1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
When Your (Advent) Calendar is Broken
Let us pray:
There are three parts to this season:
And the waiting
And the waiting.
Waiting for the Christ child to come,
To be sure,
Who we know already came.
Waiting for the burning coming
Of the Christ in our hearts,
For the I-am-with-you-always.
Waiting for the great coming
Of the reign of God
When each table is a banquet
And bread lines are no more.
There are three
Comings to this season,
And three waitings,
And three yearnings.
And God the answer
To them all.
Amen. -from Susan Palo Cherwien’s “Crossings: Meditations for Worship”
I remember one Sunday in church, my father was preaching.
And he was getting all sorts of heated and passionate in the pulpit, you know, totally un-Lutheran in style. Back then sermons had three parts to them and the path was known and well worn and if you strayed from the path it was odd…
And anyway, he’s just a few minutes in, and already kind of heated, and a guy stood up in the congregation and said, “Now, hold on a minute!”
And it was like all the heads were on a swivel as they turned to see Big Bill stand up in the middle of the congregation as he began to argue back with my father. And I remember my 9 year old self thinking, “Man, I wish I had some popcorn…finally, something interesting in church!”
And there was a guy sitting near Bill who said softly but-not-too-softly, “Be quiet, Bill. Pastor Pete’s on a roll!”
And Bill started walking up the middle aisle, with a sheet of paper in his hand that he was reading from, and that’s when we all realized it was staged and part of the sermon and every adult sighed a sigh of relief and every youth and child were crestfallen because it wasn’t as exciting anymore…
But the sentiment that was shared in the moment was all the same, at least amongst the adults, “Who is Bill to disrupt everything? Who is Bill to break from tradition?”
Which is kind of how I feel about John the Baptizer every year, Beloved. “Who is this guy to interrupt our Christmas preparations?”
As I said in my Friday Faith Prints, this guy doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the Nativity scene. Instead of the peaceful angels, gentle shepherds, and even the hopeful parents kneeling over their peaceful Christ-child, today we have a madman yelling from the fringes, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Everything that is a problem God is fixing! Get on the work crew!”
John the Baptizer’s yelling breaks our silent night. He interrupts our festivities every year.
And it happens for good reason, friends.
Because we can get on a roll with this Christmas stuff, and soon the holiday becomes less holy. And I’m not talking about any fake war on Christmas or anything like that. I’m talking about our human tendency to make things into something they are not.
I think we, especially Christians, have a tendency to make Christmas into this time where we gather up all of our hopes and put them into this perfect little scene, this little Nativity scene, and it becomes this predictable, overly romantic, sentimental little practice that we do every year.
But if John the Baptizer reminds us of anything, Beloved, it’s that Christmas is not sentimental, it is scandalous. Because the baby in the manger is not interested in playing Christmas, but in making mountains of shame disappear, valleys of despair into reservoirs of grace. Jesus is interested in calling us to help God make winding breadlines of inequality straight paths to full stomachs, and rough prejudice into smooth love.
And we need John the Baptizer to disrupt our sentimentality to call us back to this, or else we’ll sing, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
We’ll sing that little carol and totally gloss over the fact that both the hopes, the sentiments, and the fears, the rough realities of life, are met in Jesus.
Both of them. Not just the hopes. But also the fears.
Every serene Nativity scene should have John the Baptist on the margins yelling at us, reminding us that it’s not just about the hopes when it comes to God, but also about our fears.
The fears of the poor and marginalized. The fears of the young parents out there, like Mary and Joseph. The fears of the underemployed and outcast, like the shepherds. And even the fears of the Magi, who in their wealth had trouble finding Jesus…they looked for him in the halls of power, when he was in the halls of hay.
The fears that you and I have, friends.
Every Advent calendar should be broken in some way, allowing for the radical scandal of Jesus to disrupt our lives just a bit and remind us that God attends both our hopes and our fears.
Actually, it’s kind of funny: our Advent calendar at home is broken. We have this big one, given to us by a parishioner in Chicago, with hinged doors that open, big enough for little gifts to be put in them. And the boys have played with it so much that door number 18 is broken off. And though we could probably fix it, we haven’t.
Because it’s now this visual reminder that just steps away from the serenity of Christmas there is still some brokenness…which is the reason for Jesus in the first place, right?
The eloquent author L.R. Knost has this wonderful quote that spoke to me this week as I was thinking of how John the Baptizer breaks up our Christmas sentimentalism every year. She writes,
Do not be dismayed
by the brokenness in the world.
All things break.
And all things can be mended.
Not by time, as they say,
But with intention.
So go. Love intentionally,
The broken world
Waits in darkness
For the light
That is you.
John the Baptizer stands up in the middle of our Advent calendars, breaking their silent night, reminding us that hopes and fears are gathered together in Jesus, and points us back today away from the serenity of the Nativity sets and the wonder of the sparkly lights to the broken world, not to bring us dismay…all things break, Beloved…but to remind us of why God in Jesus shows up in the first place: to heal through intentional, extravagant, unconditional love.
And if we take seriously that God shows up in flesh in the Christ child, we need to take seriously the fact that Jesus, the light of the world, still shows up in that same way. In me and you.
So let’s all keep our Advent calendars broke enough, Beloved, to keep us woke to the reason that Jesus shows up at all: to tend to our hopes and our fears. No, not just our Advent calendars, all of our calendars.
And let’s get started with that intentional, extravagant, unconditional love thing.
No need to wait until Christmas. The calendar is broken, anyway. Everyday is Christmas.