Well, it’s that time of year again. Time to think about getting ready for Christmas. Shortbread cookies have been a part of Christmas in the Danna household as long as I can remember. In fact, when my siblings and I were young, we referred to shortbread cookies as “Christmas cookies.” We still roll out shortbread dough and cut it into Christmas shapes. And of course, baking isn’t the only thing that needs to be done to get ready for Christmas. There’s the house to decorate, parties to give and to attend, and, of course, the shopping. And I must admit, I haven’t done any of it yet!

“Prepare the Way”

One thing that we used to do at my house was to have an Advent wreath on the table. For those of you who don’t know about Advent wreaths, an Advent wreath has four red taper candles around the outside, and a large white pillar candle in the centre. At dinner on the first Sunday in Advent we would light one red candle, on the second Sunday in Advent we would light that candle plus another red one, on the third Sunday those two plus a third red one, on the fourth Sunday all the red candles. On Christmas Day we’d light all the red candles plus the white one, which is called the Christ candle. Each of the red candles also has a meaning, and the first one is for John the Baptist, because John told people to get ready for the coming of Jesus, the Light of the World. The Gospel writers describe John as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” What I want to ask is, How do we make the paths of our hearts straight? How do we get our hearts ready for Christmas and the coming of the Lord?/

One thing we can do is to avoid distractions. With all the busyness of the holidays, it’s easy to lose track of what Christmas is really about. Commercialism will also distract us if we don’t choose to resist it. In spite of what retailers try to tell us, Christmas isn’t about parties or decorating, and it certainly isn’t about Santa Claus and getting presents. It’s about Jesus coming into the world, God himself becoming a man so that one day he could die for our sins. It may seem strange to think about Jesus’ death when we’re talking about getting ready for Christmas. But his death for our sins is the reason that he was born. So without Good Friday and Easter, Christmas loses its significance. Henry G. Bosch, one of the original writers of Our Daily Bread, wrote, “Unless we see the Cross overshadowing the Cradle, we have lost the real meaning of Christ’s birth!” We need to keep this in mind if we’re going to really get the best out of Christmas.

One way that we can avoid getting distracted is to make sure that we set aside time for God every day, spending a few minutes each day in prayer and Bible study. Even a few minutes is better than no time at all. Just as we eat food every day to feed our physical bodies, so we need to feed our spirits regularly with spiritual food.

The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb (PS 19:9b–10 NIV).
How sweet are thy words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!... With open mouth I pant, because I long for thy commandments (PS 119:103, 131 RSV).

In another sense, Jesus himself is our spiritual food.

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” (John 6:35, 54–55 NIV)

With all the things that can catch our attention, especially at this time of year, we have to deliberately choose to make time for God. He may have something very special to tell us, but we won’t hear it if we don’t stop to listen. And it may not seem to make sense, but if we make time with God a priority, everything else will fall into order, and that makes it easier to get everything done. I’ve heard it said that if we give God the first part of our time, he’ll multiply the rest and make sure that we get everything done. There are also Christmas books and devotions to read, and Christmas music to listen to, both for children and for adults. I remember a group of stories that my mother used to read to us every Christmas Eve, and now my siblings are reading them to their children. There are Christmas activities for children, too. All these things can help us focus our minds on the real meaning of Christmas.

Decorations, Outside and In

Mention of John the Baptist reminds me that according to the Gospels, John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In other words, John called on people to repent of their sins so that they could be forgiven for them, and to be baptised as an outward sign of their inward change of heart. Sin separates us from God, because God is too holy to be in the presence of sin. But God doesn’t want to be separate from us, he wants to be in relationship with us. So he sent Jesus to deal with our sins by dying on the cross. Part of getting our hearts ready for Christmas is to clear them of the blockage of any known sin by confessing it to God, repenting of it, and turning away from it. We clean and decorate the house before Christmas. We vacuum and dust, wash the floor, and polish the wooden furniture. Perhaps we shampoo the rugs and maybe the upholstery as well. Maybe we even paint the walls and get new furniture. Then we put up the special decorations that beautify the house for Christmas. We mustn’t forget to do the same for our hearts. Of course, we can’t do this ourselves. Only God can cleanse a human heart and make it beautiful. But he won’t do that unless we ask him to. In Rev. 3:20 the risen Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” We can accept his offer of salvation or we can reject it. It’s up to us.

Another important way of preparing our hearts for Christmas is to remove from them all wrong attitudes. Bitterness, anger, impatience, and jealousy will keep us from enjoying the season, and they’re not honouring to God at any time of year. Another wrong attitude, one that we have to be especially careful of at this time of year, is greed. In fact, these things come under the category I just mentioned, because wrong attitudes are just as sinful as wrong actions. Wrong attitudes will also do us harm, and that’s why Scripture warns us repeatedly to get rid of them.

Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts,… Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice (EPH 4:22, 31 RSV)

Paul also wrote, “But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth (COL 3:8 RSV). Just as we sweep and clean our homes as part of getting ready for Christmas, we need to put wrong attitudes out of our hearts.

Once we’ve swept and cleaned, we put up the decorations. Once we’ve put aside wrong attitudes, what right ones should we put in their place? Again, Paul is helpful on this. In Eph. 4:23–24, after he tells us to put off the old self with its corruption and lust, he says to be renewed in our minds and put on the new self, which is righteous, holy, and godly. In Eph. 4:32, he tells us that instead of being angry and quarrelsome, we should be as kind and forgiving to each other as God is to us. And in Col 3:10 he says again that we have put on the new self, which is being renewed according to the knowledge of God.

Another way of getting our hearts ready for Christmas might be called giving back. Christmas is a time for giving—but how often do we give of ourselves? Finding ways to bless others is a good antidote to the materialism that’s so rampant at Christmas time, because it gets our minds off ourselves. Scripture talks about the importance of giving to others.

One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty…Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses (Prov. 11:24; 28:27 NIV).

And Jesus said, “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38 RSV). These Scriptures refer in the first place to giving money, but they don’t exclude other ways of giving. And while giving money is important, there are other ways to give besides that. So those of us whose financial resources are limited can find other ways to give. I often encourage people like this. For example, I once had a lady call into the Prayer Line who was depressed because she was a shut-in, unable to get out of her home, and lonely. I reminded her that even if she were physically weak, she could still pray for people. I suggested that she could call people who were shut-ins like herself. She answered, “Well, I do like talking on the phone.” So I suggested that she contact her pastor and get a list of members of her church who were shut-ins, and that she phone them, and thus encourage both them and herself. I never heard from her again, so I don’t know whether she did what I suggested. But I’d like to think that the reason that she didn’t call again was that she did what I suggested, and found it helpful.

There are other ways that we can give back as well. We can volunteer at a soup kitchen or visit the elderly and sick in hospitals and nursing homes. Giving of our time to these people can be more valuable to them than an expensive gift. We can also give of our skills and talents—and everyone has at least one of those. You’ve probably heard it said that we are blessed to be a blessing. God wants us to be channels of his blessing, not reservoirs.

The most important way of getting our hearts ready for Christmas is to welcome Jesus into them as Lord and Saviour. That first Christmas Day, Jesus made his home in a human body and in a stable in Bethlehem. Even now he wants to make his home in every human heart. Have you received him as Lord and Saviour? If you haven’t done that, and you’d like to, I hope you’ll consider doing it. That would be the best way of all to get your heart ready for Christmas.