Advent 2016: Preparing our hearts for Christmas

This is an edited version of a talk I gave in Sacrament Meeting last week.

My assignment was to speak on a message entitled “Preparing Our Hearts for Christmas,” which is based on talks by the First Presidency in the 2011 Christmas Devotional. All the quotes in this post are from that message. While we don’t as a church formally observe a traditional liturgical calendar the way many other Christian denominations do, the First Presidency’s exhortation to prepare our hearts for Christmas is consistent with the very old Christian tradition of advent, four weeks of anticipation and preparation before Christmas.

See to it that Christ is the Center of our Celebration by Repenting and Believing the Gospel.

 

Christmas and advent are something of a season of contradictions. It’s a season dedicated to the memory of Jesus, who created this world and many others, but who came to live in extraordinary humility, and who taught “[i]f thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor . . . and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21), yet there is no other time of the year when we are more constantly bombarded with messages designed to get us to buy more and more and more. Ironically, Black Friday, the High Holy Day of the commercial calendar, usually falls near the start of advent, and while advent is a call to prepare our hearts for the celebration of Christ’s coming, Black Friday kicks off a season of frenzied buying, calling us to prepare for Christmas by spending as much as we can.

These distractions don’t need to dictate our Christmas experience. In his Christmas message, President Monson said this:

“Christmas is what we make of it. Despite all the distractions, we can see to it that Christ is at the center of our celebration.”

So let’s not get carried away in the commercialism and the contention that can threaten to distract from the spirit of Christ. Christmas is not what people around us make of it, “Christmas is what we make of it.” The choice lies with us to take offense or to forgive. The choice lies with us to choose to focus on Christ instead of on the way Christmas is celebrated around us. So instead of getting angry when those around us don’t celebrate Christmas the way we think it should be celebrated, let’s instead follow President Monson’s counsel to “see to it that Christ is at the center of our celebration.”

On that point, President Utchdorf, in his Christmas message, spoke about how to separate the true spirit of Christ from, as he put it, “the minor things of life” that we attach to Christmas:

“It is usually something small–we read a verse of scripture, we hear a sacred carol and really listen to its words, or we witness a sincere expression of love. In one way or another, the Spirit touches our hearts, and we see that Christmas, in its essence, is much more sturdy and enduring than the many minor things of life that we too often use to adorn it. We feel and realise in these precious moments what we feel and know in our heart–that Christmas is about the Christ.”

The trappings of Christmas are fun. Trees and nativity sets, gifts and rich foods, beautiful music and treasured family traditions. All these things are good and beautiful, but it is not these things, but the spirit of Christ that is, as President Utchdorf so beautifully puts it, the “sturdy and enduring” essence of Christmas. Moroni and Paul both taught that “all things shall fail, but Charity is the pure love of Christ and it endureth forever” (Moroni 7:46-47; see also 1 Cor. 13:8).

I testify that this is true. When I was younger, I used to feel that if it didn’t snow on Christmas, or if there wasn’t a Christmas tree with lights and with all the ornaments that represented so many treasured family memories, then it wasn’t really Christmas. But serving a mission in southern Arizona where there was certainly no snow, where the only trees around were either a palm tree or a saguaro cactus, cured me of that. On my first Christmas in the mission field, my parents sent me a package of Christmas presents that got lost in the mail, and didn’t get to me until weeks after Christmas, after I had already been transferred to a new area. I had no presents to open that Christmas. But I still remember that Christmas Eve in a basement apartment in a fairly rough neighborhood of Phoenix, reading the words of King Benjamin about an angel coming to him to give him the good news that Jesus would be born of a virgin and would save all those who would believe in him. Those words filled me with light and truth.

These things are just things. Like the rest of the things of this world, they will all pass away. The cut tree will eventually wither, the snow will melt away in the sun, the cookies will grow stale. These things aren’t the “sturdy and enduring” essence of Christmas.

What truly makes it Christmas is when we remember our Savior and repent and believe the gospel.

Our Christmas Gift to Jesus: The Commitment of the Sacrament.

We give gifts at Christmastime, and for me at least, much of the advent season is often spent preparing for Christmas gift-giving: making lists, figuring out how much I have to spend, looking for sales and good deals, trying to make my gift budget stretch as far as I can so I can give the best gifts I can afford to those that I love. But what if we spent as much time and energy preparing to give that gift as we spent preparing to give the other gifts we give?

