Rub Of Advent
A Bible study guide on the gospel of Luke begins with the following multiple choice question. John the Baptist was the kind of guy that I would like to:
a. take Christmas shopping
b. get stuck with in an elevator c. invite to a black tie dinner d. drive with for 500 miles, keeping within the speed limit e. send to comfort your hard-hearted uncle in the hospital, f. sit with at an all-you-can eat buffet.
Make your choice.
Advent is the right time to talk about John the Baptist.
He prepared the way for the One to follow after him- not Santa, that is, but Jesus. It's uncomfortable to talk about John during Advent, he talked about uncomfortable things. He called those who came to him with haughty pride a brood of vipers, and threatened the ax to all those who didn't bear good fruit in their lives. But to those who had lost nearly all hope in government, in society, and even in God, he gave words of redemption and promise.
He took on his appointed responsibility with a vengeance. He had the crowds eating out of the palm of his hand.
John was a striking figure with a striking message. Just as for those well-schooled in American history, a gaunt bearded face and a stovepipe hat immediately conjure up the image of Abraham Lincoln, John's rustic clothing and desert-induced diet would have invoked the great prophet Elijah for those who heard him, or heard about him. And as Lincoln's image brings with it remembrances of a man grieving over painful but necessary decisions, with malice towards none, fairness for all, and a stoic resoluteness to stay the course of the Union, the image evoked by Elijah brought with it scenes of judgment, finality, the awesome presence of God coming to reward the faithful and bring the fiery wrath of the day of the Lord upon the wayward. John looked like Elijah. He preached like him, too.
John's message was simple and straightforward- Prepare the Way of the Lord.
He had a program for his preaching as well. According to the gospel of Luke, when the throngs asked him what they needed to do, he instructed them: Share your coats and your food. Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. To the tax collectors who gathered to hear him; Collect no more than the amount prescribed.
To the soldiers: Don't extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.
John told it like it was and the crowds loved it. He preached an extreme message and there was no way to be indifferent about it. Listen up! Repent and be baptized. This is the end of the line because the one who follows me will also be your judge. The good grain will be saved, but the chaff will burn in unquenchable fire.
Somehow, this message attracted people. Go figure. There was apparently an emptiness in people's hearts and lives that this message of self-giving and self-sacrifice addressed. And in a day and time when faith in man-made institutions of society was being lost, John called people to re-orient themselves in a proper way to God.
John lived and preached an extreme message; he also died young; at the hands of a King who heard one too many things said about him. Yet while John lived, he approached life with an all-or-nothing attitude. Fanatic was a word often used for him.
He praised God for all he was worth with his whole being, his habits, his diet, his reputation. He laid it on the line for God.
This said, how does John the Baptist fit into this season of the year ? Advent is our season to prepare for Christmas.
How we choose to prepare turns into how we in fact celebrate the holiday. We will reap what we sow. We will celebrate what we value. Christmas is a holiday which people look forward to all year long. Yet even though many people are doing things they've looked forward to all year long, and are surrounded by their favorite friends and closest relatives, many still have the feeling that something is missing. For some reason, the vivid reds and greens of the holiday season merge into gray, and they find themselves just going through the motions of rejoicing. It happens, in varying degrees, to most everyone. At first it's difficult to explain what's wrong with Christmas plans, because on the surface everything looks fine. But when we pause and take a closer look, especially in the light that scripture gives us, we can realize that sometimes our celebrations, or our preparations for them lack proper depth and meaning.
It's not enough that Christmas is the biggest family gathering or social event of the year. It's not enough to know that you know you'll get the gift you've been waiting so many months for. The decorations we put up should result in more than just a beautiful home or festive surroundings... we want an air of expectancy out of them, too.
When we write a check for a charity, we don't want to be mentally computing the tax deduction but want to be filled with genuine compassion for the people needing help.
And when we attend a worship service, we don't just want to be passive observers for an hour's worth of religion and entertainment, we want to be filled with the spirit of God.
At Christmas we want to find something more joyful, more loving, and more lasting than what comes around on the other weeks of the year. The implicit questions being asked at this time by so many of us go something like this: How can Christmas connect me with ideas and experiences larger than myself? How can I most truly share my blessings with others, those I love and those I don't even know? and, How can the whole celebration bring me closer to how God would have me, and others, live?
There's a tension in the air for many Christians facing this season's celebration, because at the same time that you feel compelled to help others, to write a check larger than you otherwise might, or take advantage of this momentary window of opportunity to go out of your way to help someone you otherwise would have ignored in the course of your busy schedule; at the same time there are responsibilities of home and family, tradition and convention that restrain you from going overboard, and, well, doing what John the Baptist might do if he were here in 1996. Sell all that he owns and give it to the poor. Give it all away. Proclaim the coming of God and live on the edge, expectantly waiting his arrival. Now, you say, that would be totally out of line, no one can expect that kind of giving and hopeful anticipation from us from us nowadays. That's unrealistic and irrational.
