Advent 3, December 16, 2018
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
When my grandmother died, we did what all families eventually do: we divided her things, each according to interest or need. Some of my cousins needed the furniture and appliances. Some of my aunts thought they needed the jewelry. I didn’t really need anything, but there was one thing that I wanted. Unfortunately, it was long gone – a victim of my grandparents’ moves to smaller and smaller places as they aged.
My grandma was a great keeper of Christmas – the sacred and the secular joyfully mixed together. She saw no contradictions in the parties and shopping with church and nativities. She would sing Silent Night and Silver Bells in the same breath.
And nothing represented her ability to mix the sacred and the secular better than the object that disappeared, the one I longed to have to remember her by. It was a little garish, a little too shiny, tacky really - but she loved it and I loved her and so I loved it too. It was a statue of Santa Claus, kneeling at the Manger. It was THE secular symbol of the season bowing down to worship the One whose birth we all await.
I thought about that statue again this week as I read about the so-called “War on Christmas.” It’s a battle that has raged for years now. In this culture war, some of us say things like: “Keep Christ in Christmas” or “Wise Men Still Seek Him” or “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” And I believe all of these things to be true. But I also think that when we say these words, we are often drawing a proverbial line in the sand; a declaration that, above everything else this day might be, it really belongs to us - the followers of Jesus.
On the other side of that great divide, there are those who say that while this festival began as a religious holiday, over time it has evolved into something completely different. They say that now it’s really more about family and travel and feasting and gifts. They say that in a pluralistic society, where people practice many faiths or no faith, the holiday has become broader, by necessity, in order to encompass everyone.
So what do you think? As for me, well, I am of both minds. I think that the ship has already sailed on the commercialization and secularization of Christmas. But I also see December 25 as one of the most holy days of the year. I guess I am my grandmother’s grandson.
Sometimes I wonder what Jesus thinks of all this fighting over his birthday. Sometimes I wonder what Jesus thinks about all of our fighting in general. And I suspect he is not pleased. I say that because during his ministry, Jesus was often dismissive of arguments about words. You could say that he wasn’t so concerned with what we call orthodoxy – that is the right beliefs and the right words to describe them. Jesus always seemed more concerned with orthopraxy – that is the right behaviors in regard to our neighbors.
And that is the setting for the Gospel lesson today. A bunch of regular folks like us had gone out into the wilderness to hear the preaching of this character named John the Baptist. Scholars say that many people believed that John was the Messiah because of preaching and popularity. He was famous long before his cousin Jesus.
I don’t know why John was so popular because his sermons weren’t exactly crowd-pleasers. They didn’t make people feel good. Instead, after they gave up a days work and hiked for hours under the hot Mediterranean sun, this is how he greeted them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
When the Gospel of Matthew reports this same story, these harsh words are reserved for the hypocritical religious leaders. But in Luke’s Gospel, it is the regular folks who get blasted by these words. And instead of being offended, these people were convicted. These people knew they needed to change. And instead of storming off in a huff, they replied: “What then should we do?”
And that question, it seems to me, is not just a question about life in general. It’s a question about Christmas and how we keep it. As this most holy day approaches, what should we do? I dare say it’s not to fight over whether or not someone says Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. And I don’t think it’s simply about coming to church. I don’t even think it’s about the intellectual belief that Christ is the Savior of the World. It’s something far simpler and more profound.
“What then should we do?” they asked. And John replied: “If you have two coats, give one of them away. And do the same with your extra food.” Life is not about accumulation. Some of the people in his congregation that day were the hated tax collectors, who made their money by over-charging people and pocketing what was left over. They too asked: “What should wedo?” And John replied: “Don’t collect any more from the people than what is required.” There were even some despised Roman soldiers who had come to be baptized and they too asked: “What should wedo?” And John replied: “Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or accusations. Instead, be satisfied with your wages.”
Now what is really striking about these answers is that even though John was preaching an apocalyptic message, proclaiming that the whole world was about to change, his call to participate in that change was incredible simple. It was something everyone could do. To the crowds he said "Share." To the tax collectors, he said, "Be fair." And to the soldiers he said, "Don't bully." SHARE. BE FAIR. DON’T BULLY.
Fidelity to the Gospel of this One who is coming does not have to be heroic. The Good News of John’s message is that in all of our lives, in every moment of every day, we can participate in the Incarnation. We can enflesh the divine. We can prepare the way of the Lord by sharing what we have, by insisting on fairness to every person ever born, and in this mean-spirited age, refusing to ever bully anyone.
God doesn’t want us to argue about Christmas. God wants us to BE Christmas. The Incarnation of God in Christ is replicated every time any of us does the will of God. And that, it seems to me, is the transformational power of the Gospel. It begins with the simple question: what should Ido?
What should you do? What should I do? How will we keep Christmas all year long? SHARE. BE FAIR. DON’T BULLY. And thus prepare the way of the Lord!