Twenty centuries later, the world still swells in the weeks before Christmas. I’m not talking about the fact that Target has Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cakes available in late October or the fact that those obligatory Santa Claus pictures are taken at shopping malls all across the country. At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, I hate all that stuff. And yet, I believe that even in our secular, commercialized world, America still understands that something momentous occurs on December first. Do we understand precisely what?
When I was in high school, I used to celebrate December first not as the beginning of Advent, but as the beginning of what I perceived to be the most “magical” time of the year. I’d buy donuts and put them in my friends’ lockers. I’d make mix tapes, and sometimes write really long notes to the people I loved. I didn’t know why this time of year was important, but I sensed something rising up in me. And then, in the middle of winter during my junior year, I met Tasha and my whole theology and worldview clicked. Love the Lord; love this girl. And that ache I felt before I met her is the same ache I desire to feel for Christ. What I do not feel is what I have learned to fear.
I felt then, as I do still now, that December marked the time most of us could step back and assess the year we’d just lived through — the good, bad, and ugly. December seemed to enchant everyone into a state of contemplation — we all seemingly took stock in who we were, what we were grateful for, and, gathered with family and friends, trying to live joyfully. Our theme this advent is “Through the Eyes of Child.” In this third week of Advent, we light a candle representing “joy,” and so want to take a moment to let a child’s view of Christmas direct any cynicism the grown-ups might possess. This video marks how some children see the importance of looking ahead to the Christmas story:
Did you need that as much as I do? Sometimes it seems like we are waiting for some divine invitation to get into a “Christmas Spirit,” another modern idiom I am not fond of. The perspective of Children, however, might be an antidote to sitting around a living room or in a pew thinking about all we know about the Christmas narrative: Mary, Joseph, and the baby. It might reveal the newness of Christ’s presence in the world.
How can we experience something new, beautiful, and joyful, if we fail to listen as children of God?
You see, I think many of us are so busy thinking of Christmas as a kind of specialized trivia, a story we can easily zone out from, considering its familiarity to us. When this attitude manifests, we fail to listen and discover within the story what we don’t know — what we need so desperately. And if we listen to the Word of the incarnation without the ears of a child, then how shall we ever be moved? How can we experience something new, beautiful, and joyful, if we fail to listen as children of God?
This week I was reading about an author named Elise Averdieck, who, in 1851, penned a children’s book about a girl protagonist named Elisabeth. In this story, Elisabeth drew a picture for each day of Advent. When she had twenty four pictures, she knew it would be Christmas. This story, attributed as the beginning of the modern Advent Calendar, oddly enough offers us a nice segue into the life and ministry of John the Baptist, whose mother was named Elizabeth. Right now, I want you to draw a picture. Really. Start drawing a picture about the Christmas story.
Last week, Chris laid the groundwork of the story, advising us not to rush into Christmas, but rather linger more in Advent. Zechariah, a priest in the temple, was unable to speak for doubting that his wife and he could have a child given their advanced age. All the people of Israel languish restless to become a free nation again, to lose its captors, and shed its essential shame: judgement cast by the Lord Almighty. If we don’t see ourselves as part of that age of Israel, we deceive ourselves. We are the remnant.
Enter John the Baptist.
If you aren’t intimately familiar with the biblical narrative, you’d be well within your rights to ask: “Why are we talking about John the Baptist? Isn’t Christmas about the baby being born in the manager?” Yes, it is. And yet, we are missing something if we gloss over John’s ministry to prepare the way. In fact, our lives as the church draw emphasis from John’s words. If you still aren’t drawing, you’d better start because your twenty-four pictures are going to take some time. Don’t sit smugly through another Christmas season trying to just Pass Go and collect your $200, theologically. Advent, if there is any such time, is the time not to go through the motions. It is the time to pray with your heart on your sleeve, to ask God to tame all the things you can’t, and to look out your frosted windows wondering in the blackness of the evening when Jesus is coming back.
John’s emergence in the world is often muted because of its proximity to his famous cousin. Yet, it is John’s birth, life, ministry and death that ignites the beginning of what we call the New Testament. John, as cited through the prophecy of Isaiah, is the initiator of our calling to “prepare the way” for the coming of the Savior of the World. It is a vocation that we still participate within today. John’s birth is the both opening act for Jesus, and the changing of the guard, so to speak, for how all believers will participate forevermore. John changes history by his announcement in today’s Gospel:
“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.”
And so we wait. Jesus, however, isn’t shy about expounding on his cousin’s virtue:
“I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”
For all the jockeying that his disciples play, trying to position themselves most closely to Jesus, John’s no-nonsense persona comes as direct challenge to us. We know Jesus is coming. We expect to hear the stories we’ve listened to for years (or decades even). And yet, John’s admission that he bears the good news seems off when we read,
“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.”
How can it be a good thing, a bit of news that brings us joy, that judgement seems so imminent?
And here we look to the other scriptures for today. In Zephaniah 3:14–15, we read:
“The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.”
In other words, judgements that kept us estranged from God are to be lifted through Jesus Christ. This text celebrates that one day, the King of Israel, Jesus, will be with us again. He will show up on dirt roads, coasts of fishing ports, and in places of worship. He will show up in hospitals, corporate offices, and even in the homes of today’s “tax collectors.”
What’s more? Salvation will afforded to the meek, not the wealthy. Christ will know us through our ability to hear his voice. Isaiah, in his song of praise, acknowledges that even our most wicked and hard-hearted thoughts of God can be rounded and returned into word of praise:
“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (Is. 12:2)
All the grief of life cannot displace the truth that the Lord is with us. Even our most pressing sources of anxiety — all the vexes us — can be put asunder in the presence of the Lord. With confident expectation that Christ is coming back, Paul advises:
“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”Isaiah 12:2
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
If Satan is the thief of joy, let Jesus be the thief of anxiety. Let our gentleness be the mark that we are fearless, and let our Father in Heaven, that Warrior-Parent, fight our battles for us. For God seeks to “bring [us] home.” (Zep. 3:20).
Tash likes to drive the kids around and look at Christmas lights on her birthday, which is Christmas Eve. If you peek into the windows of your neighbors, many of them will have a tree adorned with tinsel and lights. And even if there is no manger scene, prayer at supper, or candle light service in the plans for that family, the fact that an evergreen tree stands stark against the winter outside is proof enough that something magical is bound to happen if we allow the excitement of Advent to mean as much to us as the gifts, food, and family traditions. So pick up your crayons. Draw a picture today, and draw another tomorrow. When you have twenty-four pictures, you will know, just like Elisabeth, that you too are made to wait quietly, trusting in God. And you will feel “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” and it “will guard your hearts and your minds” (Ph. 4:7). Live justly. Remember the Baptist’s warning that our baptism, our lineage, or very relationship with God, must bear fruit. And when you forget that the source of our joy is not found in our lives or what we try to create, but in what he has created, be reminded that true joy, a wellspring deeper than any grief or lament, seeks to join in lock step with you each Advent.
Let the Spirit of God remind you that you are a slave no more. You are a child of the remnant; You are a child of God.