President Utchdorf says that like the wisemen–

“We should seek the Christ and lay before him the most precious of gifts: a broken heart and a contrite spirit. We should offer him our love. We should give him our willingness to take upon ourselves his name and walk in the path of discipleship. We should promise to remember him always, to emulate his example, and to go about doing good.”

If you pay close attention to the words here, President Uchtdorf is describing the covenant of the sacrament. To lay before Jesus a broken heart and a contrite spirit requires total surrender, not partial promises or conditional consecration. We cannot give him this gift if we keep back a part of ourselves. We must, like the Lamanite king, be willing to give away “all [our] sins to know [him]” (Alma 22:18). This may be a simple concept, but doing it is no simple task.

Let me suggest that this giving our hearts to God requires continual repentance. Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’ coming to us. And whenever Jesus has come to his people, he has sent prophets before him to prepare the way, like John the Baptist, and Samuel the Lamanite. Samuel says “Behold, thus hath the Lord commanded me, by his angel, that I should come and tell this thing unto you; yea, he hath commanded me that I should prophesy these things unto you; yea, he hath said unto me: Cry unto this people, repent and prepare the way of the Lord.” So as we prepare for Christmas, we should listen to voice of John and of Samuel, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, calling us to repentance.

Repentance is an ever-present principle of the gospel. It is not something that we graduate from when we move on to baptism and confirmation and the ordinances of the temple. None of us is so advanced as to be beyond repentance. None of us is exempt from it.  We are told in scripture that God “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31). But I think we sometimes misunderstand why the Lord tells us this. I do not believe that he tells us this to scare us away from sinning, or to, convince us to by force of will, stop sinning and start being worthy. I’m not sure that that’s even possible. The Lord tells us that he cannot look on sin with the least degree of allowance to teach us how we should look upon sin–and more specifically, how we should look upon our own sins: we should acknowledge them, all of them, instead of making allowances for them.

Most of us probably have some sin that we have not yet fully repented of. Some piece of ourselves that we are still keeping to ourselves and not giving fully to the Lord. “I have my faults, but I keep the sabbath day holy, and I don’t steal, I pay my tithing, I keep the word of wisdom, I’m no adulterer or murderer, I don’t commit fornication and I don’t even watch rated R movies. Surely that’s good enough, isn’t it.” And of course we know deep down that the answer is no: it is not good enough. As the Apostle James teaches, the person who keeps all the commandments but one is guilty of breaking the whole law (James 2:10).

But still, we persist with futility in justifying small sins simply because they are not as bad as big sins. Why do we do this? Is it because we are selfish? Perhaps, but I think that often it is more because we are scared. We are afraid that we will fail, that if we try to repent of these stubborn little habits and fail, and fall back into our old ways, it will mean that we didn’t have the strength to obey, that we’re not truly righteous, that we’re not worthy, and that’s a possibility that we’re afraid to face. So we just don’t think about it. We focus on the commandments that we’re already keeping, we focus on condemning the sins were not guilty of. We reassure ourselves that we’re righteous, and we keep those little, persistent sins pushed down into some dark corner of our hearts where we won’t see them and don’t have to think about them. Because the fear that maybe we don’t have the faith or the strength to fully give them up is just too terrible to think about openly.

But this fear is unnecessary. It isn’t our strength or our righteousness at all that we have to rely on. It is Jesus’ strength and righteousness that will make us worthy. “We cannot offer perfection,” says President Utchdorf, “and the Savior does not expect it.” If we have faith in Christ, in his power to save us from ourselves, to change us from natural men and women into saints, through the atonement–if we have faith in his love, in his willingness to save us–then we don’t have to worry about whether we have the strength, because it is his strength that will change us. All we have to do is have the faith to try, and to fully submit to God. His grace is sufficient if we will just come unto him. And if we are worried that we don’t have enough faith to fully come unto him, then we can pray and ask God to give us that faith. I can tell you from personal experience that God answers that prayer. I am far, far, far from perfect, and if I were relying on my own obedience to be righteous, I would despair. But, like Nephi, “I know in whom I have trusted” (2 Ne. 4:19; see also 2 Tim. 1:12)–and thank goodness it isn’t me! It is because I trust that Jesus will forgive me and help me as long as I keep trying that I have the confidence to keep trying, to keep repenting.

It is through this faith and this hope in Christ that our repentance in preparation for Christmas can be a joyful renewal of faith; not despairing because of our weakness and imperfection, and not just repenting in sackcloth and ashes, but rejoicing in repentance, because of the hope that our repentance will be made perfect. Rejoicing that we know Jesus is coming to help us because we are coming to him.

