Poor John the Baptist. Even though he gets top billing in the readings for Advent, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in a single Christmas pageant. He just doesn’t seem to fit with the angels and shepherds, barnyard animals and bedazzled kings. There is not a single Christmas carol that starts with “You brood of vipers!” Not exactly cheery words to get you in the Christmas spirit.
But, his message “’Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” may just be what we need most to hear this Advent season; like medicine that is difficult to swallow, but necessary for our healing and well-being.
How are you feeling about the weeks leading up to Christmas? Overwhelmed or at ease? Harried or calm? Worried or confident? Anxious or excited? Sad or joyous? Uncertain or grounded? Or may be a little bit of all of these things on any given day? How are you feeling as you look forward to the weeks ahead?
Every year when we arrive at Advent, many of us do not have a sense of hopeful anticipation, but, instead, a sense of dis-ease or even dread. It is so easy to get lost in all the things that we think have to be done this time of year. You may wonder about how we are going to manage all of the expectations that come with this season. Even in a pandemic, when there are fewer parties and events to attend, many of us look at the next few weeks and worry about how to cope with all there is to do. You may be keeping a breathless pace running up to the holidays and feel like you are sliding into home plate on Christmas morning.
There are other unique challenges this year. You may be preoccupied and concerned by who is or is not vaccinated. And if you will be missing a loved one at Christmas – perhaps someone you loved died this year or Christmas just hasn’t been the same for years because a treasured person is no longer with you. For all of these reasons and others, this season can be emotionally treacherous.
John grabs our attention near the beginning of each Advent to jolt us into getting our priorities straight. His message cuts through the noise of the season so that we can keep our eyes and hearts on what’s most important now – and all our days. And it has nothing to do with purchasing the fanciest presents, setting the most elegant holiday table, or even having the most beautiful Christmas Eve worship services. John shakes us up with what at first may not sound like good news. (Quite a way to warm up the audience by calling them a brood of vipers!) But for anyone who approaches this season with mixed feelings, John’s stark words just might help us find our way through Advent with peace and renewed purpose.
If we earnestly want Christ to be born anew in our hearts and in our world this Christmas, or if we simply want to enjoy a peaceful holiday season, then we ought to listen carefully to John, who calls us, all of us, to change our ways. What was unique about John’s message was that he wasn’t saying that just some people needed to repent. He challenged everyone to look within. As Debie Thomas writes, “We can’t get to the manger unless we go through John, and John is all about repentance.”
Luke starts out today’s reading describing a world whose political and religious structures demand that a majority of people are desperately poor and powerless. He sees that the way the world is set up in his time is unjust and cruel, just like it continues to be for many people in our time. Those who are drawn to the wilderness to hear John’s message are desperate, hurting people – and much of their desperation and pain comes from the way that other people – people in power – have set up the system to take advantage of and control them. John names this as sinful.
Being caught in an unjust society, the people of John’s time – like today – often found themselves tempted to compromise their values. John recognizes that the people are stuck in a system fraught with moral, religious, and economic peril while trying to live the best way they could. John helped the crowds not only name the ways injustice constrained them. He also showed them what they could do, how they could change their ways, to live as fully as possible; to live as God called them to live.
A few weeks ago in my sermon, you may remember that I quoted John Elder. Today I am going to share more of what he said, because his words are also germane to today’s Gospel. He writes, “Whatever our personal values may be we are part of societal systems – on which we depend for our existence – that may, and often do, contravene those values. This “original sin” is what we are born into…. Our two-fold calling is to live with as much integrity as we can within those complex systems and to do what we can to make them serve life and not degrade it.”
John the Baptist recognized the entanglements that people lived with. To the tax collector and soldier, he didn’t say, “leave your jobs.” But what he did say was to be honest and not take advantage of others. To those fortunate enough to have two coats – to have more than they needed – he called them to share with those who have no coats; to those with food, to share with those without food.
Sinful behavior, from John’s point of view in this Gospel passage, is failure to love others; it is a failure to be generous with what we have, when others are suffering; it is privileging our own interests, while we ignore or take advantage of the interests of others. It is being satisfied with living comfortably, while others can barely live. John calls us to get our priorities straight. To love God means we must care for others struggling with injustice and great need.
In 2006, three pastors: Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, and Greg Holder discovered that the amount of money we spend on Christmas in the United States in a single year is close to 45 times the amount of money it would take supply the entire world with clean water. Unsafe water each year results in the deaths of nearly a million people and sickens nearly a billion more. The pastors decided to create a campaign with their churches to spend less money on presents and direct the savings to Living Water International to dig new wells for poor and remote communities. Since that time hundreds of churches have joined their effort. They have raised over 16 million dollars to address the water crisis in the poorest parts of the world. They have transformed their experience of Advent to be in keeping with the deepest meaning of the season.
Maybe the problem with this season for many of us is that rather than preparing the way of the Lord, we are preparing the way for a holiday – a holiday that has far more to do with our own comfort and joy than with remembering that Jesus came to us as a poor, vulnerable baby and continues to come to us as Mother Teresa would say, “in the distressing disguise of the poor.”
As humans we often feel out of sorts when it seems like we are caught up in expectations and events that are not of our own doing; when we feel like there are circumstances outside of us, beyond our control, that are determining what’s happening in our lives; when we feel like we must act out of duty. Perhaps the season can feel draining because we aren’t being conscious and intentional about why we are doing what we are doing in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
I was reading Maria Shriver’s newsletter this morning. She talked about how we can get all worked up when we can’t find the perfect present for a loved one. She advised that in those moments people pause and remember why they are purchasing the present – love. Love can be at the heart of the season.
Perhaps we are simply unconsciously doing those things we have always done year after year without asking ourselves what is actually most important. Maybe we are holding onto the Hallmark version of Christmas rather than John the Baptist’s?
How are you are feeling this Advent? If you are overwhelmed, in dread, grieving, or out-of- sorts as we face another pandemic Christmas, take heart. There is something you can do. You can pause. You can look within. You can remember why you are doing what you are doing. You can repent. You can change your ways.
To prepare the way of the Lord, to focus on the true meaning of Christmas, think about what touches your heart this time of year. Yes, there are beautiful, heartfelt traditions that mean the world – that you want to continue to practice. But there may be other things that you might let go of – so that you can have more energy to prepare the way of the Lord and celebrate the season in peace. Think about, really think about, the message of John the Baptist: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Make this the center of your Advent practice and see how you feel when Christmas comes. Amen.