Is it? How so? In a recently published book entitled The Culture of Disbelief; How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, the author Steven Carter, a distinguished professor of Law at Yale University and a devout Episcopal layman, a convincing argument is made that our culture is not unlike the Greco-Roman culture which labeled John the Baptist a religious fanatic- too dangerous for public hearing- which eventually brought him to a beheading at the hands of Herod the King.
Our society has norms, boundaries and expectations of behavior, particularly when it comes to things religious, that prescribe for us how far we can go with our celebrating the Spirit of Christmas, or the spirit of Christian charity and life at any time of year.
Cross those boundaries and you risk being labeled a radical, an extremist, a fanatic. And that, no one wants to be called. Who me ? Sure, I'm a Christian, but I don't go around making a big deal of it. Religion is fine, just so long as you keep it to yourself. In his book, Carter examines some of the most controversial subjects of our time- abortion, the rights of homosexuals, euthanasia, the place of immigrants- and he traces the public response to groups who take stands on these issues, one way or another.
He finds, time after time, that those who put themselves on the line for a given issue are swiftly, by the media, and by themselves, labeled radicals, and are treated with a watchful eye, as if something potentially dangerous, or newsworthy, is about to happen. There is a fine line drawn in the public eye between conviction and fanaticism, between those called committed and those called crazy.
Thus, the prevailing views of the culture play a stronger role than the views of faith- or, as Carter puts it, there is a wall of separation between the church and the self, in which the prevailing mores of culture, whether legally enforced or not, have a higher claim on us than do the privately held convictions of conscience, however we arrive at them. He continues...
We teach college freshman that the Protestant Reformation began the process of freeing the church from the state, thus creating the possibility of a powerful independent moral force in society. As defenders of the separation of church and state have argued for centuries, religions play a vital role as free critics of the institutions of society. But our public culture more and more prefers religion as something without political significance, less an independent moral force than a quietly irrelevant moralizer, never heard, rarely seen. The public sphere does not welcome explicit Reformed witness - or any other particularized Christian witness. Or -for that matter- any religious witness at all. The public sphere says, in short, that religion is like building model airplanes, just another hobby: something quiet, something private, something trivial- and not really a fit activity for intelligent, public-spirited adults.
So, mangers are removed from public view, Santa appears while baby Jesus is absent, and the name of Christ is removed from public verses of carols.
Society awaits the holidays with a rush of consumerism and Christians await the celebration of the birth of the Christ child.
But today's message--the message of this sermon is this: something else needs to take place first to have it all make any sense at all. When we look again at the Biblical witness, we find out something of the rub of Advent. We await a babe in swaddling clothes; an infant in a manger; that's who we're really waiting for. But before we're allowed to see him, to sing Joy to the World, and to share our gifts with one another, we're given this maniac of a prophet named John to put up with. Before we get the Christ child in all his innocence, we must deal with John with all his rage and fury, all his certainty and conviction. We must wrestle with his words of the coming righteousness of God and the fruit of good works to be borne in our lives. We must listen to his words of judgment and coming trials that will come; and it's not the turmoil and hassles of Christmas shopping that he's talking about. As long as John preached in the countryside -in the desert- it was just fine, repentance and justice are fine for those who live out in the sticks, but bring the same harsh words into the city and repercussions result. John went too far, one too many times.
The Christmas season is for us a window of opportunity to act like John the Baptist and get away with it. We now, in this season, have society's green light to give to the salvation army, to Habitat for Humanity, to Barium Springs home for Children, to this Church, to needy families we know of, to any number of worthy charities, and it's wonderful that this happens, it's part of what people mean when they talk about the magic of Christmas. We can let down our guards and care for one another, and really mean it. We can live expectantly; we're given the OK to live with hope for this arrival that will come unto us. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.
The challenge for us is to live according to the gospel prepared by John and then enfleshed in our Lord Jesus, to share in deep and meaningful ways with one another, and with the community around us in ways which point to the coming of God's Son in our midst that proclaim the Advent of God, not only in Advent, but throughout the year. The task for us is continue this crazy way of life into March, and March and March and on into our lives to ourselves embody something of the good news, that God cares enough for us all that God came in human flesh and bones, not to condemn us, but so that we can have life and share God's love with others.
In the rub of Advent, in the friction between John's call to repentance and action and the quiet unassuming grace of Jesus' birth is where we find ourselves now, three weeks from Christmas. In the tension that exists for us, in the decisions that make up our roads to Christmas, God invites us to share and embody the gospel.
In the tension, in the midst of the rub, God will arrive with us, because God cares. And God cares because God is become one of us. This is the Gospel of God, this is the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
Eternal God, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way for the coming of your son. Grant us the wisdom to see your purpose and openness to hear your will that we may too prepare the way for Christ who is coming in power and glory, to establish his kingdom of peace and justice, and to live according to your promises. Have us meet you in the days and weeks to come.
For in Christ's name, we pray. amen.
Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Blair Doe Run Presbyterian Church, Coatesville PA