Christmas Prayers


Our Advent preparation this year is focused on prayer. "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth", and "I want a hippopotamus for Christmas" are prayers of a sort. On our own that's the best we can do. As Paul says, "We do not know what we ought to pray for" (Rom. 8:26). In the Epistle reading I'm told what to pray for you, and in the Gospel reading you're told. And guess what? You, and I are to be praying for your heart.

The Epistle says, I am to pray that your heart be strong in order that you may be blameless and holy at the coming of the Lord Jesus. My prayer for you is to be oriented toward eternity not time. I know you have needs, pains, and fears in this life that need prayer, but my prayers for you are to be focused on the end of the world. I'm to ask that when you stand before the Lord on the Last Day you would be blameless and holy. Strong hearts stand before God blameless and holy, says Paul. But where do strong hearts come from? Look at the text. Strong hearts come from love that increases and overflows for each other and for everyone else. A heart that is not static but growing in love is strong. The love mentioned here isn't the love of affection and feeling. This word for love is agape. Love of purpose and intellect.

What a funny view of a strong heart! Stoicism, lack of love, cold firmness is what we think of when we think of strong hearts. A heart that doesn't let other people in. A heart that doesn't concern itself with others. That's what we consider a strong heart. Not God. A heart that increases and overflows in love for others is a strong heart. That's my prayer for you this Christmas. And boy how we need this. How come holidays are rough on families? How come some of our worst fighting has to be done when there is a Christmas tree in the room? Why at Christmas of all times do we get that ornery, hateful feeling which pushes people away? Every year we start out wanting it different. We want a Bing Crosby "White Christmas", but end up with "Nightmare on Elm Street." My prayer is that this year it would be different. I pray that our families may increase and overflow in Christ-like love for each other and everyone.

Everyone? Yup. And what song do we sing? "Everyday People". "There is a blue one who can't accept/ The green one for living with/ A fat one tryin' to be a skinny one/... There is a long hair/ That doesn't like the short hair/ For being such a rich one/ That will not help the poor one/...There is a yellow one that won't/ Accept the black one/ That won't accept the red one/ That won't accept the white one." This 1968 song was prophetic, and dooms us. If we remain as we are, we'll hear from Jesus these words from 1 John: "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen." And don't try to split hairs with God over the word hate: "I don't hate my brother; I just don't like him." If you try, you'll hear from God, "I'm not damning you; I'm just sending you to hell."

Do you see why I'm told to pray for you to have hearts made strong by love increasing and overflowing in them? This isn't natural for me to pray or you to do. On my own I wouldn't think to pray this, and you're not spontaneously going to become strong-hearted in love for one another. So Paul can't be telling the Thessalonians, "Get out there and increase and overflow with love for each other so you can stand before Christ on the last day." No, Paul tells them, "I'm praying that the Lord would make you increase in love till overflowing." If you try to make yourself love more or better, you will fail. You'll experience what you do when you determine to get along with everyone at Christmas. It works fine till you or they have a bad day or do something stupid. Then your love stops increasing and starts decreasing. Only the Lord can make love increase and overflow; that's why Paul makes it the subject of prayer.

But where does the Lord turn hearts of stone into soft ones? Where does He do the miracle of bringing the milk of human kindness from the rock of the fallen heart? You hear where every other Sunday in a Post-Communion Collect: "We give thanks to Thee...Thou hast refreshed us through this salutary gift; and we beseech Thee that of Thy mercy Thou would strengthen us through the same in faith toward Thee and in fervent love toward one another." Communion is heart medicine. Blood pumped from the holy heart of Jesus Christ is given to you to drink so that it might work on your heart. It works like Psalm 119 says. "I shall run the way of Your commandments when You enlarge my heart." Communion is like angioplasty. It opens the heart by bringing Jesus' love for sinners into your heart. His Blood enabled Christian Jews to love gentiles, Christian woman to love pagan husbands, and tortured Christians to love their torturers. Surely then His Blood can open our clogged arteries to love one another.