And this year, we have an opportunity to give him that gift in a special symbolic way that only comes along in our church every seven years or so. Christmas this year is on a Sunday and we will have the chance to take the Sacrament on Christmas day. So this Christmas, when you take the sacrament, consider that you are giving Jesus a Christmas present as you formally testify to God that you are willing to remember him always, to keep his commandments, and take his name upon you, as you eat broken bread and drink from the cup in remembrance of his body and his blood.

Surely, we should be giving our hearts to him every day of the year, and renewing our commitment every time we take the sacrament. But I think President Monson is right when he says–

“There is no better time than now, this very Christmas season, for all of us to rededicate ourselves to the principles taught by Jesus Christ.”

Jesus’ Christmas Gifts to Us: his Atonement and his Presence.

I’ve been talking about what we can give Jesus. Jesus taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And I have learned that that is true. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t also rejoice in the gifts that we receive. And just as we can give Christmas gifts to God, we also receive Christmas gifts from him. As we promise to give our hearts to him, he promises us we will have “his spirit to be with us” (Moroni 4:3; Moroni 5:2; 3 Ne. 18:7, 11).

Of course, we know that he gives us the promise of immortality and eternal life in the future, but he also gives us his presence every day in the present. As President Uchtdorf reminds us–

“He promises to be with us, to come to us when we need comfort. To lift us when we stumble, to carry us if need be, to cry, laugh, mourn, and rejoice with us. Every day he offers to take us by the hand and help transform ordinary life into extraordinary spiritual experiences.”

This is perhaps the most beautiful exposition I’ve ever read of the promise in the sacrament that we will have “his spirit to be with [us].” This is the atonement. This is God, the creator of the earth, becoming at one with us, to share in our weakness and our mortality, so that we can share in his strength and immortality; to share in our grief so that we can share in his joy.

Our Christmas Gift to Others: Our Presence and our Witness of the Atonement.

The Lord told Moroni “if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness” (Ether 12:6). As we prepare our hearts for Christmas, by coming to Christ in repentance, the Lord will tell each one of us exactly what it is that you need to change, and to seek his help to change, in your life. It will not be the same for each person.

But may I suggest that we give some thought to how we can recommit ourselves to give the gift of the atonement to other people.

President Eyring said:

“Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected that we may live again and that we may be purified and cleansed from sin. You can give a great and wonderful Christmas if you remember the gifts that God has given you and, as best you can, offer them to others as he would.”

Missionary work is so much more than just inviting your friends to listen to the missionary discussions; it may include inviting people to hear the missionary discussions, but more importantly, it means extending the Savior’s love and your personal testimony of the atonement–of his power to change people from sinners into saints–to all people: active members, inactive members, and non-members alike. It especially means that we pay attention to strengthening new and inactive members, or any others who may be struggling. It means that we lift up hands that hang down and strengthen feeble knees. It means that we follow Jesus’ example to “be with them,” in their grief and their joy. To paraphrase President Uchtdorf, it is our responsibility to “be with [them], to come to [them] when [they] need comfort. To lift [them] when [they] stumble, to carry [them] if need be, to cry, to laugh, mourn, and rejoice with [them].”

As members of the church, we all want to see success in missionary work. But can the Lord trust us as a ward and a stake with new converts if we are not taking care of the least among us–those inactive members, new converts, or even active members that may feel alone, isolated, struggling in their faith?

Let me suggest that the best way to improve our missionary efforts is to deepen our own conversion and commitment to follow Jesus’ example. I have learned that when I have the spirit, I have missionary experiences, whether I am looking for them or not, and when I don’t have the spirit, I don’t have missionary experiences, even if I set goals and try to force them. Missionary work is about conversion, and conversion does not come by having a testimony, but by repenting and allowing the Lord to change us, by his grace, into something better than we used to be. If we will ourselves constantly repent and constantly experience a deeper conversion, then we will see missionary opportunities all around us.

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So this Christmas, let’s thank God for the gifts that he gives us. Let’s not leave them unwrapped under the tree. Let’s take the time to appreciate these gifts and share them with others. Let’s give Jesus the gift of our hearts and our willingness to take his name upon us, remember him, and keep his commandments to live as he would. And let’s spend the rest of the advent season preparing our hearts so that when we give them to him on Christmas, by partaking of the sacrament, we can give them to him completely, without keeping back a part. And then let’s become his hands and let him work through us as we offer his gifts to all those around us.

Merry Christmas everyone!