This past week Corinna and I were watching the cult-classic, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, perhaps you’ve seen it at some point too.
As the holidays approach, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) wants to have a perfect family Christmas, so he pesters his wife, Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo), and children, as he tries to make sure everything is in line, including the tree and house decorations.
However, things go awry quickly; his kids hate having to share space, the grandparents are bickering with one another, and just when the house was feeling like it was about to overflow, Clark’s cousin Eddie shows up unplanned with his family in a rundown RV.
Through it all, Clark remains undeterred in his attempt to have the perfect Christmas and through each disaster—the cat being electrocuted, the dog tearing up the house, the turkey being overcooked—Clark is determined to show a good face.
In fact, what’s enabling Clark to keep it all together is the hope and belief that his expected-but-late Christmas bonus check will soon arrive and he’ll be able to cover the expenses of Christmas and announce the planned construction of a backyard pool.
But, when a messenger arrives with an envelope that does not contain a bonus check but rather a certificate for a “jelly of the month club,” Clark loses it. He goes on an epic rant about his boss:
Hey! If any of you are looking for any last-minute gift ideas for me, I have one. I'd like Frank Shirley, my boss, right here tonight. I want him brought from his happy holiday slumber over there on Melody Lane with all the other rich people and I want him brought right here, with a big ribbon on his head, and I want to look him straight in the eye and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, …hopeless, heartless, fat-(bleep), bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed sack of monkey (bleep) he is! Hallelujah!
Cousin Eddie takes the request seriously and drives off in a hurry to Melody Lane. Then Clark, in a delirium marches outside with a chainsaw and cuts down the pine tree in his yard, seeking to replace the Christmas tree that had just gone up in smoke from his father-in-law’s cigar.
After it all, Ellen confronts Clark in the bathroom and tries to talk some sense into him. “Was that really necessary?” she asks.
After yet another crazy calamity, this time a squirrel running rabid through the house, everyone decides to give up and go home. But Clark refuses to let them go.
Where do you think you're going? Nobody's leaving. Nobody's walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We're all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny (bleeping) Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white (bleep) down that chimney tonight, he's gonna find the jolliest bunch of (bleep)holes this side of the nuthouse.
Having ended his rant, Clark marches off and gets a drink of water in the kitchen. His father walks in and lovingly asks Clark to reconsider his priorities, reminding him that despite the disaster of the evening, what matters is his love for his family, and that its okay Clark messed up.
It’s in this moment we see what was motivating Clark all-along. The desire to create the perfect Christmas he never experienced as a kid.
“All our holidays were always such a mess, how did you get through it?” He asks.
His father replies, “I had a lot of help from Jack Daniels.”
From wanting to have the perfect tree, to wanting to have all the family gathered together, to trying give the ultimate gift—Clark was doing everything he could to try and create something he apparently never experienced as a child—the perfect Christmas.
I think this is something we can all relate to.
I remember as a kid, my family always gathered to celebrate Christmas at my uncle’s house in Bailey, CO. There, in that modestly sized home would be my uncle, aunt, and cousins, my grandparents, my parents and three sisters, and my great uncle. While I’m sure much of my reminiscing is an overly optimistic remembering of what really happened, still today, even as a parent, I think subconsciously I compare my Christmas experiences today to those Christmases from 20 some years ago, wishing that the current Christmas could be as great those memories from the past.
See, part of the reason for that is because the extended family of 13 people has been whittled down to about 7.
My uncle died suddenly on a Thanksgiving nearly 15 years ago, my aunt and cousins soon became estranged from the family, my grandparents have both died in the past few years, one of my sisters moved out of state with her husband, and recently another sister has chosen to disassociate from the family.
I think in some ways, deep down, I struggle to engage fully into Christmas because I’m mourning what once was.
Such a realization tends to lead us to two responses. One is like in the movie, Clark’s over-ambitious attempt to provide the perfect Christmas.
The other is, perhaps like me at times, a reticence to go all-in and give oneself fully to the joy of the season, to retain the hope and belief that this Christmas, no matter the differences from the past, can still be just as meaningful than the past, if not more so.
And so, perhaps, it’s why I find one of the Bible texts associated with this season so far-off and unfeasible.
As we talked about last week, this is the season of what’s called “Advent” in the church world.
Advent is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for both the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas and the future return of Jesus to this earth at the Second Coming.
In the season of Advent, we mark the time by way of advent calendars, the lighting of advent candles, and daily devotions.
At its core, it is a season of waiting.
But, this Advent, we’re going to think about things a little differently.
Rather than focusing on waiting, I want us to think about what can’t wait.
This week, I want you to know that peace in your life, in your family, can’t wait.
I invite us to consider the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. As mentioned last week, Isaiah’s homeland had just been invaded and conquered by a foreign empire. Thousands of people were deported and their cities destroyed.
But, despite the disaster, the devastation, the destruction, Isaiah is still hopeful, he still believes God has a plan for the nation, a peaceful future. Let’s look at Isaiah 11:6-9
Remember, these words come to a people, to a nation that had just been invaded and conquered; likely thousands of men killed in battle, countless women and children assaulted, and myriads of people taken away by force.
These words of peace, of tranquility, of security, must have been shocking to hear.
Surely the people hearing this would have wondered, “how can we make this happen?”
Fast forward if you will with me, some several hundred years into the future, and notice John the Baptist, a wandering prophet, living off the land and himself proclaiming a hopeful future to a people that like in the time of Isaiah, were also defeated and oppressed by a foreign power. (John 3:1-3)
John proclaims himself as continuing in the spirit of Isaiah, calling himself a voice of one crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.
