact, that’s how the New Revised Standard Version passage reads, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[4]  Now John the Baptist was a feisty figure—wearing clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt holding up his garment, eating locusts and wild honey as he preached his message of repentance and baptized folks who came to him in the waters of the Jordan River.  John the Baptist pointed toward Jesus when he said, “I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives.  The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am.  I’m not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”[5] 

John the Baptist’s central message remains important for all of us to consider as we continue through the holy season of Advent.  Repentance is not just for feisty preachers baptizing people out in the wilderness.  We can keep in mind that John would have been familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and one of the Hebrew words for repentance was nacham.  It was a metaphor for changing your mind and the literal meaning of that word may have been to sigh—an expression of regret.[6] 

Have you ever said or done something that you felt bad about, and your response was to sigh?  Have you ever realized that you made an assumption, judged somebody unfairly, or jumped to a wrong conclusion—and you changed your mind?  This is how preparing the way for Jesus can look—changing our hearts and our lives, repenting.  Because we know that we are not perfect, and we know that we are capable of changing for the better.  That’s the good news!  We have as much potential as that little scraggly sapling of a Christmas tree. Having self-compassion helps us be more compassionate toward one another.  It’s okay to make a mistake and apologize.  In fact, that’s part of what it means to be a person of faith.  If we are to have peace in the world, in our communities, in our families—peace begins within.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] A Charlie Brown Christmas.
[2] Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14 from the King James Version in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
[3] Matthew 3:2, CEB.
[4] Matthew 3:2, NRSV.
[5] Matthew 3:11, CEB.
[6] “Repent” in From Literal to Literary: The Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors, Second Edition, James Rowe Adams, pg. 243.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash