Getting Practical About Christmas
What difference will it make, that we have celebrated Christmas? On December 26th, what difference will all this make in our lives? What transformations will it make in the world?
The Gospel Lesson this morning demands that we get practical about Christmas. Elsewhere Luke describes the angels and the shepherds and the Baby in the manger. But here he talks about Christ's impact on the world, and he begins by reporting on John the Baptist.
John was a forerunner. John convinced throngs of people that the Messiah was coming and his name would be Jesus. He preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and when they came out to hear him, he persuaded them that their Jewish heritage alone was not enough. "Don't comfort yourselves by claiming Abraham as your ancestor," he said. "Turn around. Start living in another direction!" He baptized them, and when they persisted in asking, "What shall we do now?" he answered by saying, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."
Some tax collectors were converted. Tax collectors were a hated breed for three reasons: they represented the Roman occupation, they assessed more than they should, and they skimmed off the top for themselves. "What should we do in our turned-around lives?" they asked. And John said, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed."
Even soldiers were converted. These had to be Romans, and they were quartered locally and lived off the people. "What should we do in our turned-around lives?" they asked. And John said, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your actual wages." These are practical answers.
This morning we are going to receive some very nice people into church membership. As they make their vows, we will be renewing and re-celebrating the new covenant, the fresh relationship, which we have with God through our Baptism. And once we have done this, the same Christmas question recurs: "What shall we do now? What ought we be doing in our turned-around lives?" And I think we ought to try as hard as we can, this morning, to be practical.
It is said that a chambermaid came to join the church at Charles Spurgeon's Metropolitan Temple in London. When asked for evidence of her sincerity, she said, "Now I sweep the dirt out from under the rugs, rather than put it there." It's an answer that would have pleased John the Baptist. I think it would please Jesus.
I. So, first of all, our covenant includes practical things on a personal level. Not cheating others, counting to ten before yelling at the children, making allowances, forgiving the people who are cheating us (sometimes persistently), sticking to a contract even when it presents a disadvantage to ourselves--all these may be signs that God's Spirit is at work inside of us in a new and different way and we are living in a new covenant.
Immanuel Kant said that we should so act that our behavior could constructively become universal law, and that's a good principle to consider. What would the world be like, if everyone behaved the way I do? Would we have good schools, clean streets, a healthy church, a safe environment? Someone says, "Everybody's doing it," but so what? Is that the direction we want society to take? The Chinese have a proverb: If you desire a clean city, first sweep the street in front of your house. We can't do the whole city, but at least we can face in the right direction.
II. Second, our covenant includes Christian togetherness, that is, pitching in and taking a full part in the Christian fellowship. God has a Kingdom to be proclaimed in this world, and God's plan involves the Church, a committed body of Christian followers and believers. To get practical about Christmas by putting ourselves squarely inside the Church, and taking part actively in it.
We can do so much more good in this world, when we act together. I suppose it's conceivable that a person can live a Christian life outside the Church and, as they say, make it to heaven on their own. It's just about as conceivable that someone might cross the Pacific Ocean in a row boat.
As a matter of fact, someone recently did cross the Pacific in a row boat, and it was remarkable. But when he landed he said he would never try that again! I don't think it's because he missed the flight attendants and the roasted peanuts. There was superhuman effort in his crossing, and not a whole lot of joy.
It's the function of the Church to make the crossing simpler, and reveal its joy! We have the joy of working together with other Christians. We have the delight of laughing at ourselves and our own pretensions! We have the kick of helping to carry each other's burdens. You have never seen anything quite so delicious as a group of spiritually alive human beings, engaged in a worthwhile task.
People who try to live a Christian life outside the Church don't know what they're missing, and often they fail. It's not much fun when you insist on going it alone.
III. Third, we can work together in the church to change the practical shape of society.
When Pat Buchanan entered the 1992 presidential primary he announced first in New Hampshire. New Hampshire, correctly or incorrectly, is known for its collection of right-wing conservatives, and so there he made his pitch. Two things I remember from his speech: he accused George Bush of being a wimp, and he told the clergy to stop preaching politics.
I wonder if he would accuse Jesus of preaching politics. After all, Jesus said, "I have come to bring good news to the poor, and liberty to the captives." I wonder if he would accuse Amos of preaching politics. Amos criticized Israel's corrupt court system. I wonder if he would accuse Isaiah of preaching politics. Isaiah condemned his nation's foreign policy. Would he accuse Moses of preaching politics? Moses led a contingent of Egypt's second-class citizens, first into protest and then into freedom.
I wonder what America's social and political right would have to say about the subversive words in the Magnificat, uttered by the poor little peasant girl, Mary, whom the angel said had found favor with the Lord:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
God knows how slow I am to pick up on a cause! I think that when we identify Christ with one caucus after another, and with every little enterprise for the social good, we can trivialize both the Lord and his message. But our conscience must be regularly reexamined, for the Gospel always has its practical side, or it is not Gospel at all.
That means there are social actions Christians need to be taking together. Justice issues, such as equality of the sexes, protection of the rights of women and minorities, protection of the environment, alleviation of the poor, building a safety net for the unemployed and finding Incentives for economic development -- au these things have to become political issues before even government can act. But long before that, they are conscience issues, for Christian conscience is not based on personal whim or comfort or self-seeking, but on Scripture, on the Law and the Prophets, and on the teachings of Jesus.
It was Christian conscience that got rid of slavery. It was Christian conscience that established free education. It was Christian conscience that finally burned out the moral props from beneath apartheid. So if our turned-around life is going to make a difference, we have to talk about these present issues, too, whatever the politicians may say!
So let's get practical about Christmas! The world's troubles are not going to end, just because five or six hundred of us have turned around and joined the Church. The Peaceable Kingdom will not appear in its fullness on the Christmas Eve of 1994, just because we believe in it, celebrate it, and build our lives around it. But if we pay attention to its practical side, some troubles will cease. I know a man who says that while Jesus once turned water into wine, in his house Jesus has turned wine into furniture. If we take the new covenant seriously, some things will be better in particular places. And some new signs of hope will be given, to all the world!
Eric Wilbra Bascom Springfield, MA