My prayer for Christmas for you is for hearts that love one another so that you may be blameless and holy at the coming of the Lord Jesus, but what should you pray for? Jesus says in the Gospel you are to pray for light hearts so that you are able to stand before the Son of Man on the Last Day. Here's another prayer for eternity not time. It's not wrong to pray for things in time, but most prayers in Scripture pray with a view toward eternity. Scripture focuses on what happens on the Last Day rather than on all the other days. The Gospel admonishes us to pray that our hearts not become weighed down with what happens day to day so that we may be able to stand before the Son of Man on the Last Day. And He's specific, isn't He? He says, "Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life."

What a fitting prayer at Christmas. Now's the time to eat, drink and be merry for come January we diet. Now's the time to let loose and dig into this world. Now's the time to act like there's no tomorrow let alone eternity. And isn't now the time for the "anxieties of life?" Maybe it's that quest for the mythical perfect Christmas which drives people to worry. Maybe it's because Christmas-time tragedies seem doubly tragic so I worry about them more. And what can happen if I am weighed down by partying or problems? The Last Day "will close on you unexpectedly like a trap." Note well; the Lord does not say that dissipation, drunkenness and anxieties will be the trap, but the Last Day. Rather than a day of joy it will be one of judgement; rather than a day of release it will be a day of captivity; rather than a day of rejoicing it will be a day of reckoning.

Therefore, Jesus tells you: "Pray that you be able to escape all that is about to happen and that you be able to stand before the Son of Man." He literally says, "Fall down on your knees and beg" you be able to escape. Beg that your heart not be weighed down by parties or problems, by alcohol or anxiety, by eating or drinking, by merriment or worry. Since He tells you to pray for escape then He will surely provide it. He will provide hearts light enough not to be trapped by the Last Day. But how? Where? Does Jesus do it by means of mood music or songs that get your body swaying and your hands clapping? Does Jesus provide us with a warm-up act of happy clappy things to help us rise above parties and problems?

This is what the world offers this time of year, especially this year. The world is determined to make up for last year's Covid-infected Christmas. Party, dance, make merry like it's 2019. Forget, put in the back of your mind, the cares of this life, the things happening in this world. It's the way of the world to try and change moods. It is the way of Christ to change hearts. Ezk. 36:26 says, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." So when you beg your Lord to escape and to stand before Him on the Last Day, He responds by giving you medicine for your heart.

Back to the heart medicine that is Communion. We pray in the other Collect after Communion: "We thank Thee that for Jesus' sake Thou hast given us pardon and peace in this Sacrament; and we beseech Thee not to forsake Thy children but evermore to rule our hearts and minds by Thy Holy Spirit..." Communion lightens your heart by giving you pardon and peace. It says, "Take eat, take drink of pardon and peace." Communion lightens your heart by forgiving your partying hearty, drunkenness, worrying. It removes burdens off your heart and plants the peace of God which passes all human understanding there instead. Since we can't rise to God with hearts so heavy and burdened, He comes to us in this Sacrament to lift us to God by means of His Body and Blood given and shed to forgive our sins. On the basis of this, we "beseech" or beg God not to forsake us though we deserve it. We beg Him not to leave us mired in the things of the earth so that we'll be trapped by the Last Day.

All our efforts to lighten our heart, to control our heart are pointless. We can't do it. And, similar to last week's warning, don't think when your heart is feeling good, happy, and right with God that you have refocused your heart or lightened your load. Jeremiah 17 warns that the heart is deceitful above all things so nobody can know it. Nobody but God can fix it either. And He does this by means of the miraculous Sacrament of the Altar whereby He uses the body and blood of His Son to give pardon and peace to heavy hearts and His Holy Spirit to hearts out of control. That's why before we stand before Him on the Last Day, we regularly come to this altar to stand before Him here. Here without fail He gives the medicine that hearts weak in love and heavy with sin need. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

First Sunday in Advent (20211128); 1 Thess. 3:12-13; Luke 21:36