Advent Confessions

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

I have a confession to make: Christmas has almost become a burden to me. I have begun to dread the decorations, the music, the functions, and the many expectations that are placed upon me at this time of the year. But, more than anything else, I dread--no, I actively dislike--the mall walking and traffic fighting that makes up the agony called shopping! And so, I can think of nothing more important than being reminded that Advent was not created to be a season of commercial insanity. The Holy Spirit did not buy Jesus Christ at JC Penney’s and bring Him to Mary and Joseph wrapped up in paper with a bow stuck on His head. Our Lord was born. And, as any mother can tell you, there is much to do in preparation for the birth of a baby.

Let’s begin by reading Isaiah 40:3-5 from the good old King Jimmy:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

I don’t see anything about shopping malls, Christmas Trees, and twinkling roof-lights in this passage, do you? I see an earth-shattering upheaval in the ways of the world, a radical change of creation: valleys being made into mountains, hills being made into valleys, the crooked being made straight. We are told that the coming of the Lord will change everything. If this is true, and we believe that it is, than we do have a reason to celebrate! After all, the King is coming! The message of Advent is:

“Get Ready!”

Unfortunately, this is not the message of 21st century Americana. Our secular culture has taught us that the days and weeks prior to Christmas are reserved for the frantic purchasing of presents. We have been taught that, for Christmas to be complete, we must find and buy that “perfect” gift ... as if such a gift ever really existed. One year, for some unknown reason, the toy of the season was "Furby." I remember searching the internet for hours on end, looking for a Furby for my nephew Benjamin, and the more I looked the more ill I became. I couldn't believe that, with the hunger and the homelessness and the moral depravity of our day and age, there are people who are willing to spend $1000.00 or more for a single, furry toy! It sometimes seems so very trite, but it is nevertheless very true: our culture has completely given up the central message of this season in favor of a materialistic orgy ... a frenzy which is hard to avoid. Indeed, I finally broke down and paid $150.00 for a Furby.

To not be outdone, the Church has its own frantic frenzy. We go to Cantatas, Pageants, parties, and covered-dish meals, all of which enhance the life of the Church. I want to be clear here: none of these things are bad in and of themselves. It is, generally, a good idea to give someone else a gift . . . and no one hates receiving one! Certainly, no one thinks that a vibrant church-life is bad for the soul. But, through all of these various forms of preparation, through all of the insanity of the twelve days before Christmas, it sometimes appears that we lose sight of He whom we are preparing to receive.

Jesus wasn't born on December 25th, but for well over a thousand years Christians have celebrated the birth of their savior at this time of the year. It's as good a time as any. In Advent, as we do our shopping and our decorating, and as we go to parties and cantatas, let us not lose sight of the reason for the party. Let’s not forget to “Prepare the way of the Lord!

© 1995 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from