What John calls the people to isn’t a spirit of hopefulness, it’s not optimism—rather, it’s repentance.
He asks them to take responsibility for their own actions and start doing things differently.
What John knew back then is that “only through honest confession can we seek reconciliation and become vessels of God’s peace.”
We see this acted out by Clark Griswold.
Remember, in the movie, Eddie kidnaps Clark’s boss and brings him back to the house. Understandably enraged, Clark’s boss fires him on the spot, blaming him for the whole debacle.
Eddie counters that the whole thing was his idea, trying to keep Clark out of trouble. “Clark had nothing to do with this, this here was my idea,” Eddie says.
But, Clark rebuts Eddie.
“Oh no, this was my fault he says,” Indeed.
While Clark had changed his behavior, he still had to come to terms with the consequences of his actions.
“I did it,” Clark confesses.
Clark essentially says, “my attitude led to Eddie’s actions.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s after this confession true reconciliation is achieved. The boss relents and promises to restore the Christmas bonuses.
This is the same thing John the Baptist was trying to point out—and something we should take notice of.
Again, “only through honest confession can we seek reconciliation and become vessels of God’s peace.”
True peace starts with you, it starts with me. You’re the only one you can change you. I’m the only one that can change me.
And when you change you, when I change me, others start to change around us.
Despite this truth, we often try to go about it the other way. We try to change our spouse, our siblings, our parents. The problem is, that doesn’t work. We can’t change someone else.
And this is a principle that extends even beyond ourselves and our families.
This is the time of year when we talk about peace for the world, about the ending of violence, about justice for all people—imaging a peace for our world just like the peace Isaiah spoke of.
But, the problem with our efforts for peace, even today, is that we so often seek to achieve peace by changing the other.
Nationally we push for peace in the world, seeking to change the policies of other nations without acknowledging and confessing how our own country’s actions have contributed to violence in the world, without being willing to change our own actions.
Peace starts with you, it starts with me, whether in our family, in our community, or in our nation.
And peace only comes by you and me, ourselves, owning up to our own actions and seeking to change ourselves.
Now, I want to say this; peace isn’t pretending everything is fine.
“It’s not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong.”
Remember, in the movie, Clark constantly tries to sweep everything under the proverbial rug, pretending everything is fine.
When he cuts open the turkey and it exposes a dried-up skeleton, Clark dismisses it. When aunt Bethany recites the pledge of allegiance rather than saying grace, Clark simply says “Amen.” When the cat is electrocuted in the front room, Clark brushes it off as “nothing.”
Pretending everything is fine when things most definitely are not, is not true peace.
And, sometimes, achieving peace will come at a cost.
Peace might require you confessing or acknowledging that you’ve allowed yourself to be mistreated, to be diminished, to be walked all over in the name of “keeping the peace.”
Further, to achieve real, actual peace for yourself rather than pretending like everything is fine, you might need to press pause on a relationship, you may need to stop participating in a function, you may need to start doing things differently yourself.
And, while things might get worse in the short term, in the end, its in taking that hard road that real peace will actually come.
Again, from the movie, when dragged in front of Clark’s family, after Clark having told his boss that denying the Christmas bonus, “just plain sucks,” Clark’s boss Frank relents.
Frank tells his wife, “I did something I shouldn’t have…these people called me on it.”
And please, don’t take this as an excuse to kidnap your boss, or father, or family member!
Rather, please understand that sometimes finding peace in yourself and in your family means confessing your own mistakes—and also that sometimes finding peace means confessing how the actions of others affected you.”
And as impossible as this sounds, as unlikely as such a resolution might seem, the words spoken by Isaiah encourage us to believe that nothing is ever dead, broken, or lost.
In verse 1 of chapter 11, we read; “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Think of a mighty oak tree. Jesse was the father of king David, the patriarch of the monarchy. Yet, that once mighty tree had been felled, cut to pieces, and reduced to a simple stump.
In other words, the family legacy of Jesse was dead—or was it?
Isaiah notes—out of that stump, out of what was seen as dead and done, a branch, a new life, a seedling of hope, shall grow out.
This is our hope too.
No matter how broken, how dysfunctional, how dead things might seem in our family, new life can still come forth.
By coming to terms with your own faults, by speaking your truth, by changing yourself, real change—real peace can come to your family.
I want to be clear that these results don’t come easily. They require some real soul searching, some real courage, some real effort on your part.
They may require looking at some parts of yourself you’d rather pretend didn’t exist, they may necessitate doing some things that seem terrifying from a far, they may need you to do things you’d never imagined yourself doing before.
But, in the end, what would you rather have?
Would you rather be Clark, gnawing relentlessly on dried out turkey, listening to a dog puke up the trash he’s just eaten from the mess in your kitchen?
Would you rather be sitting around the fireplace, arm in arm, resting in the peace and serenity of the moment?
That latter image, the idyllic experience of Isaiah, is something I believe we all desire deep down for ourselves, but perhaps believe impossible to achieve.
Do not despair, hope is not lost.
No matter how broken, how dysfunctional, how dead things might seem in our family, new life can still come forth. That’s the hope of Isaiah.
By coming to terms with your own faults, by speaking your truth, by changing yourself, real change—real peace can come to your family.
This season of Advent, this coming Christmas—peace in you, peace in your family can’t wait.
 Lisle Gwynn Garrity
 Desmond Tutu